Like any series that’s been around for more than two decades, Astro City has had its ups and downs—and like most creator-owned comics, it’s had its struggles with keeping to a schedule. But the current volume, which started in 2013, has been a sustained high point. For the first three years, writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson were putting out comics on a monthly basis, and Astro City was the best it’s ever been. The regular schedule kept both creators on top of their game, and when Anderson needed a break, accomplished guest artists such as Graham Nolan, Rick Leonardi, and Jesus Merino stepped in to keep the pace. Busiek was able to sustain a rhythm and the series moved from strength to strength.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The schedule began to slip in the past year, and the story began to drag as Busiek and Anderson embarked on a multi-part epic that couldn’t seem to get its chapters out. (Although that culminated in a wonderful crescendo, an explosion of punk and glam rock and radical chic.) And then last month, Busiek announced that Astro City is ending its run as a monthly series and switching to original graphic novels.

Before it does, though, Busiek and Anderson are wrapping things up with a story that revisits one of their most popular tales, “The Nearness of You.” Originally published as a 16-page promotional issue by Wizard magazine, this was the Astro City version of a huge company-wide crossover, which—typically for Astro City—happened in a shorter-than-normal comic and focused on the innocent bystanders caught up in a reality-changing event they never even witnessed.

The new story, “Aftermaths,” catches up with protagonist Michael Tenicek twenty years later, when he’s running meetings for other survivors. “The Nearness of You” used its limited space to convey a simple emotional hook—Tenicek chose to remember a wife who’d been erased from the timestream, knowing he’d never see her again—but “Aftermaths” has the room and the distance to revisit this premise with even greater maturity. It was one thing for Michael Tenicek to make his choice, but it’s quite another for him to live with it, and Busiek and Anderson show us how he’s coping in carefully chosen detail.

The story features some extremely spare artwork by Brent Anderson, whose troubles keeping pace with the schedule are clearly one of the drivers of the move to OGNs. His figure work is much looser than it used to be, and backgrounds are minimal when there are any backgrounds at all. But the spareness suits this story in ways that I find hard to pin down: Is the art meant to be a reflection of Tenicek’s barren personal life? Or is it just a coincidence, a happy confluence between style and subject? (Or the sign of a reader who’s trying too hard to make it fit?) It could be any or all of these, and it doesn’t really matter—the art works to the script’s benefit just the same, stamping Michael’s blunted affect right there on the page. There are no endings for Michael and his fellow survivors, much less happy endings, just people trying to get through the day.

Like most of the best stories in this volume, “Aftermaths” plays to one of the greatest strengths of Astro City. Busiek and Anderson have allowed their characters to grow and age in real time since they started Astro City twenty-three years ago, a decision that’s given them opportunities enjoyed by nobody else working in superhero comics. Freed from the demands of corporate ownership and the perils of self-publishing, they’ve been able to build the familiarity of a long-running series without the loss of creative control. They’ve responded by crafting stories that draw on two decades of narrative development to express the full weight of time on their characters, a kind of superhero Gasoline Alley.

If that collision of styles sounds absurd or impossible, that’s part of what gives this volume so much of its charge. Not all of it, though—a significant part of the pathos comes from outside the covers. Every delay in shipping, every fill-in artist, every announcement of a medical problem serves as an inevitable reminder that it’s not just the characters who are aging, it’s their creators, too. And if they’re all getting older, so is the audience. If time hasn’t stood still for Michael Tenicek, why should it wait for you?

The best you can hope for is art that grows along with you. Maybe that’s the real impact of Busiek and Anderson’s decision to end their longest and most successful volume by far. Month to month, year to year, decade after decade, Astro City has always been there—but someday it won’t be.

Marc Singer teaches English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics and a new book on the academic discipline of comics studies, due out later this year.
Aftermaths Aftermaths Reviewed by Marc Singer on Thursday, February 08, 2018 Rating: 5
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