Astro City 7

astro city 7

Today, Greg and Shelby are discussing Astro City 7, originally released December 11th, 2013.

Greg: Beyoncé.

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.

Screen shot 2013-12-14 at 1.19.38 PMNarrative and aesthetic confusion continue with Brent Anderson’s artwork. Take a look at this jaw-droppingly beautiful title page:

Screen shot 2013-12-14 at 1.19.07 PM

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.

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?

20 comments on “Astro City 7

  1. Harsh? Yes, I’d say so. Your taking a “comic book” to task for not fulfilling all your hopes and desires in a discussion about cruelty to women and feminism. Perhaps, since it’s a 3 issue story, the next 2 issues will work better to round out the central themes. And as to Brent Anderson’s art, well, ya know, that’s the way Brent’s art has been since the first issue. Stylized to give it a throwback appeal. Be interesting to read what you think about the next 2 chapters.
    Regards,
    Otto66

    • I’m also interested to see how the story develops over the next three issues – clearly this is the first chapter in a longer saga. I think all the criticisms Greg and Shelby leveled are fair, but I wonder if Busiek is intentionally dealing in oversimplified gender issues because he has a greater statement that he wants to make later. Throughout, he seems keenly aware of the fact that he’s embracing some cliches (he has WV say as much when recounting her origin). Those cliches are still damaging, and as of the end of this issue, they’ve not been subverted in any meaningful way.

      • Yea, never said their criticism wasn’t fair, just that I disagreed with it.
        For reference, have both or either of the reviewers read Astro City before? An issue? Maybe 2? Since this new group of stories start? All of the Astro City books?
        Just asking.
        Regards,
        Otto66

        • Greg’s read ’em since the series restarted (I believe he wrote on our coverage of the last two issues), but Shelby’s new to the series.

          One of the things that has impressed me about Astro City since its return is how low the cost of entry has been on each issue. You can really pick-up and go with each one. When we were scheduling for this week, I wanted to test that with this issue.

    • I understand that this is only one part of the arc, but since this is the first issue of the title I’ve read, and I obviously haven’t read the next two issues of the story, what’s presented here is all I have to go on. I think it’s reasonable to take this issue to task for it’s presentation of cruelty to women and feminism when it’s such a central idea of the issue; it would be one thing if it was merely mentioned as a part of Winged Victory’s priorities, but feminism and empowering women is the linchpin of the issue, and I have some issues with the way it’s handled.

      Curious as to why you put “comic book” in the scare quotes…

      • Let’s try again. Your asking too much from a disposal medium. Kurt is a guy and a pretty good writer. Been doing it for a while, but maybe this storyline won’t be his best work. Or, perhaps, what you bring to the story as a reader has been influenced by what you’ve come in contact with in the past and those previous works are the bar that you’ve set for every work that follows. Great. We should all have standards. Guess this issue of Astro City didn’t meet yours.
        Regards,
        Otto66

        • That’s where the disconnect comes in; I don’t see comic books as disposable media. I see them as art and literature, and discuss them as such. Not all titles have some greater meaning behind them, but the fact that they are comic books does not mean they can’t have that greater meaning. It’s not about standards so much, because I recognize the quality in this issue, I just disagree with some of what the author is saying.

        • Given some time to consider, it can be argued that all art is a medium and all mediums are disposal.
          Only one Mona Lisa, Moby Dick, I Love Lucy, Game of Thrones (novels or HBO), Titanic, Meet the Beatles…
          Which is to say there is the really good stuff and then the other stuff.
          Be looking forward to the follow up reviews on the next 2 issues.
          Regards,
          Otto66

        • Otto, thanks so much for commenting! It’s always great to see a new voice here in the comments. I think the disconnect is that the attitude of “Great. We should all have standards. Guess this issue of Astro City didn’t meet yours.” sounds rather dismissive of any criticism. Reviews in general — and our discussions in particular — are about examining and explaining why a given issue does or does not meet our standards. I think there’s a spirited debate to be had about how we calibrate these standards (and ultimately, your point about expecting this issue to satisfactorily address an issue as complex as gender dynamics and feminism is well taken), but we kind of necessarily need to reject the notion that our standards should be lower simply because these are comics we’re talking about.

  2. I guess (as usual) I disagree with everyone. I thought this was fantastic.

    I thought it was fun and interesting. I am curious as to how the story will develop. I will never again criticize a comic for going too fast after reading Age of Ultron; Hell, this issue would have taken Bendis 4 issues to do. I like Winged Victory – if anything, she’s more Peter Parker than anything else. “I have power and wings, I must help, I’m afraid of letting the Council down, I’m going to do everything I can not to have that happen.” That’s Spider-Man, except with Spider powers instead of wings and a dead uncle instead of a council of dead women.

