Kurt Busiek And Brent Anderson On The 20th Anniversary Of ‘Astro City’ [Interview]
In 1995, Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross launched Astro City, and in the years since, it's been one of the most consistently amazing superhero comics on the stands. Built around the idea of looking at the lives of superheroes from a perspective that didn't always follow the major cataclysms and battles of good against evil, Astro City gave us a person-on-the-street view of things like secret identities, flight, and even shifting continuity, in a way that no other comic ever had.
With this week's Astro City #26, Busiek and Anderson celebrate the 20th year of their universe. To mark the occasion, I spoke to them about how their process has changed over the course of two decades, the way the stories are built, and their favorite moments from the book's long history.
ComicsAlliance: This week marks the 20th anniversary of Astro City. How much have things changed over the course of those 20 years? That's a long time to be doing a superhero comic with a consistent level of quality and a unified vision for what it should be.
Kurt Busiek: It is, but I'm not sure it should be. I mean, I look at things like how many years Terry Pratchett was writing Discworld novels, so certainly there's a context where someone with a creative vision can explore that vision for years. Those kinds of projects were some of the inspirations for Astro City, where we'd jump around and explore different characters and tell self-contained stories rather than something like an ongoing television drama, but the field has changed enormously.
When we started Astro City, if you did an arc of comics, it didn't always get collected. Sometimes it would, but not always, and that was something we were very focused on. We didn't want to allow the stories to just sit there and not be collected. These days, it's standard operating procedure, now we have digital comics, we have comics booming in bookstores. It's a very different market.
As Astro City goes, the two of us were working on it, and we were putting out the original issues and praying there would be enough support that we'd get to do it for a while. Now, we sort of feel like in the creator-owned field, we're the old guys. I don't know how many books there are that have been around longer than we have that aren't corporately owned. Savage Dragon has been around longer than we have, but we're the survivors, and we're in a very comfortable situation because we have this long backlist behind us.
When I was a kid, and I'm sure when Brent was a kid as well, we got into things like science fiction and mystery novels, these books on the bookstore racks that were old, but they were just there. They were available, so you could buy one, read it that night, and then go get another one. The fact that Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke's backlist had stories that were written before I was born but were there for me to access when I was interested in it, that was something that I very much wanted to see for comics. That's something that we've gotten with many books. A lot of the big company books go in and out of print, but a series like Astro City, the books are going to be available. If you're 17 years old now and you start reading Astro City, you can just go pick up the issues that came out before you were born because they're available. That's a huge change.
Brent Anderson: I would say that from the creative side of it, there's been no change for me. From the very first story idea until now, it's been one fun project after another, and in the course of twenty years, Kurt and I have created this universe. Call it a franchise if you want to, but that's the business side of it. The creative side of it is that there's this whole world that didn't exist twenty years ago that we put together, and it seems very real to me. I love it. That hasn't really changed for me at all.
KB: You're now drawing it on a computer.
BA: Yeah, the biggest change for me has been converting to digital finishes over my pencil sketches. I think it's just made the work even better as time goes on! [Laughs] It's a good change.
CA: Over the course of those 20 years, have you developed any changes in your working routine? I imagine that there's an entire arsenal of shorthand that comes up over the course of a long-term project like that.
KB: We've worked out patterns, I guess. Early on, I was so concerned with the way that the pacing of the book worked, because my stories are so focused on pacing, that along with the scripts, I would deliver... not exactly layouts, but panel shapes. "On this page, here's a full-tier panel, and then three vertical panels, then another full-tier panel." I'd actually draw that out without drawing anything in it. After a while, we abandoned that. Brent had a pretty good idea of how these stories were pacing out, and he also wanted the freedom to work it out for himself.
Our pattern is that we'll talk over the story to one degree or another, I'll write scripts and send it to Brent, he'll do layouts and send it back to me, and there have been occasions, not that many but some very significant ones, where he'll read the script and go, "I don't think this is working." We'll talk over the changes.
Once I get the layouts, I'll get on the phone with Brent and go, "You know, we probably need more room at the top of this panel for balloons," or, "Use a different angle on this panel to emphasize the emotional moment that we're going for." At each stage of development, we're kind of looking over each other's shoulders.
The big change over 20 years there, besides me not doing layouts anymore, is that we're doing that on the computer screen instead of a fax machine. That makes things a lot easier. It's just the advantage of digital production and being able to have everything on screen at one point. That's made things smoother, but I think we've gotten used to the way we work over that 20 years, and refined it, but I don't think the basic pattern has changed a whole lot.
