Family AlbumOrder this bookStory: Another set of short stories from Astro City, including two Eisner Award winners. In this volume: A single father brings his two daughters across the country to rebuild their lives in the City. A ten-year-old superheroine tries to escape to a normal life. A thief gets away with the perfect crime – perhaps too perfect. The arrival of would-be heroes from the future forces a present-day inventor and hero to reassess his career. Willed to life by an audience’s belief, a cartoon star finds fame and fortune all too fleeting.

Review: As the American comics industry shifts from a periodical market to a book market, some readers have decried a tendency to “write for the trade,” padding out stories to four, six, or more chapters in order to make a complete volume. This collection of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City proves that collections of shorter stories, connected only by theme or setting, can be more than worthwhile additions to the bookshelf.

The book opens with the Eisner-winning “Welcome to Astro City,” meant to serve as an introduction to the series for people who had missed the stories reprinted in Life in the Big City. It’s not about the heroes as much as it is the way the everyday residents view them. A character study of a recently-divorced father trying to figure out how to bring up his kids, the story reaffirms Busiek’s faith in humanity, in civic commitment and in just plain helping each other out. Some may say it pulls on the heartstrings a little too hard, but these days, a few more reminders of the better aspects of ourselves couldn’t hurt.

The other Eisner winner, “Show ‘Em All,” is another good character piece about a criminal genius less interested in enjoying the fruits of his crime and determined to let people know of his genius. But rather than fall into the stereotype of the egomaniacal supervillain brought down by his hubris, the Junkman exploits it to ensure his eventual triumph and vindication. “In the Spotlight,” the other single-chapter story, is essentially a True Hollywood Story rise-and-fall tale transplanted to the comics page, but it’s handled well. Here it’s really Anderson and Ross’ design work that shines, as they manage to make Looney Leo look like a cartoon character living in a world of flesh-and-blood people, rather than just another set of pencil-and-ink drawings.

Two two-part stories explore the familial theme suggested by the collection’s title. “Everyday Life”/”Adventures in Other Worlds” could easily be about any contemporary child star once you strip away the energy beings, beast men and rock creatures. Without Busiek’s sharp characterization, it would probably fall flat, but then, Busiek’s sharp characterization is in many ways the series’ reason for being, so that works out. “Serpent’s Teeth”/”Father’s Day” touches on a more challenging theme: how can people of conscience who feel a responsibility to help society in general balance those responsibilities with their more personal obligations to family and loved ones? “Life in the Big City” showed characters like Samaritan whose response was the ignore the latter in favor of the former. That’s not an answer that’s likely to be satisfying to most people, and the hero in this story struggles to find an alternate approach. I really enjoyed this story, and hope to see these characters again.

The collection also includes an introduction by Harlan Ellison that rightly praises the creators’ work in making Astro City feel like a real place; the conceit of the intro is that Astro City is real, but the only way that Anderson can capture that reality is by using photo references of places like New York City. It’s a fun piece if you can get in the right spirit for it. Ross’s covers, and Ross and Anderson’s design sketches, round out the book.

Year: 1998
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Penciller: Brent Anderson
Inker: Will Blyberg
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Cover Artist: Alex Ross
Astro City Design: Busiek, Anderson, and Ross
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
Pages: 224

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Dave Thomer ()