DF Interview: Kurt Busiek returns fan-favorite ‘Astro City’ to comics, beginning with the ‘That Was Then...’ one-shot
By Byron Brewer
Who were the Jayhawks? How did they inspire five teen sidekicks looking for answers to hit the road in a rickety crime mobile in 1969? And how will this affect Astro City in the present? This one-shot special features new and existing heroes and launches a mystery that will drive the forthcoming Astro City series.
Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Ross, Alex Sinclair and Comicraft team up for the return of Astro City in an all-new special from Image Comics. As soon as I saw the ‘Astro City’ name, I contacted my friend Kurt Busiek and got the 411 on the March one-shot – Astro City: That Was Then… – and more!
Byron Brewer: Kurt, tell us about this return of Astro City at Image Comics. I take it this new one-shot is a special issue to launch a new Astro City series? Why is now THE time for this great comics property to return?
Kurt Busiek: Yes, we’re doing the one-shot special first, then we’ll be finishing up a non-Astro City graphic novel called The Gods on Sunday Morning, which we were working on while we sorted out the business stuff around moving Astro City from DC back to Image, and then we’ll start in on a new Astro City series.
As for why now, well — now is when we got it all put together! Things at DC kind of ground to a halt as Vertigo got closed down, we had some business crap to solve over the planned graphic novel, and DC kind of refocused on their core properties more and more as they kept reorganizing.
So it was clear then that we’d be better off elsewhere — we’ve been very happy at DC over the years, and are leaving with no hard feelings or complaints on either side — but it was just clear that DC’s focus at present wasn’t one that made it easy to support Astro City, while Image was very interested in us returning. So we did all the business stuff around politely detaching from DC and negotiating a new deal at Image, and got started working on new material, and hey, here we are!
Byron: Before we dive into this one-shot, Kurt, can you throw a spotlight on the series with its history. How did it start, what was it about and what will be different / the same in both this one-shot and the coming Astro City comic?
Kurt Busiek: Astro City started off in the far-flung past of 1995, in the wake of Alex Ross’s and my success with Marvels. I wanted to do a series about different perspectives on life in a superhero world — what it’s like around the corner and down the street from the big fights, as it were — and Alex was willing to come along and do covers and character designs. And we roped in Brent Anderson along the way, and started up the series at Image.
I guess the nutshell description of the series is that it’s set in and around a large American city with more than its share of superheroes, villains, mad scientist, monsters and more, and we tell stories about what it’s like to live in a world like that, from the point of view of anyone who’s got an interesting story to tell — bystanders, reporters, alien spies, aging supervillains, the heroes themselves…anyone whose story will give us a different angle on things. And it’s done pretty well for us — not only are we still going, over 25 years later, but we’ve won a mess of awards along the way, to boot. We’ve created a huge number of characters, built a superhero history going back to the days of the wild West (and earlier), and an ever-expanding universe that just keeps getting more complex and weirder.
As for what’s coming, the short answer is “More of that,” and the slightly longer answer is “A lot more of that!” We have lots of characters to explore, lots of stories to tell, more heroes to introduce, and we’ll continue to be, hopefully, intriguing, unpredictable and engaging, giving readers the kind of stories that other superhero books don’t get to tell. From the secrets of the N-Forcer to the machinations of the Broken Man to the future of Honor Guard, there’s a lot cooking and plenty to explore.
As for what’s different, I think we’re going to mix things up in different ways in this series. We’ve told two major arcs of the series over 100 issues so far, and we’ve got a third major arc to go, one that kicks off in this new special, that will bring together a lot of what’s been going on behind the scenes, and lead us to what might be a conclusion for the series. But not for a while yet to come — these “arcs” play out across multiple stories to show us different viewpoints and different aspects of the world, and we’ve got plenty more of that to go.
But as we go into this arc, I want to get more of a sense of interaction going on in the stories — so far, the stories have all been mostly self-contained (with underlying threads running through them), and I’d kind of like to have more things happening at once now, so readers can feel, as the heroes will, that the mounting threats and concerns of Astro City are affecting everything happening in the city. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’ll be fun to read.
And for anyone who’s missed the series before now and wants to catch up, we’ll be collecting the series to date in a couple of formats — in a set of six chunky “MetroBooks,” starting in March, that’ll give new readers a great way to get the whole series to date, and later on we’re planning oversized hardcover omnibus editions with all the bells and whistles we can come up with, as the ultimate collectors’ edition for series fans who want it all, and then some.
Byron: What can you tell us about this special one-shot? It involves something about five teen sidekicks to previous heroes in 1969?
Kurt Busiek: It does! It’s set in the summer of 1969, when five teen heroes who are all turning 18 that year go on a road trip — they’ve brought a dilapidated old 1940s crime mobile from a police auction, fixed it up, and headed out across America, having adventures along the way, and trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their adult lives, who they’re going to be. Are they going to take on new identities? Go to college? Are they even going to stay superheroes?
All of this also involves a teen hero team called the Jayhawks, headquartered in Kansas, who have been a direct inspiration on these other heroes, and it all sets up a mystery that, even as the teen heroes in 1969 are figuring things out for themselves, will affect Astro City in 2022 and beyond. So while this story works on its own, it’ll also create threads that’ll flow into the new series, both repercussions of what’s happened back then and who these kids have become over the next 53 years.
Action! Adventure! Triumph, tragedy — and a weenie roast! Who could ask for more?
Byron: OMG, don’t remind me ‘69 was over 50 years ago! *sigh* … Can you introduce your protagonists in Astro City: That Was Then? Maybe spotlight them here?
