In 1995, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson began a brand-new creator-owned series at Image Comics titled “Astro City.” With Alex Ross on covers, the three spent the next fifteen years giving readers a peek into the lives of their ever-evolving (and ever-growing) roster of superheroes and non-powered folks living side-by-side with these legends. One of the most critically-acclaimed series of the past two decades, after returning in the 2000s with the “Local Heroes” and “The Dark Ages” story arcs, due to a combination of factors the comic went on a three-year hiatus beginning in 2010.
The Eisner and Harvey award-winning “Astro City” returned this summer at Vertigo Comics, with Busiek, Anderson and Ross picking back up with characters new and old. Once again focusing on multiple characters and multiple points of view, the series will kick off a four-part story which will delve into the origins, and ethics, of heroine Winged Victory.
With the Winged Victory arc on the horizon, CBR News spoke with Busiek about the series, his return and his thoughts on the changing American superhero.
CBR News: You have a Winged Victory four-part story beginning in December, so let’s get down to basics — what can you tell us about this four-parter? Is this finally an origin story for her?
Kurt Busiek: Well, there’s an origin story in it, at least.
We get Winged Victory’s origin in #7, the first part of it — and at that, it’s been a long time coming, since I originally intended to put her origin into vol. 1 #6, but had to cut it because of room. But that’s just a piece of the story, which is on the one hand an adventure story in which Winged Victory, Samaritan and the Confessor deal with an attack on her that threatens to undo everything about her that makes her work as a heroine and an inspiration to women. But as usual for us, it’s not really the mechanics of the adventure that matter — it’s the fact that it gives us a chance to take a look at her life, see how she works, what she cares about, what drives her, and maybe what’s missing. It’s a character story, with the adventure as the context that lets us explore her character.
So this is the first time readers will see her origin, but also the first time we’ll see more than a single panel of the schools she runs as self-defense training camps and women’s shelters. You’ll get to see some of her allies, some behind the scenes stuff, and you’ll see where she’s most vulnerable, and how she deals with that.
Your stories since the relaunch have focused on the everyday people of Astro City. With this four-part story, are we learning about Winged Victory’s past from her point of view, or is this still told primarily through regular people on the ground?
There are two main viewpoints in the story — a lot of it is seen through Winged Victory’s own perceptions, but there’s also a viewpoint through the eyes of Joey LaCroix, a young teenager who comes to Winged Victory’s main training camp, battered and desperate, hoping she’ll provide sanctuary and training. Except that Joey LaCroix is a boy, and she’s out to help women.
So it’s a mixture of both. We do a lot of stories from the point of view of ordinary citizens, but when it’s the right kind of story, we do tell the heroes’ own stories. Or others — our very first issue was narrated by Samaritan, for instance, and we’ve done stories narrated by heroes, villains, alien spies, reformed criminals and more.
Whatever perspective will get at the humanity within the adventures, I’m up for using it!
On that note, while the series itself jumps around to different characters and stories, we’ve had the Broken Man continue to pop up as a chaotic, fourth-wall defying framing device. What was the initial inspiration for the Broken Man?
Oh, I can’t tell you what the original inspiration for the Broken Man was without telling you who he really is — and that’s a mystery that’s going to last a while longer. He’s been around as part of our humongous repertory cast almost as long as the series itself has been, but this is the first time we’ve brought him on stage (in this form, at least) and started giving hints about what’s going on with him.
So in terms of the core Broken Man concept, I’ve got to keep quiet about that until we’re ready to reveal it in a story. I can say that some of what’s going on with him came from some unlikely sources — at one point, I was playing around with an idea to do a series at DC featuring a one-shot Steve Ditko character called the Odd Man, and I wanted to make him odder and stranger than anything Ditko had done with him. The idea of the Broken Man addressing the reader directly came from the plans I had for the Odd Man — I wanted him to be crazy and unsettling in ways that transcended the reality he was in. And when I gave up on doing that “Odd Men” series, I still liked the ideas and wanted to use them. And I realized that this crazy, damaged guy could be the Broken Man instead, and that most of what I’d wanted to do with the Odd Man could easily be done with the Broken Man, and would work better there.
I’d also written a character called T.V.M. in “Trinity,” who was another character with strange, fragmented perceptions and an unconventional relationship with reality. I’d talked briefly with DC about doing more with the Dreambound, the group T.V.M. was a member of, and I came up with some very strange stuff for him to do that, again, seemed to fit very nicely with the Broken Man once the “Dreambound” project kind of dissipated.
