When is a gimmick not a gimmick?
That's a question I think a lot of readers will be asking themselves when reading Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's "Astro City" #13. Each of its 24 pages takes place at the start of a different hour, detailing an event that begins at 1am and concludes at midnight. Except, in "Waltz of the Hours," the first page is 8am, and the second is 11am. In other words, it's told out of order. But does it work?
When reading "Astro City" #13 as published, Busiek's story is slightly disorienting even as it's entertaining; you jump into the middle of the story, not entirely sure what's led up to this point, and keeps you guessing for most of the issue as you leap back and forth throughout the day. As Gundog robs banks and a science team manipulates a robotic scout on the moon of Io, the mysterious Dancing Master appears and begins to affect all of Astro City. It's fun and uses both old and new characters.
"Astro City" #13 also features some of Anderson's best artwork on the series to date. The page where the Dancing Master first appears is just amazing; the intricate texture and line work on his cloak brings to mind the work of many renaissance masters. Just look at the whorls of the lines on his knee, or the intricate curls of his hair. It's just glorious, a huge leap forward for Anderson. Moving later to 5pm, I also love the confrontation between the Hanged Man and the Dancing Master, with reality on the left hand side of the page, and the Dancing Master's pop art depiction on the right. With every appearance of the Dancing Master taking a cue from a different style of art, Anderson's putting a lot of work in the visuals here, and it pays off wonderfully.
But with all of that in mind, here's where the opening question comes into play. What happens if you remove the out-of-order sequence and just read the issue chronologically from start to finish? In other words, is this a storytelling technique where the material was already sound , or just a gimmick to prop up a weak plot? (The film "Memento" is a great example of the former -- the special edition DVD had an option where you could watch it chronologically and it's still a gripping film -- while there are unfortunately far too many instances of the latter floating around out there.)
Fortunately, being print material, it's easy to figure out which category "Astro City" #13 falls under. In doing so, I found that we end up with a bit of a trade-off. The Dancing Master's story becomes lower-stakes once read it from 1am to midnight; there's a bit less potential malice in his appearances as you follow him through the issue in this manner. But at the same time, "Astro City" #13's love stories become much more prominent. Watching the two couples move forward -- one new, one existing -- takes center stage, and it's still an attention-grabbing sequence. This is a good comic no matter which order you read it in, and its framework is definitely not a gimmick.
The new series of "Astro City" has given readers a lot of great comics, and this one is no exception. What Busiek and Anderson do here isn't something that should be replicated down the line, but it doesn't need to be either. They've taken a charming story and made it that much more so; the fantastical mixed with the mundane, and the biggest conflicts being over the little things in life. I've been thrilled with the return of "Astro City" for the past year, and this is no exception. Highly recommended.