Take any conversation about superhero comics far enough and the discussion will inevitably lead to metaphors for difficult themes and topics. Spider-Man touches on adolescence. Superman on immigration. Wonder Woman on social justice. Superhero comics aren’t just power fantasies; they sublimate complex subjects in a way that allows us to start grappling with them in a more entertaining fashion. Astro City is the series that both comprehends this element of the genre and addresses the subject matter more directly and eloquently than any of its contemporaries. The finale of Astro City’s current volume encapsulates the power of this approach perfectly in a beautiful sequel to “The Nearness of You.”
Rather than draping a difficult issue in metaphor, Astro City #52 confronts grief directly. It explores support groups and the many forms which this emotion can take. The loss of a wife to a multiversal crisis provides a fantastical element, but it still offers a unique form of loss. It is something others who saw their loved ones die before their eyes cannot understand and might even resent as being less real. This sort of disconnect between the protagonist and those he supports is messy, ugly, and sympathetic even in the worst outcomes. In essence, it is an accurate experience of grief.
There are so many temptations throughout the issue to provide easy answers, whether it is a quickly changed mind or resolution to loss. We as readers seek it out and want to find catharsis for these difficult problems. The narrative purposefully denies that element to readers though. Everytime a solution could end the open-ended quest to understand the sudden and purposeless loss of a loved one, it offers a more difficult next step. Even the ending of the issue is as open-ended as the original Astro City #0.5. In this matter the comic goes beyond the standard superhero fare by demanding that we embrace an experience that is not typically satisfying. The last few pages feel slight as life resumes its normal course, and this is what makes Astro City exceptional.
Anderson’s depiction of The Hanged Man is the most regular dose of the wondrous elements that elevate the narrative. There are references to supervillain plots and appearances of superheroes, but it’s the dour silhouette of a deadman that floats through the story reminding readers that this is both a superhero story and one which cannot dismiss mortality. He is an icon that presents the most difficult of choices, summoning impossible emotions and imaginings into a simple form. It is one that haunts in order to inspire.
The Hanged Man is a superhero, an homage to The Spectre, but it’s Michael Tenicek who is the hero of this story. Throughout the middle of the narrative he discusses the ludicrous nature of his terrible loss and encounters many caped figures, but those elements are framed by the most mundane works. The story opens on him volunteering to help after a disaster and closes with him bringing donuts to a support group. These points are the very essence of heroism.
Astro City is not a realistic superhero comic; it is a superhero comic that knows real heroism. It confronts the neverending battle against grief without any easy solutions and unveils something special within mundane acts as a result. The heroes around the story are not diminished, but they are not made to be greater than ordinary human beings. And so the story finds the essence of humanity through an investigation of relatable struggle, inspiring and valuing the experiences of readers. Astro City #52 is a tremendous conclusion both to Michael Tenicek’s story and this volume of the series. It reminds us that superhero comics are not fantasy but a representation of the greatness that lies within us.
Published by DC Comics
On June 27, 2018
Written by Kurt Busiek
Art by Brent Anderson
Cover by Alex Ross