J.G. Keely's Reviews > Astro City, Vol. 7: The Dark Age, Book Two: Brothers in Arms

Astro City, Vol. 7 by Kurt Busiek
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Oct 24, 2011

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bookshelves: comics, capes, reviewed

It starts to feel like every modern American comic is still reaching back to Alan Moore, and Watchmen. Whether they want to or not, there is almost no escaping him. But curiously, it's been something absent in much of Busiek's excellent Astro City--a series which deconstructs superheroes in a much more sympathetic, hopeful way, hearkening back to the Silver and Golden Ages of comics.

Well, until now.

As evidenced by the title, this collection is about the difficult times: an era of violence, of hopeless, a time with no heroes, no one to look up to. For Busiek, that means the Modern Era of comic books, also known as 'The Dark Age of Comics'. Starting with Watchmen, this period opened the doors for maturity, depravity, moral relativism, and heavier themes.

Like most movements, it started out on the top, with a few visionary talents looking to break out and explore something new. Then it spread, influencing everyone from the most savvy to the lowest denominator in comics, eventually becoming a much-belabored joke, less concerned with the political ramifications of violence than with endless decapitations and giant guns. And that's what Busiek explores in this story.

When his characters talk about the increasingly violent nature of so-called 'superheroes', he's talking about the literary movement as much as his story. When he asks whether we made these new 'heroes', or whether we just got the heroes we deserved, he's talking about the progression of comics. His world physically shifts and changes, ushering in this darkness, this ravenous thing which is self-feeding, cannibalistic. The events and characters mirror the real changes in the industry that Busiek witnessed over the past thirty years.

For those of us with a background in these changes, there are a lot of references, in-jokes, parallels, and insightful observations about the nature of the industry. We see 'expies' of all sorts of familiar, Dark Age characters: Guy Gardner, Nightwing, Cloak & Dagger, Savage Dragon, Spawn, Punisher, Swamp Thing (who even looks like Alan Moore), and I'm sure many more that I didn't recognize.

We even get a brief panel of a many-armed man with a sword and sunglasses, clearly an homage to Rob Liefeld's idiomatic style, complete with reference to the hilariously unnecessary character 'Forearm' (who had the special power of possessing four arms).

It's an interesting tack for Busiek to take, breaking away from the style of his other Astro City books and coming closer to something like the deeply sarcastic satire of Marshal Law. But Busiek always retains such a sense of hope, even in the darkest moments. He is self-aware, but not cynical. For him, every heart has its redemptive place.

Yet, somehow, this doesn't overrun his stories, it doesn't turn them into cheap, hokey melodramas. But then, Moore's cynicism doesn't turn his stories into hopeless trudges, either. For both men, there is a focus on the story, and on pure character, separate from any ideal or hypocrisy those characters might hold.

But while the parallel themes of this work are interesting (using hope to deconstruct the cynical deconstruction of comics), the execution leaves something to be desired. We rush through large, complex events: the world almost ends several times an issue, which is part satire, but also a concession of a certain type of comic. Yet the character progressions are strangely plodding and straightforward, especially for Busiek, who usually reveals his characters with such deliberation.

In the end, Busiek's subversions rarely went far enough. The cliche comic elements were central to the story, and while he poked fun at them, the poignancy and gravitas of the story still relied upon them. We were asked to care about the ridiculous, which is not uncommon in comics, but it's hard to suspend disbelief for a parody. We're being pulled in two directions at once as we're asked to invest in something that is being deconstructed.

Busiek seems satisfied to relegate the Dark Age to history, to give it a start and an end and leave it at that. I would have hoped for something more: for an indication that this darkness, this cynicism has ultimately changed us. It has not made hope impossible--indeed, in some ways, it has strengthened it, since we have so much more to hope for--and it's hardly something so easily bookended.

The Dark Age is not over, because there is no author out there who is moving on to the next step (at least, not that I have seen). It's why we keep returning to Moore, even though his work, in his own words, should be out-of-date by now. The future of comics will not be defined by Cynicism vs. Hope, by Moore's Dark Age vs. Busiek's Golden Age, but by their combination, and by the new voices that rise out of it.

I had originally posted here the review for the first volume. This has been rectified.

My Suggested Readings in Comics
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Reading Progress

October 24, 2011 – Shelved
October 24, 2011 – Shelved as: comics
October 24, 2011 – Shelved as: capes
October 25, 2011 – Started Reading
October 25, 2011 – Shelved as: reviewed
October 31, 2011 – Finished Reading

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