Astro City: Shedding Light on Race in the Dark Age

When a friend introduced me to Astro City in the late 1990s (the first series began in 1995) I fell in love with it immediately. It was a breath of fresh air in an era of superhero comics that for the most part are best forgotten. Much like his Marvels, Kurt Busiek tapped into that nostalgia for comics that were not about the grimdark realm of anti-heroes, but unlike Marvels, which was constricted by the events of Marvel Comics’ Silver Age in a way that did not overtly challenge the hagiographic panorama that longtime fans remembered, Astro City was free to use all the recognizable archetypes and tropes to present sharp and poignant stories that humanized its characters, and by extension humanized those characters we could identify in them. So while there is no Spider-Man in the Astro City universe, there is Jack-in-Box, and while there is no Superman, there is the Samaritan. The Silver Agent with his badge and gun is Captain America with a silvery Dr. Fate helmet. There’s Winged Victory, who is a Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman amalgam, and of course the First Family who bears a startling resemblance to the Fantastic Four by way of Doom Patrol, with Rex, a version of the Thing, whose scaly exterior belies something akin to a combination of Namor and Moleman, if they were Inhumans. Of course, any claim that any specific character is meant to be a direct analog runs afoul of the ways they are not, but their influences are clearly worn on their sleeves. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without at least some reader familiarity with the characters and events they ape, Astro City stories would fall flat. Astro City relies on those Big Two touchstones to cohere, as if its stories were part of pre-existing but inaccessible continuity of its own.

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I think you can glean the tenor of most of Astro City from this cover of its first collection, or at least the tenor of the superhero milieu it seeks to reconstruct.

Busiek achieves a startling degree of intimacy not only through these familiar characters, but by keeping a perspective not unlike that of Phil Sheldon in Marvels, we mostly see the heroes through the eyes of everyday people who live in Astro City, normal people occupying a superheroic world, standing in resistance to the trend in comics of the time, where superheroes were “matured” by drawing them into worlds that ostensibly reflect our own cynical one, even as character proportions (and their guns) ballooned to absurd dimensions  Furthermore, even when not seen through the eyes of “normal folks,” the best Astro City stories are often ones where superheroes are navigating what is supposed to be “normal” in their lives, like dating or going to school.

Astro City is an anthology comic. Rather than several individual titles focusing on individual characters and teams, the world of Astro City (named for the city in which most of its stories occur—imagine Gotham and Metropolis rolled into one) is the thread that binds it all together, with individual issues and arcs of varying lengths focusing on one character or a team of characters. These arcs riff off of tropes and stories that are familiar to superhero comics readers, providing a distinct perspective on those stories without ever mentioning them by name, nor being beholden to their expectations. In 2005, Busiek and Brent Anderson (the regular Astro City artist—Alex Ross does the covers and the character designs) began an extended multi-part series entitled Astro City: The Dark Age. The series takes a look at the Astro City setting from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s and at the arc of the Silver Agent’s tragic end, through the eyes of two African-American brothers. In four “books” of four issues each, the series reveals details of dark times alluded to in the Astro City tales published earlier, but that took place later. In other words, Astro City: The Dark Age explores its own version of the so-called Bronze Age of comics, the era when Green Lantern and Green Arrow struggled against inner city crises, when Gwen Stacy was thrown from a bridge, when Captain America abandoned his country to become Nomad, and Daredevil’s life could only go from bad to worse. In doing so it lends its own critical voice to a discussion about comics of that era.

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The cover to Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #1 features Jack-in-the-Box. (art by Alex Ross)

There hasn’t been much direct and continued critical work with Astro City, at least, not that I could find. When Astro City is mentioned by comics scholars it tends be an example, either as a point of comparison for works they are interested in, or a case in point for a broader view of comics of its type. In other words, critics have mostly written about it in terms of its reconstructionism, a term that Busiek himself coined when asked about his approach in a letter to Astro City by Sequart founder, Julian Darius.

