Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City is often pitched to people as a ‘realistic’ superhero comic. Realism is a popular claim in the post-Watchmen world, but that tends to more be focused on psychological realism. Even that is a lie – most superhero comics exist in a wide-screen action film reality with a thin layer of grit obscuring the over-the-top nature of the stories. Astro City lacks the grit, and while its world is weird and colorful, it is still typically seen as the home of ‘real world’ superhero stories. Busiek himself, however, disagrees with that assessment.
“The telephone and the airplane may have transformed our world, but the superhero and the sorcerer haven’t had anywhere near as great an effect in the world of Astro City. And I like it that way. Making a superhero world realistic – making it a hermetically-logical alternate reality in which all the pieces make sense and work logically – that strikes me less as a superhero story per se, and more as that branch of science fiction that gets its stories out of making some change in the world, and then extrapolating from it, exploring the ramifications of a change in technology, or history, or politics on all other aspects of the world.”
– Kurt Busiek, in the introduction to Astro City: Life in the Big City
But that’s not the kind of story Astro City is telling. While it does focus on some of the pretty basic differences in the way that life is lived, it also realizes that, in a ‘realistic’ superhero story, everything about the world – culture, sports, academia, law, romance – would be different on a fundamental level. The societies would be nearly unrecognizable. They would be interesting, but they would be unrecognizable.
And Astro City thrives on that sense of immediate, visceral recognition. The best stories in the series feel inevitable, like something that has always been lingering in the background of the cultural imagination just… waiting for a spotlight to land on it. You recognize the world, the characters, the emotions, the stakes – it’s familiar, in the best way possible.
In “The Nearness of You,” we are introduced to Michael Tenicek, a man who dreams of the same woman every single night. He can’t sleep. He can’t eat. He can’t function day to day. All he can do is think about this dream woman. Who is she? Has he ever met her? As he desperately searches to find any evidence that he isn’t losing his mind, he finds that he has ties to a bizarre, tragic event in his superheroic city, and he never even knew it.
To the comics-savvy, “The Nearness of You” deals with a Crisis. A huge, epic battle between a supervillain known as the Time-Keeper and Eterneon, the Lord of Time, ensued across eons of human history. The Time-Keeper loses… but the battle still has terrible consequences as time collapses. Cities vanish, monsters roam the street, and chaos reigns as heroes try to contain the awful consequences of all the meddling through time.
Superhero comics fans have seen this sort of story done a dozen times or more, often in service of giant, year-long crossover stories meant to double as marketing events. Non-superhero fans likely won’t much care about the giant beat ’em up aspect. Busiek and Anderson smartly use that familiarity as a hook, shorthand that allows them to get through the entire Big Action Fantasy Plot in roughly 4 pages and set up the story’s real conflict: The identity of Michael’s dream woman, Miranda. Because this is a story, like every great Astro City story, about people rather than about plots.
Now, the spoiler averse should skip this paragraph and go right to Comixology to pick this up. Yes, it is that good. It’s also that free. Because, to be frank, it’s impossible to discuss “The Nearness of You” without revealing Miranda’s identity as Michael’s wife, erased from time during the battle but living on in his heart even when everyone else has forgotten. This is the key to the story’s heartbreak, and to its power: Michael never knew and never could know why he was hurting. He didn’t even know she was real. He was stuck longing after the ghost of a woman who would never really exist. What follows is a difficult choice that reframes the entire issue, that turns grief into celebration without minimizing the loss. It is a truly beautiful end to a wonderful 16 page short story.
The fact is, longing is a difficult emotion to capture. It tends to be internal, solitary, private – something a lot of bombastic superhero comics struggle to portray. Busiek and Anderson remember, however, that the strength of the superhero is in its metaphoric malleability. The same character can be used as a power fantasy for children and a moral fable for working adults without having to change a single thing. If that’s the case, why not for grief over a lost love? Why not for longing, or loneliness, or coming to terms with your fantasies compared to reality? It is to the credit of “The Nearness of You” that is could be about any of those things, that it is about all of them, depending on when I read it, where I am in my life. I approach the story differently today than I did a decade back when I first encountered the work, and I suspect it will reveal something new again ten years from now.
Astro City‘s “The Nearness of You” is nuanced, emotionally rich work, and I really can’t recommend it enough.
Astro City #1/2, “The Nearness of You,” is available now in print in the Astro City: Confessions collection, and free online at Comixology. Astro City #1/2 was written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Brent Anderson.
If you’re interested in trying out some Astro City longform stories, I have recommendations below.
If you like Batman… read Astro City: Confessions
If you like film noir… read Astro City: The Tarnished Angel
If you like Wonder Woman… read Astro City: Victory
If you like short stories… read Astro City: Life in the Big City