Within the comics industry, creating characters that are alternate riffs on the icons (like Superman and Batman) has become a craft of its own. I examined this phenomenon in another post, but wish to revisit it because some riffs are so smashingly successful that it’s hard to envision the comics landscape without them.
Astro City, created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson, is a glittering spread of inventive homage. Most of its citizens mirror Marvel and DC characters that the creators grew up adoring in the 1970s and 80s. The Confession story (issues 4-9, available in trade paperback) focuses on teen Brian Kinney, the idealistic Altar Boy, and his unsettling mentor The Confessor.
As Astro City’s Batman and Robin, this pair takes out human garbage three nights a week, thrashing muggers and dismantling chop-shops. They’re headquartered within the complex of Grandenetti Cathedral, which, as Brian tells us, is central to a “maze of interlocking buildings and pathways and courtyards, sprawling over–and under–fourteen city blocks.”
Busiek’s riffs, infused with boy-genius panache, make them far more endearing than those cranked out for money (like the flimsy Youngbood). And, like Busiek’s Marvels and Avengers Forever, Confession reads with the dramatic swells of an original graphic novel. After Altar Boy discovers his mentor’s dark secret, he says, “You wanted someone [in your life] you didn’t have to lie to.” The Confessor replies, “And… if that’s true?” As the young man’s face goes from accusatory to crestfallen, we delight in the purebred magnetism of modern superheroes. It’s a moving, have-your-friends-read-it experience.
But, just what is The Confessor’s secret? We start the tale at Brian’s shoulder, leaving small town America by bus and dropping right into the addictive pulse of city life. His motivation to become first a sidekick, then possibly a hero, is palpable. While serving tables in a dive for out-sized heroes (like the Thing and She-Hulk), he gets a break from the owner, who sees Brian’s yearning clearly. His business card for “Butler’s” leads to a job busing in a ritzy club for heroes’ alter egos.
Fate then drops a lunatic named Glue-Gun through the skylight, who takes our protagonist hostage. Luckily, growing up in an orphanage where kids mocked his dead father (and his failed medical practice) taught Brian some moves. One timely roundhouse kick later, and he’s the talk of the club. The only people unimpressed are the other busboys who’d been angling for sidekick positions for months. Before they can hospitalize our cherubic friend, The Confessor snarls from above, “I’d like to talk with the young man. Privately.”
Next comes the rooftop tour of Astro City, as Brian takes college courses by day and trains with the increasingly mysterious Confessor by night. Anderson’s sketchy art is superficially reminiscent of Neal Adams. There are no vertiginous swoops and slanting panels, however–just a wonderful range of facial expressions. They best suit the tense conversations between hero and sidekick, as Altar Boy starts to realize something.
“Why don’t we go after whoever’s killing those people in Shadow Hill?” he asks. “Shadow Hill,” The Confessor replies, “has its own protectors. And its own means of dealing with predators.” Yes, indeed. Victims are found “mutilated” there, and every time Altar Boy brings up the subject, or questions his mentor’s habit of vanishing in the night mist, he’s told forcefully to put his investigative skills to better work.
Into this lyricism on just what kind of “Creature of the Night” Batman could be, Busiek deftly layers in a threat from space, dealt with by the Honor Guard (an homage to both the Avengers and the Justice League). This heavy-hitting crew captures an alien warship for study, right around the time a hero named Crackerjack is found to be an alien imposter. This and later revelations belong (primarily) to the 70s Avengers tale The Kree/Skrull War. In the end, when the street level mystery finally ties into the superhero space opera, we see Busiek’s crackling powers on full display.
And you’re not entirely wrong to complain that, as of late, new ideas are few and far between. The argument, more about natural selection among ideas, goes all the way back to just how “swiped” most of Superman’s identity actually is. But Confession (and Astro City in general) enriches the icons to which its indebted by being sleek, comprehensive, and above all, heartfelt. So look, up in the sky–frequently and with love.