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The Riot Act Review: Kurt Busiek's Astro City
Reviewed by Russ Lee, © 2002

Format: Comics
By:   Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
Genre:   Superhero
Review Date:   August 20, 2002
Kurt Busiek's Astro City: The Tarnished Angel
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Interior Artists: Brent Anderson & Will Blyberg
Cover Artist: Alex Ross
Cover Price: $19.95 (trade); $29.95 (hardcover)

Kurt Busiek's Astro City is one of the most distinctive books not on the market today. The book has suffered massive delays stemming from writer Busiek's health problems, leaving those of us who like to spend a half hour or so every couple of months with Samaritan, Winged Victory, the First Family, and the rest, in the lurch.

There's good news on the horizon, though. Astro City will be back on a regular schedule again starting early next year, with the creative team intact. In the meantime, there's lots of good KBAC stuff in trade and in the back issue bins.

Kurt Busiek's Astro City issues #14-20 compose a single story that has since been collected in a trade called "The Tarnished Angel". The story centers around an old supervillain named Steeljack--a Robert Mitchum lookalike and a low-grade thug with steel skin who served twenty years in prison and who, as the story opens, is being released on parole. Determined not to end up back in jail, and haunted by his failures and all the chances he's blown, Steeljack sets out to live the rest of his life as a law-abiding citizen of Astro City.

But it's not easy to make a living when you're an ex-con, especially when you're a famous ex-con with very distinctive, shiny metal skin. To complicate matters, a number of other low-level supervillains, men Steeljack knows and who he shares a common bond of failure with, are being killed under mysterious circumstances.

Out of ways to pay his rent, Steeljack accepts a job from the families of the deceased criminals--find the killer and do whatever you have to do to get him off the streets. 'Jack is now a dumber, shinier version of the classic pulp P.I., and his investigation takes him through the lives of dead men whose failures are surprisingly similar to his own. It also takes him into the home of a disgraced superhero, and eventually to the doorstep of Astro City's premier superheroes, the Honor Guard. In the end though, he can't count on the heroes, and it comes down to his own street smarts and his steel-jacketed right hook to bring the killer to justice.

This title never ceases to amaze me with the sheer wealth of its character pool, and the depth and complexity of its mostly unexplored history. Busiek (along with artists/designers Alex Ross and Brent Anderson) has created an entire superhero universe here, and part of the fun of reading the issues is picking out the cameos and the tantalizing glimpses of heroes and villains Busiek and Co. have yet to fully explore. In fact, the only time the story stumbles is when it spends an entire issue on someone who should have been just a bit character--specifically, the Mock Turtle in chapter four (issue #17). After reading the entire arc a second time, I realized that the Mock Turtle's story is essential for pacing reasons, but it might seem disruptive on the first pass.

The covers by painter extraordinaire Alex Ross are brilliant, of course. Ross also does a number of the character designs on this series. Interior artist Brent Anderson would seem to have a thankless job following Ross' covers, but he rises to the occasion and then some. All of his faces and body types are distinct--and considering Anderson has to handle everyone from an aging, grizzled supervillain middleman to an urban-Zorro type at the peak of his youth and strength, that's quite an accomplishment. His storytelling is superb, and he moves from low-key talking heads to blistering action shots with seemingly no effort at all.

Be warned, on the other hand, that this is not a happy story. It all comes together in the end, in a way, but the road to that last issue can get pretty damn depressing in places. Between Steeljack's self-loathing and self-pity, and the thread of past failure that seems to bind every major character, it's incredible that Busiek actually manages to pull a smile out of you on that last page. But he does it, and he does it with style.

There seems to be an audience out there for clever superhero-crime stories (if the success of Image's POWERS and Marvel's ALIAS and THE HOOD are any indication). Despite its minor shortcomings, "Tarnished Angel" belongs on the same list as some of the better stories in that category. Give it a look, and then come back in early 2003 in time for Astro City's grand relaunch.

 
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