Kurt Busiek's Astro City is a comic book series centered around a fictional American city of that name. Written by Kurt Busiek, the series is co-created and illustrated by Brent Anderson with character designs and painted covers by Alex Ross. The first series debuted in August 1995 published by Image Comics, and since then has been published by Homage Comics (now part of Wildstorm Signature Series).
Astro City is set in a world where superheroes have existed since at least the 19th century: the first public hero, Air Ace, appeared soon after World War I. Busiek, Anderson and Ross have crafted a complex world with a huge cast of characters, many of whom have extensive backstories sketched out which are revealed as the series progresses.
The series is an anthology that focuses on different characters living within Astro City and the stories are usually narrated from a first person perspective from the story's protagonist. Some issues of the series are one- or two-part stories, while others run as many as seven issues in an extended arc.
The essential hook of Astro City is that it explores the reactions that people -- both ordinary people and the heroes and villains themselves -- have to living in their world. For example, in the first story, the character Samaritan reflects on his life during a typical day, in which he spends almost all of his waking hours flying around the world to help people, and never has any time to enjoy the sheer physical sensation of flight. Other stories involve a date between two high-profile heroes, the initiation of a "kid sidekick" hero, the efforts of a reformed supervillain to find a life outside of prison, a superhero being driven away from Earth by his "love's" attempts to expose him, and the life of an innocent bystander in the days after having been held hostage by a supervillain.
While the focus has been on Astro City itself, the series does mention (and at times occasionally shows) heroes from other cities such as Boston's Silversmith, Chicago's The Untouchable and New York City's Skyscraper. Some members of Honor Guard hail from other cities such as MPH from Detroit and the Black Rapier from New Orleans. There have also been appearances from international heroes such as England's the Lion and the Unicorn. Such appearances are fleeting as the focus is always on Astro City itself.
Astro City is the seat of Hood County in an unspecified state. Though there is an actual Hood County in Texas, the name was chosen by Busiek because it "is another play on secret IDs; Mask County or Cowl County wouldn't have sounded right."  The city was originally called Romeyn Falls (until its rebuilding, post-World War II). At that time it was renamed in honor of the superhero Astro-Naut, who apparently, at the cost of his own life, saved the city from an as yet unrevealed devastating disaster.
The bulk of the city is contained between the Wildenberg and Gaines rivers, which define its western and eastern edges, respectively. Mount Kirby hems in the built-up area to the north. The Wildenberg merges into the Gaines to the south; in the juncture lies the prison facility of Biro Island. The remains of Torres Island, destroyed by an explosion in 1983, lie between it and the city proper. The Gaines is navigable below Astro City (there are "seaport shops" near Astro City's southern end), but the "Falls" in its original name suggests that it is at the river's head of navigation (though the falls could be on the Wildenberg rather than the Gaines, or on both rivers).
Astro City is made up of numerous neighborhoods, which include the rebuilt City Center, centered around Binderbeck Plaza; Old Town; Chesler (also known as "The Sweatshop"); Shadow Hill; Bakerville; Derbyfield; Museum Row/Centennial Park; Iger Square; Kiefer Square; Kanewood; South Kanewood; Fass Gardens; Gibson Hills; and Patterson Heights.
Notable locations in Astro City are the Astrobank Tower, home of the Astro City Beacon, the city's warning beacon; the tower also has a statue of Air Ace in front. Other locations include Grandenetti Cathedral; the Outcault Bridge; Bruiser's, a bar catering to heroes; Butler's, a private club for the superhero set; and Beefy Bob's, a fast-food chain.
Outside the angle between the rivers comprising the city proper are outlying suburbs such as Goldwater Heights, west of the Wildenberg. The area's primary college, Fox-Broome University, known for its advanced biolabs, would appear to be in a similar suburb to the southwest. Wildenberg Center, a failed riverfront development, is also southwest of the city.
Astro City’s world is also populated by additional fictional towns, as well as real ones. One other fictional town that has been shown is Buchanan Corners, a long overnight bus-ride somewhere to the east of the city.
Most of the city's physical features, neighborhoods, streets and businesses, as well as the other fictional locales in its world, are named for past individuals or characters associated with the comic book industry and comics history.
For example, the nearby Alcatraz-like penitentiary, Biro Island (where Steeljack once served time) is a reference to comics creator Charles Biro (famous for the comics series "Crime Does Not Pay").
