Astro City: The Dark Age Volumes 1&2
Reviewed: May 18, 2011
By: Kurt Busiek / Illustrated by Brent Anderson
Publisher: Wildstorm Productions
256 pages / 240 pages, $22.56
In the Astro City series creators Busiek, Anderson and Alex Ross (he does the
covers and much of the character design) have attempted to deal with the everyday
realities of living in a world with super beings. This is not an entirely new
idea. The Superman family of magazines spent many years publishing books that
had Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane as their central characters, with the Man of Steel
more or less relegated to the role of the deus ex machina who got them out of
Busiek himself, along with Ross, took this a step further in 1994 when he wrote
Marvels, a limited series in which the events of the Marvel Comics universe
were viewed from the point of view of man in the street characters. The battles
were there, but they were secondary to the human reactions.
Astro City, a series which now runs to eight collected volumes and over 1,000
pages of work, does not follow the lives of any one of its vast cast of characters,
most of which do pay homage to originals in either the DC or Marvel universes.
The story arcs may follow a particular character for a while, but then break
off and follow someone else. There are supervillain plots, and battles both
alien and cosmic in scope, but many of them take place in splash panels or almost
Individual issues may take a “day-in-the-life” look at the city
or even be told from the point of view of a villain, usually one who is not
too dark in motive or action. Taken as a whole, the series is more like a history
of the city than a series of individual stories.
The Dark Age is by far the longest piece of work in this setting so far, a story
that spans decades in the telling and focuses on the lives of Charles and Royal
Williams. It is further distinguished by the fact that the brothers are two
black men in a field that still has mostly white characters.
Charles and Royal lost their parents when they were young. They were the victims
of a battle between a crime syndicate called the Pyramid and the newly minted
superhero team, Honor Guard. One particular Pyramid soldier cut his way through
their home, pursued by the Silver Agent, a hero who would later be executed
for his unintentional killing of another criminal. We have seen his statue in
Astro City’s version of Central Park in earlier volumes of the series,
but the inscription on it (“To Our Eternal Shame”) has always been
The brothers are deeply affected by their parents’ deaths, and both harbour
a deep suspicion of costumed heroes after this event, for it appears to them
that the Agent simply brushed by their tragedy in his single minded pursuit
of the villain. Charles grows up to become a policeman. Royal becomes involved
with street gangs and is eventually recruited into one of the feeder groups
that Pyramid draws its soldiers from.
Their story is told from both points of view, and is more like a twinned autobiography
than a regular comic book story. We’ll learn exactly why it sounds that
way in the second volume.
The second, or perhaps third, skein in this plot involves the Silver Agent,
who keeps turning up again and again in their lives, even though he has already
been executed. For the full story of the Agent, you will have to wait for the
two-part story arc reprinted in the next trade edition. Suffice it to say that
it seems to make sense here and makes even more sense when you read his own
Finally it is safe to say that the two books offer a commentary on the grim
and gritty era in comics which followed he publication of Watchmen and Batman:
The Dark Knight Returns, when killing villains became common and every other
questionable hero had a name that contained ether “death” or “blood.”
The first volume chronicles their interactions through a number of minor adventures
during which they try to help each other in spite of bring on different sides
of the law. As the volume draws to a close in 1977 Royal is arrested and sent
to prison, while Charles is injured.
As the title suggests, Brothers in Arms is about how the Williams brothers sort
of work together to bring down the man who actually killed their parents. Along
the way, however, they become as obsessed with the chase as their quarry does
with his pursuit of power and, towards the end, realize how corrupting such
a blinkered focus can be.
Busiek is a top-notch writer, even when he is handling characters for the major
companies. On a creator-owned project such as this one, he really shines. Similarly,
Brent Anderson is an artist who combines a comic book sensibility with a realistic
approach to body size and musculature. His work on this series is consistently
Busiek, Anderson and Ross have picked up a number of Eisner and Harvey Awards
for their work on this series. It appears somewhat sporadically due to their
other commitments, but the trade editions make up for the long waits. The entire
16 issue Dark Ages run began in 2005 and did not finish until last year.