When you work alongside each other for sixteen years, you're bound to develop a rapport. Created in 1985, Astro City is written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Brent Anderson, with covers and other artistic input from Alex Ross.
The series focuses on the inhabitants of a sprawling metropolitan area populated with both superhumans and civilians. There is an extensive collection of characters, ranging from those who only appear in a few panels to its major recurring players. Told from the viewpoints of people in all walks of life, the stories also explore different time periods in the city’s history. Drawn in an almost dream-like state, Astro City is known for its breathtaking art and incredible detail.
I chatted in length with Busiek and Anderson at the 29th Barcelona International Comicon about their experiences with the many layers of Astro City!
MTV Geek: How has Astro City evolved from your original intentions for the series? What are some of your favorite changes and surprises?
Kurt Busiek: Astro City was conceived as a vehicle for exploration, so it’s not a surprise that we’ve discovered things. I think that it has been something of a surprise that we keep coming back to stories that are about criminals, or set in the past, or in some cases both. I hadn’t expected that!
Brent was just saying in the previous interview that it seems like almost all of the Astro City stories are about relationships, particularly familial relationships. If that has been the case, it certainly hasn’t been conscious. That’s just my particular demons coming out!
One surprise has been that Brent is still here. I had never expected him to last on the series as long has he did, but he’s stuck in with it. Astro City was created to be me with Brent and Alex (Ross) as the first guys in the room helping me out, but they were only going to do it for a little while. And now, Astro City is me, Brent, and Alex. I think if any of us left, it would be done.
Anderson and Busiek signing at the Norma Editorial booth
Brent Anderson: It would be looked back upon fondly! My son was born when I was working on page four of the first issue. So Astro City is as old as my only child! I enjoyed reading comics, Marvel Comics particularly, that were about relationships. Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were favorites. When Kurt approached me and started telling me some of his ideas for stories, it was some of the relationships he was describing that inspired me to want to draw them. I think I said when we first started ‘let’s give it ten years and see where it goes’, because I was that interested in the stories that he had to tell. After 15 years I don’t see any reason to stop doing it!
Busiek: One of the advantages for Brent is that artists get tired of drawing the same thing over and over again. That doesn’t happen in Astro City (laughs)! As long as you don’t get tired of urban buildings, just wait three issues and you’ll be dealing with a whole new set of characters. Brent used to complain that as soon as he figured out how to draw somebody their arc was over!
Anderson: The development of the character is through the entire storyline for me. By the time we get to the end of the story I know the character very well. And then it’s time to move on to the next character to explore!
We’ve created literally hundreds and hundreds of characters, some of whom appear in only one story, or a panel or two. But in the exploration of particular characters like Steel Jack or the Confessor and Altar Boy, those characters were developed over a long period of time. But by the time I get to know them inside and out, it’s time to move on to the next character (laughs)!
Geek: Do you remember the names of every character that you’ve created?
Busiek: Not always at the right time! I once introduced a group of villains called the Iron Legion. Later on we had Samaritan fighting one of them, but I had forgotten the name and called them the Iron Guard. So, somebody pointed that out and I said ‘The Iron Guard are the elite inner core of the Iron Legion’. (laughs) Bam, fixed! I occasionally have to look stuff up but it’s not usually character names.
Anderson: Part of that is my job, in developing the character of the city. I can think of one example where in the original storyline, I can’t remember which story it was, the sweatshop is referred to as North or South of a different part of the slums of the city. And later on we caught that, and changed it for the collection so it matched the map (laughs). It’s just the growth of the different sections of the city as a developing character, and it’s been building for 16 years.
Geek: The city is easily the most complex character you have in the series! It has very distinctive neighborhoods and specific styles. Brent, what are some of your inspiration for the designs?
Anderson: They come from all over. Astro City kind of represents all cities, particularly in the comic genre. New York plays a big part in it, but also Chicago and San Francisco, because I’m from the Bay area. In reflecting those personality traits in Astro City I need to draw upon all of the different places that I have been to or I look at pictures of.
Busiek: We were speaking earlier about Brent getting to know a character and then it’s gone, but there are certain characters that we’ve had recurring a lot. We’ve been talking about doing a two part story where we check in with Steel Jack ten years after the last time we saw him. We want to check in and seeing what Marta’s doing in Shadow Hill, because her story wasn’t meant to have a loose ending. She was probably 25 then, so she’s 40 now. What’s her life like, has she had kids, has she made compromises, did she move out of Shadow Hill? When you revisit a character in superhero comics they usually have new weapons. In Astro City, we don’t have those types of options!
