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Exclusive: Writer Kurt Busiek on ASTRO CITY’s Past, Present, and Future

While most of today’s superhero comic books seem to change their continuity and creative teams almost as frequently as their characters appear, Astro City remains the genre’s most reliable source of great storytelling, thanks to its creators — writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson (assisted by cover artist Alex Ross), who, after twenty years, continue exploring their vision of costumed champions and the nature of heroism, to the delight of readers the world over. I recently caught up with Busiek, and he shared his thoughts on the book’s recent storylines and the future of its titular metropolis; and dropped a few hints about his other upcoming projects…

Nerdist: What inspired Astro City’s recent First Family storyline? In some respects it was the series’ greatest homage to Jack Kirby yet.

Kurt Busiek: Brent and Alex got their Kirby on, that’s for sure. But it wouldn’t be easy to explore the genre tropes of superhero comics and not wind up referring to Kirby a lot — he looms large in the field’s history. That’s why we named a mountain after him.

In this case, I’d been thinking about the kind of stories we don’t see in superhero comics, and it struck me that we see a lot of interplanetary empires, full of spaceships and badass soldiers and emperors and so on, but we don’t see ordinary life, whatever their equivalent of the suburbs is. Just fanatically-loyal soldiers.

So I wondered what we could find in that. I think I’d planned, back when I was briefly writing JLA, to do something about making Qward seem like a place where kids grew up, not just where soldiers marched. And of course Marvel’s got plenty of alien empires from the Kree and Skrulls to the Shi’Ar and so on. So the idea of exploring that kind of space, where the kids grow up to be warlike extensions of their emperor’s will, that was the starting point.

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N: Issue #31 again featured Jesus Merino as guest artist. How does his work match your vision of Astro City?

KB: #31 is Jesus’s third guest issue of Astro City, and frankly, I’d be happy to have him whenever Brent’s not available. I think he’s got a classic heroic style that’s also modern and powerful, and he draws beautifully. I’ve worked with Jesus since Avengers Forever, as Carlos Pacheco’s inker, but he also drew a few issues of my Superman run, so I knew we worked well together and I’d get top-notch visuals from him.

When we did his first issue, I asked him what sort of thing he wanted to draw, and he refused to tell me. He said he wanted the full Astro City treatment — just give him a script, and whatever was in it, he’d have fun drawing it. We’ve certainly tested that, giving him tales of outer space, of hidden kingdoms and undersea cities and now a kind of life story of the Living Nightmare, and he’s made it all look wonderful. Plus he designed a new villain for #31 who’s one of my all-time favorites.

N: The current three-part Astro City storyline (the second part of which is available in comic stores this week) brings back a favorite old hero — Steeljack.

KB: We have a three-parter checking back in on Steeljack, from Tarnished Angel, and seeing what he’s up to. Trouble, is the easy answer. But we get to see old friends of his, new villains, learn more about his history, visit a villain-themed chain restaurant, battle Death Himself and lots more.

N: How many upcoming stories do you tend to keep in your head at one time?

KB: I’m lucky if I can keep the latest one in my head coherently. But I’ve got a ton of stories worked out, and I’m always coming up with more — the alien empire story, for instance, has been in the notes for at least ten years, and there’s a story about the N-Forcer that’s even older. But what I don’t know is what order they happen in. At some point, I’ve got to take a few days, sit down and work out big swaths of what’s coming up, so I’m not lost when I’m asked for solicit info. It’d be nice to have a road map of where we’re going, rather than just knowing in general where we’re headed and having a ton of story ideas and half-outlined setups to pick from. But I’ve had a rough year health-wise, so I’m a little behind the 8-Ball.

Hopefully I’ll get to put a lot of this stuff in order soon, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s been set up to play out…

N: Are there any new residents of Astro City that you’re especially looking forward to introducing to readers?

KB: Always. Alex [Ross] and I were on the phone for about an hour this afternoon going over sketches he’s done for members of the Jayhawks, a 1960s teen team. And we’ve dropped references here and there to the Jayhawks, who came along decades later. That’s a cool story that we need to tell, and now that we’ve got visuals for the characters, it’s all the more enticing…

N: Do you foresee an endpoint for Astro City, or do you continue to view it as a vehicle for an infinite number of stories?

KB: There’s an endpoint, and we’re slowly, slowly arcing toward it. But it’s not an ending that would make it impossible to do more stories, so it’s entirely possible that we could bring the series to an ending, and then do another volume a couple years later, and another a few years after that. So even if it ends, it doesn’t have to fully end.

