Five Questions with Astro City's Kurt Busiek
Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is a creator-owned comic book that started back in 1995, with Busiek providing writing, Brent Anderson on pencils and Alex Ross providing covers and character design. A critical and commercial success from the beginning, Astro City has been somewhat hampered bu an irregular publication schedule and it has struggled to find a long-time home with a publisher as the many of the smaller publishers have merged or been bought as the industry consolidated. After a recent health scare, Busiek announced that Astro City would be published by DC comics as an ongoing monthly title Badmouth managed to get Busiek to answer five questions about Astro City and working on a creator-owned comic.
Astro City is interesting in that it uses “super-heroes” as a setting, rather than a genre. The superheroics themselves are often superfluous to the story. Was that intentional?
Yes, although I wouldn’t quite describe it that way. I see it as solidly in the superhero genre, but in this case the action-adventure is the context, and the character stories are the focus, rather than the usual pattern, where the action-adventure is the focus and the character stuff is frosting on the cake. To mix a bunch of metaphors.
I wanted to explore what else can be done with superheroes, what else happens in that kind of world, if we look at what’s happening down the street and around the corner from the big adventure. So that’s where we started.
What kinds of opportunities does working on a creator-owned book offer? Drawbacks?
The quick, snappy answer is that the upside of doing creator-owned stuff is that you get to make it all up yourself, and the downside is that you have to make it all up yourself.
Working within an existing universe means you have access to all that stuff other people thought up — characters, ideas, themes, even unfinished story lines — and that can be a ton of fun. But there’s a lot to be said for telling your own story, your own way, from scratch. Add to that the other advantages of owning your own work — you don’t have to do what the boss tells you, because it’s yours, not theirs, and if there are movies or toys or whatever based on your project, them money comes to you. That kind of tips the scale over into creator-owned stuff being more attractive, as long as you can win over enough of an audience to keep going. But both have their strengths.
You obviously insert a lot of pastiche or archetypal characters into the book. How do you walk the line between paying homage and being derivative?
I don’t do any pastiche in Astro City, really. I know people don’t believe that, but we’re not trying to imitate other work, and “archetype” doesn’t mean “copy.” I started using the term to make a distinction, and a lot of readers seem to think that I must be just using a fancy word to mean “imitation.” But Samaritan (to pick an example) is not a copy of Supermen; they’re both built on the same archetypes, which is not the same thing. Superman is built on archetypes like “savior,” “outsider,” “immigrant,” “the hero in humble garb” and so on. Samaritan shares some of them — savior and outsider, certainly — but not all of them.
We do throw in little homages here and there in geographical names and things like that — nods to the rich history of comics that inspires us — but we’re not trying to tell other people’s stories, so I don’t worry about being derivative. In fact, I keep seeing readers gripe that Marvel or DC are being derivative of us, when we’re both simply exploring time-honored dramatic structures, not setting out to copy any specific thing.
Has the irregular publication schedule of the book helped or hurt the creative process? I was thinking of how Mike Mignola does Hellboy in these distinct story arcs, then let’s him lay fallow until the next idea hits.
I don’t think that’s how Mike did it — I think it was more a function of his drawing speed, when he was drawing the book himself. And we’ve got plenty of story ideas, so there’s never been a reason to let Astro City lie fallow for lack of story. The delays have all been due to either my health making it hard to get the book written, or Brent’s drawing speed being not quite up to a monthly schedule. If we were healthier and faster, we’d have gotten a lot more stories told over the years.
So I’d say it’s probably hurt, in that it’s slowed down our output when we’ve got plenty to explore. But it can’t be helped. We can only cope with it as best we can and keep rolling forward.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new Astro City ongoing title? Will there be any changes from the way the book has developed until this point?
Not really, no. There will be some new things developing in the series, since before, there was this long-simmering background story about the Silver Agent, and now that it’s over (or at least, reached a point of change), we’re exploring another background ‘mystery,’ about a character called The Broken Man, who’ll be on page one of our new first issue.
Other than that, though, we’re still telling the stories we want to tell — aside from the time I was so medicated I couldn’t write at all, I’ve been writing the whole time, building up scripts to keep us on schedule. So while to readers it seems like we stopped for three years, to us it’s just that we slowed down real slow for a while, but we’re still doing the same series, still going forward. We never really stopped, so it doesn’t feel like a new start to us, just like a welcome return to having this stuff get published, and shown to readers again…!