Astro City has been stated to be a city in the western United States, presumably west of the Mississippi River due to the "K-designations" of two stations (KBAC, KACT). Since it is portrayed as an inland city at the juncture of two major rivers, a location in the Mississippi/Missouri watershed, or possibly either the Columbia or Sacramento river basins might be implied, depending on how far west Astro City is. Busiek, however, notes that the local geography, including the rivers and Mount Kirby to the north of the city, is entirely fictional.
References within the series to real cities demonstrate that Astro City is not intended to occupy the place of Anchorage, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Denver, Salina, Junction City, Topeka, Leavenworth, St. Louis, the Quad Cities, Chicago, or Detroit; most of these also lack anything approaching the requisite geography. All of Iowa and Wyoming are effectively ruled out as locations by references to them by characters in Astro City as if they are different states from the one in which the city is situated. An argument for the Midwest in general is a story in which the floating Honor Guard headquarters is said to be temporarily positioned over that region, and the members of that hero group travel directly from their base to Astro City in response to a bank robbery.
The best clues as to Astro City’s whereabouts come from the experiences of the character Steeljack as he flees the city and then returns to it. After heading south out of town along the river he is next found in a truck heading east on Interstate 70 in Kansas, twenty miles west of Salina. He proceeds thence by various means east to Pittsburgh, the then-current location of Honor Guard headquarters, from which he is flown back towards Astro City in a jet that crashes “hundreds of miles” from its target. He completes the journey in a biplane commandeered in Wyoming.
A direct line north from the point we encounter Steeljack in Kansas delivers no promising geography for Astro City short of South Dakota, which seems too far north, and we do not know how far south or east he had traveled at this point, or if these were the sole directions he took. His return journey from Pittsburgh points further west, since the stop in Wyoming was short of his goal. On present evidence Northern California or the Pacific Northwest would seem the most likely possible locales.
Real World Analogs
Busiek has not given any information as to what analog Astro City has in the real world or if it actually has one. As a western city, it shares some similarities to actual western cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, yet also has echoes of cities in Texas such as San Antonio and Houston. It also has features recalling American riverfront cities such as St. Louis, Missouri.
Series artist Anderson has used photo references from as far afield as New York City in creating the physical look of Astro City, and Busiek also implies such a connection, by noting that the City Center started out as the "Dutch" section of town (this reference could also be an allusion to Romeyn de Hooghe, the early Dutch caricaturist who provides the city's original name.) A published draft version of the Astro City map shows that certain aspects of its layout were in fact consciously modeled on New York. Similarities to Boston are also prevalent (an early story references a real article from a Boston newspaper, rewritten with an Astro City byline), which is not surprising given that Kurt Busiek lived there for some years.
- Main article: List of characters in Astro City series
The world of Astro City has numerous heroes and villains in the cast, as well as normal, everyday civilians and other, sometimes stranger, entities. The influences that inspire the creation and definition of the character are rich and diverse. Kurt has delved deep into various forms of literature, spanning a broad range of history providing the characters of Astro City with structure and texture that are the very essence of myth-based storytelling. Several characters have also been modeled on actual persons, a standard process that most writers employ to develop solid, deep characterization. Kurt has been especially fond of paying tribute to famous actors and specific people from the comic book industry itself.
Some of the more prominent Heroes and Villains of Astro City are listed below; see the article on Astro City Characters for a more complete listing.
- The Black Rapier---current leader of Honor Guard but was shown in vol 2, issue 10 to be the resident hero of New Orleans. Dresses in a black fencing outfit with mask covering his entire head and carries a sword with electrical properties.
- The Confessor (featured) - a mysterious vigilante with a dark secret, apparently active from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. After his death, his apprentice Altar Boy became the second Confessor.
- Crackerjack (featured) - An egocentric, reckless blowhard with amazing agility and a staff weapon. Active since 1991. Visually akin to screen swashbucklers and actors like Errol Flynn who portrayed them, he also recalls the disconnect that frequently existed between their sterling public personas and unappealing private behavior. A master of disguise, he was once captured by police but they still couldn't figure out his real identity.
- The Gentleman - a powerful, immaculate and unfailingly-polite hero active in Astro City, apparently unaging, since the early 1940s. An homage to Captain Marvel|.
- The Hanged Man (featured) - A ghostly figure who protects Shadow Hill, appearing as a floating apparition with a burlap sack over his head and a noose around his neck. His powers include the ability to expand to great heights and a kind of empathy that guides him to those in need of comfort after traumatic events. Active in Astro City since the 19th century; rumored to have existed since at least the Middle Ages.