But we’ve all got lots of things we want to do, and we’ve been doing this twenty years now. So eventually we’ll wrap it up as an ongoing series. Not soon, though. Too much more to do…

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N: How has partnering with DC affected your work on Astro City? Has it freed you to devote even more time to this universe you’ve created?

KB: Well, we started out at Image, shifted to Homage (which was part of Wildstorm), and then DC bought Wildstorm. So whether we’ve been published as Homage, Wildstorm Signature, or whatever, it’s been a part of DC since then.

The big recent change was that after Wildstorm was shut down as an imprint, we relaunched at Vertigo two and a half years ago. That’s been nice — it’s been great to be published alongside Fables and American Vampire and The Wake and so on, and to be part of a backlist that includes Sandman and Preacher and Y The Last Man. And now, of course, Vertigo’s launching a whole new slate of books, and it’s cool to be part of that, too.

What DC helps us with is the invisible stuff. Molly Mahan’s great about keeping us on track so the book can come out on time, thinking about where we’ll need a guest-artist issue while I’m still wrestling with the story in front of me, things like that. And DC’s got one of the best book-publishing programs in comics, so keeping the whole series in-print and available is a huge thing for us; and DC’s been very helpful with that.

And hey, they pay on time and pay foreign royalties, and all that good stuff that makes it easier to be a freelancer in a difficult business. So we’ve been pleased to have DC in our corner all this time.

N: What’s your take on the current state of mainstream superheroes? Do you ever find yourself hungering to do more with old favorites like Superman or are most of your ideas these days tailor-made for Astro City?

KB: Most of my superhero ideas either go to Astro City or a secret project or two I can’t name, or go into a big pile of notes for “the future,” but I’m also having a ton of ideas for SF and fantasy and adventure. I like to do all kinds of stuff, and there’s not enough time in the day to do all the ideas I have.

At the moment, I’m happy focusing mostly on creator-owned work. I have one more “mainstream” project to finish, Batman: Creature of the Night, which I’m doing with John Paul Leon (and boy, is it gorgeous!). But after that, I’m expecting to be sticking with creator-owned projects at least for a while. That’s not to say I can’t be tempted — I have lots of ideas for books like, say, Legion of Superheroes or Wonder Woman, but I’m not sure they’d be where DC wants to go with those characters. That’s another benefit of the creator-owned stuff — I don’t have to worry about whether the plots fit in to whatever big stuff a publisher is doing, as long as it’s something the rest of the creative team and I are good to do.

Still, you never know what the future will bring.

N: Speaking of mainstream work… DC has just republished your acclaimed Superman graphic novel Secret Identity in a hardcover deluxe edition, which should win it many new fans. Did Secret Identity land fully formed in your mind? It has the intensity of a great fever dream.

KB: Not really, no. When I started thinking about it, I just wanted to do something with a character like the just-pre-Crisis Superboy-Prime. But I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work, to make it something DC would willingly publish. Then when the idea that pulled it together came, it was a big, series-encompassing idea — to do the life story of a character like that, focusing on the stages he’d go through as a kid, a young adult, a married man and so on, and how the whole idea of him having this big secret “inner self” would be shaped by those stages. Sort of like Gail Sheehy’s Passages, but with a cape.

Once I had that idea, I had the central spine of it all. I had to figure out the various details, but I knew the big idea and any of the plotting and character stuff had to serve that big idea. So it pulled together nicely.

Secret Identity

N: Was it one of the most personal stories you’ve told in mainstream comics? Although it focuses on someone with a great deal in common with the Man of Steel, and presents a sweeping life story, it’s emotionally intimate.

It was personal to him! To me, well, it wasn’t my life, but it was fueled by things I thought about at those stages, about who I wanted to be, about falling in love and the vulnerabilities and strengths it brings, about changes in perspective as a father…

So it was designed to be intimate and fueled by that kind of ideas, but I was trying to get at what would be in Clark’s head, not merely what had been in mine.

N: What was your reaction to the final book? How satisfied were you with the overall product?

KB: Oh, I was absolutely thrilled. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, and I think a lot of that came about because Stuart [Immonen] elevated the storytelling, so I had to up my game to keep up. I love the way he combined the pencil art and mostly-flat color, too; it’s got a beautifully sophisticated look.

And now that it’s finally out in hardcover, I’m happy about that, too. We wanted a hardcover for it back when it first came out, and now we’ve finally gotten one.

Images: DC/Vertigo

Are you an Astro City fan? What’s your favorite storyline? Let us know below!

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