We live in the age of the pop culture revival, and the arrival of the eternal film and movie franchises, all born or borrowing from the model of superhero comics storytelling. Astro City, one of the most storied and beloved superhero comics of all time, went through a revival of its own in 2013, and that it came back as strong as ever was a miracle in and of itself. Over the course of a year, Charlotte Finn will be examining this miracle – all 52 issues – as she spends A Year in the Big City.
This is my favorite Astro City story.
It’s probably not the best – the reigning champion is still “The Nearness of You,” and you can make a case for a dozen others coming close, from “In Dreams” to “Tarnished Angels” to the Confessor storyline to the superhero call center two-parter. But this is my favorite, and it’s obvious why. A story about a Superman-like character who sees all the potential in everyone, including his arch-nemesis who is a closeted trans woman? And said arch-nemesis, once she gets her head on straight, decides to take over for him? This is like the Junji Ito story about the holes shaped like people, except the hole made specifically for me leads somewhere wonderful instead of horrible.
Which makes it not really an apt comparison to Junji Ito at all, but never mind that.
Astro City #16 was one of the very first pieces of comics criticism I ever wrote, and rather than repeat myself, I’ll just reprint, in its entirety, what I originally wrote below. Then I’ll come back with some other thoughts.
There’s a running debate in the transgender/nonbinary community as to whether people who are cisgender should be writing stories about transgender or nonbinary characters. I can see the point of saying they shouldn’t, since lived experience is absolutely a relevant factor in research, and due to the raft of inaccurate-to-offensive stereotypes about us, the chance of stumbling into one is high unless you have that experience. I don’t believe that Cameron Stewart meant to come off as transphobic in Batgirl #37, but you can still hurt someone even if you don’t mean to – otherwise, we wouldn’t have the word ‘accident.’
Personally, however, I think that no subject should be off limits for a writer, as long as you do the research. There’s no shortage of online resources about being transgender or nonbinary, and there’s lots of transgender and nonbinary people who are willing to talk to someone who’s courteous about questions (I try to be there for people, myself.) If nothing else, the right to live in stealth – being the gender you’re supposed to be, but not letting people know the path you took to it – means that you have the right to write in stealth as well, and the conclusion I draw from that is that you have to judge the narrative on its own merits, not on who wrote it.
The good news is that I have just about nothing but nice things to say about Astro City #16, which – like nearly every other issue in the series – is just about perfect.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Astro City is a series launched by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross in the wake of Marvels putting Ross and Busiek on the map. In many ways, Astro City is the promise of Marvels more fully fulfilled; following along with an unconventional viewpoint as it wanders around a superhero universe with a secret history stretching back decades and touching on every trend in superhero comics history. Even its current meta-storyline has, as its thread, a purple-skinned outsider who sees the world through comics panels, talks to the reader, and is heavily evocative of Grant Morrison and the fourth-wall breaking characters of 60’s era DC.
But big overarching metaplots in Astro City – while they have an advanced pedigree, most notably in the supervillain noir “Tarnished Angels” – are not what leaps to mind when I think of the series. I think of those perfect one or two part stories about a workaholic superhero, a volunteer at a superhero call center, a man struggling with a retcon of his beloved spouse, a single issue that defines a supervillain perfectly. And I think of this issue, which may be my favorite of them all. At the least, it’s the one most dear to my heart.
The story is anchored around a character named Starbright, who is evocative of Superboy from the Silver Age – or perhaps a better fit would be the more redemptive relationship of the Bronze Age, where Superman is trying, with occasional success, to bring Luthor around. The grain of sand that the story itself forms around is the one-day truce between the young superhero Starbright and his arch-nemesis, Simon Says – one day where Simon will, in Simon’s own way, try to rejoin society and be Starbright’s ally against evil.
But Simon doesn’t truly want to reassimilate, and it’s not hard to see why – Simon has been constantly bullied, abused and mistreated by the teenagers in this town, and Simon has responded in a tragic, but hardly unexpected, fashion. Game theory is an amateur hobby of mine, and I’ve long been fascinated with the Prisoner’s Dilemma – a rough framework explaining why and where distrust and trust are a logical course of action. It’s hard to blame Simon Says for repaying rejection with rejection, since that’s one of the most optimal ways to play the game. Not a lot of bullied teens go out and become supervillains, of course – many commit suicide instead.
But with the benefit of memory and learning – and with it, the ability to change – there is a better path, and that’s to repay trust with trust, rejection with rejection, and occasionally, rejection with trust. To take a chance on breaking a never-ending negative cycle. Starbright refuses to be stuck in the vicious cycle and continually takes the chance that there’s a good person in Simon, deep down – even when Simon is doing everything possible to kill Starbright.
But this is just the grain of sand. The smooth and beautiful pearl that forms around it, is the real attraction.
We find out later that the one good day that Simon Says enjoyed, courtesy of Starbright, was the last time they ever spoke, and not long afterwards Starbright was killed. Simon Says is devastated by this loss, and keeps dwelling on Starbright’s final call to figure out who Simon really is, and be the best version of that Simon can be. And Simon realizes that the best version of Simon is a she – that Simon is transgender.
(I took care to not refer to Simon’s gender beyond her name before this point, because it’s considered rude to use the pronouns a transgender person is no longer using, even if they were using them at the time in question.)
It’s here that the only arguable flaw in the story emerges – perhaps too much focusing on the fact that Starbright, AKA football star Chet Markham, was a straight white male, who nonetheless saw the best in everyone despite the attendant privileges of being all those things. But on reflection, it’s hardly a flaw, considering the house that Busiek is playing in. There is, after all, another superhero who is straight, white and male, whose true power is a determination to see the best in everyone… and whose name begins with an “S.”
