Wow. Wow. Wow. Is it possible for a sequel to be better than the original? For the second time only in my life I would have to say yes (the first of course being Empire Strikes Back). Busiek and crew deliver yet again and this collection is so very different from the first. In the first volume, we see an anthology of stories centered around different characters and the laying of the foundation of Astro City. This volume is a narrative following a young man from the countryside moving to the big city to live among heroes, and possibly to become one himself. This is very much a coming of age story and a story of vindication and self-realization, all tied up in an engrossing multi-part narrative.
Young Brian Kinney moves to Astro City after the death of his father to meet the heroes he reads about and sees on television. Along the way he is taken in by the Confessor (kind of campy, but really, really bad ass). The Confessor is a former Priest who, for surprise plot reasons I will not reveal, has turned to a life of crime fighting. The Confessor is the Batman of the Astro City universe and the hero Kinney becomes is very analogous to the Boy Wonder. The Confessor is a detective who uses reason, the night, psychology and fear to bring down his enemies.
There are several major themes explored in this volume, the most prominent of which is the resolution of a child trying to outgrow their parents' shadow and come into their own. Busiek handles the adolescent angst in a way that is not melodramatic or corny, making Altar Boy into something of a mix between the Jason Todd Robin and Tim Drake Robin, a very nice combination. Also discussed is the fundamental nature of a hero, something that can be old and trite, but is definitely not in Busiek's hands. Kinney arrives in Astro City wanting to make a name for himself. To be somebody. He does very well as a crime fighter, and when the people are applauding, he loves his job. When the people of Astro City turn on their protectors, he loses faith and some of the best lines of dialogue in the entire volume are the conversations he has with his mentor about why he does what he does. It's brilliant and quite sobering to comic nerds who get so wrapped up in the thoughts of glory and power (even while you'd admittedly want to do good) that more often than not this would be a thankless job.
The story ark will seem very familiar to fans of the marvel universe who, after reading this story, I charge with outright plagiarism. The heroes of Astro City and its citizenry are in a panic. There is a murderer loose on Shadow Hill and no one seems to be able to stop him (or her, that's never really made clear). Tensions mount as the heroes fail to protect the citizens and the mayor orders all heroes with mystic powers to register with the government. Sound familiar? Anyone familiar with Marvel's Civil War storyline will realize it's the exact same, except written almost a decade before hand. All of the confusion caused by humans fighting against and forcing the registration of heroes masks an underlying alien invasion. Turns out those nasty alien shapeshifters were manipulating the panic and chaos to prepare for their invasion. Sound familiar? This was the storyline Marvel used in it's Secret Invasion story arc earlier this year. Turns out Busiek combined the two most significant Marvel events of the past two years or so into one story a decade before Marvel did it. And guess what? He does it way, way better.
To the comic shop for volume three!