Geoff Klock, in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (2002), for example, describes Astro City as an “attempt to re-create—for the new adult demographic—the wonder of a child reading comic books for the first time” (78). Klock’s interest in Astro City is as a “revisionary narrative serial” that takes the components of the superhero genre that have been deconstructed by writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller and puts them back together to return “rejuvenated” characters of familiar types to readers who have grown out of enjoying the monstrousness of the post-Miller Batman. (to use his example). Klock call this a “revision” because he sees Astro City as a comic book world that writes stuff like the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns meta-texts (and thus their influences) out of existence, even as it submits to them (88). An understanding of Astro City’s rehabilitation of superheroes is clearly crucial to considering its influence and influences, but the focus on Astro City’s broad narrative conventions (and their disruption) ignores the specific significance of the kinds of revisions Busiek and Anderson enact (or fail to enact) in terms of representation.

The story of Astro City: The Dark Age was salvaged and re-envisioned from Busiek’s pitch for Marvels II: Crime & Punishment. In an answer to a letter printed in Book One Issue #4, Busiek explains this in a way connects the arc of the Silver Agent’s story to Englehart’s Watergate-inspired Secret Empire issues of Captain America. The Dark Age is a not-quite sequel to Marvels and this post is a not-quite sequel to my post on Marvels from earlier this year. If we can accept Busiek and his critics’ reconstructionist definition for the work of Astro City as a given, then what I am interested in is exploring how and what Busiek revisits and reconstructs when it comes to the Bronze Age, especially since I am naturally suspicious of what could easily become a regressive traditionalism.

In light of these questions it is fascinating that Busiek chooses these two Black brothers, Charles and Royal Williams, as the focus of a story taking place in the same era of mainstream superhero comics in which representations of Black characters first exploded. This is the era of Luke Cage: Power Man, of Black Goliath, Black Lightning and John Stewart, the Black Green Lantern. It is the era of what Ramzi Fawaz calls “the urban folktale,” where superheroes confront racial discrimination and other social issues that cannot be easily defeated by a super sock to the jaw, but the Dark Age mostly avoids the Blaxploitation heritage of 70s Black superheroes to give readers grounded, but flawed people, defined by their normality, not what makes them exceptions. What Marvels lacks in sufficiently critical nostalgia, The Dark Age evinces, particularly through the consideration of systematic racial inequality as it manifests in the fundamentally white supremacist world of superheroes.

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Getting the sense of the dynamic between Charles and Royal in Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #1.

Book One of the Dark Age is very strong. I would put it up there with any of Astro City’s best stories, and it is the portion of the series I will be focusing on here. The rest of the series is increasingly incoherent, relying on a familiarity with the strange world-building of shared setting comic books to no apparent end. By Book Four, its two protagonists have become indistinguishable from the revenge-driven vigilantes they hate, and while the comic makes note of this, it feels like a shallow point. At best the ultimate conclusion might critique Marvel and DC’s penchant to make non-powered supporting characters into much less interesting heroes or villains, like Flash Thompson as an ill-considered super soldier version of Venom or Rene Montoya transformed into the Question. At the same time, the Dark Age succeeds at doing throughout what the best superhero comics of the era it is mining succeeded at doing: artfully melding real-seeming historical references with the presence of superheroes in way that evokes both familiarity and speculative possibility. Book One, however, is where all the elements that make an Astro City story work are in perfect balance.

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The Silver Agent

When we are introduced to Charles and Royal Williams it is 1972. They are 26 and 22 years old respectively. Charles, the older brother is a policeman, a beat cop, who unlike most law-abiding citizens of Astro City has a distaste for superhero vigilantes. Royal has a similar distaste, but perhaps in his case it is to be expected. He runs with a criminal element. He is sly and clever and cautious, knows how to stay clear of real trouble, but nevertheless has dirty hands.  Of course, this difference leads to a great deal of tension between the brothers, but the dislike for superheroes that bonds them even as it led them in opposite directions has a unified origin: their parents were killed in their own home by a supervillain being pursued by the Silver Agent.

Charles and Royal are about ten and eight when their parents are killed. In the first two issues, in moments of conflict, fear and reflection, the comic inserts flashback panels to the fateful night in such a way that they evoke trauma in fragmentary flashes—their father’s cry of their mother’s name, Royal calling out for help, Charles hiding his little brother behind the furniture, the apartment burning around them.