BA: I feel the same way about talking over this new First Family story, this one we're working on right now. When you laid that out for me, it took me right back to you describing "In Dreams," the very first Samaritan story.
I'd have to say that Kurt is the most collaborative writer and storyteller I have worked with in my entire career, which is coming up on forty years. It's a pleasure to work with Kurt on this particular series, developing it piece by piece, moment by moment, phone call by phone call. The process itself, the collaborative process, I don't think has changed at all. We just find the most pragmatic way to convey what we want to the other, and then try to fulfill that.
KB: It's the antithesis of the comic book assembly line. There's a lot to be said for the way that Marvel and DC often do material, where the writer writes, the artist draws, and you tinker with it a little bit in case anything goes wrong, but basically each person is working on their own. We're working like co-directors, or I'm the writer-producer and Brent is the director, the cameraman, wardrobe department, casting department, actors...
BA: Set designer, carpenter... [Laughs]
KB: But at every stage, you're looking at the material and going "how does this tell the story? Can this tell the story better? Can it have more impact?" And when we say "impact," it's not about blowing things up real good, it's about making you feel somebody's fear or loneliness or even confusion. As people are reading through the story, they don't have to notice, consciously, that this panel is about confusion or whatever, they just experience it naturally. The only way we can work any closer together on that sort of thing is if we were sharing the same office, which would probably drive us both crazy.
BA: I've also thought about our relationship over the past 20 years as kind of a creative marriage, where we have worked out the issues that we might have in being together within the "marriage." The disagreements, the fighting over money, it's like a marriage, but it's a creative marriage. We've figured out how to make it work.
CA: The trademark of Astro City has always been looking at a world of superheroes in a way that we don't usually see, whether it's looking at them through the eyes of the people in the city or looking at sections of their lives that we never see. That's the premise of the first story, where you just focus on how much Samaritan enjoys flying, and how he never gets to do it for fun. How do those ideas develop? You've been able to do it so consistently, and the call center story that was in the early issues of the current run is one of my favorite superhero stories ever, because of how intense and personal it is while being something we've never seen before.
BA: Just before you mentioned it, that's the story I was thinking about in our collaboration.
KB: Sometimes, the initial impetus for that story comes from me, sometimes from Brent, sometimes from Alex Ross, sometimes from other places entirely. The 1/2 issue, "The Nearness of You," started out when a friend of mine said, "You know what you oughtta do in this book? A story about a big Crisis Secret War Crossover sort of thing from the point of view of some poor schmuck who got caught up in the middle of it." I immediately knew the story I wanted to tell, but the seed of that came from him.
In the case of that story, I was gearing up to write Justice League for a while, and I was wondering about this big old Watchtower they have on the moon. What the hell else is in there? There's seven guys, sometimes more, but still. They need about, I don't know, ten rooms? They've got this building-sized construct. I started thinking about what kind of support Batman might have, and seeing a story about someone who basically monitors emergency lines for the Justice League.
Then, I didn't end up writing Justice League for very long, but I liked that setup, and I realized that it would work even better for Astro City.
BA: Samaritan can't do it all.
KB: There needed to be a story, not where the support team was in the background, but where they're the story. Where's the crisis point for them, as characters? The rest of the story came out of that.
CA: Looking back over the past 20 years, you talked about "The Nearness of You," which a lot of people have told me is what they consider to be the single best superhero story of all time, and that's hard to argue. Do you have a particular issue that you look back on as the one where it all worked?
BA: Well, I'm just going to be boring, because "The Nearness of You" is the one that brought tears to my eyes when I read the script. I hadn't even drawn one piece of it yet, and I read the script and it brought a tear to my eye. I thought, "This one has to work. I have to make this one work." [Laughs]
KB: I will echo Brent. I choked up while I was scripting "The Nearness of You." That's the story that's been the cleanest. It took a day to write that script, start to finish. The idea just fell out of my head perfectly, and it just flowed out of me.
Other than that, our very first issue, the Beautie one-shot, the Samaritan special with the Infidel, even things like the Junkman story. I think that overall, we've managed to keep to a pretty high level of quality, but sometimes, it's like when a baseball player hits the home run, and just the sound and the impact of the bat on the ball, he knows right there. Sometimes I work on a story and it's like "yeah, it's out of there."
BA: The other one that brought a tear to my eye, Kurt, was the Beautie story. On that page where she looks at the wall and it says "he had a daughter." That one got me, too.
Astro City #26 is on sale now from Vertigo Comics.