I fully expect that this issue — the first part of a four-part finale to the 16-part “Dark Age” arc in “Astro City” — will be a much more effective slice of narrative when read in the larger context. As a chapter of a collection, it will probably be far more compelling read. As it stands now, though, as a single issue of a much bigger story, it’s just merely decent. It’s good, but its quality hinges on things that aren’t necessarily present in this issue.
Let me lay out some of the problems before I talk about all the stuff there is to like about this issue. First of all, Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City” has traditionally worked better when it’s explored the tapestry of an iconic superhero universe from a fresh perspective. It’s not that Busiek is a master world-builder, it’s that he is a great custom gamer. He’ll take the toys that exist, repaint them, give them some new thematic accoutrements, and then create new scenarios around them. The characters that populate Astro City are allusions, homages, tributes to the Marvel and DC heroes and villains. Busiek might be building upon archetypes rather than doing simple parody or pastiche, but there’s little doubt about the implict connection between “Astro City” and its antecedents.
So the best of the “Astro City” tales in previous years have been the ones that do something interesting with the Marvel and DC archetypes. Either by smashing different types of characters against each other, or, more effectively, showing the human perspective on these superhuman characters. But “Dark Age” hasn’t done either of those things very well. What it has done is explore two brothers — Charles and Royal Williams — and the complex dynamic between them and the world around them. But it has broken free from its archetypal moorings in the process. And it has become an almost unbearably long saga about two characters who are far less interesting than the world around them.
Yet there is always a charm to Brent Anderson’s art, and his Neal Adams-esque styling looks particularly strong in this installment. And though Busiek doesn’t normally truck in parody and pastiche, we get a bit of it in this comic, with an Alan-Moore-as-Swamp-Thing moment (even if that moment is brief and mostly superficial), and a character who seems to be a Venom parody, but a Venom crossed with the childlike Impossible Man. Those kinds of things work here largely because they divert attention from the Royal brothers, and when the best part of a comic is the focus away from the protagonists, you might be in for some trouble. And Busiek is, because the second half of the issue is weaker than the first.
I’ve been a regular reader of Busiek and Anderson’s “Astro City” since the very first issue hit the stands, but the “Dark Age” arc has gone on for too long, and the freshness of this series has worn off years ago. Busiek and Anderson are top-notch comic book craftsmen, and they can still produce solid storytelling even when the story has grown stale, but I hope for better comics from them once this arc has ended.