It’s this heart, this quest for the goodness in even the heart of a villain, that makes Superman my favorite superhero, and Superman Vol. 1 #146 is the way I picture Superman’s conflict with Luthor, even when the writers go out of their way to portray Luthor as irredeemable and Superman as dismissive of whatever good may be left in him. (It’s not for nothing that a bust of Albert Einstein – the only noble person Luthor admires – makes an appearance in a background shot.) Superman sees the best you could be, and nothing would make him happier than to see that brought out. The glowing, silver-clad figure brought to life by Alex Ross’s painted cover and Brent Anderson’s warm, delicate artwork may not look like the classic Superman analogue, but he has it where it counts.
From here, we flash forward to the present, where our heroine is much further into her new life, having replicated Starbright’s transformative superpowers and used them to jumpstart a superpowered transition. (Transition is never fully done, but she seems pretty far along her own personal version of it.) She’s trying on new names – Sarah, or Sally, always something with an S (there’s that letter again…) She’s living with a childhood friend, who she once suspected of being Starbright, and who now is helping her be a superhero. He even suggests a new name for her that begins with an “S.”
The names transgender people choose for themselves is a big part of our transition, and Busiek weds it perfectly to the ritual of choosing a superhero name – or assuming a superheroic mantle, as so many have done these days with the increasing diversification of long-iconic roles. This next-to-last page (and really, it’s the last page) is where it all comes together – the inspirational nature of Superman, the joy of finding your way out of a negative cycle, the donning of a mantle that used to belong to a straight white man and now belongs to a transgender woman. It’s as if the guy with the big red “S” looked straight out of the page, at me, and said, “You? You can be the next me. You can be Superman.”
It may be impossible to communicate how much that means to me.
There will come other transgender superheroes and heroines, perhaps bolstered by the marketing arm of billion-dollar corporations, determined to keep their property updated and best suited to the trends of the present. But I doubt any of them will ever top Starbright in my eyes. There’s an element of power fantasy in there (oh, if only transition was as easy as stepping into an energy chamber) but there’s not one single thing wrong with a power fantasy. More than that, there’s a deeper fantasy in there, one of acceptance – that one day, I’ll be as accepted in my new identity as Starbright is in hers.
If someone like Kurt Busiek, who – unless I missed something – is not transgender, can write such a splendid take on a transgender superhero, maybe there’s hope that someday soon, the rest of the world will be just as accepting.
Hope is where the superhero lives.
I stand by pretty much all of this; this story (written by Kurt Busiek, with line art by Brent Anderson and color art by Wendy Broome and Alex Sinclair, letters from John G Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt, and a cover by Alex Ross) is top notch. But I’m a little older and hopefully a little wiser, so I have a couple of things to add.
First, there’s the uncomfortable notion that what makes Starbright complete – a superpowered transition – is also what makes her friend and later, boyfriend complete as well, his spine being fixed. My experiences with disability activists tell me that disabled people don’t like treating what is a core part of their identities as something that needs to be repaired – they’d prefer understanding and help from others, which anyone can provide, over miracle cures that are so far, just fiction.
I can only plead ignorance at not having spotted this the first time around; miracle medicine is something I think is perfectly okay to dream about, but in this case the miracle medicine, even as it confirms my identity, would be erasing someone else’s. I was thinking in terms of medication that would cure depression (take your meds, by the way) instead of a hypothetical treatment that would “cure” autism, which is ableist. I can only say, mea culpa, and thanks to the disability activists out there for giving me a different POV on this.
On the subject of magical medicine, it’s an off-and-on debate within the trans community as to whether or not magical medicine, of the poof-you’ve-transitioned variety, belongs in fiction – even fiction as fantastic as a superhero comic. The argument against is that poof-you’ve-transitioned isn’t how it works in the real world, and implying that this is what it’s like to be trans is setting prospective trans people up for dashed expectations when they get to the grindingly hard process that is transition.
They have a point. But it is a debate, and one with two sides. I keep coming back to this debate from the late, great Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, about fiction’s obligation towards accuracy versus its potential to uplift.
What it comes down to is that if your first encounter with the racial politics of the 1960s – or your first encounter with a trans or otherwise gender-non-conforming person – is via the fantastical, that can indeed give you a skewed perspective. But if that’s the case, is that really a failure of fiction? If a story about a supervillain called Simon Says who uses antigravity to disrupt small town football is your first exposure to trans people, should the blame be laid at the feet of what is, in the end, a work of fiction – which will always be an imperfect educator – or at the feet of an education system that is still fundamentally regressive when it comes to gender, sexuality and race?
I go back and forth. We should do what we can, as critics and artists. But we also have an obligation outside of art to ensure that policy is set that doesn’t skew the world, its culture, and its history for everyone who goes through the education system, not just fans of comic books. And in a system that contributes to a reality that is grimmer than it ought to be for those caught on the margins, fiction that provides a vision of a safer, more fantastical world has a place. But then again, if that fiction is mistaken for the way things are rather than the way things should be, does the good it provides outweigh the harm it might – not will, but might – cause, even if that harm is due to placing a responsibility on it that isn’t necessarily its burden to bear?
There’s no easy answer, which is why critical debate is vital, and I have a soft spot for this comic in part because it was one of the first pieces of criticism I ever wrote, leading me towards a job at ComicsAlliance with some wonderful people and a lot of very intelligent debate. It’s impossible to separate this comic from what it meant to me back then, and the road it led my life down – a road I’m still on, all these years later.
That’s it for this week. Next week is: magic sponge cake! Invasions by tiny universes! Grand comics bullshit and a guest artist or six! All in a week’s time. See you then!