Kurt Busiek: Hmm, let’s see…
There are Bugleboy and Majorette, who’ve been sidekicks to a hero named Musicman. They’ve been dating, and this summer might bring them closer together or tear them apart, and they’re not sure how they feel about that.
There’s Sunshrike, who we’ve seen before, but she was about 15 years older then, and was the adult mentor of a sidekick herself, a youngster named Nightingale. We’ve seen Nightingale as an adult, too, where she’s mentoring the young Sunbird. But in 1969, Sunshrike’s a sidekick herself, to a super heroine named Nightflyer. She’s got this whole generational legacy thing going on. So we know what’s going to happen to her, at least in the broad strokes.
Then there’s Rivets the Robot Kid, who is not a sidekick. He’s a robot teenager, who has adventures on his own, but he’s friends with the others. As someone who’s been a “teenager” since he was created in 1951, he’s got a different perspective on life, aging, and even humanity than the others.
And last there’s Rally, sidekick to Roadracer, who is facing the biggest life upheaval of all of them this summer. He’s got racing-type powers, as you probably can figure out, but even his speed isn’t always fast enough to reach his goals in time. And he’s dealing with the results of that.
So it’s them, Professor Grimm’s old crime mobile and the open road. But it’s a lot more than that, too, as you’ll see…
Byron: Give readers a brief storyline summary for this issue. Do I understand it involves both new AND existing heroes?
Kurt Busiek: I don’t really want to give you a summary — I want readers to find out what happens by reading the story! If I tell you about things like the mystery of the Jayhawks now, you won’t be surprised by it when the issue comes out.
But yes, it’s got new characters — quite a few, between these teen heroes, the Jayhawks, a whole mess of villains, other teen heroes they know and spend time with…there’s probably more new characters seen in this story than you’d get in six months to a year of another series, maybe longer.
And there are existing heroes — we’ve already mentioned Sunshrike, and there’s at least one more teen hero we haven’t mentioned yet who pops up, and a successor to yet another teen hero we’ve seen in the past. And there are adult heroes as well, both back in 1969 and in the present day, who we see when the story shifts to the present.
But I’ve already rattled off a lot about the story — I can’t tell you all of it up front!
Byron: So tell me about the involvement of Brent Anderson, Alex Ross and others in this all-new special? Along with you, that’s a heapin’ helpin’ of comics talent!
Kurt Busiek: I’ve been very lucky, really. When we started Astro City, back in the Cretaceous Era, I figured that Brent and Alex would eventually decide they’d done enough of this crazy series, and they’d want to move on to something else. But they’ve stuck around, and I’m honored that they did.
We have the whole team back together — Brent, Alex and I have been on it since the beginning, and Alex Sinclair joined us as colorist when we moved from Image over to Homage Comics in 1996 (and then Homage, which was part of Wildstorm, was bought by DC, which is how we wound up over there). Anyway, Alex was exclusive with DC when we started arranging the return to Image, and we thought that meant we were going to lose him. Instead, it turned out that he went non-exclusive, and was free to stick with us, so he’ll be coloring Astro City on an ongoing basis, as well as The Gods on Sunday Morning graphic novel.
And of course Comicraft has been with us since the beginning — since before the beginning, since they lettered Marvels. They’ve been through staff changes over the years, but Richard Starkings is still running the studio, and we’re thrilled to still be working with him. With the whole team.
Byron: And speaking of comics talent, look at some of the artists on this book’s cover gallery! Erik Larsen, Marcelo Costa, Leandro Fernandez, Jamie McKelvie and more! Talk about this awesome welcome back for Astro City!
Kurt Busiek: That was amazing. I’ve mentioned a couple of times how this is a return to Image for us, and the covers are a real “welcome back.” Each of the variant cover artists is the artist of a current or classic Image series, and they’re showcasing Astro City in their own book’s style — from Erik Larsen and Marcelo Costa teaming up Astro City heroes with Savage Dragon and Radiant Black, to Jamie McKelvie and Chip Zdarksy doing our characters in the style of The Wicked & the Divine and Sex Criminals. Leandro bringing in the Old Guard, and Rob Guillory having Tony Chu visit an Astro City fast food joint — everyone’s done a striking and unique cover that feels like more than your usual variant. I can’t wait to see the whole set as printed comics.
Byron: Kurt, not that this isn’t spectacular enough, but are there any other projects you are doing that you can tell our readers about?
Kurt Busiek: Well, Carlos Pacheco and I have got Arrowsmith: Behind Enemy Lines launching later this month, and of course Yildiray Cinar and I are still doing The Marvels for Marvel.
The Gods on Sunday Morning, which I have mentioned, is also by the Astro City team, but it’s not set in that world. I think it’ll still appeal to our audience, though, because it’s got a lot of the same similarity. But instead of being about superheroes, it’s about gods and mythology. It features four ancient, almost-forgotten gods who are part of a community of similarly-forgotten gods, living in Los Angeles and getting together every Sunday morning for breakfast in the ghost of a 1950s diner.
And it’s about more than that, too, but I’m sure we’ll be able to talk more about it when it’s ready to come out.
Beyond that, Benjamin Dewey and I are working toward the return of The Autumnlands, and Fabian Nicieza, Stephen Mooney and I are starting up a new superhero/SF series called Free Agents.
So I’m pretty busy in 2022, as you can probably figure. I’m having a blast, and I hope readers are going to enjoy it all.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Kurt Busiek for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. The Astro City: That Was Then... one-shot from Image Comics is slated to be on sale March 30th!
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