One of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of non-comic readers getting into the medium is the perceived impenetrability that comes from a massive backlog of issues and the continuity complications that result from that history. Any comic fan who has tried to convert a friend is used to the reflexive questions about where one can even start when there are several hundred Batman issues, or seven competing X titles, or legions of characters who have moved from life to death to life to death and back again. Explaining the various alternate timelines and counter Earths and mixed up identities doesn't exactly help, so when a series pops up that has new reader friendliness front and center, it can feel a bit like a miracle.
In all its guises, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City has functioned as that sort of miracle. Full of references and deep history and set in a universe that feels remarkably thought out yet extremely easy to become immersed in, Busiek and Anderson's Astro City has stood out as a bright beacon, an optimistic, hopeful series about the potential of superherodom that is equally interesting for vets and newcomers alike. But after a long hiatus and a transition to a new home at Vertigo, the stakes for Astro City are perhaps higher than ever before; this isn't simply a return, after all, but a chance for Astro City to reach its largest ever audience and perhaps help save a flailing imprint in the process. So if you're wondering whether its first issue rises to the occasion, the simple answer is very much yes.
Busiek and Anderson have always happily integrated ideas from other comics, along with other styles and callbacks to specific eras and the new Astro City is no exception, but what's different here is the brilliant way those signature traits are utilized as new reader-friendly guide posts. The comic begins with a relatively unique take on the recap, as a madcap character named The Broken Man speaks directly to the reader in order to fill in the details of what has come before, in the process introducing our cast, or reintroducing in some cases. For superfans, The Broken Man is an Astro City interpretation of characters like the Crisis on Infinite Earth and Animal Man-era Psycho Pirate, or Shade, the Changing Man, or any number of cheeky, oddly dressed meta fellows from the British Invasion of comics. For newcomers, he's just as workable as a semi-omniscient weirdo. It may seem odd to point out a recap device, but it functions as a handy way of illustrating why Busiek has a better handle on embracing new readers than the bulk of his peers.
Rather than messily force plot summary and continuity recollection into a crammed opening page, Busiek weaves into the narrative more or less seamlessly, with Anderson rising to the task with his daredevil aesthetic antics. The partnership between Busiek and Anderson is the true star here, because both creators allow each other to shine as needed and both also know when to step back and let the story breathe on its own. Anderson deftly moves between myriad styles, from the aforementioned British Invasion to the introduction of a flashy chibi heroine to the usual cast of classic comic archetypes, and despite their vast differences, they all feel of a piece, inhabitants of a unified world. Though it's clear that the story will be fairly meta, given its "twist" ending and the Kirby being that gives the plot its thrust, it's meta in a way that's now somewhat abnormal in mainstream comics, hinging on fourth wall breaking rather than graduate level microreferences and visual footnotes. Yes, more or less every previous Astro City arc gets at least a casual reference, yes, readers are thrown right into the world without a lot of hand holding, but as Busiek states in the backmatter, the intention was to entice you to go seek out those previous stories rather than make you feel as though you'd be lost if you didn't.
As "new" introductions to long running series go, Astro City is a breath of fresh air, devoid of the murky continuity antics that bog down similar works but exciting and vital in a way that isn't common to established properties. Busiek even references his own Marvels with the introduction of an everyman character who appears to be set up to serve as the audience surrogate, yet the result still feels interesting and packed with potential rather than cliched and overdone. That's a testament to the strength of the property and the partnership that serves as its foundation, and it's the kind of thing that Vertigo's parent company would be wise to keep in mind for its own restarts and relaunches.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.