I’m trying to organize my books right now since I was getting tired of collected editions simply being stacked on the industrial strength shelves that now seem required to support their mass, and realized something …
Under the letter A, my collection proceeds from Kurt Busiek’s extraordinary “Astro City,” directly through Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener’s “Atomic Robo” to Warren Ellis’ run on “The Authority.” There are no interruptions, there’s nothing between them that I’m leaving out. That’s what occupies that section of the shelf in sequence.
And upon thinking about it for all of half a second or so, I realized how perfectly it sums up my love of comics; that what those books contain and represent and embody is nearly everything I adore and admire about the form.
Sure, that may sound like a sweeping generalization, but it really isn’t. Allow me the luxury of explaining.
When I started reading comics again, I found my way back in through “Preacher” and “The Invisibles” and “Transmetropolitan” - incredible works which played with the form and expanded its possibilities. I wasn’t interested in superhero comics per se; I wanted to read graphic novels (yeah, I admit that I was an ass about it) and could care less about capes because I wanted something that spoke to me, that talked directly to me as a reader and said “I’m going to change how you see something.”
And then I read Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City,” which not only told me it was going to change how I saw something, it was going to change how I felt about traditional superhero comics. Almost like a magic trick, the book told me what it was going to do. It even told me how it was going to do it. I scoffed a bit, and the book performed the trick right in front of me and I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.
In the years since, I’ve occasionally described “Astro City” to people as the stuff that goes on in between the panels of other comics; that’s not entirely fair, but when I run into someone who had the same sort of objection to capes that I did, it generally convinces them to pick up a copy of “Astro City” and give it a shot. And if I see them again, they often thank me for pushing them to try it because they also fell in love with it (sometimes, they politely disagree with my assessment; so far, no one has kicked me or thrown a punch).
And that, almost in a nutshell, is the key - “Astro City” is a superhero book that people who don’t like superhero books can fall in love with. Yes, some of it is the stuff that would occur off-panel in other books, but it’s basically concentrated joy and love of the medium; it’s telling stories that we may have been familiar with or thought about, but it presents those stories from a different perspective. It tells them in a different way and by taking a comic archetype and assigning it a new name, “Astro City” allows us to see those stories in new ways. By using Samaritan, Busiek strips away any baggage we might have associated with other heroes, allowing the reader to come to the story with fresh eyes and a clean slate. As a direct result, when we read about Samaritan’s love of flight, we can then see Superman or Captain Marvel with equally fresh eyes and it reveals new dimensions for those (or equivalent) characters.
I’m not so pretentious or academic to argue that “Astro City” is a meta-comic or that it’s somehow a simulacra, but in some ways, it performs the function of being a comic about comics, as well as feeling like an iteration of an iteration, which itself was an iteration. In placing archetypes in a new context, “Astro City” can tell stories that feel familiar, yet have no parallel, and can simultaneously be a story about stories, a genre within a genre if you will.
Proceeding across the shelf to “Atomic Robo,” I realized the other day that “Robo” can treat genre and story in similar ways as Ellis’ landmark “Planetary”; “Robo,” in using a protagonist who has been alive for nearly a century, can explore the history of the 20th century in similar ways as Elijah Snow, leader of the Planetary Organization. And like “Planetary,” “Atomic Robo” will occasionally play with story forms and conventions, as it did in Volume 5 when it toyed with the pulps.
However, “Planetary” typically mined fiction for its smelter; “Atomic Robo” usually mines history. It’s weird and often imagined history to be sure, but it’s still grounded in the reality of World War II and the Cold War, in the science of exploration and discovery, and the practical and ethical conflict many scientists have had with the potential for their work to benefit or destroy humanity.
In “Planetary,” Elijah Snow was grumpy and with good reason; those with fantastic abilities fed on the world like leeches. In “Atomic Robo,” Robo seems more weary with the conflict between trying to raise the world up by its bootstraps and trying to prevent people from using science as a means to control or tyrannize others. While “Atomic Robo” is often comical (and “Planetary” had its moments as well, usually from Elijah yelling at The Drummer), that conflict still exists as a near-constant undercurrent. And like Elijah, Robo often seems to find himself called on to save people … even by the people who want to use his work for less noble purposes.
And from there, we move to “The Authority,” a team born from the ashes of a United Nations-sponsored security effort to protect the world from the weird. And left with the bitter aftertaste of having their hands tied, of being prevented from prevention, of enduring people intervening in their interventions, of having to watch as people murdered cities and ideas as politicians and diplomats sat on their hands, and also given the perspective of the previous century through Jenny Sparks, “The Authority” represented a seismic shift in comics - the team didn’t defend any particular ideology or country. Instead, it defended people, regardless of where they were. The team deposed tyrants but didn’t bring them to trial - instead, as often as not, they simply killed them, reasoning that their crimes were sufficiently apparent and that justice - if enacted through courts - would never be done due to technicalities and manipulations.
And part of the genius in that series was, as Kurt Busiek did, playing with archetypes. What if Batman met The Joker and, instead of refusing to kill that serial killer and mass murderer (because The Joker is both), simply flew an immense spaceship (a ship larger than most cities) through his headquarters, turning him into a nearly invisible splatter on the hull? What if Batman and Superman were not only gay, but in a relationship with each other? Anyone familiar with the two characters and their bickering over the years could suddenly see all of that history as sexual tension and a precursor to both of the characters realizing that they were gay and in love with each other.
By now, a few themes should have emerged - a long perspective, whether due to characters in the work having extended lifespans or examining the genre from a new lens. Playing with the form and seeing what new things it can do. Exploring stories told before - or perhaps the idea of stories told before - and asking how they might end if the circumstances were different.
And perhaps more importantly, these books are fun. They aren’t academic exercises - they’re filled with big science and crazy action and poignant moments and love and respect for the form and the archetypes and the ideas and everything that came before. They treat the genre as if it were a sandbox filled with toys that were free for anyone to use, and so Tonka trucks became spaceships, and shovels turned into robots and pails transformed into elaborate headquarters and so on.
And yet they also represent a lot of the changes that occurred in comics that made people regard them more seriously. They can deal with mundane occurrences - going on a date or buying groceries, for example, and how such simple things might be complicated for a superhero.
But they also provide a practical examination of how enhanciles and meta-humans and those with a long view of history would come to regard governmental inaction in the face of atrocity and genocide, how people with extraordinary abilities might respond to, say, a tribe trying to murder another by hacking them to pieces with machetes.
They deal with noble intentions being twisted to serve darker purposes, and the bitterness that can result. They deal with the recognition that the world is a better place without some people in it, and that acting like trained ponies and leaping through hoops simply allows evil to harm more people while those who could stop it are stuck in a three-ring circus. They deal with the world as it is, while also looking toward a world that could be.
They are fundamentally hopeful books - regardless of how difficult the world described in their pages may be, they all believe in a better tomorrow, that a finer world is not only possible, but that they can be instrumental in building it and hasten its arrival.
And those aren’t bad ideas to fill a few inches of shelf space with.