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Astro City: Confession 1997 (SC TPB) 208 pages

cover by Alex RossWritten by Kurt Busiek. Pencils by Brent Eric Anderson, Inks by Will Blyberg.
Colours: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Comicraft's John Roshell. Editor: Jonathon Peterson.

Reprinting: Astro City (vol. 2) #4-9, Wizard Presents Astro City #1/2

Additional notes: intro by Neil Gaiman; behind-the-scenes sketches; cover gallery.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Homage/DC Comics

Astro City is Kurt Busiek's critically acclaimed series set within its own super hero universe. Busiek, with collaborators Brent Anderson (pencils) and Alex Ross (painted covers and character designs) have fashioned a city with its own vast pantheon of super heroes, but the comic itself takes on the nature of an anthology, where the hero featured in one issue becomes little more than a streak across the skyline in other issues, or where the focus might be on a non-superpowered civilian, reacting to the fantastic events around him (ala Busiek's Marvels). Confession, though, was the series' first story arc, where the same character is followed from issue to issue in one unfolding saga.

In that sense, Confession tries to be that elusive animal -- a true super hero graphic novel. By telling a super hero saga where the main characters didn't necessarily appear before, and aren't necessarily meant to recur, Busiek can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, threaded with a character arc and interwoven themes. There are no lingering sub-plots, or sense that this is just a pre-amble to further stories.

The protagonist, teenager Brian Kinney, arrives in Astro City, hoping to become a super hero. With Busiek positing the cute (if frivolous) idea that super heroes are like movie stars, and the best way to get into the business is simply to hang out with super heroes and hope to get noticed, Brian quickly gets invited to be Altar Boy, sidekick to the enigmatic Confessor, who keeps secrets even from Brian. But this is the wrong time to be a super hero, what with a string of unsolved murders, mysterious incidents, and an escalating wave of anti-superhero paranoia leading to a crackdown on costumed do-gooders.

Astro City has been much praised, with Wizard magazine (a comic fanzine) proclaiming it "The best comic... Period." And Neil Gaiman waxes euphorically about it in his introduction. There's a lot to appreciate in Confession -- not the least its ambition to be a stand alone "graphic novel". Plus, Busiek clearly wants this to be a thinking man's adventure, complete with plenty of rumination on the events that transpire, and an undercurrent of religious iconography as a theme. With all that being said, it should also be noted that Confession has plenty of pulpy, fantasy and adventure aspects, too. When I first read it, I was thrown a bit some elements, because I didn't realize it was going to be that kind of story.

But in the end, Confession is hobbled a little by its very ambitions.

There's a strong streak of homage at work here, where many background heroes are meant to evoke existing Marvel or DC properties, with even the Confessor and Altar Boy reminiscent of Batman and Robin. But, unfortunately, that bleeds over into the actual plot, with the anti-superhero hysteria something that has been done before, and more convincingly, in other, supposedly less ambitious, comics -- it's almost been done to death. In fact, the plot, complete with some later revelations, borrows rather liberally from a certain Avengers epic. There's even what may be a slight nod to the H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Haunter of the Dark".

That would be fine if Busiek really did tell a smarter version of those stories...but he doesn't really. Like too many modern writers, Busiek is so busy trying to write a great, profound story, he forgets that he needs to first lay a solid foundation. Busiek has to make us believe in the reality, so that we can buy into the anti-superhero hysteria, or so that the revelation of the Confessor's secret will have its desired effect. But, ironically, Busiek's Astro City seems less convincing than Spider-Man's New York, or Batman's Gotham City. The first time through, it's a bit hard to get a grip on certain things, such as a mysterious ethnic ghetto, or even the significance of the Confessor's secret in this reality. A second read through, you know how the pieces go together, but it's still not always convincing on a visceral level. And an inherent spookiness that Busiek seems to be going for at times doesn't really crystallize either. The plotting is also a tad uneven, even simplistic, in spots, with talk of patterns that doesn't really hold up, and a plot lapse between the fifth and sixth chapters, and other things.

There's a sense Busiek is just regurgitating things he's read in other comics but hasn't digested properly himself, trying to pass them off as his own profundity, but lacking the rawer, more visceral edge that stories like The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War, or various X-Men comics, have. What contributes to that is Busiek's way of telling us, rather than showing us. There's a heavy reliance on the hero's narration to tell the story, which means the reader is kept a little at arms length from the actual events. Gaiman, in his introduction, praises the notion that a story can mean more than it seems...but all Busiek's doing (at times) is just whacking a way at his themes like a farmer with a two by four, stating with blunt explicitness what was implicit in other, earlier stories. Brian expounds on the amazing nature of heroism, how the heroes continue to struggle to protect people who now hate and despise them. Busiek brow beats us with ideas that, frankly, are at the core of many mainstream super hero comics -- the X-Men, or Spider-Man during his various outlaw periods -- as if he's the first one to think of them.

Part and parcel of all this is that, because the story is filtered through Brian, Brian emerges, in many respects, as the only character (although the Confessor is given some fleshing out later). Even Brian's school chums are just there to fill out a panel, or be mouthpieces to debate the issues, giving him no one to really play off of. Busiek wants to establish a character arc, as Brian arrives in Astro City, bitter and ashamed of his dead dad, only to realize by the end that his dad was a hero in his own right. Although a character arc is admirable, it's hard to believe Brian, let alone the reader, wouldn't recognize his dad's inherent nobility. And like with Phil Sheldon in Busiek's similar Marvels, Brian himself isn't an especially well-realized personality. When at one point Brian contemplates quitting being a super hero, it's hard to credit...we've seen no indication Brian has any other interests, or aptitudes.

Wrapping the comics in Alex Ross' painted, photo-realist covers can be problematic, setting standards the interior, pencil and ink art can't match. But I'd forgotten how good Anderson can be from time to time, and he's nicely served by Blyberg's inks. There's enough of a realism to his faces, married with moody, shadow drenched panels, that the interior art doesn't jar with the covers. Though the emphasis on a lot of black garbed figures means there're a few panels where bodies just blend into each other.

This collection closes with "The Nearness of You", an unrelated, self- contained story (published by Wizard) that is reasonably effective. In fact, it, along with Busiek's Avengers: The Morgan Conquest (in which a one-shot story was better than the three issue main epic), makes me think Busiek might be better sticking with smaller, intimate stories. Though even here, Busiek's love of homage intrudes cloyingly, with the story seeming to play off of a certain 1980s DC maxi-series. And the fact that "The Nearness of You" is described as a "short story" when it's sixteen pages says something about a certain thinness to it.

Ultimately, I sort of liked Confession, as much for what it was trying to be as for what it was -- a super hero graphic novel. But although it thinks it's smart and sophisticated, and Neil Gaiman clearly agrees, it doesn't really succeed as well as it thinks it does. There are "simpler" comics that have tackled similar themes with more passion, and created characters with more dimension.

Cover price: $31.00 CDN. / $19.95 USA.

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