Friday, October 10, 2008


Imaginary Stories

Last night I was looking through the most recent hardcover collection of Kurt Busiek's incomparable Astro City, collecting the first two parts of the ongoing "Dark Ages" serial, and as I always do I ended up visiting Busiek's message board afterward to see if he'd answered any interesting questions since I'd last been by.

In responding to a question about Beautie, the lifesized doll, Busiek had this to say:
I don't think so. In the imaginary world of "Astro Comics" I keep vaguely in my head, she doesn't have her own series; she's a team-member but not a solo series star.

Much like Max O'Millions had a backup series but not a lead feature.

A while later, I was looking up some of the characters on, a kind of Wikipedia for the series, or as it describes itself, "Your Superhero Information Source for Astro City." In the entry for Max Millions, I cam across another mention of the imaginary "Astro Comics":
Kurt Busiek has said that in the imaginary "Astro Comics" line he envisions the Astro City world coming from, Max O'Millions was created in-between the Golden and Silver Ages, during the period superheroes had fallen out of popularity. He had begun as a comic book character in a genre other than superheroes. When the Silver Age hit and made superheroes popular again, he was turned into a superhero.
That sent me googling for any other mentions of "Astro Comics," and I turned up a summary of a WonderCon panel with Busiek and collaborator Brent Anderson from February of this year. Busiek touched on the imaginary comic company in the following response:
The writer says he also thinks about when his characters would have debuted in the "Astro City" history, to determine their names and characteristics. "I imagine there's a comic company called Astro Comics, which started in 1930s as competitor with Marvel and DC, and would have been doing comics similar to what they were doing. Then, you get into the, 1960s everyone was doing weird and experimental, so they would be doing weird and experimental," he said. "I also ask things like, did this character ever have their own series, or were they a six-page backup story that failed." He then discussed the contemporary historical and pop-cultural influences that would affect each shift, such as Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra on film, which led to a "Cleopatra" backup feature in DC Comics. "I actually saw a discussion online," Busiek continued, "wondering whether Krypto the Super-Dog was influenced by Ace the Bat-Hound, because he'd shown up in 'Batman' a few months earlier." After further setting up this scenario, Busiek concluded, "Guys: Lassie was on TV! They didn't have to look to other comics for influence, they had TVs."
This is fascinating to me. I hadn't previously considered that there might be a second level of abstraction to the Astro City universe, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Busiek is one of those comic writers who draws heavily on an encyclopedic (and some might say almost unparalleled) knowledge of the minutiea of superhero comic book continuity. He knows the DC and Marvel universes well enough to find interesting little corners, little explored and often long forgotten, that have untapped storytelling potential. It only stands to reason that in constructing Astro City he would employ a similar tactic of mining a comic company's publishing history, only this time with the added step of first inventing the imaginary comic company to begin with.

I'm currently working on a superhero story for a forthcoming prose anthology (the story wouldn't be set in any existing universe or with any existing characters) , and while I've a few half-formed notions already rolling around my head, I'm early enough in the development phase that adopting a new strategy like this might be fruitful. Mmm...

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