Image At 25: How ‘Astro City’ Transformed Superheroes Beyond The Big Two
Over its 25 years, Image Comics has carved out a reputation as the biggest non-superhero publisher in North American comics. Sure, it launched 25 years ago with books like Spawn, Youngblood, and so on, but it evolved into a company that embraces and celebrates genre diversity. Yet it was also at Image that a new superhero universe was created that gave us many of the best superhero stories of the past twenty years; Astro City, by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and Brent Anderson.
It was in 1995 that Busiek and Ross, hot off the success of Marvels, teamed with X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills artist Anderson to launch a new superhero series at Image. Astro City was a monthly anthology title that expanded on the Marvels angle of showcasing superhero stories from a fresh perspective, within a brand-new superhero universe that built on familiar tropes. Busiek wrote, Ross provided covers, Anderson drew the interiors, and Ross and Anderson contributed character designs.
Right from the beginning of the first issue, "In Dreams," it was clear that this series was a love letter to superheroes. It showed Samaritan --- the series' Superman analogue, albeit a human with a more retro-pulp origin --- zooming around the world, stopping disasters, and timing himself to see how long it took to solve each crisis. He ended the issue by falling into bed, exhausted, noting, "Fifty-six seconds. My best since March."
The world-weary, deconstructed superhero is an overused idea now --- and judging by Busiek's 1996 introduction to Astro City's first trade, Life in The Big City, it was something to be rebelled against even then. But there was something fresh in Astro City's telling that still stands out today, even in our super-saturated media landscape. While portraying superheroes as human and flawed, the storytellers of Astro City still infused their tales with optimism.
At their heart, superhero stories are meant to entertain and inspire. It's an idea that's well expressed by Grant Morrison in his assessment of Superman; in our darkest night, we created a man who would never let us down. Busiek and Anderson understand this need on a deep-rooted level, and it has inspired compelling stories across two decades at Image Comics and, more recently, Vertigo.
Busiek's scripts combines a fan's love of the medium --- reflected in city place names like Binderbeck Plaza and Mount Kirby --- with a rock solid understanding of story structure, plot, and characterization. Anderson's masterful skill allowed him to render new superheroes like Crackerjack in ways that feel instantly iconic.
Astro City is a rousing reminder of what American comics' bread and butter genre can be at its finest, and it might only have happened at a publisher willing to carve out a fresh space for superheroes away from the well-worn familiarity of Marvel and DC.