    Now she’s hated in the public (Spidey problem) and someone is impersonating her and getting her in trouble (Spidey problem). So she was weak before becoming Winged Victory – lots of people are. Man, I get super powers and I try to look at how I’ve screwed things up and can do so much better now that I can save the world 10x a day, I’m gonna seem pretty weak too.

    This was a good and fun issue. I had no problem with the ‘message’ because I didn’t get one and I wasn’t really looking for one. Didn’t want one, either.

    • I hadn’t made those connections to Parker, but you’re totally right – there’s a lot of that power that foisted upon her, and she makes good with it.

      But I gotta know how you don’t see a message in this one. The characters are practically screaming about women working together to fight the privileged position men hold. Hell, Meg straight-up says that they don’t help boys.

      I think what makes the issue so interesting — and presumably what will make the rest of the story interesting — is that Busiek doesn’t seem to have picked a side in the debate he’s starting. Some of us are seeing too-explicit feminist themes,while others aren’t seeing them at all. And I get that we all read comics for different reasons… I don’t know – it’s a little like the conversation Drew and I were having about Manifest Destiny today. I guess we all try to engage the comic on the same level it tries to engage us, and when Astro City starts throwing around feminist theory, that’s where we want to go too.

      (For the record, I dug the issue too, if for no other reason than Brent Anderson’s incredible art work. But I’m also hopeful that Busiek will direct this story to conclusion as subtle and thoughtful as the issue 6 – which has been my favorite of the run so far.)

      • How I don’t see a message. . . This reminds me of how I failed a class in grad school. My final project was to show how special needs people were portrayed in our choice modern art/literature and what we should take from it.

        My belief is we should take nothing from it, because it’s fiction. I chose Dumb and Dumber. I received and F and a severe talking to for making light of the assignment. I wasn’t making light, and I’m not deliberately ignoring a message, I don’t read fiction to get a message about women.

        Now, I find some depictions of women or women’s roles distasteful. I don’t believe that is the MESSAGE, however. I can’t take Winged Victory’s background (downtrodden woman, gets woman power, fights for women) any more seriously as social commentary than I could Deadpool’s.

        So, in the end, I took it at face value. There’s a mystical Conclave of dead women’s spirits that band together to give their power to their avatar, Winged Victory. She’s under assault from a mysterious enemy who is besmirching her name and accusing her of using super villainesses to further her nefarious cause. She’s stricken with fear because she is actually being brought in front of this spirit circle to account for her actions (which weren’t really hers). At the same time, she’s now taken a MAN into her home to heal, the same as she has done with only women for 20 years. Who is the mysterious guy in black with the glowing white cross? What’s this man all about? Who is behind the attacks? Those are my questions, not anything about what his says about women in modern society or Busiek’s view on women in society.

        But that’s me. I understand how others could look for more. I don’t.

        • I hate to agree with that professor, Kaif, but it sure seems like a willful act of ignorance on your part. Like, you appreciate that Deadpool and Dumb and Dumber specifically don’t have much in the way of deeper meaning, which suggests that you understand that other art does. That is to say, you aren’t oblivious to the fact that there is a message, you just aren’t interested in it. You’re totally entitled to whatever floats your boat (though it does seem like you’re choosing to deprive yourself of a great deal of what art — even Deadpool and Dumb and Dumber — has to offer), but let’s call a spade a spade.

        • Because I recognize that some art (Dumb and Dumber) doesn’t have a special message or meaning in it means that I recognize the hazard of assuming ANY art has a special meaning in it.

          Example: Part of what made the third Indiana Jones movie so appealing to people was Indy’s relationship with his father. How it was at the beginning, the growth of it as they fought the Nazis and found the Holy Grail (crap, should I have said spoiler?), and how the movie ended. That doesn’t mean that I should look for the writer’s beliefs about fatherhood. It may be there. However, it might just be what made a better story for him.

          I think it’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on message in fiction because it is fiction. Made up. By definition, fake.

          I appreciate that this story was about a woman who was an embodiment of women power. I also realize that the woman in question was reacting to men, which ended being how she found her power. I recognize that isn’t what feminism is. I also recognize this is fiction and made up and there is no such thing as a flying superhero who got her powers from spirits living in a statue. Could this be Busiek commenting on feminism? Absolutely. Could it just be an idea that he thought would make a more interesting story? Absolutely.

          If some of you found the story worse because it didn’t adequately portray feminist ideals, I can get behind it. I just don’t agree that it was the point of the story, because I found the point of the story was the suspense of her rather quick demise.

