Both Kurt Busiek and his Wildstorm published,creator-owned series “Astro City,” require little introduction. The series, illustrated by Brent Anderson with designs and covers by Alex Ross, has never been on a monthly schedule, but since it debuted in 1995, the series has had a loyal fan following and has won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards, including Best New Series, Best Continuing Series, Best Serialized Story and Best Single Issue.
In fact, it’s a series that’s been steady in quality for so long that it’s often easy to take it for granted. Indeed, what’s most striking reading “Astro City” is just how moving many of the stories are. While Busiek is perhaps best known as the writer of some of the great, action-filled “Avengers” stories like “Ultron Unlimited” and “Kang Dynasty,” his stories in “Astro City” are character-based tales that often take place between epic battles
One character who has been a part of the series since the beginning was The Silver Agent. While readers knew that the character had died in the 1970’s, the details of his death went unrevealed until the publication of the just concluded “Astro City: The Dark Age” miniseries. Today, the first of a two issue story focusing on the Silver Agent hits the stands, and though there were no spoilers revealed over the course of our interview, Wildstorm has provided an exclusive look at the first five pages of the issue.
CBR News: Where did the idea of the Silver Agent, his story and his fate come from and how has it changed from your initial conception of the character?
Kurt Busiek: The idea of the Silver Agent came early on, but a lot of his story came along later. His name and his fate were the first things to come along – as I recall, I was on a plane to San Diego when the name “Silver Agent” fell into my head, and I realized that I could build a character around that, a character who’d kind of be emblematic of the Silver Age, a straight-up “good guy” character like Barry Allen or Hal Jordan, and he’d die in the early 1970s, making him the perfect instigating event for the Dark Age.
At the time, I was talking with Dark Horse about “Astro City,” and Bob Schreck was sitting about six rows behind me, so I wandered back and pitched “The Dark Age” for the first time while standing in the aisle of an airplane. As it worked out, “Astro City” ended up at Image, but that’s still the only time I ever pitched a story on an airplane.
None of that original conception ever changed, but detail got added to it and the character got fleshed out as I figured out more about his life, his origin, his fate and how it would affect “Astro City,” both immediately and in deeper ways that nobody’s seen yet. I wanted him to be a local hero, a civic hero, a cop or fireman writ large, rather than a soldier-hero like Captain America. That’s why his costume has elements of a fireman’s helmet in the faceplate and a police badge in the chestplate.
But beyond that, we kind of accumulated detail as we went along, not changing what we had, but adding to it.
The time-travel aspect came when we were working out the actual plot details of “The Dark Age.” I knew from very early on that he’d be “rescued,” pulled into the future by heroes of another era, but that he’d return to the time of his execution anyway. But I realized that as long as he was heading back in time to his date with the electric chair, he could certainly stop along the way and see what became of Astro City after his time – and if he was doing that, he could appear during “The Dark Age” at various points, which would heighten the drama and give us a different viewpoint.
What was behind the decision to have the character in the background of the series from the beginning, waiting years to reveal his story?
Well, he wasn’t exactly in the background from the beginning – he was the most prominent hero in our second issue, so he came on stage pretty early. But mainly, he’s a part of history, a very public part, so it would make sense that people in the present would think about him or see his statue or whatever. We’ve got a lot of things that have been planted here and there, that’ll come up in stories later, not because I have a grand plan to keep people wondering about this stuff for years, although that’s fun. [It’s] more because I know the history of Astro City, more or less, and so I’ll use it. Just as Marvel characters might refer back to Galactus or something, but in this case [the characters are] aware of history that the readers aren’t.
We took a long time after mentioning the Experimentals before they came on screen, and still haven’t seen the Astro-Naut, though he’s been alluded to – there’s lots of stuff like that in the series.