Busiek and Anderson succeed at avoiding a simplistic attribution to a one-dimensional “realism” when building their darkening superhero world. Instead, as individual stories and arcs in Astro City always do, the Dark Age adopts a particular point of view on superheroing that is both new and familiar. In this case, by connecting this world to the experience and perspective of two Black characters the values of that world become available for examination in a way that often seems impossible within the skein of normative white supremacy that is part and parcel of mainstream superhero comics.

For example, consider the overwhelming terror of being beset by a costumed vigilante, which given the history of such vigilante figures in actual history, means that it is a terror felt disproportionately by people of color. The parallels between explicit white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and masked superheroes may not be made very frequently, but they certainly exist. Alan Moore made sure to make them clear in Watchmen back matter and Chris Galaver’s “Please Don’t Hunt Me Down and Harass Me” spends time exploring those connections (and reactions to it), in a little preview of his book,  On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics #1. This context makes a scene meant to establish Royal’s personality and degree of criminal activity, also a scene that provides a perspective of being on the receiving end of a superhero beatdown. While unloading the haul from armored car heist, Royal and his colleagues are beset by Jack-in-the-Box. The wise-cracking clown-themed hero with binding streamers and accordion limbs we’ve seen in other Astro City comics (or that evokes Spider-Man enough to be recognizable even if we haven’t) becomes a frightening figure, the quips accompanying his easy violence taking on a cold and inhuman aspect that is chilling. Royal manages to escape getting round up by hiding under a car, covering his ears and closing his eyes as a panel flashes back to the night of his parents’ death. He makes a break for it just as the cops are arriving. Readers of previous Astro City comics might object to this reading given the fact Jack-in-the-Box is African-American beneath that clown mask, but Royal and everyone else has no way of knowing that. Instead this creepy violent clown man is tacitly accepted as an extension of state power. The fear that Royal experiences—justified inwardly through unconvincing narration about why he owes his accomplices nothing, as he hides and listens to them being beaten up and humiliated—is the fear of the disenfranchised forced into a worldview of every man for himself.

Even before the first issue of The Dark Age maxi-series, a one-shot prelude issue that first introduced the brothers in a story that takes place earlier the same day their parents die, Busiek leverages a position from which to think about a range of reactions within the Black community to costumed vigilantes. When Royal and Charles are surprised to witness superheroes in their Astro City Black neighborhood of Bakersfield, they overhear one of the locals explicitly grouse about the intrusion. This complaint—”Nice of ’em to come all the way down here for their fights — beats bustin’ up their own homes, huh?”—is an implicit criticism of the ways superheroes represent the unthinking reinforcement of dominant white supremacist values through their prioritization of how they address social crisis. However, the boys also run into Black Badge, their own local “Negro” hero (it was 1959), unaffiliated with the white heroes, though fighting against the same enemies. He gives them a comics code ready speech about community, giving back, doing right, and trusting that sense of community as a way to reinforce the legitimacy and practicality of the rule of law. The choices provided in this brief story included in Astro City: The Flip Book (2004) end up being simplified versions of the outlooks of the two brother, but more than that, the Dark Age complicates them by showing how these positions might be closer than we think, so close they might in some cases overlap.

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Royal witnesses people dealing with the aftermath of the L.S.Deviants attack (Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #1)

Coincidentally, one of the cops that arrives on the scene after Jack-in-the-Box’s intervention is Royal’s brother Charles. Charles spots a figure skulking nearby and gives chase but then lets him go when he is finally able to see that it’s Royal. When asked by his fellow officer why he didn’t finish his pursuit, Charles replies, “I just felt sorry for him for a second.” His face hangs in shadow as he says it, evoking the degree to which Charles’s pity must remain hidden.  Upon arriving, Charles is visibly disgusted at the other policeman’s glee with Jack-in-the-Box’s handiwork, not because he feels particular sympathy for criminals, but because he knows first-hand the consequences of superhero justice. When the first issue of Book One opens, the city is just coming down off a citywide attack by villains called the L.S.Deviants. People everywhere are still freaking out, overcome with the experience of having bad trips come to life, and Charles tries to help a woman he finds curled behind a dumpster. The recurring cycles of chaos and bizarre cosmic shit that the everyday people in Astro City have to endure does more than simply worry him, it chafes his sense of right and wrong, his sense of justice. He blames the superheroes in a way that makes a lot more sense than a J. Jonah Jameson rant or the ethical abstractions of something like Marvel’s Civil War. His position as cop on the street, victim of superhuman violence, and as a Black man provide a gravitas to his perspective that turns the focus away from the cosmic plot—which in this comic is always ancillary—and toward the experience of it as part of a sick society blind to the dissonance between its purported values and their reality of their flawed ethics.

