Trouble with Comics, It Takes A Villain: Like an Old Shoe - Astro City:...
It Takes A Villain: Like an Old Shoe - Astro City: The Tarnished Angel

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by the future ruler of the Moon, Mick Martin.

In “The Long Treadmill,” the second chapter of Astro City: The Tarnished Angel, the paroled super-villain Carl Donewicz – a.k.a. Steeljack – gives us a glimpse of his morning routine. He wakes up in his tiny apartment in Astro City’s notorious Kiefer Square, runs a shower almost hot enough to feel through his steel hide, has the usual at a diner, pays his bill, gets a coffee to go, and walks out into a light rain. “That’s the thing about doing the same stuff every day,” Carl’s narration tells us. “It’s dependable.” Though fairly innocuous on its own, the scene is a lighter reflection of the first chapter, “The Big Lockdown,” when Carl  is released from jail. Though blessed with a genuine desire to stay on the straight-and-narrow this time around, as soon as his ferry from Biro Island drops him in Astro City, Steeljack ignores the appointment with his parole officer and heads straight for Kiefer Square. “Without meanin’ to, I’m back where the tenements are close together and there ain’t much sky to see.” Telling himself again and again that he shouldn’t be there, Carl sits down for a beer at a bar, where likely he is breaking parole just by being around so many felons. But it’s “like an old shoe.” It’s “dependable.” Later, Carl stumbles across a trio of muggers about to shoot an uptowner who made too many wrong turns, Carl stops the bullet with his steel palm and scares the muggers away. He says he doesn’t know why he bothers to do it, that maybe he just, “wanted someone to be able to go home tonight an’ feel like things coulda been worse.” The uptowner is grateful at first, but when he recognizes Carl as Steeljack, his gratitude turns to fear. He quickly scoops up his wallet, fishes all the cash from it, shoves the cash in Steeljack’s hand, and runs away as fast as he can. Sure, Carl is $400 richer, but the scene shows us the impossibility of his situation. He is so stuck in the role of super-villain that even when he tries to save someone, he mugs the victim without even meaning to. The world won’t let him be the hero. Not even the victim will let him be the hero. Or even an innocent bystander. He’s the villain. That’s what’s required; what’s dependable. Like an old shoe.

In case you’re regretfully unfamiliar, Astro City is the creation of Kurt Busiek. Flavored with nostalgia, awe, and young wonder, Astro City is a comic set in a fictional metropolis with a skyline filled with heroes and villains. Rather than following a set character or group of characters, Astro City’s only dependable constants are its setting and its creative team. The focal characters change from story to story; sometimes following a super-hero, a super-villain, or just a perfectly non-super resident of the fantastic city.

The Tarnished Angel is a hard-boiled detective story transplanted to the super-hero world. The super criminal Steeljack, freshly released from jail and unable to find any legitimate work, accepts a job he hardly feels up to. The bodies of super-villains are piling up in Kiefer Square. Goldenglove, The Chain, Handgun, Tackle, and more; all old colleagues of Steeljack and all low on the super-bad-guy food chain. The cops don’t care and the super-heroes don’t know. With no one else they can trust, the victims’ families hire Steeljack to find the Black Mask Killer. With few options of his own, Carl agrees. With a mind that never thought of detecting, an education that never broke the surface of high school, and the help of the secretive and manipulative old villain-broker Donnelly Ferguson, Carl starts searching for his friends’ killer. He runs afoul of super-villains and super-heroes alike, risking both his parole and his life, and like the hard-boiled sleuths of old, it’s a dogged determination and the ability to stir the pot and anger the right people that gets Carl his answers more than any Holmesian deductive genius.

It isn’t long before Carl learns that all of the victims share a few things in common. All were broke, all were nowhere, all left their families with next to nothing. Yet they kept working jobs, kept doing what they had always done, because it was dependable. Like an old shoe.