It wasn’t a specific plan that it would take this long to get to the Agent’s story – that was part of the series having delays abnd us having lots of stories to tell and that sort of thing. The way I look at it, as long as we’re telling interesting stories, we don’t have to tie off every bit that’s been planted in the background as quickly as possible. Knowing there are important events out there, things the characters remember and discuss, helps present the idea that this is a big complicated world with an extensive history, even if the reader doesn’t have all the details.
How much of Astro City and its history and environs had you planned out from the very beginning, even if only loosely? Do you still have lots more up your sleeve that you simply haven’t gotten around to revealing?
Oh, I’ve got lots up my sleeve. And there are new hints in “Silver Agent” #1 toward big stuff that’ll bubble along in the background of the next period of “Astro City.”
What I did, starting out, was approach it as if there was a comics publisher called Astro Comics that had as long and storied a history as the others, and they reacted to the same things the other guys did, so we had Western heroes and pulp heroes in the Thirties, and Golden Age superheroes and a fading-away to other things in the Fifties, and a resurgence in the Sixties and so on. And when James Bond was popular, there’d have been espionage stuff, and when Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were popular there’d have been heroic dogs and all the various cultural influences that any comics company would have responded to. So that gave me a sense of the world’s history, of what kind of heroes would be appearing at any particular time, and we worked out a bunch of major heroes and made up others as we needed them, but we had a structure to work with right from the start.
I also did a crappy little map of the city, that I think is reprinted in the back of the first trade paperback, and Brent did a better one, and has added to and fleshed it out since. And that’s geographically the same sort of thing – we had the big picture roughed out, as to where things were and what the neighborhoods were like, and when we need something else – a Chinese neighborhood, for instance, or an industrial park – we figure out where it fits into the structure and flesh things out a little more. It works pretty well.
We may never get to show it all, but that’s okay. The point of it being there isn’t for everything to get explained and have its turn in the spotlight, it’s for the world to feel complex and full enough to feel like a real place. If we never find out the origin of Nightingale and Sunbird, is that a problem? It’s more important to know ordinary people and get their stories, rather than to fill out an Official Handbook, or at least that’s how it feels to me.
You were born in 1960 which make me curious. The Silver Age “ended” as we think of it, around the time you were 12-13 or so. Did you, as a comics reader, notice a sudden change in what you were reading? Did you perceive what you were reading differently, either as a function of getting older or the events going on in the world? Or was it not that dramatic as those of us who weren’t there might think?
I can’t really say, because I didn’t start reading comics regularly until 1974. I only rarely read comics as a kid, and didn’t read them often enough to have any sense of structure or consistency – I can remember reading an issue of “Avengers” and being pissed off that Batman wasn’t in it. That’s how much I knew about comics, that Batman should be in the book with the big team of heroes in it.
So my sense of the Silver Age ending is informed by reading the comics as back issues, not as something I experienced myself. But when I was researching “Marvels” or reading a big block of comics of the era, it’s a pretty noticeable change. The transition from Stan Lee to Roy Thomas as editor at Marvel has a pretty strong change in flavor – not really good or bad, just different. And the Superman books shifting from Mort Weisinger to Julie Schwartz is another big change, the departure of Gardner Fox, Arnold Drake and others from the DC talent pool, Kirby going to DC, the arrival of new writers to the industry like Conway and Englehart and Gerber and Wein and Wolfman, and lots more, it really does feel like a time of transition.
“Astro City” is the most psychologically realistic and complex of your superhero comics. Is this the major challenge for you the emotional depth, or does that come more easily than we might think?
It’s more a matter of how to bring it through, I think. Most superhero stories are about what happens, “Astro City’s” about how people react to what happens, how they feel as much as what they do. So a lot of that is internal, and that’s not as easy to make visual as, say, a punch or an explosion. But that’s the challenge of it, that’s what keeps it interesting. Finding a way to establish a voice, a viewpoint, to make the story come alive in a way that the reader feels like he’s there alongside the characters, feeling what they feel, rather than watching it as an outsider.
Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it feels impossible. But that’s what makes it worth doing.