- MPH--"The Acceleration Ace," an African-American with super-speed and member of Honor Guard. His powers apparently come from a "15% overlay" of alien energies. Was revealed in vol 2, Issue 10 to be the resident hero of Detroit.
- Jack-in-the-Box (viewpoint) - a bouncy clown-themed vigilante with no powers but agility and an arsenal of clown-themed weaponry. The role has been taken by three men; Jack Johnson, active from 1964-1983 (when he died), Jack's son Zachary Johnson, active from 1989 through the mid 1990s, and Zachary's protégé Roscoe James, active afterwards.
- Samaritan (viewpoint) - An extremely powerful hero who traveled from the future to make the world a better place. Appeared in this era in 1985; active as a hero since 1986. A current member of Honor Guard. Is sometimes referred to as "Big Red".
- Silver Agent (featured) - An armored vigilante who suffered a tragic fate, active from 1956 through the early 1970s and now deceased. A founding member of Honor Guard. An exemplar of the patriotic hero archetype established by Captain America and the Shield. He embodies and is even named after the Silver Age of Comic Books.
- Winged Victory (featured) - A feminist, Greco-Roman themed superhero, controversial due to her emphasis on saving women before men regardless of the situation; stigmatized as a "cult leader" for funding of women's centers and clinics. Several sources influenced the design of the costume, in particular the Hellenistic sculpture of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
- Bridwell (viewpoint) - Enelsian spy gathering intelligence on Earth's heroes; enamored of humanity's better instincts, but ultimately disgusted by mankind's baser ones. Name and encyclopedic knowledge based on E. Nelson Bridwell.
- The Conquistador (featured) - a mysterious armored villain who hired villains from Kiefer Square and elsewhere as part of a grand scheme to gain back lost respect; secretly the disgraced hero El Hombre.
- The Deacon (featured) - soft-spoken lord of "ordinary" organized crime in Astro City. The police have never been able to connect him with the crimes his underlings commit.
- The Enelsians (featured) - A matriarchal alien race that invaded Earth, with Astro City as their focal point. Defeated when the Confessor sacrificed his life to expose their plan. The name of the race is a sly homage to E. Nelson Bridwell. See also Bridwell.
- Infidel (viewpoint) - Samaritan's arch-enemy, a slave who became an immortal mystic and mage during the Middle Ages. Tired of being treated as an enemy for exploring alchemy, he opened a portal to the 36th century where the Earth was in ruins and humanity dead. Recruiting slaves by grabbing people from major disasters (Pompeii, the Black Plague, the Titanic), he built an empire for himself. When Samaritan changed the timestream in 1986, Infidel's future was changed and he used his abilities to go back in time and try to restore the "paradise" he had made. He and Samaritan did battle, Samaritan always protected by the changes in time but Infidel managing to escape. Eventually, they realized neither could defeat the other and settled on a truce. Infidel now lives in a palace outside the time stream and he and Samaritan meet once a year, each attempting to persuade the other to his point of view.
- The Junkman (viewpoint) — an aged villain seeking vengeance on society for age discrimination. Recycles and enhances his weaponry from discarded trash. His origin, inventive genius, and use of gimmicks parallel those of his primary antagonist Jack-in-the-Box.
- The Mock Turtle (viewpoint) - a generally docile and polite man who grew up obsessed with fantasies, especially Alice in Wonderland. He eventually became a costumed criminal, employing a weaponized armor themed after the Alice' character from which he drew his name. He was murdered as a part of The Conquistador's scheme, thrown off the top of a building to his death.
- Shirak the Devourer (featured) - a shark-like demon from another dimension that attempted to invade the Earth in 1959 and 1964. Stopped in one of the first (and rather odd) missions of the newly-formed Honor Guard.
- The Time-Keeper (featured) - a time-stopping villain from the 1940s who nearly destroyed time itself in an attempt to remove superheroes from the world.
- The Astro City Irregulars (featured) - a group of outcast heroes founded by Bravo in the early to mid 1970s; its original roster also included Alligator, Skitter, Switchblade, and Umbra; Orphan was added to the membership as a result of their first case. The modern roster consists of Juice (the apparent leader), Ruby, Palmetto, Homegirl(formerly Jailbait), El Robo and Stray.
- The Crossbreed (featured) - a group of pariah religious heroes, consisting of Noah, Daniel, Peter, Mary, David and Joshua. Stigmatized by society as "Jesus freaks." Based on biblical figures.
