Today, Greg and Shelby are discussing Astro City 7, originally released December 11th, 2013.
I’d like to end my survey of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City 7 right there, as all things should begin and end with Ms. Knowles, but we have word counts to hit, so let’s keep going.
On December 13, 2013, Beyoncé shocked everyone by dropping a self-titled album completely unannounced. In 14 tracks (and 17 accompanying music videos), Jay-Z’s better half develops and explores various contours and facets about what it means to be a modern women. She takes her time to express many diverse points of view. Some tracks drip with raw sexuality and bedroom cooing, some express frustrations at the societal glass ceiling for women, some are triumphant battle cries (“I’m flawless, I woke up like this”). The marvelous thing about this album is how wide a net Beyoncé casts, yet how cohesive the whole thing feels.
Busiek’s latest issue of Astro City feels like it wants to make a similarly unified artistic statement, but it ultimately buckles under its own weight. Winged Victory, an almost godlike hero who oozes tranquil nobility, is the center of a framing: female supervillains Jagged Jill, Warmaiden, and Maneater assert publicly that Winged Victory is the ringleader and trainer of a cabal of supervillains. Word spreads fast, including circumstantial evidence that Warmaiden did indeed attend one of Winged Victory’s training camps, sending Winged Victory into an existential crisis that, as the last panel insinuates, is about to turn physical. We also see a young boy named Joey Lacroix, beaten and bruised badly, who wishes to be healed and trained by Winged Victory, the same way she did for his aunt.
Having two narrators of a story suggests that they are both our main protagonists, yet not nearly enough time is spent on Lacroix, making his pitiable plights and observations countered by Meg’s on-the-nose critiques of male privilege feel more like straw arguments rather than genuine character development. The entire issue suffers from this; rather than hunkering down and focusing on one narrative strand satisfactorily, Busiek casts a wide, Beyoncé-esque net to no one’s satisfaction. Simply put, you can’t care about these characters when you’re introduced to them this bluntly and quickly. When Winged Victory arrives to speak at a university, she notes the intensity and velocity of the loud protesters. “It should take time for them to build. More than this.” The same could be said of the narratively compressed speed this issue moves at.
“The View From Above” aches and yearns and wants to say grand things about the human condition — in particular, what it means to be a powerful woman. Yet Kurt Busiek’s choices at characterization betray these noble intentions. Typically I’m a fan of giving characters as much of a personal, human core to their plot functions as possible, but here, to introduce Winged Victory’s origin story as stemming from a bad break-up feels oversimplified and hackneyed at best, and socially regressive at worst. In a similar vein, when she sees the Council of Nike, her pool of strong women powering her, it’s somewhat troubling to see John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt decide to give the verb “raped” a bolder typeset when listing the atrocious things men have perpetrated. Both of these choices posit Winged Victory as being a reactive rather than proactive character; while on some level it’s fundamentally true that feminism and the self-empowerment of women comes from the horrible way they’re treated by men, these narrative and aesthetic choices seem to give more power to the men who “make” these women what they are, rather than showing women who “decide” what they are.
Admittedly, your mileage will vary based on your cultural experiences, but I’ve got all kinds of familiarity neurons firing looking at this thing (I get science). The silhouetted backlighting, the photorealistic yet ethereally unreal quality of the subjects, and the ornately drop-shadowed typography all evoke classic Hollywood films. Even the title “The View From Above” sounds like a long-lost Frank Capra classic of humanity triumphing over heartache. However, these warm and pleasant feelings dissipated as I read the issue; this introduction doesn’t seem to fit Busiek’s wholly modern, borderline deconstructionist narrative of the responsibility of superheroes as it relates to their relationships with supervillains, femininity, and the “normal world” at large. Opening such a dissective work with such simple, old-fashioned iconography feels discordant, and not in a satisfying way.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and perhaps I should cut the issue some slack for working with what it can in its inherently limited page count. Perhaps it’s admirable of Busiek to even attempt this grand a survey with his work. What do you think, Shelby? Sidebar: are you more a Beyoncé or a Sasha Fierce?
Shelby: We all know Queen Bey will rule the world some day.
But seriously, I appreciate Beyoncé for a lot of reasons; I love her powerful, assertive take on women and she just seems like she’s a genuinely nice person. That being said, I don’t really listen to her music. She’s good, no question, but she doesn’t really grab me like she does for so many. I like what she stands for, but the execution of that message just doesn’t quite speak to me. That is pretty much dead on with how I feel about this issue. I actually had a hard time with this issue, because I didn’t really like it but I have no idea why. I should love it, we’ve got a female lead who’s strong, independent, compassionate, and driven. Her entire existence is to fight for women, and support them in learning to fight for themselves; that’s obviously an idea I can get behind. There’s an intriguing mystery, action, romance; heck, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of my favorite pieces of art of all time. It’s on my list of Things to See Before I die. There was just something about this book that didn’t sit well with me.
The art was a part of the problem. The title page you mention, Greg, is absolutely gorgeous, no doubt. The classic Hollywood comparison clicked with me, too; my first thought was the poster from Thief of Bagdad, with Douglas Fairbanks. It’s elegantly old-fashioned and very pretty, but not what I’m looking for when I read comic books. The design of Winged Victory is a perfect example, in that I hate the design of Winged Victory.
She looks like the brunette best friend in an issue of True Romance. I just have a hard time reconciling the pillar of womanstrength this character is supposed to be when she looks like a secretary at the Daily Planet from a silver-age issue of Superman.
I also don’t much care for the whole, “we support and fight for women ONLY” mentality. I believe feminism is about equality between men and women, not putting women above men. A society which puts one gender over another hurts EVERYBODY; granted, it tends to hurt the oppressed gender more, but it is still a system of inequality which forces social norms on people who don’t want them. I do not believe at all that the fix for sexism is more sexism. Of course, there are plenty of feminists which would disagree with me, which leads to the other point that I don’t much care for in this issue. WV’s power comes from the collective strength of all women, lumping them all into one big sisterhood, which just isn’t the case. It’s more of the same, except instead of mistreating womankind based on their gender, it puts womankind on a pillar, raised up above the rest. Despite the fact that conceptually I like what this issue stands for (or is trying to stand for), it falls flat in its execution. Beyoncé stands a better chance of winning me over.
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?