Greg: I don’t know where I stand on free will versus fate. Sometimes the idea of everything happening for a reason brings me comfort; sometimes the idea of me being the only author of my universe does. This type of unsettled philosophical flip-flopping (phlip-phlopping?) may suit me in my regular life just fine, but in fiction, we often demand clear lines drawn in the sand. While this latest issue of Astro City may not be this specific (probably wisely), it does delineate what it wants to do stronger than previous Winged Victory issues, to highly effective results.
Since last we visited this section of Astro City, the conspiracy against Winged Victory has intensified. Members of the Iron Legion do their best in an aerial battle against her, but she, with some wholly unnecessary help from her man Samaritan, clearly has the upper hand. Thus, it feels doubly unfair to learn that there’s still an arrest warrant out for her, and she retreats to the Confessor’s spacious headquarters to research evidence to use and plays to make. The Confessor recommends she hide; she responds bluntly that hiding is not what she does to make the world a better place. She takes to the skies, following a curious voice in her head to Maisie Shimura’s peaceful garden. Shimura is a member of the Council of Nike, who tells her story full of pain and torment, but ultimately resolve and action. As Winged Victory feels more resilient than ever, the issue closes on a cliffhanger, with Joey Lacroix, broken and self-defeated as ever, seeing “something” in a futuristic pod.
Last time, I felt that writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Eric Anderson set their sights needlessly and pointlessly high, confusing and swapping out grandiose aims at feminist meaning in place of tight, competent storytelling. I felt as though characters were jammed in and rushed with no sense of unique development beyond stock types, and that Anderson’s usage of combatting “old” iconography with “new” was muddled and confusing. Yet in this issue, these elements feel like seeds growing satisfactorily, reaching a sense of clarity and precision. While it might not advance the plot of Winged Victory’s framing too much, it effectively lets us know why her framing is important, from a macro and micro level. In other words, we learn a lot more contextually about the world at large, and we learn a lot more about the emotionally personal character stakes. I have a feeling that moving forward with these necessary pieces of information will result in a much more satisfying read.
Winged Victory’s introductory battle in the skies, while being totally badass, is also a beautifully streamlined synthesis of authorial and artistic thesis (I’m imagining Busiek and Anderson high-fiving after cranking these pages out). Winged Victory continues to be rendered in jaw-droppingly classical beauty, evoking nostalgia for and awe of an era that probably doesn’t really exist. She oozes personality. Conversely, her enemies are blandly blue anonymous soldiers and space-planes who feel jet-packed in from one of the Halo sequels. They ooze blandness, but a specific kind of blandness: that of the sexist, hostile, empty-threat-laden variety. At every turn this weasel soldiers take the opportunity to undermine Winged Victory’s gender and disgustingly promote their own. They call her “honey”, “my dear”, and write off her obvious physical strength and resolve to end the matter as being “aggressive” and “masculine”.
They have nothing but contempt for Winged Victory and, well, it’s pretty clear to see who wins this duel. The feeling I can’t help but walk away with is that the future of this world is patriarchal bullshit, full of technological and verbal bluster that may seem on first glance as being intimidating or impressive, but is nothing more than the puffed up chest of an impotent rage-filled gorilla. Winged Victory, on the other hand, has no need for such ego-inflating showmanship, as she is powered by the countless personal resolves of women before her. Strong, natural, completely human women who don’t need to put others down or build soulless spacecrafts and uniforms. They simply do what’s right because it’s right to do it.
Samaritan, Winged Victory’s Sean Carter, puts this idea more eloquently: “She doesn’t need a champion. She needs to be one.” In exploring this wonderful idea, Busiek and Anderson present the poignant, inspiring, and wholly human tale of Maisie Shimura, rendered in stunningly haunting desaturated colors that contrast wonderfully with the pomp-and-circumstance of Winged Victory’s brightly popping palette. While telling us of the horrors perpetrated on her family in the post-Pearl Harbor internment camps, Shimura goes back to a code, time and time again, one that functions as an inverse to Samaritan’s thought:
Rather than actively trying to be be champions, Shimura’s family chooses an existential coping mechanism. A mantra (“it cannot be helped”) that recognizes one’s lack of personal fault in bad things that happen to her, yet also recognizes the inherent futility in trying to change it. It’s an idea that seems completely reasonable to me — until the moment Shimura realizes it isn’t. She realizes, and successfully makes me realize, that peaceful passivity can only get you so far. And in a moment of full circle delight, we see a flashback of Winged Victory flying away from her previous vision, only now it’s rendered in the similar desaturation as Shimura’s story. Past and present generations of strong women, united in the same journey by color palette. Kudos, Mr. Anderson.
So, Shelby, Busiek and Anderson have given us a lot to chew on. What do you think Lacroix saw at the end? Do you think there’s any meaning in The Confessor’s hiding place being an old cathedral full of futuristic goodies? Also: The last title of this saga was “The View From Above”; now we’re on “The View From The Heart”. Sensing any patterns here?
This is the only Busiek work I’ve read, so I can’t speak to anything else of his, but I feel like I know what he’s trying to do here. The story is composed almost entirely of sexist tropes from days of comic yore; I would hope his intent is to highlight those tropes to show how laughably terrible they were, but I don’t feel like he’s really subverting anything. To me, it just comes off as embracing them; they’re so sincerely applied to the story I can’t help but cringe and then get really angry with every passing panel. Greg, you brought up Winged Victory’s battle in the sky with the jet-pack assholes, and I think that’s a perfect example. The men are misogynistic and dismissive, not taking Vic seriously as a threat until her hunky, nice guy boyfriend shows up (more on that in a second). Vic is depicted as this shining angel of strength and competence, but in a way that just makes me think of the equally sexist act of placing women on a pedestal. Elevating women above men is no better than demeaning them below, and that is the modus operandi of this whole arc. Instead of focusing on equality between the sexes, it drives them further apart.
The stereotypical tropes in this arc are just as damaging to men as they are to women, in my opinion. The misogynist villains, even the casually sexist regular guys are easy to spot and dismiss.
But Samaritan is just as bad. Honestly, I kind of want to kick him in the balls. He’s the worst for putting Vic up on a pedestal, setting her up as a female champion of women, for women. He’s just another trope, the white knight who, instead of putting his damsel on a pedestal because she’s delicate, is doing so because she’s just better. It wouldn’t make me so uncomfortable if her gender wasn’t so tied up as part of what makes her better.
Busiek might be trying to deliver a message with his reliance on stereotypes, but it just comes off as lazy writing to me. Need victimized women? Rape and domestic abuse: check. Looking for deus ex machina-esque wisdom out of nowhere? Old person of color: check. You know what, make her a rape victim too, just to make sure we’ve got our bases covered. I have no problem blowing stereotypes out of proportion to highlight how ridiculous and dumb they are; well-written satire is truly a treat to behold. But Busiek isn’t making any big move to subvert these ideas, he’s just collecting them and using them to tell a tired story. Maybe he’s going to make his big play in the next issue, which concludes the arc, but I am definitely not sticking around for it.
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?