Of course, the interpersonal conflict between the brothers and their different life trajectories also provides a way of showing how this default system of costumed justice is disproportionately felt by people of color. The comic book may never come out and mention race in that way—performing the erasure not uncommon to “progressive” superhero comics—but race is upfront in my reading of it. The centrality of race in the Dark Age is unavoidable in its choice of protagonists and the overwhelming whiteness of superheroic worlds, even ones like Astro City that are made up whole cloth. I tweeted at Kurt Busiek and asked him “To what degree do you feel Charles and Royal’s race is important to the story/setting of The Dark Age?” and he was gracious enough to reply, explaining that he saw it as “extremely important.” You can read a storified version of his complete response here.

I find it heartening that the white author of this comic book story about Black people is aware of the importance of his choice and how meaningful the racial context is to not only making sense of the era, but providing an alternate take on a time when the intentional choices to create Black characters were still mired in caricature and stereotype. However, even if in writing the Dark Age Busiek had simply wanted to write a story where the two main characters “just happen to be Black” (thus race is only mentioned obliquely) that choice itself would undermine the possibility of race being incidental. In substituting Black lives for the lives that superhero comics usually implicitly value, the comic series provides a perspective that is outside of a writer or artist’s control, because the history of superhero comics casts an unavoidable shadow on any representation of people of color through their absence or caricature.  And caricature is something that the Dark Age mostly avoids. Sure, Royal is a two-bit criminal, a not uncommon stereotype from the era of Starsky and Hutch or The Streets of San Francisco, but he is smart and thoughtful in a way caricatures can’t be (even if he is drawn to look a bit like Huggy Bear). He feels conflicted about some of the choices he has to make, and ultimately his more fluid sense of justice brings his older brother back from the brink of being consumed by revenge at the end the fourth book, by not allowing him to essentially abandon the Silver Agent to die (their stories converging across time) despite the nearness of their target, the man responsible for their parents’ deaths.

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The Dark Age has plenty of goofy comic book stuff, like glowing permanent crosshair marks that allow the spirit of police vengeance to hunt you down (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #3)

In the first book, the two brothers’ positions in relation to each other are what you might assume they’d be. Charles worries that Royal is getting too reckless and getting involved in serious crime, and warns him off. Royal is annoyed at his brother’s righteousness and chafes at being told what to do. He also warns his brother that his girlfriend is doing him wrong and is a “golddigger” (a problematic plot point given the fact that Darnice ends up being exactly that, and the only other Black women in the whole series is the brothers’ murdered mom, and a brief appearance by the Nubia/Storm analog, Cleopatra). The framework of their relationship is familiar, tensions flare into brotherly snaps and judgments that lead to periodic estrangement. But of course, since this is still a superhero comic book, Charles also warns Royal about the Blue Knight. This new vigilante is a combination of Ghost Rider and the Punisher. A skeletal face inside police riot gear, the Blue Knight marks his targets for death with glowing crosshairs and performs executions regardless of the level of crime. Despite his jaded perspective on who has power in their world, Royal refuses to believe his brother, insisting “costumes don’t kill,” while readers familiar with the era the Dark Age seems to be critiquing know that it gave birth to murderous characters like the Punisher and Wolverine. Things get hairy for Royal.

Simultaneous to the what is going on in the lives of Williams brothers, the Silver Agent’s story unfolds in the news. As readers, we are informed about what is happening through panels representing TV and newspaper reports and through the reactions of those watching them, At the end of issue #1 we see on TV along with Charles and Royal, that the Silver Agent has been arrested for assassinating the Maharaja of Maga-Dhor. The “Mad Maharajah” is Astro City’s version of one of those “ethnic” villains that were once so popular. Rather than Yellow Peril staples like Yellow Claw or the Mandarin, he is an orientalist fantasy in cartoonish sultan garb—a head of state the news calls “an unprincipled tyrant.” He is Dr. Doom as Ayatollah. A blond white TV newswoman suggests his presence at the Paris peace talks to broker an end to this world’s version of the Vietnam War (where he was killed), might have been “a pretext for some stratagem to seize power in the region,” clearly establishing the degree to which the news media works to mitigate the superhero’s alleged crime. But when armed men free the Silver Agent from custody on an American military base in France, killing American soldiers in the process, things look even worse for the beloved hero. Still, people don’t want to accept his guilt. Charles’s partner suggests it is a bum rap, a set-up, Charles doesn’t agree. Even a “by-the-book guy” like the Silver Agent is “just another vigilante” to him, someone who flouts the law and due-process.

The discussion here is important, not because Charles or his partner can do anything about it either way, but because the news of the world provides a focus for these characters to discuss the ethics and privileges assumed in the superhero genre in a way that brings race into the conversation. While Charles allows himself to hope that the Agent will have to face up to justice, Royal explains over drinks that the superhero would have eventually gotten off if he’d only killed the Maharajah and stayed in jail, “This is how they deal with uppity ragheads.”   But now that he’d escaped and others had been killed the powers that be would have to punish him, even it was a slap on the wrist. “They’d give [the Silver Agent] a medal [if] he didn’t get caught,” Royal explains. The fact that Charles expresses no sympathy for the “turbaned psycho,” but only cares for some indirect revenge on the Agent reinforces the degree to which Charles as a deputized agent of the state also enacts inconsistent notions of justice. The traumatic violation that motivates Charles also makes it difficult, if not impossible for him, to trust the system he is employed to enforce. He is pushed by his familial bond towards his own violations, even as later (in Book Two) he resists taking part in police corruption to save his own life in a subplot that echoes 1973’s Serpico.

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The Dark Age combines actual historical events with variations on well-known Marvel/DC stories (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #3)

Throughout the Dark Age the brothers’ narration describes the cultural changes going on. The arrival of new anti-hero street-level types and aloof cosmic beings shifts the demeanor of the superhero narrative. Book One intersperses the story of Charles and Royal and the Silver Agent with glimpses into all the superheroic and political events of the world. The third issue, for example, provides an overview of the adventures and friendships of the First Family, which put them at odds with the government and public opinion, and the Honor Guard (the JLA/Avengers analog the Silver Agent is a part of) violate international boundaries in looking for evidence to exonerate their friend. In the White House, Nixon battles the Watergate scandal, and his faith in the Silver Agent’s exoneration means less as his reputation suffers. Anderson’s art provides splash pages of superheroic battles with countless characters, overlaid with the brothers’ narration, visually reversing the typical focus from the heroes to civilians’ view of these events.. Amid this, the Silver Agent’s trial (which ends with a guilty verdict at the end of issue #2) enters the sentencing phase and public opinion turns against him despite their many memories of his helping people. The Silver Agent’s execution, however, becomes a condition of the peace accords, meaning that Nixon’s hope for a legacy by ending the war rides on the Agent’s death.

Issue #3 of Book One also finally depicts the full scene of the Williams brothers’ trauma. The brothers’ animosity towards the Silver Agent becomes clear in their reaction to his disregard for their life and family. An operative from an Egyptian-themed Hydra-like villainous organization called Pyramid, shoots the Williams’ brothers parents to slow the Silver Agent’s pursuit, but he is not slowed. The Silver Agent continues the chase apparently unperturbed by the death of civilians, not worried about the possibility of other innocents in the apartment and pursues the goofily-dressed murderer.  In that moment, the two boys’ love of superheroes sours, setting the stage for the lives we see unfold in the present. Charles and Royal can’t know if their childhood hero put out the worst of the fire with his “fire-extinguishing bullets” or if he called the police and emergency response that eventually arrived, but they can know that it was his pursuit that led Pyramid through their building, that he moved on without looking back, never apparently pausing to look or seeming to care about the two dead black people in their burning apartment. The disappointment in the expressions of the two boys as they look through a broken window as the Agent and his foes battle across rooftops and disappear into the night is a deep indictment. In that moment, Charles and Royal know their lives don’t matter. They learn that that the values instilled in them by a political ideology that encourages superheroes—through forms like the radio broadcast about the Silver Agent’s running battle they were cheering on moments before the tragedy—are a façade.

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Williams Family life just before white supremacy smashed through their wall and destroyed it (Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #3)

The Williams family is drawn to have a stereotypical 1950s lower middle-class life. The kids are excitedly listening to the huge old school radio, their mother in her apron telling them to get their homework done, even as their dad with newspaper and cigarillo takes up their side and tells his wife to let them listen a little longer. In many ways they have already achieved the apogee of the American Dream. They may not own their own home, but they appear to have economic upward-mobility, living a life countless Black families in 1958 and 1978 and 2018 would love to have. The portrait of Frederick Douglas on their living room wall providing a hint at the family’s historical awareness of their position despite their apparent comfort, even as the portrait of FDR betrays their practical New Deal politics. And then white supremacy literally smashes through the wall and ruins their lives.

TDA3-full-page2This encounter—the destruction of the Williams family, the resulting conflict between the ways the brothers chose to navigate their trauma—serves to bring the racialized nature of American superhero comic books to the surface. The two brothers’ story provides a way to interrogate the frequently unexamined whiteness of the genre. The superhero world and its ethics of exceptionality becomes a very clear and obvious way to mark their marginalized position. This is particularly visible in the distinct voices of the two brothers, marked through their sharing an alternating narration wherein Charles’s thoughts are in blue caption boxes and Royal’s are in red. This alternating narration maintains the dialogic aspect of the story that is reinforced and re-energized by the times they meet (often at their favorite bar, other times the safehouse Charles finds for Royal when the Blue Knight is hunting him) and discuss their place in the world of Astro City. And while these views sometimes diverge, they also overlap in ways that separate Royal’s cynicism-born criminality from his racial identity, since his brother, a policeman, feels them as well.

For example, soon after the arrest of the Silver Agent, Royal celebrates by buying drinks for the house, saying “Attaway, greedy old white guys! Do something smart for a change. Sock that chainmail chump into jail!” This is one of the few times in the entire four book, 16-issue series that whiteness is called out, and when it happens Royal is bringing attention to disparate justice in their culture and taking pleasure in a moment of transparency, when the so-called good guys’ corruption is addressed. When his brother tries to call him out for being flush—money that comes from Royal’s recent work for a crime family—warning him of the mortal danger of such work, Royal replies, “Well, I could work hard, get me an apartment, go to church and pay my taxes on time. You figure that’d keep me safe?” Charles’s surprised expression in that panel is then followed by a flashback panel indicated by thick black borders used throughout the series. In it, Charles and Royal cower behind a couch in a burning apartment, an explicit reference to the destruction of their middle-class aspirations when their parents were killed. If we can read the brief appearance of the Williams’s family life as an indication that their parents were the type that tried to do everything “the right way,” to “go to church and pay [their] taxes on time,” then the implication here is that there was no safety to be gained in embracing the ideological values of the middle-class life for them. The implication goes further in light of Royal’s racialized outburst, part of that insecurity emerges from their Black identity’s relationship to the false promise of the middle-class respectability

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The moment of the Williams brothers’ trauma returns whenever they are angered, scared or reflecting (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #2)

Later, Charles agrees with Royal (though only through his internal narration, not to his face) that it is likely that the Silver Agent will not pay for his crimes, that Honor Guard will find evidence to clear him, and in absence of such evidence fabricate it. “They all stick together. You know that,” Royal says, and Charles does, recognizing hegemonic frameworks that create a theater of fair-seeming systems that benefit and privilege those who already have power.

And yet, Royal’s criminal activity is not depicted as positive or political. If anything, these activities are a rejection of politics, a preference to not participate in any normalized pro-social activities, which keeps him isolated and vulnerable. For example, the tensions between Charles and Royal frequently explode around the subject of Charles’ girlfriend-cum-fiancée Darnice, who Royal thinks is an untrustworthy gold-digger who is always looking to trade up for a better man. He warns his brother not to marry her, and all evidence in the comic is that Royal s right (in fact in Book Two we find out that after they are married Darnice leaves Charles when he refuses to take graft and thus keep her in new shoes and clothes). However, Charles’s refusal to pay heed to his ne’er-do-well brother is clearly born of an inability to imagine another way to “make it.” He accuses his brother of selfish motives, yelling “You just don’t want me getting out! Building something, building a life! You don’t want to lose your protection!” This particular blow up leads to another estrangement between the brothers until the end of Book One.

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All those [white] superheroes stick together (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #3)

There is a real sense of pessimism in these scenes, which is a sharp pivot away from the Astro City comics of the 1990s. While the tragic ending of Book One in which a time-displaced Silver Agent saves the world and gives an inspiring speech to the people of Astro City two minutes after he has been executed by the state suggests that superheroes are worth trusting and admiring (especially after we, of course, learn in the final narration, that eventually the Mad Maharajah returns and evidence is found of a complex plot of mind-control, body-doubles and other duplicity in a way that echoes countless Marvel and DC comics), for Charles and Royal such a resolution remains out of reach. In part, of course, this is because there remain three more books (12 more issues) in the series for the brothers to discover the identity of the Pyramid agent that killed their parents and for the darkness of the 1970s to slowly become the grittiness of the 1980s. As time goes on the two brothers’ lives transform into ones that include times as spies and double-agents using jet packs and laser guns, resisting brainwashing techniques as Pyramid fifth-columnists and members of E.A.G.L.E. (think SHIELD). However, more powerfully, the lack of resolution provides a perspective on black lives in the superheroic universe. The Silver Agent’s reputation is redeemed, whatever evil he did reduced to a product of mind control, his sacrifice by traveling through time to arrive at crucial junctures of superheroic crises to save the day rather than seeking a way to exonerate himself undoes his guilt, but when Book One of The Dark Age ends the brothers are still moving in different directions.

In issue #4’s final showdown with the Blue Knight, Charles physically interposes himself between the black-clad police officer vengeance spirit and his brother, when the latter is finally cornered on a rooftop. Charles and Royal have not spoken since their last blow up, but with the red dot of laser sight on his head, Charles explains to the ghostly officer that it is going to have to kill him too—a cop—if he wants to kill Royal. He adds, “People like you took our folks, and you’re not taking him.” In this moment, Charles’s familial bond overrides any of their contrary ethical concerns, and he stands in solidarity with his brother against the normative dominant forces of a superhero universe. And, in case it is not clear what I mean, I mean that united in that moment as Black brothers, both literally and metaphorically, they are resisting the white supremacist notions embedded in the genre’s entire conceit the only way they know how in that moment, with their very bodies. That their foe wears the helmet and armor of a riot cop reinforces that conflation of dominant narratives of justice and the dominance of state power as a champion of white supremacy.  And yet after this moment, the brothers do not embrace, do not forgive, but nearly return to their bickering ways before refraining and going on their way.

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Charles puts his life on the line to defend his brother against the Blue Knight (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #4)

In Book Two (in much of which the two brother remain estranged), Royal gets the opportunity to potentially sacrifice himself for his brother, risking arrest to summon help when Charles is shot by his crooked partner and other cops afraid that he’d rat them out to Internal Affairs (something he actually refuses to do). Later in the 16-issue maxi-series Charles and Royal will end up working together in hunting their parents’ murderer, but The Dark Age would have worked best as a four-issue arc within the greater Astro City series rather than a prolonged on-going event. The drop-off in the narrative’s ability to profoundly explore the era of mainstream superhero comics through its intersection with “normal life” and “black life” drops off precipitously. I do not say this because, as some reviews of the series would suggest, Charles and Royal are not that interesting (just the opposite), but because what makes them interesting gets absorbed into a recycled pastiche. Astro City as a series always works best when it holds true to the notion that less is more, when it condenses the epic cosmic crossover into a #½ issue story about how it affects one everyday normal couple—see 1996’s “The Nearness of You.” In the books that follow, the seams of Busiek and Anderson’s carefully sutured world eventually start to become obvious in a way that undermines their ability to interweave historical events and trend with superhero comic book tropes and archetypes to the degree that it retroactively undoes what is so successful and complex about Book One. It just gets too far away from that sense of real people dealing with impossible things. I say this to the degree that I would recommend only reading Book One, because despite a few moments when parallels between the brothers’ isolation in corrupt systems are most obvious, Book Two’s conclusion begins the brothers’ obsession with revenge that dominates Books Three and Four. I prefer an open-ended story of “normal” people against the backdrop of superheroic resolution and recycling.

