Blog: Commentary from the den of a pulp super-fan

Pulp Comics: ‘Astro City’

Posted by at 10:00 am Friday, February 9, 2018 in Comics, Pulps
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Pulp Comics: ‘Astro City’

'Astro City: Life in the Big City'Astro City is a long-running comicbook series created by writer Kurt Busiek with cover artist Alex Ross and with most issues having Brent Anderson for interior work. This series has been published over the years by Image Comics (1995–1996), Homage Comics (1996–2004), Wildstorm (2004–10), and Vertigo Comics (2013–present).

The “universe” of Astro City has a wide range of superheroes and villains who go back to the 1800s at least. Almost all are based on archetypes or are characters done “in the style of” certain writers or artists. But these characters are different enough to be more original than just being copies or pastiches.

So for Superman, there is the Samaritan, a man sent from the future to change things for the better; for Batman, it’s The Confessor, a priest turned vampire who becomes a costumed detective to fight crime; for Wonder Woman, it’s Winged Victory, an ordinary woman empowered to become a symbol for all women. The main superhero team is the Honor Guard. Instead of the Fantastic Four, there is the First Family. And so on.

But the difference between Astro City is the stories are more about how the world and what happens affects the particular focus of the story, be it a hero or villain or a civilian. Some stories may just be for a particular issue, but a few have run two or more. Also, because there is a wide range of characters and a wide range of time that these characters have existed (1800s into the far future), not every character has been featured in some way. Many may be a minor or secondary character that we have yet to learn much more about.

And of course, as the focus of this blog is on pulp fiction, what about pulp inspired characters? Any that are in the style of The Shadow or Doc Savage? Sadly, not too many.

There is Ironhorse, the Human Locomotive, who became active around 1860 or so, and still exists today. From the name and what little we know, as we’ve only seen him in a handful of panels in a handful of issues, he looks to be based on the dime novel “Steamman of the Prairie”-type robots. But clearly Ironhorse is a self-aware being, maybe some kind of human-machine hybrid, not just a machine like Steamman robots.

Next up is Dame Progress, a steampunk-like science heroine from before the turn of the century. We’ve seen a little more of her, but she has yet to star in her own story other than a snippet of one in issue V3#5. Again, she’s more akin to the dime novel inventor heroes.

Then we have The Cloak of Night, who fought criminals during the Prohibition era. He strikes me as a Shadow analogue. One difference is his goggles, which apparently lets him see who is likely to die soon. He shows up briefly in one story (issue V3#38), while his goggles appear in modern times in another story (issue V3#34). There are other characters shown from his time period, but they don’t see too pulp-like, more comicbook-like. There are the Five Fists, a group of masked Chinese warriors who fought crime, and Yankee Sheikh.

Finally, we have the Blasphemy Boys, a group of government agents who operated in the 1920s and ’30s looking into occult matters. The official name of them was the Working Group on Unsettling Anomalies, Classification and Containment. From what we’ve seen, the leader of the group is corrupted by what they were finding and fighting. The group was betrayed and largely wiped out, though the lead agent clearly lives until he passes away in his 90s. So they are similar to other occult investigators in various stories by H.P. Lovecraft and associates. The largest amount we’ve seen of them is also in issue V3#5.

So while I really like Astro City, I kind of wish we’d see more characters based on pulp magazines (and dime novels) then those based on comicbooks. But that said, it’s a great series and do check it out.

2 Comments

  1. The Confessor’s personality and methods actually remind me of The Shadow … the similarity to Batman arises from his sidekick in training, Altar Boy. Steeljack is a riff on Doc Savage and the hardboiled detectives of the 1950s …

    Pulpish heroes abound in Astro City, but Busiek amalgamates their personalities and methods of operation.

    • Well, I see more Batman then The Shadow in the Confessor, but then the Batman is kinda of influenced by The Shadow. I don’t see the spymaster aspect of The Shadow in him, but more the magician aspect (with the vampiric powers).

      I don’t see much of Doc in Steeljack, other then steel vs bronze, but yes, the hardboiled detectives, especially in his second story is clear.

      Problem is most of his characters are more comicbookish the pulpish, so it can be hard to see the pulpish aspects. Kind of like Marvel’s “Mystery Men” series which should have been more pulpish then comicbookish based on their period.

What do you think?