After three strong issues of "Astro City" that followed a traditional comic book structure, "Astro City" #5 sees Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson play around with storytelling techniques and plotting once more. And while "Astro City" #5 doesn't give a complete story, the fragments that readers do end up with are surprisingly pleasing.
"Astro City" #5 brings back the Broken Man, the strange character who kept breaking the flow of "Astro City" #1. Unlike that first issue, though, here Busiek is almost taunting the reader, as the Broken Man serves like a malfunctioning Cryptkeeper or another horror anthology host from back in the day. Because while the Broken Man is around as we dip into three different stories, he's hardly a welcoming host who lets you see how they all play out. In fact, if it was up to the Broken Man, we wouldn't have seen two of the story fragments at all.
For some readers, this is going to be a little frustrating. The first two stories in particular stop dead in their tracks with no warning, a resolution snatched away. Then again, isn't that what most serialized comics do when it comes to plot threads in general? They all wrap up eventually (or at least hopefully), but it's normally a bit subtler. Busiek throws that to the wind, instead teasing and taunting us as he lets the Broken Man steer us away from those narratives at inopportune moments. Here's the thing, though: if they weren't written so well, you probably wouldn't care. That's when (especially on a re-read) it should hit that "Astro City" #5 is still an excellent comic. Even though they each only get a story fragment, all the new characters here are shining and grabbing your attention. They're fun, they're interesting and they're inventive. The different settings are all good, and each of them lets Busiek play with genre and style, something that he does well when he dabbles in them.
Anderson handles Busiek's ever-shifting scenery and characters with ease, here. I think the art is at its best in the 1931 sequence, complete with appropriate fashions for both every day folk as well as those going up against the dark underbelly of Baltimore. It's full of the creepy crawly, just outside of your view images that makes horror stories work so well, and I appreciate that Anderson and Busiek let us almost but not quite see them in full. The other sequences look good too -- especially the character design for Mister Cakewalk -- but it's 1931 Baltimore that comes across as the visual centerpiece, perhaps because of how different it looks from the typical "Astro City" comic.
Busiek promises in the letter column that these story fragments are eventually leading somewhere, and that the Broken Man's strange map of thumbtacks, yarn, and artifacts all really do connect into a larger map. But even if it didn't, I'd be happy with this issue. It's different and quirky, and while it's not something that could be done every month on a successful level, as a little detour it's fun. With next month's issue serving as a follow-up to the current series' debut, there should even be a bit more traditional storytelling ahead for those craving it after this diversion. Any time Busiek and Anderson want to play with traditional storytelling, I'm in.