Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson discussed their work on "Astro City" at their WonderCon panel Friday afternoon in San Francisco. The panel took the form of an informal discussion (Busiek: "it sure beats planning!"), with fans asking the writer and artist about various aspects of the "Astro City" universe.
Recapping where the series is at present, Busiek started the panel by mentioning that there is a new issue of "Astro City" out this week, and described this as "a cause for celebration." Anderson chimed in to say, "It's a good one!" Busiek then said after this will be book three of "Astro City: The Dark Age," and that next would be another special. "Technically, it should be called something along the lines of "Astro City: Astra," but that would be redundant so I'm going to figure out something else."
The team next reflected on the fact that it has been thirteen years since the debut of "Astro City." "Back when we started, I said, 'Let's give it ten years and see where we are,'" Anderson joked. Busiek quipped back with, "I've since recast that as 120 issues-that way I own him for the rest of his life!"
Busiek indicated the first "Dark Age" collection would be released in June, though noted some confusion as to the nomenclature of "books" and "volumes," since the individual story arcs are referred to as "Book 1" and so on. The collection will feature the first eight issues plus one special, with an introduction by Mark Guggenheim. "Or 'TV's Mark Guggenheim,' if you're Marvel," Busiek said. Busiek then gave Guggenheim's extended resume for the benefit fans who might not be familiar with the writer's work, including, apparently, Anderson.
"He writes TV shows about guys who hallucinate about George Michael, so he's clearly one of us," Busiek concluded.
Busiek said that there is no roadmap to "Astro City," and that "unlike 'Sandman' it is not building toward a conclusion." He then ran through some of the "92 possible stories" he might like to tell before saying that, "if I ever get to the story about the super pets playing poker, you can bet that's our last issue. Because once I get Alex [Ross, cover artist] to paint the super pets playing poker, he'll quit."
Anderson noted that, because each new story gives background on events prior to the first issue, there is "an illusion he has it all mapped out." But Busiek said that what he has is "the skeleton of what Astro City's history is, and once you have the skeleton it's easy to put flesh on it."
Clarifying past comments that the sole purpose of deconstructing super heroes is to build them back up, Busiek said that this is merely his approach. "The point to deconstructing something, in my view, is to take something apart to see what works and what doesn't," he said. "If you're going to do that, not for the sake of just taking it apart, but to put it back together again and see what you can do with it. That's the point of reconstructive fiction. With 'Astro City,' I'm not trying to tell people how to do superheroes. I'm simply taking everything we've learned from deconstruction and seeing where it takes me, rather than where it should take other people."
He then went into a "bad metaphor" which describes super hero comics as a state, with a capital in which nearly everyone lives. "Every once in a while stan lee will come along and start a new cit, or frank miller creates a new city and everyone moves off in the same direction." He said that the best way to follow the example of what someone like Neil Gaiman has done is not to write like Gaiman, but to find something new.
There was also some discussion of perspectives in the "Astro City" comics. "The idea was that over the first six issues, we would show six different perspectives, so that it would be a series about experience of many perspectives, then we would go into the confession storyline," Busiek said. "Instead we disappeared for six months, came back with a publisher who actually paid us, and went into eight issues of more perspectives."
Anderson described one of his greatest challenges as, "for six issues drawing Robert Mitchum with shiny skin," referring to the character Steeljack, who is modeled on the actor, "getting the reflections ingrained in each drawing. Then I got good at it, then I got bored. Recently, most difficult characters to draw are the Jade Dragons, because of the tattoos." He then said he painted 12-inch dolls with the tattoos so that he could see them from various angles.
Busiek said his most difficult character was the point of view character in "Safeguards," and that her story required extensive rewriting to the very end. "I was trying to tell a story about a woman who lived here, and came down here every day and said, what a cool place. And the reader would agree with her but we'd also look at where she was and think that was pretty cool too. But to her it was just everyday stuff." The ultimate difference, Busiek said, was that at home "she had power, she could protect herself instead of being protected by a superhero." Some readers felt that this woman had given up but this is because, as Busiek said, the idea goes against expectations. "American stories are about conquering the new frontier, not about realizing you had it better back home. Nobody argued that the story was badly done-it won an Eisner Award for best issue of the year ," Busiek said. "Going against the grain of the American monomyth meant we got more out of it because it had all these resonances that we didn't intend."
In response to a fan's comment about his mother's interpretation of "Astro City," Busiek told a story about his own mother reading "Marvels" #3. "Galactus came to earth and everyone thought the world was going to end, and she finished that and said, 'that's one of the best Cuban Missile Crisis stories I've ever read.'"
Anderson said that once all sixteen issues of "The Dark Age" are collected, he believes the current story arc ("Book Two") will "read like greased lighting." In single-issue form, he noted, it may appear that nothing much is taking place. "It felt like that while I was drawing it," he said.
Busiek also clarified that the characters of "Astro City" are not based directly on existing superheroes, but rather on the archetypes those heroes are based upon - i.e., Samaritan is not Superman, but like Superman he is a saviour-type. Noting a Wikipedia entry that lists Crossbreed member Noah as an analog for Storm of the X-Men because of his weather powers, and Mary as a version of Marvel's Angel due to her wings, Busiek got very animated. "Noah is based on Noah! The legend of Noah has a big storm in it! Mary is Mary, her story has her visited by an angel. Not 'the Angel!" Busiek went down the Crossbreed list, and was laughing and pounding his fists by the end.
The writer says he also thinks about when his characters would have debuted in the "Astro City" history, to determine their names and characteristics. "I imagine there's a comic company called Astro Comics, which started in 1930s as competitor with Marvel and DC, and would have been doing comics similar to what they were doing. Then, you get into the, 1960s everyone was doing weird and experimental, so they would be doing weird and experimental," he said. "I also ask things like, did this character ever have their own series, or were they a six-page backup story that failed." He then discussed the contemporary historical and pop-cultural influences that would affect each shift, such as Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra on film, which led to a "Cleopatra" backup feature in DC Comics. "I actually saw a discussion online," Busiek continued, "wondering whether Krypto the Super-Dog was influenced by Ace the Bat-Hound, because he'd shown up in 'Batman' a few months earlier." After further setting up this scenario, Busiek concluded, "Guys: Lassie was on TV! They didn't have to look to other comics for influence, they had TVs."
Anderson said one of his favorite characters is Simon Magus, who is visually "John Lennon as Dr. Strange."
"John Lennon as Aleister Crowley as Dr. Strange," Busiek clarified.
Busiek said his historical approach sometimes leads him to recreate characters that really did exist, such as the Lamplighter, who aside from being an "Astro City" hero is also a forgotten "Green Lantern" villain. "He was based on a song, 'the Old Lamplighter,'" Busiek said. "And what we found is, if you're going to do that kind of character, he's probably going to look a lot like that." He also said, Iwould feel worse about it if [DC's] Lamplighter had appeared since 1966."
On the subect of Lamplighter, a fan asked about "Astro City's" Lamplighter Statute. "Maybe one day we'll tell you," Busiek said, but then explained that it is a law that allowed the hero to testify in court without jeopardizing his secret identity.
Asked which current series he felt took super-heroes in a new direction, Busiek mentioned Gerard Way's "Umbrella Academy." "Except that I see that following in Grant Morrison's 'Doom Patrol,' taking that a little further," he said. He also praised AIT/PlanetLAR's "Electric Girl" and Matt Wagner's "Mage."