This article was originally published at DC Infinite on May 15, 2014.
Superhero stories are rife with metaphors, most of them not very subtle. Their bigger-than-life nature allows for easy dramatization of mundane or common problems, often in a bright, non-threatening manner. Kurt Busiek and Graham Nolan have applied this characteristic to great effect in Astro City #12.
Taken purely at face value, Astro City #12 is about a recidivist, a criminal who continues to commit crimes no matter how many times he is caught. In this style of reading, it is a simple story, somewhat tragic in nature, but without an interesting hook or deep characterization. That reading also ignores that the story of this criminal is really a metaphor for something else entirely: the nature of addiction.
Ned is a character raised in poverty, picked on in school, and had a pretty miserable childhood. Crime, specifically super-crime, was his escape. In his criminal pursuits he finds an alternative to the dirt and filth that defined him. He is able to wear fine suits and handmade Italian shoes, hiding his past and the pain that comes with it from society and from himself. Although he enjoys his criminal pursuits, they eventually end his incarceration. This results in driving away his wife and daughter, who he clearly loves, and leaving him with nothing. Replace crime with alcohol or narcotics, and you have the story of a substance abuser. Ned’s addiction even begins with a small event, a gateway, where he robs a single man. It forms a tidy metaphor for addiction.
Busiek isn’t interested in simply being clever. He uses this arrangement to examine what it means to be an addict. Although the issue features two of the comic’s best known heroes, The Confessor and Jack-in-the-Box, the conflict does not lie between Ned (as a supervillain) and the heroes of Astro City. His encounters with heroes are short and it’s clear each time that the result will be his capture and jailing. The true conflict is entirely internalized. Ned presents himself as having two competing desires: to be with the wife and child he loves and care for them, but also to escape his normal existence and commit super-crime. They cannot coexist, so he must constantly choose between the two.
Ned remains a sympathetic character because his desire to care for his family is sincere, even if it is ultimately overwhelmed by his need to commit crime. Busiek presents addiction as something beyond a choice. It is a constant compulsion, a dark curse that haunts those affected by it. Ned may be able to resist his addiction for some time, but without constant support, its power over him becomes undeniable. Although he has hurt those around him, Ned is a victim as well.
Nolan does a wonderful job in supporting these ideas. He features two stylized panels, at the beginning and end of the comic, with lower barriers that drip down, providing the effect that they hang over the panel below. In both instances, the upper panel features a reminder of Ned’s criminal life and the lower panel contains Ned at his most miserable state. The juxtaposition serves to directly connect his urge to commit crime with his misery. They serve as bookends to the story of his life, revealing the driving force behind the tragedy and reinforcing it again at the end.
The final panel reveals how much can be accomplished with small changes. In addition to accentuating the bags under Ned’s eyes, he sharpens all of the lines in his face. The effect is transformative. Upon deciding to once again relapse and engage in super crime, Ned is no longer himself. He is now seen as a monster, a wolf as evidenced by his shadow. It is frightening and tragic.
Longtime readers will notice that Nolan is the first guest artist to ever appear in Astro City’s long history. He fits into the tone of the comic very well, in addition to adjusting his style to blend nicely with Brent Erik Anderson’s. Characters and backgrounds are still distinct, but not too detailed as to distract from the story’s pacing. The page compositions are just as well designed as Anderson’s, capably guiding the reader’s eye between each panel and speech bubble. His work here is a perfect example of how a guest artist can contribute to an ongoing comic: providing a new aesthetic without altering the style of a book so much that it creates a distraction.
Astro City #12 is the reason why this comic has continued to resurface for almost two decades now. Its diverse landscape allows for Kurt Busiek and artists to explore a wide array of stories and ideas through the lens of the superhero genre. This tale of addiction is entirely different from everything that has come before, but exists firmly within the scope and tone of Astro City. It speaks of darkness while maintaining an accessible veneer. It’s an achievement that speaks highly of the genre it embraces.