Busiek's Triumphant Return to "Astro City"

Tue, May 14th, 2013 at 7:58am PDT

Comic Books
Jeffrey Renaud, Staff Writer

After a three year hiatus, "Astro City" returns June 5 as an ongoing series published by Vertigo Comics. Co-created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson, plus featuring character designs and painted covers by Alex Ross, "Astro City" was originally published by Image Comics and then Wildstorm Productions.

Having garnered multiple Harvey and Eisner awards since its launch, including Best New Series in 1996 and Best Continuing Series in 1997 and 1998, the superhero series is one of the most critically acclaimed series of the past 20 years. Busiek spoke with CBR News, saying he loves that "Astro City" can now be found in the Vertigo catalog alongside contemporaries like "Sandman" and "Swamp Thing," and modern classics like "Fables" and "American Vampire."

In this latest volume, which Busiek says is a jumping-on point, a new character named The Ambassador comes to Earth and an ordinary citizen from Astro City gets caught in his path. Busiek has been toying with the character's concept for years and considered him for stories in his "Superman" and "Avengers" runs before deciding to save him for "Astro City."

Other favorite heroes and villains returning in the Vertigo series include Samaritan and Honor Guard, while another new character known as The Broken Man makes his series debut.

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CBR News: Kurt, DC announced "Astro City" is to be published under the Vertigo banner moving forward. Does that distinction hold any special meaning for you or the creative team -- does it change the way you're viewing the long term life of the book?

Kurt Busiek: It doesn't change things in a significant way -- particularly since we had so much material done before the decision was made, so any influence moving to Vertigo couldn't affect the stories until our second year. We're all happy about it -- not because it means change, but because it's a good fit with what we're already doing.

"Astro City" writer Kurt Busiek's excited for his series to be in the same catalog as classics like "Sandman" & "Preacher"
"Astro City" #1 cover art by Alex Ross

"Astro City" has always been viewed as a sophisticated series, a book aimed at older sensibilities that tells what are hopefully deeper, richer, more nuanced stories than the traditional superhero action-adventure. That's where Vertigo started 20 years ago -- a place where readers of the traditional mainstream comics could find the next thing, the material aimed at their changing tastes and sensibilities as they got older and looked for something different, something more.

Early on, Vertigo had "Doom Patrol," "Animal Man" and other superhero material, and it became a great place for a wide range of genres, always looking for a different spin, a different angle on whatever readers might expect. That's a very nice context to put "Astro City" in. Given a choice, it's nice to be sitting next to "Fables," "The Unwritten" and "American Vampire" in the catalog; to be offered alongside "Sandman," "Preacher" and "Swamp Thing" in the book section, as well.

We've maybe done some little adjustments to being a Vertigo book now, in terms of designing the cover trade dress and the story titles. As we roll forward, we'll see how the new context affects us organically. But there aren't any rules that are being forced on us or anything. We're not even being asked to add the "Recommended for Mature Readers" tag that most Vertigo books have.

It's funny -- when the announcement was made, people online kept asking me if this meant we were suddenly going to have nudity, swearing and smoking in the book. I stopped and thought, "Hey, this is the series that started up with a naked superhero flying around in the sky for three pages." We've certainly had smoking, too, and I don't need swearing to make the book what it is. So we're a book that may be aimed at an older sensibility, but not in a way that needs to chase off any other readers who might be interested in the stories we tell.

So yes, Vertigo's a nice place for us -- everyone there has been absolutely welcoming. It's been great.

It's been 17-plus years since "Astro City" vol. 1. #1 and yet you, Brent and Alex are kicking off this new series with a story featuring Ben Pullam and his two daughters. With Astro City aging in real time -- like the rest of us -- where do we pick up with Ben and the girls, who are now women in 2013?

Ben's still in Astro City but 17 years older, an empty-nester thinking about where his life is going to go from here. Faithie and Meg have grown up, too -- Meg's out of school and working, and Faithie's in graduate school at Stanford so their lives have changed completely. When last we saw Ben, he was a young father, new to the city. Now he's an old hand, but facing life as an empty-nester, and trying to figure out where to go from here, now that his main job -- raising his daughters -- is done. Or at least, is taking on a new shape, as they leave home and start independent lives.

They're back in Astro City visiting, on a fairly exciting day, so Ben's personal dilemmas and the superhero activity around him gets to resonate and affect one another.

Why decide to return to these characters and not introduce a new family for the series? Was their story left untold or unfinished?

The story we told back in "Astro City" vol. 2 #1 was a complete story, and if we never saw them again, then it'd still be a complete story. But then again, the same is true of "Astro City" vol. 1 #1 -- if we'd never seen Samaritan again, his story would stand on its own as a complete piece. But we had more stories we could tell with him. And we have more stories we can tell with Ben and the Pullam girls, too. So it's not that their story was unfinished, but that everyone always has the potential for new stories -- it's nice to see what becomes of some old familiar faces.