If you ever see the Broken Man’s “Dream House,” that’ll be right out of my “Dreambound” plans!
Beyond that, there’s archetypal stuff going on underneath — the crazy mystic, the untrustworthy seer who knows a whole lot but is so shattered by what he’s been through to gain that knowledge that it’s hard to tell whether he’s guiding you to victory or disaster, that sort of thing. And there are clues in what you’ve seen so far — especially in #5, but also in issues that predate the new series completely — but I’d rather tie those together in a story than reveal them here.
Visually when it comes to new characters like the Broken Man and Marella, how much do you work with artist Brent Anderson and Alex Ross on creation and design? Do you come up with stories and characters independently, or at this point in your collaboration do you all essentially work together in plotting and character creation?
We’ve gotten very relaxed about it over the years, as we’ve gotten comfortable working with each other. Most of the stories and characters at least start with me — with a few exceptions, like the Gentleman and the Crossbreed, where Alex gave me the first ideas and I built from there, or the very earliest set of characters that Alex and I cooked up together over dinner or on the phone.
But these days, I’ll work up a story, and either I’ll just write it, or I’ll talk it over with Brent, and he’ll have reactions and visual ideas and such, and that’ll shape the way I develop the character. And once there’s a script, we’ll design the character — that usually starts with me and Brent, these days, talking through the visuals, and Brent doing preliminary sketches, that in some cases we’re fine with and in some cases (particularly if the character’s going to be on a cover or if it’s someone we’re having trouble with) goes to Alex for his thoughts. Alex may tweak Brent’s designs, or start from scratch, or whatever works. And we’ll do whatever’s necessary to get the characters visual squared away.
My scripts are never the final word, either. If I write a script that has a new character in it, and then in the design process we figure out new stuff, I can rewrite scenes, or Brent can draw them taking that new stuff into account and I’ll rewrite dialogue and captions to accommodate it. I try to stay open to new input, so we can make the story better as we’re committing it to paper.
So, for instance, I think the Broken Man was largely Brent’s design, based on my description, and Alex may have added a touch or two. Marella was Brent’s design, working off my script, which wouldn’t have given him much to go on but her age, personality and situation; the visuals were largely him. The Ambassador, he was largely Alex, because Alex liked the idea of the character and had ideas, so he sketched him up and we did some minor tweaks from there.
It’s very communal — we’ve been doing this a long time now, so we have pretty good instincts about who’s going to need to do what, as the scripts get realized.
Now that we’re at the halfway mark of “Astro City’s” first year at Vertigo, how do you feel about the return to print and about the fan and critical response to these initial issues?
I think we’re all thrilled to be back in print. And the reader reaction has been great — longtime readers are happy to have us back, and are very effusive in saying so, and new readers discovering the series seem to like it a lot, too.
There are a few readers who don’t seem to get the idea — they want to see more of the main heroes, and they want more action and adventure, and less of these ordinary people talking about things. But that’s just the way it goes. I figure that any reader who wants straightforward superhero adventure has a zillion books they can get it from, but what we do in “Astro City” isn’t so easy to find elsewhere, so we’ll just keep doing it.
And Alex bugs me to use the mainline heroes more, too, because he likes the designs and thinks we should feature them more. So we will — as this very story shows — as long as I can come up with stories about the human side of life in a superhuman world, and not just straight-ahead adventure.
In the past three years we’ve seen superheroes explode on the big screen and really enter the mainstream through TV and film. While there’s a very Silver vibe, you’ve played with that changing superhero landscape a little, introducing, for instance, the anime-esque American Chibi. Do you feel the changing face of superheroes has influenced your writing or the ideas you want to explore in the series?
It’s funny — the “silver” vibe to “Astro City” has become an open theme we’re playing with, thanks to the Silver Agent and the way his story brought in the idea that there’s something “silver” at the heart of Astro City that has resonance even beyond him. And we’ll explore that more when you meet the Silver Adept, next year.
But in reality, I think a lot of the flavor of the original “Astro City” character conceptions was bronze — I started reading comics in the Bronze Age of the 1970s, and my sensibility was formed by them, by the idea of these characters from the Golden Age and the Silver Age, getting more nuanced, complex lives and wrestling with things like Watergate. So I don’t know — Astro City is silver, sure, but it’s gold and it’s pulp and it’s mythic, too, and I build on that in a way influenced by Bronze Age creators and later creators and novelists and moviemakers and so on.
