It ought to be pretty obvious by now that I love superhero comics. But really, it’s more accurate to say that I love Marvel superhero comics. DC superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the whole Justice League crew) do nothing for me, for the very simple reason that I never read those books as a kid, and I don’t have any connection to them. I mean, I know their stories, but they don’t mean anything to me.
So I get it when people who didn’t read superhero books as kids can’t get into them as adults, because all the touchstones that anchor the stories into a deep shared history are just so much gobbledygook to them, and all the resonances that the writers and the audience of people like me feel are completely missing to them. And you can’t really get into it late, because the over-the-top Stan Lee writing that seems so great to a twelve year old can’t possibly mean the same thing to an adult. And that’s a damn shame.
Because in the Marvel Universe (and presumably in the DC one as well) we have a fictional universe whose real-life history spans forty years (or more, if you count the pre-Silver Age stuff, which you sort of should), written by hundreds of writers and spanning hundreds of thousands of pages; a universe that contains heroes, villains, gods, demons, aliens, monsters, unknowable entities cosmic and mystic, alternate dimensions and timelines, epic stories and light vignettes, tragedy and comedy and history. It is a fabulous sub-creation of almost unmatched depth and richness.
And it’s too late for you to get into it.
Enter Kurt Busiek and Astro City. Astro City is a superhero setting like the Marvel Universe, but created fresh — there are no decades of backstory, no vast bible of existing texts. But, and this is the amazing part, it doesn’t feel like it. If you read the Astro City books, you can be forgiven for thinking that there’s more there than you’re getting, that Busiek is building his stories on top of that same enormous shared infrastructure.
But he’s not. These are books that you can pick up as an adult and read for the first time, and get at least some sense of what it is that comic book fans get out of their comic books. And as a non-incidental point, Busiek’s writing is excellent, his stories full of significance and meaning both human and superhuman, teetering nicely on the boundary between literary and fun. If you read one superhero comic, it should be Astro City. (Or, well, maybe Watchmen, but then you should read Astro City to see Busiek put back together what Moore took apart.)
Anyway, all of that is a long intro to saying that I read Kurt Busiek’s Astro City: The Dark Age, Part 1: Brothers and Other Strangers , a story about the ‘70s, about fallen heroes, and about two brothers growing up. It’s good stuff, and definitely worth reading for people who’ve been reading. If you’re just starting out, pick up Life in the Big City.