We certainly could have told that story about a new family, simply by introducing a new character who's at a crossroads in his life. New readers who've never seen Ben before will read it as if he's a new guy, while older readers will remember him and his earlier concerns -- it'll work from either vantage point.

We'll see new characters and new families, just as we see new heroes and villains. We'll also be seeing some faces from earlier issues, as well. There'll be a story about Mattie Sullivan, who was in the Crimson Cougar story, and we're working out plans to look in on Steeljack and see where his life has taken him. We'll always be introducing new characters, but we've got a rich and storied cast, so we'll be using them, too.

True to the format of older "Astro City" stories, Busiek makes each issue new-reader friendly
"Astro City" #2 cover art by Alex Ross

The book often emanates from well known superhero tropes from a human angle. This time out, the hook is the arrival of The Ambassador -- who sounds menacing in title alone. What's the draw to a Kirby-esque cosmic threat in this world you've created?

Whether the Ambassador is a threat or not -- and if so, what kind of threat -- I won't comment directly on. The Ambassador himself is an idea I came up with years ago for another series, one that never really got off the ground. I carried the idea of the Ambassador around in the back of my head, thinking maybe I could use him in "Avengers" or "Superman," or somewhere. Along the way, I realized the stories I was most interested in involving him were human stories -- stories about how his presence affected otherwise-ordinary lives, so maybe he'd be a good fit for "Astro City."

Once I had that notion, the story introducing him came together easily, and it fit together with another I wanted to tell, introducing The Broken Man. I didn't set out to say, "Hey, how can I launch this new run with a Kirbyesque cosmic guy," so much as, "Hey, this story I'm thinking about would be a nice way to tell a human story all wrapped up with super-stuff, while getting new background storylines rolling. That'd make a good place to start the new run, wouldn't it?"

Big Kirby-esque cosmic guys are always fun, too. So why not?

"Astro City" has always had a strong focus on its civilians as opposed to the heroes and villains of the book. How does this new starting point allow you to refocus that side of the equation? What kinds of lives "in the crossfire" are you most interested in exploring today?

Over the last few years of the previous run, we were caught up in the whole 16-part "Dark Age" story. It started out with a focus on ordinary guys, but as the story rolled on, Charles and Royal Williams got more and more absorbed into the superhuman side of things, even though they never had superpowers themselves. The character specials we did in-between were generally focusing on the hero characters. Now we get a chance to pull back and vary things up again, see a variety of human viewpoints on the superhuman.

In addition to Ben Pullam, we'll see a story from the point of view of a young woman who goes to work for Honor Guard, as part of their support staff. As I mentioned above, we'll check in with Mattie Sullivan, who has powers but isn't a hero or villain -- she uses her telekinesis to provide special effects for movies and TV shows. We'll see how a mid-level mobster who has a lot of control over business of Astro City's rivers deals with the presence of The Ambassador smack in the airspace over one of "his" rivers. We'll see a young boy seek refuge at one of Winged Victory's schools for women. We'll see a day in the life of the personal assistant to a sorcerer, what it's like to be one of those costumed crooks who dresses up fancy but has no actual powers, and more.

We want to see a lot of different people and experiences. I'm messing with a story about ordinary suburban life on a planet of warlike alien enemies of Astro City's heroes, with finally telling my talking gorilla story and lots more. So many ideas have built up over the years that there isn't enough time to get 'em all out at once.

There have been teases of some classic characters who play roles in the series moving forward, from Winged Victory and Samaritan to Confessor and Mattie Sullivan. Does the Iron Legion play a role? Have they evolved from past appearances?

They evolve a little every time we see them, since they're a bunch of armored mooks who bust stuff up, and as such their armor gets updated over time. We've never really known much about them -- they've been punching bags that the heroes deal with, usually in the background of a story that's about someone else. We've never gone inside their ranks, seen what they're after or why they do it. Maybe that's a story I should tell someday, if I figure out the right angle. By the end of our first year, you'll know who runs the Legion.

While a major arc just wrapped involving him, does Silver Agent's legacy remain a constant in Astro City?

The cast of "Astro City" ages in real time as the new Vertigo series takes place in 2013
"Astro City" #3 cover art by Alex Ross

Sure. He could even show up himself, if we want him to -- his trip back through time involved a lot of stops along the way, and we didn't get to see them all.

More than that, there's something silver about Astro City, something that resonates both in the silver artifact that empowered the Agent, and in what the Agent became as he died. What that is and how it shapes the city is something that remains to be explored, and it's a little too early to reveal much about it. There is a new silver character in town, drawn there by a feeling that she somehow had to be there. So the silver-ness that expressed itself through the Agent is still around, and finding a new outlet now -- whatever it might be.

