I wish I didn’t have to say it. I wish it wasn’t true. A title that I have long championed is in the midst of a prolonged slump. Astro City: The Dark Age has gotten so bad that I’ve stopped handing the single issues to my wife when I’m done reading them. Oh, I’ll finish the story out. I’ve come this far after all, and I’ve only got two more issues to go. But my enthusiasm for this story has long since waned.
So what’s the problem with Astro City’s Dark Age?
Well, the most obvious answer is that it’s too long. Even the title sounds long; the latest issue to hit the stands was Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #3. Ouch. The Dark Age was planned as a 16-issue epic. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s longer than the two previous Astro City epics combined: Confession lasted 6 issues, The Tarnished Angel 7. That’s longer that either of Kurt Busiek’s big epics for Superman or the Avengers: Camelot Falls lasted 10 issues, Avengers Forever 12. Remember that several of those epics were also criticized for dragging on too long. In retrospect, The Tarnished Angel and Camelot Falls read much better as completed stories. They fit together very well when one doesn’t have to worry about delays between issues. And maybe that will be the case for The Dark Age when all is said and done. Yet both of those earlier stories were completed in roughly a year and a half (April ’98 to Jan ’00 for Tarnished Angel; Sept. ’06 to Jan. ’08 for Camelot Falls). In comparison, Astro City: The Dark Age is closing in on its fifth anniversary. The first issue is cover-dated August 2005. The final issue is scheduled for an April release and a June 2010 cover-date. Sixteen issues, almost five years- that’s a long time for any story.
Of course, almost nobody minds if a great story takes a long time. Sure, there will be some readers who complain about the wait. But those complaints are kept to a minimum as long as the quality is kept high. That means that the obvious answer can’t be the only one. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t think there were additional answers. I think Astro City’s Dark Age has problems in terms of format, perspective and tone. I think that the length of the story exacerbates those problems and is caused by them. And I think that’s the real problem.
First, I think that Kurt Busiek is struggling to tell two stories at the same time. On the one hand, he’s trying to tell the story of two brothers, Charles and Royal Williams, who were orphaned. It’s a very personal story, showing us how the tragedy of their youth impacted the way they interacted with the world as adults. On the other hand, Busiek is trying to tell a historical retrospective, filling the reader in on the changes to the superhero community through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Early on, those two stories meshed together well. We saw the world through the eyes of Royal and Charles and the changes we noticed were the ones they witnessed. That’s a wonderful technique. Many of the best stories combine the personal with the epic, from Star Wars to Babylon 5.
However, as The Dark Age has progressed, those two stories have diverged. Charles and Royal have been going through their own changes and the shifts in the superhero community are no longer the ones that they witness directly. In some cases, the two stories have only tenuous connections. In other cases, they’re not related at all. If you’re following and fully engaged in the story of the Williams brothers, the historical perspectives feel like interruptions. They take you away from the main story. Unfortunately, the scenes that tell you what’s happening in the superhero community are often more interesting than the story of the Williams brothers. The superhero changes come with greater significance and frequency, while the story of the Williams brothers seems to drag on. Astro City has always been good at giving us a glimpse of a greater story. But, in this case, we rarely want to return to the story we’re supposed to be reading. It seems tedious by comparison. The historical retrospective is simultaneously interrupting the main story and making it look bad. And, oh yeah, that’s a big reason why The Dark Age both is long and feels long.
Second, I think that Astro City has lost sight of two of the features that made it great. One of Astro City’s strengths was its view-from-the-street perspective. Another was its sense of joy and wonder. These also happen to be traits that it inherited from Marvels.
Marvels introduced Phil Sheldon, a New York City photographer who took pictures of superheroes. We saw their world from his perspective. Astro City had that same perspective. We saw what a superhero world was like from the point-of-view of a hotel doorman, a woman riding the bus, a father new to town and a public defender. Astro City did more than that. We also watched through the eyes of a superhero daughter who wanted to experience real kindergarten, a cartoon lion and a busboy-turned-sidekick. But even when the protagonist was a superhero, Astro City always managed to keep that view-from-the-street perspective. We followed a superhero’s dreams in one issue and his date in another, not his battles.
The Dark Age has gotten away from that. Charles and Royal Williams started out as view-from-the-street protagonists. They were a beat cop and a minor criminal, and we saw the world through their eyes. They’ve moved on from there. But even in the second book, they were relatable as regular guys. One was a flunky in a super-villain mob. The other was a newbie in a paramilitary organization. Yet they moved on from there as well. The further they’ve moved up the food chain, the further they’ve moved away from the readers. We can no longer relate to their position, their obsession or their lust for vengeance. We’ve lost our point-of-view characters. And, as a result, we’ve lost interest.
Astro City was also one of the books that brought a sense of wonder back to comics after the hard-edged approaches inspired by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It had joy. It had awe. It reminded us of what it was like to be a kid dreaming of flying. It reminded us of how cool it would be to be a superhero. It also had depth and maturity. We felt sad for Samaritan even as we wanted to be him. But we still wanted to be him.
The Dark Age has lost some of that sense of wonder. It isn’t gone completely. There are still those cool moments when we can imagine what it would be like to be a superhero. But that joy is often overshadowed. The Dark Age has a more pessimistic view, evidenced in its title. This darker tone creates a disconnection for fans looking for that sense of wonder that Astro City once championed. It creates a further disconnection for fans who don’t happen to think that Ghost Rider and the Punisher heralded the demise of superheroes. The Blue Shield and Street Angel are cool characters yet The Dark Age sometimes seems to discourage us from liking them or even being fascinated by them. In a way, The Dark Age is like a grumpy old fan yelling at those young kids to get off of his lawn. It expresses discontent, when what we used to love about it was its sense of wonder.
That isn’t to say The Dark Age has been all bad. I’m impressed by its creativity. Kurt Busiek has introduced a whole slew of characters, many of whom represent the milieu of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I already mentioned Blue Shield and Street Angel. Hellhound has a great Ghost Rider vibe. The Apollo 11 would fit in well with Marvel’s Cosmic comics. There’s Simon Magus, Starfighter, the Green Man and Mirage.
Astro City’s Dark Age also has a wonderful design sense. Alex Ross has contributed some of his best covers for this series. I appreciate the way that each Book has had its own cover dress. I liked the two or three color palettes for the covers of Book Two. Plus, I think that artists Alex Ross and Brent Anderson have done a great job of designing the characters. Simon Magus has a great look. The Blue Shield is certainly memorable. And I loved the use of neon in the costume for Mirage. There’s no question that Astro City has continued to be wonderful to look at it. It’s a feast for the eyes. It’s just too bad that the story has so many shortcomings in terms of plot, point-of-view, tone and length.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind if I re-read this epic. As I noted earlier, it worked for The Tarnished Angel and Camelot Falls. But, for now, I’m deeply disappointed in The Dark Age.