There are two types of Astro City stories: multi-issue story-arcs and single issue stand-alones. And while the story-arcs are often great, the stand-alones are where Astro City really shines. Astro City: Private Lives collects four of these stand-alone stories, each of which is excellent on their own.
For those who don’t know, Astro City is a long-running comic book by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, with Alex Ross providing the cover illustrations and a lot of the character designs. Nominally, the book is about the eponymous Astro City, city of adventure and superheroes, but a lot of the stories go outside of Astro City and not all of them are about superheroes. In fact, most of them are about those on the fringe of superheroes, the characters nobody thinks about: the people who clean up after superhero battles or the writers of comic books based on real people or the living cartoon character who still has to make a living after their fame has faded.
Astro City: Private Lives collected issue #11 through 16 of volume 3. Here is what each issue is about and why they are great:
Issue #11: “The Sorcerer’s Assistant”
Astro City is filled to the brim with superheroes and what that often means is that Busiek takes something from Marvel or DC and reshapes it to suit his own needs. Sometimes they are reshuffled without much changes (the Furst Family pretty much are the Fantastic Four, only aged in real time), while others are more remixed.
This issue is not about the Silver Adept, Astro City’s version of the Sorcerer Supreme. No, it’s about Raitha McCann, the Silver Adept’s assistant, as she answers the Silver Adept’s emails, tries to reshuffle her schedule to make room, and generally handles all the day-to-day crises that come with being an assistant. Complete with a visit from the Nightflying Lord, Tumorr, and the Queen of Dust and Decay.
Issue #12: “The Deep Dark Woods”
This is one of Astro City’s infrequent “villain” issues, which started long ago with Astro City vol 2 #10, “Show ‘Em All.”
This issue is about the Gentleman Bandit, Edward James Carroway, who became obsessed with wearing the best suits and jackets and shoes. He formed sophisticated gangs of “clotheshorses” (nice dressing criminals) to rob banks in song — the gang was called, of course, the Sweet Adelines.
But the issue also delves in what drives him, the need for him to be “the Wolf” in the story, the need to feel in power, in control.
“The Wolf was everything I wanted to be. He was confident. He was crafty. He wasn’t scared of the woods. He was why the woods were scary. The Wolf was sly, slick, dangerous. And most of all... the Wolf had style.”
This issue is also one of the few not done by Brent Anderson; instead, it’s by Graham Nolan, who turns in a far more noir style book.
Issue #13: “Waltz of the Hours”
Occasionally, Astro City will try and be a bit more experimental in its approach. This is one of those instances.
Told in a non-linear format, this issue is about the “Dancing Master,” an extra-dimensional entity that arrives in Astro City and immediately starts to cause spontaneous joy and love and dancing (and, ahem, other types of dancing).
Or perhaps it’s about two people who are in love, but barely see each other. Or perhaps it’s about a bank robber falling in love with one of his hostages. Or perhaps its about time and how time moves fast or slow depending on what you are doing and with whom.
Also, the illustrations of the Dancing Master are both seriously creepy and gorgeous.
Issue #14-15: “Ellie’s Friends” / “Friends and Relations”
This is a two-part story, the only one in the book, but it’s so good that I don’t even mind. The main character is Ellie Jimson, an old woman who runs a Robot Museum out in the desert filled with the rebuilt robots of a hundred different superhero fights. Because to Ellie, these robots aren’t evil destroyers; no, they are her friends. She finds them, repairs them, and gives them a home.
And while this premise is in itself fascinating, the real plot kicks in when Ellie’s nephew comes to stay and decides that, hey, perhaps these robots can make them some real money.
Of course, there’s a reason that Ellie knows how to exactly repair all these robots. There’s a secret lurking in her past that even she doesn’t know about.
Issue #16: “Wish I May”
The last issue collected in Private Lives is, perhaps, the saddest and yet also the most hopeful. It’s a story about a superhero and a supervillain, except, like most Astro City stories, it’s really not.
Starbright was a hometown superhero and, like most superheroes, he had his own nemesis: Simon Says. A smart kid who was teased mercilessly at school, Simon eventually turned to mad science and supervillainy. Except for one single day when he asked Starbright for a favor and everything changed.
This issue is fairly hard to summarize because it contains a pretty big twist at the end. The twist is subtle but, looking back, is pretty well foreshadowed...
(HERE THERE BE SPOILERS)
...and it’s also nice to see another trans superhero, especially since it appears she will play an important role in future issues.
So there you go: five issues with four stories, each one different from the last, each issue a facet of what makes Astro City so great.