You mentioned The Broken Man is central to the series, taking the mantle of central story figure from Silver Agent. What can you share about him? Is he tied, in some way, to Silver Agent or perhaps even the Pullams?

The Broken Man has a very eccentric relationship with reality. In some ways that's a drawback, in others that's a superpower.

He's not connected to the Pullams on the first page of the new series, but by the end of the issue? That might have changed. You'll have to read it and find out.

As for his relationship with the Silver Agent, well -- at first glance, there wouldn't appear to be any, but Astro City's secrets run deeper than first glances, and The Broken Man is definitely involved with deeper, more fundamental aspects of the city than a lot of other characters. His history goes back to well before the Silver Agent, though not before the silver artifact. He and the Silver Agent have met, though The Broken Man wasn't broken at the time.

Beyond that... man, it's hard to say much. I want readers to meet him through the story. There's a lot to explore about him and we'll be exploring it for some time.

Swinging younger, folks have noticed the distinctive look of American Chibi in the early art for the new series. She seems to come from other pop culture tropes outside the classic superhero mold. What drew you to playing with those newer kinds of archetypes, and what can you share about Chibi's role in the series as a whole?

She came about because I was having lunch with Scott McCloud and his family -- he drew a chibi version of himself while we were talking about Japan and manga, and that set us off talking about chibi. At some point one of us used the term "American Chibi," and I liked it so much I wrote it down and saved it, determined to create a character with that name for "Astro City." It wasn't a terribly analytical approach -- I didn't think, "How do I bring in new archetypes," I just thought, "Hey, cool image," and tucked it away in my notes for later. Then Brent, Alex and I designed her, we found a place for her and resonances started to build up -- she does represent something more modern, something younger, and that works well into the themes and structures of the series.

The starting point was that she's fun. What we can do with that particular flavor of fun grew out of the story.

As with any "Astro City" characters, all these new folks come as a result of you working alongside both Brent and Alex. What's it been like getting the team back together for some long term planning for the first time in a long time?

We never really stopped -- or at least, I never did. I just got sick, so I became slower and slower and slower, since I wasn't able to work at my normal pace. We were originally planning to be back a lot sooner, but the combination of Wildstorm shutting down and then my getting sick threw us into a black hole. However, it was a black hole in which I kept writing scripts as well as I could manage it, and Brent kept working on them, alongside other stuff he had to take on to keep making a living. Alex wasn't doing new covers for a while, but he was still helping out with design here and there.

It wasn't a matter of getting the three of us back on the horse, but of me getting better -- at least to the point that the horse would start trotting again, instead of just shambling forward incredibly slowly.

The part that's been very cool and exciting has been getting JG and Alex Sinclair back into the mix as we started lettering books, designing trade dress, coloring stuff and that sort of thing. That's when it really felt like we were off and rolling again. As time passes, creative energies and inspirations change -- so we created a new logo and then messed with it a lot, tweaking the lettering approach in ways I bet most readers won't notice but will make the book a better read. Alex Sinclair has worked up a new approach to coloring it; it's got a sense of both "getting the old gang back together" and a sense of setting off to do something new. There's a confidence to working with guys who are familiar with each other and know what they're doing, and a thrill to be taking new paths and trying new things.

Overall, have you been working to make this volume of "Astro City" a new introduction for people who have not read all the past volumes?

We always work towards that. If you look at the first story in any of the book collections (except "Dark Age" 2, since that's part two of a thing), you'll see it's designed as a welcome-wagon story, inviting new readers in to the city and giving them a sense of what it's all about. We actually try to make every single issue new reader friendly, so anyone who starts reading the book at any point has enough to go on to understand and enjoy what they're reading. We take special care with beginnings, so you get welcomed in whether you start with "Life in the Big City" or "Local Heroes" or "The Tarnished Angel" or whatever.

To that extent, what we're doing here in the new #1 is business as usual -- the story's designed to be welcoming to any reader, whether they're an old hand or a newcomer. When I wrote it, I had no idea it'd have been such a long gap between the previous issue and this one, but the core idea is the same. We don't want people to feel lost. We're going to do whatever it takes to invite them in and make sure they can be absorbed by the story we're telling, and can understand it.

That doesn't mean we need to tell them the names and histories of every hero -- Winged Victory is there, but she doesn't play such a large role that the new reader needs to know anything more than she's one of the superheroes, and we'll name her when she appears in a larger role -- but everyone who's key to the story, readers will know who they are and have a feel for why they matter.

Then next issue we'll do it again. Maybe not so overtly, but hey -- if a new reader starts there, we want them to know everything they need to know.

Kurt Busiek's "Astro City" #1 makes its triumphant return June 5 with Vertigo Comics

TAGS:  vertigo, astro city, kurt busiek, alex ross, brent anderson

 
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