        • Ah, I think the point of contention here is the notion of “special” meaning. I agree that it would be absurd to assume that The Last Crusade is a comprehensive summary of the writer’s feelings on Fatherhood, but I DON’T think it’s absurd for the fatherhood elements of that story to resonate with audiences. More importantly, I think it would be totally valid for someone who liked those elements to cite them to support their liking of the film, and I think it would be equally valid for somebody who thought those elements were hackneyed and cliched to cite that to support their dislike of the film, or to say that they liked or disliked the film in spite of those elements.

          Like, all art has meaning, inasmuch as meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, we can (and sometimes do) look past troubling character depictions or moralizing to enjoy a story, but sometimes those things are just troubling. Like, I don’t really care if a guy who writes a racist stereotype is actually racist: if it’s hard to read, it’s hard to read. I totally agree that we’re bringing whatever meanings to this, but that’s exactly what consuming art requires. Like, your “no meaning” reading is still a reading.

        • This topic always interests me because I seriously don’t understand looking for deeper meaning in fiction. Sorry if I’m long winded, but I’m always amazed at what people see in stories.

        • I was thinking about this statement a bit more, and I personally think that fiction is one of the best places to look for deeper meaning — it’s one of the few places in life where you can say unequivocally that there even is deeper meaning, imbued by a creator who meant for it to be understood. (Apologies to religious readers this might offend.)

        • There may be a deeper meaning, yes. But the risk is saying, “THIS IS THE DEEPER MEANING,” and then criticizing it for failing to reach it! Here, the argument from some is, “This was a story about feminism that failed for these reasons,” when it is perfectly possible that what Busiek was going for was something else (or nothing else, because nothing says that fiction has to have a meaning other than being a story).

          For example, at culture mass: http://culturemass.com/2013/12/13/top-pull-list-astro-city-7/

          This person read the story and stated: “[the story is] about the nature of hero worship, how quickly the tide can shift en masse, and what real faith in someone is—how personal and unquantifiable it can be.” Now, he later also states that Winged Victory is the feminist movement personified, which may be debatable (and was debated here, and I agree that it fell short in doing this).

          But what isn’t debatable is that three different people read the story and found three different thing – the story is telling us what it means to be a powerful woman, the story is about hero worship, the story is an entertaining mystery, and really, my belief is to criticize it for failing to reach one of these goals is treacherous, because that may or may not have been the goal.

          I think that finding deeper meanings and authors’ messages in literature can be a beneficial effort. There are writers that have expressed deep and provocative essays on the human condition through works of fiction. I merely think it may be incorrect at times to take a work of fiction to task for failing to reach a specific point when perhaps that wasn’t the point at all.

          (As usual, i don’t condemn any of these views, and since this is days old, I’m probably only writing this for my benefit, but I’ve enjoyed seeing how others have reacted to this story.)

        • Sure. I think we’re starting to agree more than we’re disagreeing (hurrah for civil discussion!) I’m totally with you on rejecting the notion that a story could have only one meaning — no work of art is monolithic — but I disagree that the fact that any one reading could be invalidated by a conflicting reading. Ultimately, these are genuine reactions to the story (as “correct” as any other can be), and our discussions are about examining those reactions.

          All art criticism is done through a lens, and we work hard to find particularly instructive lenses for each comic we discuss. Like, we could probably come up with a reading of this issue that focused on friendship or race or any number of things that are maybe less appropriate for the story in question. I personally think Busiek draws enough attention to the gender issue here for it to be fair to say this issue is at least in part about gender, so I think it’s fair to take him to task for failing to address it satisfactorily. That’s not to say that the issue isn’t also about other things — or that it is entirely a failure — but I don’t think that invalidates Greg or Shelby’s reactions (though, I guess I can’t really imagine a situation where I thought somebody’s reaction to a work of art could be invalid, so take what I saw with that grain of salt).

          Anyway, I am going to challenge you on the “nothing says that fiction has to have a meaning other than being a story” statement. I firmly believe that meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so while that statement can be true for you (in that you may choose not to see other meaning), it will never be true for me (because I will always choose to see more meaning). It’s not that meaning is “there,” but that it’s something that the audience does or doesn’t construct. My brain just kind of defaults to looking for those things — it makes art more enjoyable for me.

          (If I wanted to be an ass, I would push you to consider the notion that “no meaning” is, in effect, a meaning — or even a meta-meaning — but I’m not sure a nested-to-shit comment section is the most appropriate place for what amounts to a philosophical discussion on the act of consuming art.)

        • I have to grade geometry finals, nested comments are getting me down – So I’ll continue this on another day. I look forward to seeing what some say about some comics this week, as I think I bought about 100 today. Five Spider titles alone.

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