Story: A young orphan named Brian Kinney takes a bus from the country to Astro City, determined to make a mark in the world and earn the respect of those around him – something he feels his father failed to do. He works at the periphery of the hero scene, working as a busboy at establishments that cater to the superpowered community. He catches the eye of the Confessor, a nighttime vigilante who agrees to train him, and Brian soon assumed the role of Altar Boy. It’s not the best of times to be a hero, however. A series of unsolved murders in the Shadow Hill section of town has the citizens on edge, and a number of heroes have had run-ins with the media. When the mayor demands that heroes register with the government, he fans the anti-hero sentiment and eventually declares all costumed activity illegal. Brian finds his attention divided between many mysteries, chief among them being: Is there a larger threat looming behind these events? Who is the Confessor, really? Can Brian trust him? And why is he trying so hard to be a hero in the first place?
Review: This six-chapter arc is probably Busiek’s crowning achievement to date on the Astro City series. The complex plot builds well, with several mysteries raised and solved along the way, and readers of the two previous volumes will note payoffs for what may have seemed throwaway events in those earlier short stories. As always, Busiek’s focus in this series is on character, and Brian Kinney/Altar Boy is a good one – a determined, talented and truly heroic young man who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Brian’s dead father, a doctor who offered his services willingly without much thought of his own financial well-being, looms over the story; Brian feels his father let himself appear weak and be taken advantage of, and Brian is determined not to let the same thing happen to him. The son trying to avoid and overcome the mistakes of the father is certainly not a novel theme, but it’s so used so often because it works, and it works because it’s so often true. Certainly, I have no trouble relating to such stories when told by a writer as skilled as Busiek.
The dark-avenger-with-young-sidekick archetype will certainly raise some concerns that Busiek is doing Batman and Robin with the serial numbers filed off. And recent headlines might suggest that the Confessor/Altar Boy relationship is a dig or commentary about the complaints of critics like Frederic Wertham who argued that the Dynamic Duo had an inappropriately homoerotic relationship. But Astro City is generally an irony-free zone, and it’s important to remember that Confession was written in late 1996 and early 1997, before most of those headlines hit. The character dynamics are sufficiently different that the characters don’t come off as derivative, just a new exploration of the territory. Alex Ross does a nice job with the character designs, as can be seen in the sketchbooks section at the end of the book, with Confessor’s glowing white cross chest symbol giving him a very eerie and evocative look. Brent Anderson, with inks from Will Blyberg and colors by Alex Sinclair, does a fine job with the storytelling and characterization on the story pages, handling a large number of characters and action sequences in many contexts with skill.
The government registration/citizen paranoia thread is a bit of a dicey one in superhero stories, because as heroic as these people are, there’s no getting around the fact that they take the law into their own hands and often assume responsibility for making decisions critical to everyone’s welfare without so much as telling the public who they really are. This is where Busiek’s long-held belief that Astro City is not, and can not be, a “realistic” look at superheroes comes into play – there’s just no way to map our own government institutions and attitudes onto a superhero universe and having anything that makes sense come out of the process. It’s best to take it as the metaphor for scapegoating and abuse of power that it is.
This volume also includes “The Nearness of You,” a short story that appeared in a special promotional issue of the series and one of Busiek’s favorite pieces. It explores the personal and emotional consequences of the reality-revising cosmic stories that comics and science fiction like so much, and it’s very nicely done. Along with the sketchbook/design section, there’s an introduction by Neil Gaiman that effectively captures what sets Astro City apart from most other late-90s superhero books.
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Penciller: Brent Anderson
Inker: Will Blyberg
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer/Book Designer: Comicraft’s John Roshell
Cover Artist: Alex Ross
Astro City Design: Busiek, Anderson, and Ross
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm