fantasy and science fiction book reviewsNew Montly Comic Titles: ASTRO CITY by Kurt Busiek and THE WAKE by Scott Snyder

In last week’s column, I explained pull lists and the benefits of buying monthly comics instead of waiting for trade collections or only buying older comics that have already been collected. Mainly, I argued that comic book stores and comic book readers offer a community that is more active and immersed in fictional narrative than anywhere else (even here at FanLit!). Why? Because of the nature of the comic book industry: Since comics come out monthly, you can walk into any comic book store in the country and immediately find people who are reading the EXACT same books as you are AND effectively have their bookmarks in the EXACT same place in EVERY book that everybody else is reading. For anyone interested in the magic of storytelling, the comic book community offers a unique, fascinating experience, perhaps only comparable to reading serialized novels in the Victorian era when everybody was reading a small number of titles.

Right now is an excellent time to start reading monthly comics: There are a ton of new titles just starting up, so you don’t have to feel like you’ll never catch up when you go to the comic book store and see Issue #128 on the stands. At the moment, if you scan the covers of the monthly titles, you’ll see many #1s and an impressive number of issues under #10. There are also a good number of mini- and maxi-series out (comic book stories that are told in only 4-8 or 8-12 issues).

Because I believe so strongly in the promise of these new titles coming out and because I believe I have the chance of reaching potential new monthly comic book readers here at FanLit — a site that is not devoted to people who are already fans of comics (though many of us are) — I am taking the time to write a series of columns on the new titles I think are worth checking out. I’ll cover a variety of genres from your typical superhero comics to noir to horror to the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy (of course!). I hope you’ll try out a monthly comic. Not having read a monthly comic is like never having watched TV shows as they came out week after week and only having seen seasons collected on DVD. For the most part, I do like collected seasons, but it’s not the same as being able to talk to other people about the latest episode that just came out.

Last week I gave reviews on two titles: Ed Brubaker’s VELVET, which is an upcoming espionage title featuring a female lead — Velvet — who is a Moneypenny-type secretary with a past as a deadly agent/assassin. Now accused of murdering the best agent in the world, she must go back out into the field to clear her name. Move over Bond. Here’s VELVET! Don’t miss issue #1, coming soon. I also reviewed Nathan Edmondson’s THE DREAM MERCHANT, a five-issue mini-series about a young man placed in a psychiatric ward because he is plagued with constant sleepiness and dreams. When people in his dreams start looking back at him, it’s a bit much, but when they step into our world to kill him, they cross the line. He goes on the run with a young woman and they meet up with The Dream Merchant who says he’ll help them. There are only five issues in this series and three issues are already on the shelves. Don’t let this one pass you by.

astrodoorsToday I’d like to review two titles coming out under the Vertigo label. Forget what you may have heard about DC rebooting two years ago. Of more interest is their reviving Vertigo, their almost-dead mature line of comics that was made possible by Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN back in the 1990s. DC is finally deciding that Vertigo is important to them — thank goodness — so they are coming out with a handful of excellent new ongoing and mini-series, including a prequel to SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams (one of my all-time favorites). In today’s column, I’ll give brief reviews of two new Vertigo titles — the #1 issues of ASTRO CITY by Kurt Busiek and THE WAKE by Scott Snyder.

As Kurt Busiek points out at the end of issue #1, ASTRO CITY has actually been around for quite some time. This #1 issue is technically issue #60. I hesitate to reveal that to you, because so many people feel compelled to start a comic book series at what they perceive is the beginning, as they would with a crime series or a series of science fiction or fantasy novels. But comics are different in this respect. There are multiple beginnings and even multiple #1 issues within the same series. Busiek nicely summarizes the feelings of all writers who create for readers a new starting point within an old title: “All the previous stuff has been collected in 8 fine book editions . . . . But if you haven’t read them, don’t worry — we do our best to be welcoming to new readers around here, and we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know as we go, just as we did this issue. Don’t get me wrong, we want you to buy all the earlier stuff, but we’d rather get you to buy it by making you WANT to read it. We’re crafty that way.” So, keep his words in mind and know that all will be explained.

astro 8Even though you don’t need any background, I’ll give you a little. But first, let’s talk about superhero universes. Just like DC has its own “universe” and cast of characters and superheroes, so, too, does Marvel. Sometimes a company like Wildstorm — with its own universe — gets bought out by a larger company like DC, and the two universes merge. But some authors decide not to write for DC or Marvel — or any other company — and their main characters. I mean, if you’re a writer working for DC, you can’t kill off Batman (permanently) if you want to, can you? There’s always an editor telling you what you can and can’t do with the famous characters owned by the company. Therefore, a writer like Kurt Busiek will create his own universe and people it with his own superheroes and characters.

Now here’s where the fun starts: In superhero comics like ASTRO CITY, you’ll see parodies of many of the superheroes you know, and they can be combined from DC and Marvel, something you’ll never see in a movie (and rarely in comic books). But in a comic like ASTRO CITY, you could have a Superman-type character kill off a Batman-type character. By creating his own universe, a writer can play by his own rules. “Batman” doesn’t always have to be shown to win, he doesn’t always have to be right, and he might even kill somebody.

