Today, Greg and Patrick are discussing Astro City 6, originally released November 13th, 2013.
Greg: I’ve always struggled with the idea of enjoying the quiet comfort of what I know versus plowing through the loud struggle of what I don’t. I feel like I vacillate erratically between these two extremes, never quite finding a balance. I’m either saying yes to everything or nothing. I’m either a bounding explorer or a feeble couch potato. The choices that lead to these kinds of feelings fascinate me, and Kurt Busiek’s latest Astro City entry takes a character to this crossroad; his choice is something unexpected.
Thatcher Jerome is a man who’s lived a capital L Life. As a kid he hustled for mobsters; as an adult, he shakes people down for them. Despite his criminal shades, there’s a key to his character that I strongly identify with.
It’s this carpe diem/YOLO philosophy that leads him right into the lair of a behemoth The Ambassador, a creature that borrows imagery from Tron, astrology, and the masks of the Greek muses. When The Ambassador turns out to be oddly friendly, Thatcher takes advantage of it, grabbing a box full of strange alien capsules. Andrew Wilson, a friend of Thatcher’s, unleashes the strange and seductive power of this capsule – it transforms the opener into a powerful creature, controlled and tempered by the person’s character (or lack thereof). Thatcher plays with the idea using one on himself – what a door that would be! – but in the end, decides he’s happy where he is for now.
By all accounts, this feels like an anticlimax for any narrative structure, comic book or not. We’re conditioned to demand change from our characters, to see a dramatic journey from a person starting at A and ending at Z, with a clear understanding of how all the letters in between informed the final one. In the final images of the issue, Thatch holds a device that will change him so dramatically and viscerally, it has to be the final outcome, right? Chekhov’s Capsule – if you put a capsule in the first act, it has to open in the last, right? If this was a video game, it would be prompting you to press X to open it, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The thing about choice that I, that Thatch, that anyone with a Netflix queue has trouble dealing with is, just because a choice is available to you, doesn’t mean you have to take it. Otherwise I would do nothing but watch seasons of Fraser all day.
Thatch frames his capsule discovery correctly: “The door was open.” But he also frames his context correctly: “Of course, the door to every cathouse and strip joint in the city was open to him, too. But he didn’t go through them anymore.” And why would he need to? What else is there to gain, when you have such a beautiful, warm, and understanding relationship as he has with his wife? Thatch is self-aware and thoughtful, understanding the desire to always move forward isn’t necessarily healthy if where you currently are works. When he asks his wife point blank if she’s happy where they currently are, her answer is frankly affirmative. “We got our kids, we got our home. And as long as you’re with me, I’m happy. You?” Thatch’s response:
Ultimately, this means that Thatch is, indeed, a traditional protagonist who’s gone through change; it just happens to be change of the small and subtle variety. Yet, in life, it’s never quite the enormous, alien-capsule level changes that define who we are. It’s the culmination of all these small changes. The sum of all the doors we decide to enter, rather than the one big one.
And, if I’m feeling particularly sappy, it’s worth noting that the happier characters in this issue have people around them. They desire connection. Heck, even the big ol’ Ambassador welcomes Thatch into his lair with open arms. Wilson, conversely, is a solitary figure who erupts into a monster hellbent on personal power; it’s telling that he winds up dead on the ground. Maybe the doors themselves have nothing to do with it; maybe it’s who you open them with.
Maybe I’m just in a weird place, but this issue really hit me in the head, heart, and gut. How about you, Patrick? I was so flummoxed I didn’t even touch on Brent Eric Anderson’s artwork; any thoughts on that? Basically what I’m asking is, did you “open a door” and allow this issue to resonate with you? I’ve ended on an incredibly sophisticated joke; please let me know if you need help having it explained.
Patrick: Greg, if there’s one thing I like more than incredibly sophisticated jokes, it’s having them explained to me.
No, this issue absolutely worked for me. If there’s one quality that I can always peg Astro City with (and it may only be the one quality), it’s that the series always subverts my expectations. This issue is like a classic supervillain origin story, packed with all the usual lusts for power that turn a freak into bad guy. There was even a point toward the end of the issue where I started to get impatient with the story: it all felt like it was marching toward an inevitable conclusion that I knew too damn well. We’ve been trained by decades of superhero comics to make these illogical leaps from petty crook to super criminal, just because the character is presented with that option. This issue undercuts that trope by playing it real, and that’s why is resonates so well with me.
Kurt Busiek has a gift for writing the down-to-Earth stories in the midst superhero nonsense. Here at Retcon Punch, we’re always looking for that sliver of humanity to show itself, even when planets are colliding and dimensions are shattering and entirely timelines are blinked out of existence. Those big goofy stories are fun, and it’s one of the reasons we come to read superhero stories in the first place, so when some of the finer points of characterization are upstaged by the Crime Syndicate emerging from Earth-3, well, we tend to let it go. But I can’t imagine Busiek ever valuing artificial developments over real human emotion – that’s part of the reason his main characters aren’t the dudes in capes.
For example: who’s Cleopatra? She appears here to stop a man made of melty metal ore, but I can’t tell you anything about her. The superheroes and supervillains are setting – the citizens of Astro City are the characters.
Greg, I love the observation that The Ambassador seems like he’s something out of Tron. It’s true, but his design is also immediately more engaging than that. Artist Brent Anderson gives the big guy so much joyful personality. It’d be so tempting to draw and write that character as stiff and impartial, but this team makes so many good choices that keep him from ever falling into that roll of boring-superpowered-guru. Even Alex Sinclair’s simple choice to make that nonsense technobabble sequence so colorful is inspired, and the whole issue is lighter for it.
Mostly, though, I continue to be impressed with the insulated nature of Busiek’s storytelling. This issue is called “Through Open Doors, Part 2” because we originally encountered The Ambassador in issue 1, but there’s really no reason you’d need to have read that issue first. The only thing that matters in this story is our man Thatcher, and I trust that this is the beginning, middle and end of his story – wrapped up in a satisfying non-conclusion.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?