This article was originally published at DC Infinite on March 13, 2014.
Astro City #10 is a comic that has a lot to say, much of which has already been said. Although it represents the conclusion of a four-part battle against villainy, there’s very little in the way of action or dynamic visuals inside. Instead, it spends much of its page count providing a thesis for a story that has centered on the concept of feminism in superhero comics. That would not be an inherent problem if it managed to add something new to the conversation.
The focus on Winged Victory’s monologue and her various conversations is that the reader is forced to ask, “Why is this story best suited to the comic medium?” Nothing about the issue is particularly striking. The interior of Karnazon’s secret lair is generic and many of the conversations are comprised of (sometimes literal) talking heads. Brent Eric Anderson is not provided with many opportunities to emphasize Kurt Busiek’s points. The ideas of the story are told almost entirely by the text.There are some great illustrations in the comic though, which help to illuminate why this series has been so successful before. The first panel of page four features Winged Victory flying above Astro City and it makes for an inspiring beat in the story. The brief action sequence inside Karnazon’s lair is well told and the final punch is appropriately dramatic. These are exceptions to the generally standard work found throughout the comic though.
This leaves the impact of Astro City #10 resting squarely on the shoulders of Busiek’s writing. Astro City has a long history of tackling issues in the comics industry (e.g. darkening attitudes toward superhero comics) through the use of its most popular genre. This storyline was clearly meant to address feminism and the treatment of women in comics. Now is a particularly poignant time for a story about these issues. Stories continue to arise about the mistreatment of female fans and creators, both within the industry and at conventions. There are also a significant number of female cartoonists and fans making their desires for a more welcoming atmosphere known throughout the internet, as evidenced by the popularity of a recent post by Noelle Stevenson. Astro City #10 fails to say anything interesting or new about this topic though.
Winged Victory promotes action over talk throughout the issue. She is confronted by two significant forces: Karnazon, who attempted to destroy her reputation through shame, and the Council of Nike, who consider revoking her powers because of her affiliation with men. Karnazon is clearly a representative of the type of people who would call themselves male rights activists, the worst kind of internet troll with no perspective on reality or respect for women. The Council of Nike stands at the opposite end of the spectrum though, as feminists who will accept no action that does not fit exactly within their standards. These are represented as the two dominant voices in a conversation about feminism, but that could not be further from the truth. They are merely the loudest and act more like straw men, than actual people with well-formed opinions.
Winged Victory refuses to talk about her role and women’s issues with both of these figures. That response is perfectly rational, because the ideas represented by those she engages with are not. However, the refusal to discuss the issues at hand is far too broad of a prescription. Real discussion does not occur at extremes, but closer to the center.
Her decision to help people and continue to live her life as she would choose is a great ending which represents a feminist perspective on how to live one’s life and present the values Winged Victory embodies. It’s also the most obvious ending. Nothing she chooses or says is in anyway controversial. Of course the extremists are wrong. Of course she should help people in trouble. Of course she should associate with whomever she chooses. The problem with her choices is not they are wrong or misrepresent her importance in Astro City. It’s that they are so obvious and acceptable that they are incapable of provoking any new thoughts or ideas.Her decision to refuse to engage with Karnazon is interesting to some degree. It serves as a message that fans should stop engaging with the trolls and “male rights activists” who refuse to acknowledge that women have just as much interest in comics as men. The conversation needs to continue, but people who resemble Karnazon were never part of it to begin with. As long as that idea is not expanded to include any person who disagrees with the reader, it’s a perfectly fine idea.
It’s difficult to fault Busiek for tackling a complicated and important issue in the pages of Astro City. He has successfully handled a wide variety of thematic material in the comic before. But his attempt to discuss feminism here falls flat, adding nothing new to the conversation. The story is meant to feel positive and it does, but resembles an “after school special” type of message. With very few compelling visuals for Anderson to sink his teeth into, this issue is remarkably ordinary.