Astro City returns to Image Comics with That Was Then…

Super Blog Team-Up celebrates the 30th anniversary of Image Comics. In 1992 a group of red-hot artists decided to quit their extremely lucrative gigs drawing for Marvel Comics and found a brand-new company dedicated to publishing creator-owned series.

Image Comics may have gotten off to a rough start, but no major comic book company ever emerged fully formed, and within just a few years Image had already become an important force for creators’ rights in an industry that had a long history of exploiting talent.

Over the past three decades Image has published hundreds of great creator-owned projects. Among these is Astro City by the team of writer Kurt Busiek, interior artist Brent Anderson, and cover artist & character designer Alex Ross.

Astro City was first published by Image as a six issue miniseries in 1995. It was followed a year later by an ongoing series published under the Homage Comics imprint of Image co-founder Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Productions.  In 1998 Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, and with that sale Astro City moved over to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

I have absolutely no idea what the specifics were of the arrangement between Busiek and Wildstorm. But apparently Busiek retained ownership of Astro City even after Wildstorm was bought by DC. After 20 years of Astro City being published by DC under various imprints, Busiek finally made the decision to bring the series back to its original home, Image Comics.

Astro City: That Was Then… by Busiek, Anderson, Ross, colorist Alex Sinclair, letterers Tyler Smith & Jimmy Betancourt of Comicraft, and editor Kel Symons is the first new Astro City book released since the series’ return to Image.

Form his afterword in this issue, it sounds like for the most part Busiek had a good working relationship with DC Comics. Nevertheless, I am genuinely glad that Astro City has returned to Image. DC and Marvel, the so-called “Big Two,” have ownership of more than enough characters. Certainly both DC and Marvel have bought up more than their share of properties over the decades, so it would have been a pity to see the denizens of Astro City permanently absorbed by one of the Big Two.

UPDATE: To clarify matters, I did hear back from Kurt Busiek himself on this subject…

“DC never owned ASTRO CITY, nor did Wildstorm. It’s always been owned by Brent, Alex and me.”

Thank you, Mr. Busiek.

To date there have been over 100 issues of Astro City published. I have probably only read around 15 to 20 of those comics. Nevertheless Busiek makes the That Was Then… special very accessible to new & casual readers such as myself.

That Was Then… is set during the summer of 1969. The teen superhero group the Jayhawks have shockingly died, having lost their lives fighting the eldritch abomination The Master who was powered by the racism & hatred of the white supremacist group the White Knights.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, several other teenage heroes have gone “on the road” to figure out what to do next. Adulthood is right around the corner for these five troubled youths, and they need to decide: should they keep fighting crime, or move on with their lives?

Bugleboy, Majorette, Sunshrike, Rivets the Robot Kid and Rally can feel that change is coming, an end to the initial bright optimism of the 1960s. Both the script by Busiek and the art & coloring by Anderson & Sinclair are suffused with a contemplative, tangible mood. There is a very tangible feeling of loss and uncertainty.

Honestly, it amazes me that Anderson is not a much more popular artist. Way back in 1982 he did a superb job on the critically acclaimed X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel for Marvel, and for a quarter century he’s been doing incredible work on Astro City. Anderson is, in my mind, a very underrated artist & storyteller.

Busiek has always been incredibly adept at writing character-driven stories. Astro City is a series that definitely plays to that strength, enabling him to tell very personal, intimate stories set against a tapestry of vast, epic events, at examining the human aspects of superhumans. That is yet again on display in the That Was Then… special.

The present-day epilogue to That Was Then… featuring Astro City’s flagship hero Samaritan effectively parallels the main story. Just like the five teens from 1969, the Samaritan feels worn down & purposeless, haunted by the ominous feeling that “something’s coming, something dark.”

This reminds me of something that Alan Moore wrote in Watchmen. “Nothing ends… nothing ever ends.” Just as the progressive idealism of the 1960s was wiped away by assassinations, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and finally Ronald Reagan, so to were the hopes & dreams of Barack Obama’s election eclipsed by the resurgence of American racism, the rise of Donald Trump, and the radicalization of the Republican Party. Unfortunately so long as there are human beings there will very likely always be these struggles between the light and the darkness… and the good men & women the Samaritan represents will understandably feel beaten down by the unending fight to preserve liberty & justice.

I am looking forward to seeing what Busiek, Anderson & Ross have planned for Astro City in the future at image Comics. And I’ll also be taking the opportunity to check out their earlier stories, which Image is re-issuing as oversized MetroBook collections.

By the way, I very rarely ever purchase more than one copy of any comic books to get different variant covers. But I made an exception with Astro City: That Was Then… picking up both the main beautiful painted cover by Alex Ross and the variant cover drawn by Image co-founder & Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen featuring Malcolm Dragon alongside the Samaritan.

Larsen is one of my all-time favorite comic book creators. He and Busiek had a good working relationship in the past, having collaborated on Defenders and Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine at Marvel in the early 2000s. I’d love to see them work together again, this time on something at Image.

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3 thoughts on “Astro City returns to Image Comics with That Was Then…”

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