How many “Astro City” stories start, at least in part, as a way to challenge yourself? I ask, because the story of the Silver Agent would seem to have a few challenges. First, you have a main character who needs to be more than just a symbol – he needs to be a real person. Then, you have to tell his story and make us care in the midst of a grand epic that also happens to be time travel story. All of this says nothing of the pressure from years of us fans waiting expectantly to know more about the Silver Agent…
I think the series is in part about challenging me, but that’s part of the process, not the starting point. Each story generally starts with an idea, a scene, a conflict, something that gets the story going that I build the rest around. That’s when the challenge comes in, when I start making it work. And if a story’s too easy, if it feels like nothing’s going on that’s challenging to me, I figure it’s not going to be interesting to the reader either, that it’ll feel like the same old same old, so I look for a different way to do it.
So is that starting with the challenge, or looking for it?
But making these characters feel like real people and serve a role in the story is just writing, to my mind. Making the reader care about the people involved even when there’s big splashy stuff happening – that’s what makes the big splashy stuff effective, that you care about the people it’s happening to. If you don’t care, if you don’t have a context in which to make it mean something, then you can make it as splashy as you want, but it’s going to feel hollow.
As for the pressure of the fans, well, I’ve been living with these guys as long as you have or longer, so if it feels like an honest, satisfying story to me, I’ve got to figure it will to you, too. Plus, I know what’s being set up for the future, and how we’re introducing it, so I tend to look forward to the fan reaction more than worry about it. That’s what I tell stories for, to affect the audience. I want to get that feedback, see how it works…
When thinking about the character and the story, I was reminded of a quotation by I.F. Stone, “History is a tragedy, not a melodrama.” One of the aspects of your work that I think is often overlooked is just how often that quotation of Stone’s is true of your stories. There’s loss and heartbreak and destruction, and yet it doesn’t lessen or negate the heroic actions or beliefs or ideals that anyone holds. I’m curious to what degree this is something that you’re conscious of and to what degree it represents your own philosophy towards life and how we should live?
What a great question. I wish I had a good answer.
I don’t think it’s something I’m conscious of, in that I don’t think about it while I’m writing – I’m just trying to write a story that feels “right.” But naturally, that means it does represent my philosophy toward life, because if it resonates with the way I see the world, then it’s going to feel right. I don’t know that I’d agree with I.F. Stone, there – I agree that history’s not a melodrama, but I wouldn’t say it’s tragedy. But there aren’t happy endings because there aren’t endings. Things always continue, life always goes on. Even if someone dies, life goes on around them, and whatever impact they had on the world will be a part of events as they continue.
Tragedy implies endings. Melodrama implies pat endings, though, and that’s where I’d agree with Stone. I don’t want endings that feel like everything’s been tied up neat in a bow, I’d rather have the sense that whatever the resolution, it’s a part of things that still move forward, that still change. Life is life – we struggle, we endure, we hope, we find happiness or lose it, but the struggle still goes on. If you quit trying, you’ll get buried by events, so you keep going.
I don’t think that’s a negative view of life – I think our key drive as humans is hope. That’s what gets us to keep trying, to hang on to what we’ve got, to make life better, to look for the next thing. That’s why we reach for better. Hope keeps us going, and despair is what makes people stop trying. In the end, we’re all going to die, so the point isn’t to somehow “win,” to reach an ending. When you get to the ending, you stop playing. The point is to keep playing, to try to do better, to surround yourself with people and work and things that you enjoy, whether it’s family or jewels or sunsets over the ocean. I’ll admit I’m more in sympathy with the people who want to amass good memories and experiences more than the people who want to amass wealth – I want to make money, sure, but the point of the money is to make a good life for my family and enjoy those sunsets and good food and music and friends and all.
But the point is to keep going, to live the way you want to and strive to make your hopes real.
And life isn’t easy – at least not if it’s going to be an interesting story – so I find I write about bruised hope a lot. But it’s the way people keep going in the face of adversity that makes them human. That’s the stuff of drama.