- The First Family (featured) - A family of interdimensional explorers and superheroes consisting of brothers Augustus and Julius Furst, Augustus' adopted children Nick and Natalie, Natalie's dinosaur-like husband Rex, and their daughter Astra.
- Honor Guard (featured) - the most prestigious grouping of superheroes. Founded in 1959 by Max O'Millions; its original roster also included the Silver Agent, Starwoman, Leopardman and Kitkat, the first N-Forcer, and the first Cleopatra. Other heroes who have been members include the Mermaid, El Hombre, Hummingbird, Mirage, the Living Nightmare, and Starfighter. The modern roster consists of the Black Rapier (current leader), Beautie, Cleopatra (II), M.P.H., the current N-Forcer, Quarrel (II), and Samaritan. As an agglomeration of otherwise independent heroes, Honor Guard is similar to the archetypical super team the Justice Society of America and such modern descendants as the Justice League of America and the Avengers.
- The Unholy Alliance (featured) - a group of villains led by Demolitia. Current members include Flame-thrower, Glowworm, Slamburger and Spice; apparently other villains have also been members in the past.
- Looney Leo (viewpoint) - A cartoon lion brought to life in 1946, he was briefly the Gentleman's sidekick, then a media star, homeless bum, supervillain's pawn and recluse before becoming host of a nostalgic nightclub bearing his name in the entertainment district. Funny animal sidekicks are a rarity in superhero comics, most occurring in the Golden Age of Comics with one of the better know examples being Tawky Tawny. Body language and visual sense of the character is consciously modeled after Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Rick in the film classic Casablanca.
- Steeljack (Carl "Carlie" Donewicz) (viewpoint) - A former supervillain and member of the villain group the Terrifying Three. He is a resident of Kiefer Square who attempts to reform after serving his time. Active as a villain from about 1970 to 1978; in prison from 1978-1998. Later tapped by former associates to investigate the string of "Black Mask" murders. Consciously modeled after Robert Mitchum.
- Astro City: Life in the Big City (ISBN 1-56389-551-X, collects Astro City Vol. 1 #1-6)
- Astro City: Confession (ISBN 1-56389-550-1, collects Astro City Vol. 2 #1/2, 4-9)
- Astro City: Family Album (ISBN 1-56389-552-8, collects Astro City Vol. 2 #1-3, 10-13)
- Astro City: Tarnished Angel (ISBN 1-56389-663-X, collects Astro City Vol. 2 #14-20)
- Astro City: Local Heroes (ISBN 1-4012-0281-0, collects Astro City Vol. 2 #21-22, Astro City: Local Heroes #1-5, Astro City Special: Supersonic, "After the Fire")
Astro City won both the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series for 1996, the Eisner for Best Continuing Series for 1997 and 1998, the Harvey for Best Continuing or Limited Series for 1998, and was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Limited Series for 1997. The earliest collection Astro City: Life in the Big City, won the Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work for 1997 and the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Reprint Graphic Novel/Album for 1997. Astro City: Confession was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Reprint Graphic Album of 1998 and 1999. Astro City: Family Album was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Reprint Graphic Album of 1999.
Particular stories or storylines have also come in for honors. Astro City #1 won the 1996 Harvey for Best Single Issue or Story, while #4, "Safeguards," took the Eisner for Best Single Issue/Single Story for the same year. The 1997 and 1998 Eisners went to vol. 2, #1, "Welcome to Astro City," and vol. 2, #10, "Show 'Em All," respectively, and the 1998 Eisner for Best Serialized Story went to vol. 2, #4-9's "Confession" storyline.
"Welcome to the Big City" in Volume 2 #1 was a top vote-getter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Comic-Book Story for 1997. The story "The Nearness of You" from the 1/2 issue received votes for the same award that year, as did the "Everyday Life" story which ran in Volume 2 issues 2 and 3. The story "Confession" from Volume 2 issues 5-9 won the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Story for 1998. "Show 'Em All" from issue 10 was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Story for 1998.
Kurt Busiek was honored with 1998's Harvey and 1999's Eisner for Best Writer, in both instances for bodies of work including Astro City. Alex Ross took both awards for Best Cover Artist in 1996, 1997, and 1998, in all instances but one for Astro City or bodies of work including it (the exception was the 1997 Harvey, awarded for Kingdom Come #1). He also took 1999's Harvey and 2000's Eisner for Best Cover Artist, again for bodies of work including Astro City.
Of the major contributors to the series, only Brent Anderson's contributions have gone unhonored.