Heroes Without Capes: Astro City 52

Famed basketball coach Jim Valvano, just before he passed away from a cancer that ravaged his body, gave a speech for the ages.  In that speech, he advised that there are three things you should do every day: laugh, spend time in thought, and have your emotions raised to tears (whether in happiness or sadness).  They're excellent words to live by, and in fact words I try to put into practice every day.  Astro City #52 helped me meet those goals the day I first read it.

Marc Singer wrote about the first issue of this story back in February when it was announced that Astro City will shift to a series of original graphic novels in lieu of the individual issue ("floppies" as dvandom calls them) series it had been since its invention. It's a story that follows up on one of the earliest stories from the series, "The Nearness of You", first released as a special Astro City #1/2 by Wizard.  In a bit of self-promotion, Wizard also listed "The Nearness of You" at number 6 on its list of "100 Best Single Issue Comics Since You Were Born", which takes liberty in assuming when you were born.  "The Nearness of You" was a powerful look in on the possible unsuspecting casualties of superhero-level confrontations, and "Aftermaths" was a stirring follow-up, tracking the protagonist of "Nearness", Michael Tenicek, some 22 years after his original appearance in 1996.  Michael, who had lost his wife Miranda to a chronal crisis that caused her to cease to exist anywhere in the universe except Michael's memories, had used his grief to start a support group for people who've suffered loss from superhero activity.  It was a revealing look at the resilience of humanity.  But the story didn't stop with Astro City #50.

"Aftermaths" was continued in "Down in the Depths", where Michael's support group finally found out the story of Miranda and found it difficult to equate Michael's situation to their own losses that left very tangible remains.  Most were befuddled by his story.  Some were angry.  Michael was then called away for an emergency in his role as a volunteer rescue worker, leaving the resolution to the situation to Astro City #52, "And, in the End..."

Michael begins the issue facing the possible end of his current life, not in a biological sense but instead in that situational sense that everyone goes through sometimes in their lives, whether it's due to happy occasions like growing up and venturing out on their own or retiring to a quieter existence, or sadder occasions such as divorce or the loss of a longstanding job.  The response of his support group to his story has Michael worried that he may come back from his emergency to become a one man support group.  It has him questioning, possibly for the hundredth time, whether keeping his wife's memory alive is worth it.  The Hanged Man has offered repeatedly to alleviate Michael's pain by making him forget Miranda.  All Michael has to do is say yes.

Art by the always incredible Brent Anderson
But this is where Kurt Busiek reinforces the heroism of Michael Tenicek.  Michael soul searches for a day and a night over whether he made the right decision.  It would be so easy to just let The Hanged Man take the pain away.  But to do so means to lose Miranda from the universe entirely, a fact that prevented Michael from accepting The Hanged Man's offer back in 1996.  However, this time, there was even more to consider.  Miranda's loss had inspired Michael to do work that would help others in the same circumstance of being bystanders to superhero battles, whether he was rescuing them from collapsed buildings or listening to their stories of loss at support group.  His impact on Astro City was so important that the superheroes had in fact quietly been paying his bills and supporting his group over the years.  To forget Miranda meant having a happier life filled with hope for the first time in decades, but it also meant leaving Michael's work for someone else to pick up.

My favorite Astro City stories have always been the ones in which Busiek, Anderson, and company explore the bravery, sacrifice, and good works of the "regular people" of their world.  Whether it's a lawyer for the universe's champion sorcerer or an emergency hotline call center employee or a support group leader who pulls people from wreckage on the side, these characters mirror (in that fun house mirror that comics use) the everyday heroism surrounding us every day.

"Someone's got to do it": a hero's mantra
Like Spider-Man and Batman, Michael has experienced loss that he wishes to prevent or at least alleviate for others.  That echoes the stories of countless doctors, nurses, police, and rescue workers.  Like Steve Rogers volunteering for the experiments that would make him Captain America, Michael accepts his pain because to stop his work means that someone else would have to do it.  That mimics the thinking of countless men and women who have signed up to join combat military because there was a job to do and they could not stand by and let others take up the burden instead.

I sometimes see people talk about wanting to live up to the examples of comic book superheroes.  I disagree with that view in a way.  Instead, I think superheroes -- the really heroic ones -- reflect the best that is already in us.  To live up to Superman or Ben Grimm or Sgt. Rock is to really live up to Martin Luther King or Jimmy Carter or Pat Tillman.  It's important to remember, possibly now more than ever, that heroism doesn't come from power or means, it comes from what you choose to do with your gifts and/or circumstances.  Astro City visits that theme repeatedly, and having the regular series end with such a stellar example is perfect.

You want heroism?  Try building houses for the poor while battling cancer.
I'd like to think that Michael is not unique in his stance, and I believe that is the case.  A few years ago, I posited on social media a question regarding a hypothetical time machine that would work only once, but would send the traveler back to any one point in their lifetimes, after which they could relive the rest of their life correcting all the mistakes and avoiding all the tragedies they'd experienced up to the point where they stepped into that time machine.  My question was when in their lives they'd pick to restart at.  More than half of the respondents indicated they'd not want to do it at all, because the mistakes they'd made, the losses they'd had, and the pain they'd felt had been a part of making their current selves who they were. They had friends, spouses, and in many cases children who counted on them, and changing their lives in any appreciable way might mean giving that up.  Despite what the media often portrays, we really do feel responsibility for each other, even if it's often only expressed in one on one situations. 

Though we focus on the exceptions, our world is filled with people who give at least a little to someone who needs it.  Who volunteer to do dangerous things.  Who want the rest of us to be safe or happy or prosperous.  They may be a school teacher who uses more of his paycheck than he should to ensure that all of his students have the right supplies.  They may be a firefighter rushing into a blaze knowing she may not see her children again.  They may be a dying man gathering enough strength to tell us all to never give up.  There's a little Michael in all of us.

Astro City will start anew with its first original graphic novel.  I look forward to it, and I hope that we'll get more Michaels to follow and feel for.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog, NerdlyManor.com.  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Heroes Without Capes: Astro City 52 Heroes Without Capes: Astro City 52 Reviewed by JL Franke on Friday, July 27, 2018 Rating: 5
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