Astro City comics, by Kurt Busiek, are at their best when they are telling human, not superhuman, stories. One of the first stories to really hit home was in Volume 1, Life in the Big City. Titled "Dreams," it featured a character named The Samaritan most would identify as a superman archetype. He is completely self-sacrificing and never finds a moments rest while trying to stop all the world’s calamities. However, we are given a glimpse at just how ordinary his emotions are when we find him lamenting the opportunity to have a moments peace and just enjoy flying.
Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is an even better example of a human story. It features an ex-con, SteelJack, with plenty of muscle and bullet-proof metal skin, who has just gotten out of prison. He is trying to go straight; all he wants is work and a simple life. The story opens with his release, and you immediately understand how simple is going to be difficult for him. His physical attributes make him stand out. People immediately recognize him, know his past, and are nervous around him. In addition, he gets a visit from The Samaritan who tells SteelJack that he will be watching him. As The Samaritan flies off, SteelJack thinks:
“An all I can do is watch him go, soaring off all graceful an’ free like he belongs in the sky, like he’s some kinda—some kinda angel. And I wonder what it would be like. Just once, to do that. To just go, like a dream, like magic, like a miracle—instead o’ being stuck here on the ground, eight hundred pounds of ugly metal nobody wants or needs.”
On top of this, he carries the weight of a mother’s disappointment and a young man’s life on his shoulders; he once shot a kid named Jose. Out of prison, he goes to visit both of their graves, apologizing to each of them. He always wanted to buy an angel to put atop his mother’s gravestone, but could never afford one. He lays on the ground awhile, atop his mother’s stone which has been knocked over, but the ground is even colder for someone with metal skin. Finally, he gets up and attempts to fix her stone:
“I prop it up, fix it as best I can, but it still looks broken—and I look around at the busted trees, and the scarred-up ground—and I think about what’s on the plate for tomorrow—and the old feelings are still there. I just want to run far and fast, and get away—but I been runnin’ all my life now—and I’m still in the same place…”
SteelJack’s desperation, his desire to escape his life, his place, everything, and start over, is a feeling everyone has had at some point.
Eventually, SteelJack does find a job within his old neighborhood, Kiefer Square, although it means associating with known felons (a parole violation). He is hired by the families of other felons, villains, who are being murdered. Law enforcement really doesn’t care to help since these are known felons, but the families care. They hire SteelJack to find out who is killing them, why, and to put a stop to it.
However, SteelJack is no Batman detective. He fails to stop the murders, and doubts he has what it takes to ever make a difference:
“I can’t do this. I’m just muscle and bulletproof skin—there’s nothing inside. No brains, no courage, nothing. I don’t even know what questions to ask, even if people’d listen to me. I head back to Kiefer Square, planning to tell everyone I’m quitting, that I’m not up to the job they gave me. It’s not like they don’t know it already.”
SteelJack with find himself on the wrong side of the law, battling both heroes and villians, and facing more time in prison as a result of his detective job. He’ll ask for help from both sides of the law, even appealing to the superheroes, angels as he calls them. Finally, SteelJack comes to understand one thing about the whole situation:
“The angels failed me. Kiefer Square’s got only one chance left. And it ain’t much of one, Lord knows. But I’m all they got. And I’m hundreds of miles away, and it’s all going down tonight. So I better get moving.”
On top of a great story, the art is very well-done in this graphic novel. SteelJack is drawn so well; the facial expressions are outstanding and weariness around his eyes speaks volumes. The entire art staff should be proud of this one. Astro City: The Tarnished Angel is a great read about a former villain, an aging tough, who is trying to do one thing right in a city where all he’s ever done is wrong.