If you follow our comics reviews at all, you know that Astro City is consistently top rated. It’s also the rare book that, bar one or two exceptions, has always been written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Brent Anderson, with covers by painter Alex Ross. The book tells the stories of the many residents, both super-powered and normal, living in the title metropolis, and just as likely to focus on their daily lives as their biggest milestones.
When it debuted in 1995, comics were in the middle of a speculator boom, where everything was grim and gritty and people were buying the first issue of any book on the stands because they thought they were going to be worth a fortune. The comics community didn’t quite know what to make of the combination of Anderson’s clean, precise art and Busiek’s humanist, complex take on superheroes, but it kept selling, so they kept publishing issues.
Over the intervening twenty years, Astro City has focused on the stories you don’t see in superhero comics; the private lives of superheroes, the struggles super-powered ex-cons face once they leave their elaborate prisons, the journalists and city employees and friends and relatives making do in a city where there’s a hero, and a villain, fighting around every corner. It’s infused with a love of comics; almost everything in Astro City happens to be named after an artist, writer, or editor from comics history. But it’s also grounded and human in a way most stories in comics just don’t have time to be.
In the real world, the comic has weathered a market crash, hiatuses, and having to find a home at no fewer than three different publishers before arriving at DC’s Vertigo imprint, where it continues to be published. Through it all, Busiek and Anderson have consistently delivered some of the best comics in print. So, for the twentieth anniversary, they were kind enough to take a few minutes to discuss where the series is, where it’s headed, and the effect of twenty years of work.
Recently you’ve been focused on two-part stories or even solo issues. What made you decide to tell these shorter stories?
Kurt Busiek, writer: Keep in mind, that’s mostly what we’ve done through the history of Astro City. Partially that’s a function of things like when we were in the middle of The Dark Age, fans asked “When will you get back to the shorter stories?” Also, we want the book to come out on time! (laughs)
Brent Anderson, artist: For my end, I certainly would prefer to have entire stories written out before I start them. But with those big long story arcs, it’s just not feasible to complete an entire script. We have to put it together as we go. With the two-parters, I have the whole story.
Over two decades, you’ve literally built a city in your imagination. How does that work and how do you decide what goes where?
Anderson: That stems from Kurt and I discussing the city as a character. And it has to be a complex character, because it’s the title character. So each district had to represent a type of story and a place where people needed to live in, and as we got to stories told in those areas, it was just a pragmatic problem, was to seek out references of cities all around the world that resembled aspects. I thought very much about Hill Street Blues, it took place in an inner-city environment, but had elements of cities all over the world.
Busiek: We put together a rough map to start out, and as we needed others, we interpolated them in. I think we’ve been working on the city 10, 15 years before we realized we didn’t know where City Hall is! I invented Government Hill and mentioned it in the story. We’ve made references to a sort of Chinatown type area, we’ve never seen it and we know what it’s called, we know where it is. The city grows fractally as we build through story.
Anderson: The hard part is keeping track of it all! (laughs)
When you come up with an idea like Powerchord, what goes into balancing the more “out there” aspects, like the refugee from Gorilla City, with the drama?
Busiek: Oh no, he’s not from Gorilla City. Gorilla City is a whole different place. (laughs)
Anderson: Kurt talked about this talking gorilla story back in 1995. It was just one of many ideas, and I was hanging onto every single one. I just love gorillas, and I’d been waiting for twenty years to draw this. I couldn’t be more pleased with the story.
Busiek: In my case, as Brent said, this was a story, or at least part of a story, that was planned very early on. But I don’t have to worry to much about finding the balance. That balance is sort of hard-baked into the concept of the book. The concept from the beginning “There’s a talking gorilla that comes to AC, and instead of becoming a hero, he wants to be a rock and roll drummer.” In context, though, he’s a superpowered being.
I didn’t have the end, I just knew I had the beginning, which was really cool. Everyone can relate to the guy where you look at them and see one thing, but they’re really something else. It’s human right from the beginning. But it’s also an idea that puts it into a superhero situation.
Do you ever see your work reflected in other comics? Twenty years is a lot of books.
Busiek: Yes. (laughs) I don’t think we’re the only ones, though. I think there are more books that are out there that are more reflective, more about the characters than the adventure. When something happens that’s different, but very successful, a lot of people say “I want to do that too!” whether they’re chasing sales or just want to see something different. They can take so many influences and combine them. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm told me they made everybody who worked on the Superman cartoon read our first issue, because all that stuff about the joy of flight into the animation.
Astro City #26, the twentieth anniversary issue, is out this week.