Astro City: The Dark Age took so long to come out (I bought the individual issues as they became available) that when I first read it, I found it hard to keep track of, or to care much for the characters, but having read the whole thing twice in the last year (and spending a lot of time re-reading Book One) I have come to really appreciate the perspective it provides on what might be my favorite era of superhero comics, and helps to highlight the absence I brought up in exploring those five issues of Marvel Two-in-One I discussed in my ICAF 2016 presentation, the marginal position of “normal” Black lives of a superhero setting. I can’t say that much of the rest of Astro City manages to accomplish as much as the first book of the Dark Age, though at least one story in the most current volume (published by DC imprint Vertigo) does explores the feminist roots of the Winged Victory character, whose womanist approach to her superheroing is much maligned in the patriarchal world (collected as Victory). There is also at least one story that focuses on Jack-in-the-Box, which Busiek referenced on Twitter as a story where the character’s blackness was crucial, so I certainly need to find that, and maybe write about the both of them.

TDA4-splashpage

Brent E. Anderson does a great job with some classic traditional two-page spreads of superhero combat, with inset panels of life on the ground (from Astro City: The Dark Age Book One #4).

Ultimately, what I think makes Astro City work (and why I think the first book of the Dark Age is best on its own), is that the resolutions of its stories are kind of beside the point. Instead, the stories dip into this limitless resource of ideas, tropes and archetypes, and mixes and matches to re-imagine the genre while paying homage to it. Every story feels fragmentary in a way that emulates the necessary incompleteness of collecting comics in the era it honors, relying on macro-closure to make something like a coherent picture of a character and their world. The Silver Agent’s name is cleared, but Charles and Royal remain adrift from each other and their goals, the echo between the exaggerated tragedy of the superhero and the everyday tragedy of lives unfulfilled in no small part because of how they are marked by race provides a story that too frequently goes unvoiced in the genre. Perhaps a better version of The Dark Age might have been more explicit in its tackling of race, provided a look into the conversations that people of color have about their world when white people aren’t around, did not mostly erase Black women except as some stereotype, that made clear that the Silver Agent’s approach to crime-fighting reinforced systemic racism regardless of his good intentions or personal beliefs, or that imagined a kind of racial justice that feels impossible in our own world, but despite these absences, it still succeeds where the vast majority of superhero comics fail.

4 thoughts on “Astro City: Shedding Light on Race in the Dark Age

  1. Pingback: Astro City: Shedding Light on Race in the Dark Age — The Middle Spaces | Revue Zamano

  2. Great article. thanks! I just finished rereading The Dark Age, and while I love the whole thing, I certainly agree that Book Two is a different work with a different focus.

    It’s worth noting that not only Jack-in-the-Box but also The Blue Knight is an African-American superhero (alluded to in the last panel of issue #3, explicitly identified in Local Heroes #4 and #5, a tremendous two part story that ranks for me among Astro City’s best). That Black superheroes, like Black police officers, are ultimately enforcers of a conservative status quo is not explicitly referenced, but it is for me sufficiently present in the way The Dark Age calls out the failings of the entire superhero community, and the fact that the Williams brothers becoming something similar to superheroes in Book Two is not an origin story, but a phase for them to outgrow.

    • Yes! I didn’t get my hands on those Local Heroes issues until after I wrote this, though I wouldn’t called The Blue Knight a hero (anymore than I’d call The Punisher a hero).

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and look for a new post on Astro City‘s Jack-in-the-Box next week (hopefully)

  3. Pingback: Jack-in-the-Box: Race & Legacy Superheroes | The Middle Spaces

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