Kurt Busiek has never attempted to hide the heroes which inspire the cast of Astro City. The Furst Family is the Fantastic Four (a family of adventurers whose leader is based on Julius Schwartz), Silver Agent is Captain America (emblematic of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s early work together), Jack-in-the-Box is Spider-Man (representative of Steve Ditko’s odd, flamboyant heroes), and so on. This story focuses on the relationship of the Samaritan and Winged Victory. It is interesting that Busiek chooses to hone in on this relationship just when their counterparts, Superman and Wonder Woman, are receiving so much attention for their romance (although these issues were written before Justice League #12). With the addition of The Samaritan, Astro City’s Batman, this story seems to be about DC’s trinity. However, without the decades of history, editorial decrees, or need to never end a valuable IP, these issues of Astro City are capable of doing much more interesting things and speaking to ideas larger than their genre inspirations.
Busiek favors character-driven drama over event-style storytelling, often allowing battles and invasions to become the background for more personal events. This strong focus on characterization has always been one of Astro City’s greatest strengths and it’s evident throughout this issue. Winged Victory’s series of decisions—choosing to protect those she cherishes as her life falls apart—makes it clear why she is a hero. She never once swings her sword or takes down a bad guy, yet her bravery is evident on every page. She continually accepts risks to her person in favor of helping others, like the injured young man or the various women occupying her school.
Dialogue that would seem over-the-top coming from a man on the street feels perfectly natural coming from the Samaritan or Confessor. These characters shine with the same iconography of their analogs and this helps to naturalize their story. Samaritan is every bit as thoughtful and kind as Superman, so it makes perfect sense when he is able to brush off a serious fight in favor of making a new friend.
Winged Victory’s origin reveals a great well of potential. In Astro City, this Wonder Woman facsimile was not born into great power. Instead, a mysterious council entrusted it to her, and she relies on the faith of women to work as a superhero. With that image under attack, she is losing her powers. This origin story speaks to ideas outside of simple superpowers. Public figures—those who would improve the world—rely on public support. How that support, and the causes nurtured by it, is affected by the media, opposition, etc… is an idea well worth exploring.
Busiek’s ideas are not fully formed at this point though. There are all of the makings of a great story with iconic characters, genuine feminism, analogies to both the superhero genre and comics industry, and elements of public image and media effects. The potential with the injured boy alone is tremendous. If he is revealed to consider himself transgendered, Busiek could say something powerful about the construction of gender in society. That’s a statement that has been sorely lacking from mainstream comics for a very long time. It’s easy to raise questions about what is occurring in Astro City #8, but Busiek has not established a central conceit yet.
The fight between the Samaritan and Confessor also plays out as a requirement, rather than something fun or new. The fight-meet between superheroes has moved from being a trope to cliché. It needs to go away, so we don’t get more scenes like this, perfunctory and boring, in the midst of an otherwise good comic.
Astro City #8 continues to tell a great story about comics’ most iconic trinity, using analogs not constricted by continuity or the whims of editors. Deeper concerns about feminism and the role of women in comics (both as characters and creators) bubble under the surface and may manage to transform this storyline into a highlight of 2014.