This article was originally published at DC Infinite on August 13, 2014.
There has been no shortage of stories about the 2008 financial crisis since it first occurred. It’s a subject that has been covered in every form of media because it continues to affect hundreds of millions of people across the globe both directly and indirectly, through slow growth rates and fears about the future. Astro City often relates itself to modern fears and events, and there are threads of that crisis here. It addresses issues like greed and corruption, but does so not through allegory, but the empathetic portrayal of its characters.
The story is told through the point of view of Ellie, a disabled woman who has managed to create a life for herself showing off robots that once battled superheroes. The wonderful thing about Ellie is that Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson don’t portray her in a way to elicit pity. She is intially shown as being self-reliant and content. Her robot museum may not be wildly popular, but the people who attend enjoy it and she enjoys running it. Although she may have demons in her part, she has been able to find meaning on her own. In presenting her at her best, Busiek and Anderson present Ellie as someone deserving of admiration or, at least, respect.
The robots also elicit a strong empathetic reaction. Anderson doesn’t take the easy route of making the robotic figures cute or giving them expressive faces. They are most definitely robots, many of them without any obvious way to express emotions. What will win readers over are their actions. They are helpful, well behaved, and loved by Ellie. This builds a natural, earned response of affection to the robots that Elie calls her friends.
Alex Ross’ cover helps to add another layer of sympathy for the robots in the issue as well. He depicts The Samaritan smashing a robot that looks eerily similar to The Iron Giant. Although it cannot be assumed that all Astro City readers will make the connection, fans of Busiek and inversions of the superhero genre are likely familiar with this beautiful film. By setting up a comparison between Ellie’s robots and a great heroic figure, it makes the task of creating sympathy a little easier for Busiek and Anderson.
With so much to love, it’s not difficult to create a viable threat. Anything that would harm Ellie or her friends could be easily perceived as the problem. Again, the easy answer isn’t pursued here. Ellie’s nephew who takes advantage of her is not likable, but he is no pure villain. He’s weak and driven by greed, but is not spiteful. He still cares for Ellie and doesn’t want to see her harmed. There is no real villain of Astro City #14. There are problems created by human greed and idiocy, but not people out to hurt one another. What that says about debacles like the housing bubble, Enron, and others is revealing. This story is not yet finished though and this story’s conceit is not yet clear.
Astro City #14 works because it’s a story focused on its characters. Its themes concerning greed, disability, or even something as specific as the 2008 financial crisis may function, yet the comic only truly succeeds by providing readers empathy for Ellie, her friends, and even her enemies.