So to my mind, American Chibi, who comes from anime roots, the Broken Man, whose roots are probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s, or Dame Progress, who’s a steampunk adventurer, and other characters we’ll be seeing as we go along, are drawn from other eras, but I see it as all part of the same process. I’m pulling inspiration from any era I find has something to offer, and I’m pulling from inspirations beyond comics as well. And we put it all in a blender and see what comes out the other end.
I think we needed some very traditional, grounded heroes in “Astro City” to build the universe around, but once we had that foundation in place, we had our stage, and we can add all kinds of stuff to that stage, whether it’s the kung-fu or blaxploitation heroes we added in “The Dark Age,” or American Chibi or the Broken Man or whoever.
I’m not sure we’ve been influenced by the current crop of superhero movies and TV shows (but I don’t always know!), but I’d bet we’ll get there, if we haven’t already. Anything that gives us a different look at the genre is worth thinking about, worth seeing if it leads us anywhere.
Since we’re speaking of films, I know back in 2010 there was some discussion of a possible “Astro City” movie, and earlier this year you had mentioned you were working on a project for DC titled “Batman: Creature of the Night” with John Paul Leon. Is there any update or news on the status of either one of those projects?
That particular “Astro City” movie deal — which was, I think, our third — didn’t happen, because the guy who was championing it got very ill, and the option came up for renewal at a time he couldn’t really focus on it. But since then there’s been another deal that also didn’t go anywhere, for a TV show, and now we’re in the middle of yet another one, with people I’m very excited to be working with. What’ll happen? I don’t know. There are a million projects being put together in Hollywood at any one time, and most of them never even come close to happening.
I like what Mark Evanier says about movie deals — don’t believe it’s actually happening until you’re sitting in the theater with a tub of popcorn in your lap, and maybe not even then. The current deal we’re working on seems very promising, and based on what we’ve seen the past ten years or so, if it doesn’t happen there’ll be another one along shortly thereafter. But as you noted, superheroes are becoming a big thing in TV and the movies, and it’s been getting easier and easier to make the genre work in live action. When we started “Astro City,” back in 1995, the idea that there might be a movie or TV show seemed ludicrous to me, but it’s gotten less and less so ever since. So I bet something’ll happen, eventually, but until it hits the big or small screen, it’s always something of a crapshoot. But there’s always interest, and we’ll see what we’ll see.
“Batman: Creature Of The Night” is still going, too — it’s been going very slowly, for some behind-the-scenes reasons, including me being sick for so long. But I just got a batch of new pages from John Paul a few days ago, and they’re gorgeous. And I’ll be spending the next week or two working on the next script, so we’ll just keep slogging forward ’til we finish it.
And when we do, I can’t speak for the writing, but the artwork’s sensational, you can take that to the bank.
Finally, I know most ardent “Astro City” fans would be more than able to point to their favorite story or reoccurring character — as the writer, is there any part of your world or story that really sticks with you or you really want to explore more as the series moves into 2014?
The problem isn’t finding bits I want to concentrate on, the problem is picking and choosing among them.
I’ve been jotting notes for “Astro City” stories for decades now, and have been so slow in getting scripts done, what with the health issues, that the ideas have been piling up far, far faster than I’ve been able to write them. So if I rattled off all the stories I want to get to in 2014, I’d list at least five years’ worth of stories, easily, before I had to even check my notes for anything I’d missed.
But I’m very eager to get to the Quarrel/Crackerjack story that delves into their messed-up romance (and the fact that they’re a couple of non-powered athletes who are getting older, and who won’t be able to keep this acrobatic thing up forever) — that’s a story I’ve wanted to tell since we first saw the characters. And while the N-Forcer has been ubiquitous — he’s a hero we have show up about as often as Samaritan, maybe more so — we haven’t ever told readers anything about who’s behind the mask. That’s a story I’ve had in my notes for 15 years or so, and I need to tell it.
I’ve been promising to do a talking-gorilla story for years, and last year I finally figured it out. I need to do a story about the death of Stormhawk, and its cosmic significance. Alex wants more Jack-In-The-Box, Brent’s enthusiastic about seeing what Steeljack is up to, I’m mostly done figuring out how to revisit Marta on Shadow Hill…
And then there’s the Dancing Master, the Silver Adept and the Menagerie Gang, but those stories are already done; we just need to get them in print.
There’s lots of stuff to do, and I’m excited by all of it. I hope readers will be, too.
“Astro City” issue #6 is on sale now.
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