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Life in the Big City


Astro City: Local Heroes

Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Ross

Wildstorm/DC, 2005

Rating: 4.3


Posted: January 8, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Fans of superhero comics -- the thinking ones, anyway -- tend to feel a little self-conscious about their genre. They know that despite the multi-million-dollar summer blockbusters and the fact that Superman, Batman and a few others have established permanent addresses in the zeitgeist, many people -- even lots of folks within the comic-book industry; heck, even some superhero-comic creators -- look down on the genre as ridiculous adolescent power fantasies, and on fans of same as arrested adolescents (or worse).

So they point to the usual suspects -- Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, the adult themes of latter-day comics like The Ultimates and the critical acclaim of works like Brian Bendis' run on Daredevil (recently the subject of a smart article on -- as proof that superhero comics aren't just for kids anymore. And to that list they'll often add Kurt Busiek's Astro City, a series of short stories and longer mini-series set in a world very much like our own, in a city where colorfully costumed characters just happen to be the main cultural attraction and/or affliction -- like L.A.'s earthquakes or Miami's hurricanes, as one character notes.

At times, as exceedingly well-crafted as it is, Astro City has indeed felt like a self-conscious justification for the superhero comic, as if Busiek, himself a superhero-comic writer of some renown, were saying "See? This stuff can explore emotionally resonant and intellectually challenging material just like those short stories you read in The New Yorker!" At its best, though, Astro City feels like much, much more than that. And Local Heroes (recently released in paperback) is Astro City at, if not its best, certainly its near-best.

The short stories collected in Local Heroes focus, as the series' shorter stories tend to do, on how everyday peoples' lives are affected by their proximity to beings who are often godlike (and occasionally are actual gods). And like the best short stories, they not only reward but almost require multiple readings: The characters' epiphanies are subtle in ways that, say, Superman's usually are not. And the characters themselves -- the hotel doorman who does his best to help educate visitors to his city's unique citizens and happenings, who sees himself playing a smaller but just as important role as the heroes; the jaded teenager whose visit with family in the country teaches her a lesson about community; the soap opera actor whose small-time heroics catapult him into a world he doesn't realize he's not suited for -- are always more than relatable enough, with their and foibles, to make those epiphanies ring true.

For those with the background to recognize them, Local Heroes also offers amusing commentaries on superhero-comic conventions. It's hard not to read "Old Times," about a retired hero's disastrous attempt to save the day, as a commentary on how much less imaginative these books and their protagonists seem when compared to their Golden and Silver Age counterparts; the older, grayer Supersonic just can't come up with the intriguing science-based solutions he (and the heroes of the 1960s) used to. And then there's the feisty female narrator of "Shining Armor" who carries her spunky, Lois Lane-like attempts to unmask her hero-paramour too far, reading his longing for love and acceptance as a challenge (sometimes a superhero comic is just a superhero comic). To say nothing of the defense attorney who ingeniously uses his city's everyday flirtations with the bizarre (other-dimensional doppelgangers, etc.) to create reasonable doubt about his client's guilt.

Of course, you don't have to be able to appreciate these deeper shadings to enjoy any of the stories here, just as you don't need to be a fan of long-underwear adventurers to appreciate Busiek's sure hand with his characters. They're simply good stories, period, and the fact that they could be told in no other genre is all the justification that superhero comics need: Whatever you think of the genre -- simplistic moralizing, mindless slugfests, what have you -- it'd truly be a shame if the stories in Local Heroes didn't exist.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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