My sketch from Anderson!
Anderson: One of the advantages to drawing Astro City is that I get to draw all kinds of things. As an artist that is really appealing, because I love drawing anything and everything!
Busiek: One thing we talked about when we thought the book would be a TV series instead of a feature film was to take establishing shots of various locations. The parts of Boston, or Pittsburgh, or New York that aren’t instantly recognizable but are characteristic of the cities. They’re all there in Astro City! Instead of having to design a whole city on a television budget, we’d say it’s a patchwork city.
Anderson: There’s a big geek out factor. If fans see a familiar shot of the city they live in that gets really exciting for them.
Geek: What sort of influence have you had in the production of the movie so far? Do you feel that the story will successfully move from print to screen considering there are so many different stories and characters?
Busiek: In terms of story, what’s gone on so far is that I’ve written a couple of drafts and we’re waiting for feedback on the latest draft. I’m contractually forbidden (laughs) to tell you about anything that’s in the story. The reason I’m specifically not allowed to tell you is because, what if it changes. It’s one thing when you say this story is going to be this, but it’s another when you say it’s going to be this, and fans get upset because they want the first story. But, so far, the movie is in development. We are still on the story end of things. I am the writer, so far, and Brent has been looking over my shoulder and making terrific suggestions that really opened things up and made them much cooler.
Anderson: I am really chomping at the bit to work with the 3-D designers and actually develop the world for screen! I’ve been a film buff forever and ever. I’m really excited about, hopefully, being hired to work with them (laughs).
Geek: I think we would all hope for that! Kurt, back when you were first writing Astro City, did you ever imagine that you’d be doing an entire series just on “The Dark Age”? Which part of the city’s history do you enjoy telling the most?
"The Dark Age"
Busiek: When we started on Astro City, “The Dark Age” was still going to be a sequel to Marvels. It wasn’t until that fell apart and I took the story back that I decided to turn it into an Astro City story. At that time I had planned on 12 issues instead of 16, but I always knew that it was going to be a long arc at the very least. I didn’t know that we’d be doing it as a few miniseries, because I foolishly thought that we could maintain a monthly production schedule back then.
There’s just so much of the history that I like to talk about, we’ve explored the 70s and 80s but there’s still more to explore there. The best part is, people are basically hopping in the back of the tour bus and telling us to take them where we want to go. That has been amazingly gratifying, and that’s been a big reason why we’ve been able to plan years in the future. The audience is making it possible.
Geek: Are either of you working on any new projects?
Anderson: I have about a half a dozen projects or more that are independent of Astro City, personal projects as well as collaborations. I’m not going to go into length about some of them, but if you go to my website you can see some material from other ongoing projects.
Busiek: We are building on bringing Astro City back monthly. On top of that, I’m doing a creator owned series with the part of DC that used to be Wildstorm but is now back with DC. It’s sort of a sister story to Astro City called The Witchlands, which is every bit as expansive in scope and character arrangement as Astro City, except it’s about an urban fantasy. I’m working on a follow-up to a series that I did at DC called Superman: Secret Identity entitled Batman: Creature of the Night that John Paul Leon is doing the art for. It is beautiful! Alex Ross and I are working on a series for Dynamite Entertainment called Kirby: Genesis. It’s bringing back all of the characters, concepts and designs that Jack Kirby and his family retained over the years. There’s also some other little stuff on the side, but those four are my main workload at the moment.
Geek: This all sounds fantastic! Kurt, I have one more question for you. You are an active Twitter user and often interact with fans on there. Do you view Twitter as a positive force for comics, and do you think it can help bring more attention to the industry?
Busiek: I don’t know about bringing more attention to the industry because Twitter is all volunteer. But I find Twitter to be an amazingly positive force in terms of connection. It's amazing that I can have a conversation with other comics pros witnessed by 7500 people. There’s one project that is sort of percolating among a group of professionals at the moment. Despite the fact that most of us live in the Portland area, it happened because we all got to talking about something on Twitter. Someone watching the conversation on Twitter was like ‘you should do that’! And we all realized that we probably should. So we started talking through email and so forth.
I don’t view Twitter as a promotional tool but as a really, really, really cool cocktail party.
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