I do want to clarify my use of the word PARODY. I don’t mean an extreme, caricatured parody, although that’s often done. What I mean is that there’s often a measure of respect for the characters, but those characters don’t have to follow strict editorial policy on years of character continuity. Consider what Alan Moore did in THE WATCHMEN. He, too, created his own universe, basing his characters on famous superheroes owned by DC (though he initially wanted to use the original characters — once again, that’s an example of a large company preventing a writer from doing certain things with valuable characters a company thinks need to be handled with kid-gloves). In the end, Moore created his own Watchmen universe, rich enough for DC to eventually commission many other authors and artists to write “Before Watchmen” titles.

In issue #1 of ASTRO CITY, we are shown briefly some of these characters that have been developed in previous story arcs. But Busiek doesn’t even give them names. He’s doesn’t overload the reader with information. We merely get a sense that this world of Astro City has many famous superheroes. Only one of these famous astro 3superheroes is actually given a name: Samaritan. He is much like Superman in that he’s very powerful, well-known in the world of Astro City, respected by authorities, and is awe-inspiring in his presence. At one point, a new, young superhero meets him, and he asks her to help him. She keeps saying to herself, “I’m working with Samaritan I’m working with Samaritan I’m working with Samaritan! SQUEE!,” much the way a young kid superhero might feel getting a chance to work with Superman in the DC universe or Captain America in Marvel’s.

So what’s ASTRO CITY about? That’s hard to figure out. I’ve read enough great Busiek to know to trust him, so I’m willing to follow him where he goes. This first issue starts with a strange, purple-skinned figure talking directly to us, breaking the fourth wall of the comic. He has green hair, eyes, and lips and is called “THE BROKEN MAN.” He also seems to be a cosmic conspiracy theorist of some sort, and he is asking us for help. He tells us that we — our world — are being observed, particularly through main media outlets and attention to famous people, including superheroes like Samaritan (We are included in the world of Astro City by this device). He encourages us to use the medium of this comic book to communicate with him, to fly under the radar of “The Ourbor” who is monitoring everything.

This entire first issue is narrated by the Broken Man, even though he only appears in it again at the end of the issue (in an image you will NOT forget!). He guides where we look and tells us about the current activities going on in Astro City, mainly the appearance of some gigantic cosmic doors that seem to be several miles high. All the superheroes gather in order to witness . . . . Well, to witness what I want you to witness by reading the comic. Meanwhile, the Broken Man wants us to meet through observation a man named Ben Pullam who is divorced with two grown daughters, Maggie and Faith. He wants us to help him bring Ben to the site of the gates by concentrating on that wish. And once we succeed in bringing Ben to those gates, we see the purpose of Ben’s presence at the site of the cosmic doors/gates.

Who is this Broken Man? What is behind these doors? Are we to trust our eyes? Are we to trust our purple narrator? Will Ben survive the ramifications of his decisions? Let’s just say that I don’t think you’ll end up reading a typical superhero book, or even what you may think is a typical superhero book. There are only three issues out so far, and the story is already going in directions I had not anticipated. First of all, the story is less about superheroes than it is about everyday people: Busiek seems to be using this particular story to talk about how normal people manage to get along in a world populated by superheroes. In other words, the superheroes merely provide the backdrop for the human stories. As a first Vertigo title, you might enjoy picking this one up. And the good news is that if you DO like it, there are 59 more issues for you to read already out there.

fantasy and science fiction book reviews The Wake by Scott Snyder vertigo comicsThe other title I want to review today is THE WAKE by Scott Synder and Sean Murphy. Scott Snyder is known for his AMERICAN VAMPIRE series, but for fans of DC, he’s been the man behind the best Batman story arcs of the past few years. He’s THE Batman writer at the moment. In fact, the ONLY reason I am reading THE WAKE is because he is writing it. The story falls into the genre of horror, a genre I don’t normally enjoy. I generally only like horror if it’s Poe, Lovecraft, or a comic book title (forget horror movies and modern horror fiction!). THE WAKE is a ten-issue mini-series, and three issues are currently out. I’m enjoying it far more than I’d anticipated and recommend it highly.

wake 5In Issue #1, we meet Dr. Archer, a divorced cetologist who was let go from her high-paying job that had excellent funding for her research. Now the Department of Homeland Security needs her help identifying very strange sounds that are similar to, but are definitely NOT, ones produced by whales. They offer her money, funding, and a chance to get custody of her son again. She can’t say no. By the end of the first issue, she’s at the bottom of the ocean in a secret facility with some other specialists who are also there to study a certain specimen. This specimen is NOT a dolphin or a whale or any creature you’d expect. But “creature” is certainly the best word for it. If the idea of being at the bottom of the ocean in an illegal, secret facility doesn’t make you claustrophobic, then adding the fact that you are trapped in there with a “creature” should certainly make the walls seems a little closer than desirable and the air above water much further than it was before. Be prepared to hold your breath.

I’ve read the first three issues, and this book is intense. If you are a fan of horror at all, you’ll want to read this one. It’s a nice break from Vampires and Zombies. And if you’re interested in science, particularly theories of evolution, this book is an absolute must-read for you. So, you’ve got four titles for your first pull-list now. Two mini-series — THE DREAM MERCHANT and THE WAKE — and two ongoing titles — VELVET and ASTRO CITY. If you don’t know where your local comic book shop is, it’s time to search Google.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.