"Bad enough when all the super-types were just vigilantes out for justice. Nowadays it was all about revenge."
Kurt Busiek swears up and down he's not writing a parable about the state of superhero comics in the 1970s with this sixteen-part series. The thing is, I think he's telling the truth. He's using many familiar tropes from that period, and parallels can certainly be drawn, but claiming that's the impetus being what's turning into his magnum opus is aiming way short of the mark.
Busiek is really telling the story of America during the '70s, the decade of his own adolescence, through the story of the star-crossed brothers Charles and Royal Williams. Book Two focuses on the turbulent summer of 1977, and things in Astro City are about as frayed and fraught as they were in New York during that famous "Summer of Sam." There's no David Berkowitz here, but there is a five-way gang war, a strange cosmic presence in the sky, and a vengeance-obsessed vigilante killing her way through the city's underworld. Charles and Royal feel the shocks of these events through their respective jobs of cop and crook. Like any good story, they don't come out of it the same as they came in, nor does the city. And, if we're paying attention, neither do we.
It's common to refer to today's current crop of Marvel and DC books as "The Dark Age." You'd figure this series would add to that morass from the title, but the reality is quite different. Maybe it's being set in the past, maybe it's the careful balancing of the urban crime material with ongoing events of cosmic significance, or maybe it's the surprising message from a most unexpected quarter that "things *do* get better," but the series doesn't hurt quite as much. I think it has most to do with the fact that these heroes, villains, and normals are clearly metaphorical in a way many superhero books right now aren't.
And the wonderful thing about metaphor is, it can be a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, The Dark Age is a story about two brothers, and that resonates with me for obvious reasons. Busiek, who has only sisters, nevertheless has nailed the complexities of brotherhood and young manhood very well. Charles and Royal don't even meet in Book Two until the last half of the last issue, but the gap they've left in each others' lives and the strength of their relationship, strained though it may be, permeate each page. Brothers affect and shape one another's lives, and stand together at the lowest points. In this story, the breaking of those bonds has dire consequences for both men, and I think Busiek's trying to say something about the bonds we all have with each other through the lives of Charles and Royal, and where they're going after this. I have the suspicion that things will get worse before they get better, but the new dawn of 1986 is just over that horizon. I hope they both reach it intact.
Astro City remains one of the best superhero comics yet conceived, and The Dark Age remains the most ambitious and rewarding story it's yet attempted. I eagerly look forward to the Beautie One-Shot and Book Three in 2008. And so should you.