If I  ever write up a Top 10 list of the best super-villain-led comics (and I suppose that’s a possibility if not an inevitability), Astro City: The Tarnished Angel will definitely be somewhere on there. Steeljack is a likeable and absolutely believable hero; wanting at every moment to quit, never feeling even remotely able to redeem himself. When the cops, the heroes, and the villains are all gunning for him (another detective trope; the authorities are always an obstacle to our hero, never a help), we would hardly blame Steeljack if he were to quit. Also, Astro City is the title that brought me back to comics after a long break, and this story is impressibly unique in the Astro City mythos in its matching of length and scope. Usually when it comes to these longer storylines, Busiek mixes the personal with the super; jumping back and forth between the personal story of one or a couple of characters – like the aspiring sidekick Brian Kinney in Astro City: Confession or the brothers of Astro City: The Dark Age – and the larger story of whatever malevolent forces are threatening the city. But The Tarnished Angel is almost all Carl’s story (though there is a wonderful and bittersweet chapter – “Voice of the Turtle” –  following an English villain called The Mock Turtle that Busiek ties in to the rest of the story). Sure, we get a little bit of the usual Astro City wideshot at the very end of The Tarnished Angel. When the villain’s plans finally hatch in the beginning of “The Wow Finish,” the first two pages show Astro City bad guys like Glue Gun and the Unholy Alliance locking horns with good guys all across the country. We see the streets of Astro City engulfed in flames – real and illusion – but it’s nothing like the double splash pages of Confession, for example, making the spectacle of the alien invasion as much a focus as Brian Kinney’s own story. Here, the flames and the fighting exist only to create a Hell-on-Earth into which Carl descends in order to confront the Black Mask Killer; a villain who is a clear reflection of Steeljack. In fact, that battle is, itself, unique not only in Astro City but in Busiek’s work as a whole. The battle between the Black Mask Killer and Carl is a nine page long one-on-one battering of metal fists. There is little strategy, little dialogue, few tricks or super innovations of super powers; they just hit each other and hit each other until one of them falls. That isn’t the kind of super-violence we’re used to seeing in Busiek’s work or at all in Astro City. Hell, most fights in Astro City don’t last more than a panel or two or, more accurately, we don’t see more than one or two panels of them. Artist Brent Anderson gives us brief snapshots of different combatants and combats, weaving them into the larger story rather than making them the point. But this nine page flash of silver skin, metal arms, and neon green energy blasts is no snapshot. It’s part of why this is one of my favorite super-fights in comics. It’s got the flash and bash, but at the same time the mindless battering is part of the point. Even though it’s so purely a super-hero genre fight, it’s part of what connects the story to its detective noir heart. Just as the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett got their bad guys more through their guts than their brains, it’s Carl’s passion and stubborn determination that save the day, “And in the end,” his narration reads, “it ain’t about smart. It ain’t about clever. It ain’t even about right. Unless somehow bein’ right – is what makes me tough enough.”

At its core The Tarnished Angel is about redemption. Redemption is a recurring theme of Busiek’s. He wrote about it in The Liberty Project for First Comics, in his original iteration of Thunderbolts, and I believe even one of the heroes from the short-lived Power Company was a felon looking to prove himself on the side of the angels. I think it’s telling that someone who is more than a super-hero comic book writer, but an intense fan of the genre, is so interested in the potential of super-villains to change their stripes. The redemption of the super-villain isn’t something that’s handled often, and it’s often handled badly, but the very notion of it is true to the metaphoric promise of the super-hero story; perhaps even more poignant than the stories with which we’re more familiar. It’s one thing for Peter Parker to change after his inaction signed his uncle’s death warrant. It’s another when we see someone become a hero who we already know him as a thief, a murderer, or worse. For a super-villain to become a super-hero not only upholds the super-hero comic ethos, but in another way, it smashes it absolutely. It means the borders between the armies of good guys and bad guys are meaningless, that anyone of them could be either, and that in the end all that really matters is who’s telling the story.

The physical realization of Steeljack is interesting. Aged, tired, and without a drop of confidence left, Steeljack doesn’t come off as someone who will be striking muscular poses or tearing through tanks. You get more of the sense he’s like a walking wrecking ball, but without a chain to swing him. Fittingly, in the penultimate chapter, “The Only Chance,” it’s the leaning of his steel weight – not his strength – that frees him from the high-tech helicopter transporting him back to prison. Again, it adds to the connection with hard-boiled heroes like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe in that it’s his ability to withstand punishment that saves him more than a talent at dishing it out.

And then there’s that skin; that smooth, steel skin that says so much about Carl. His skin’s reflective surface is used well and often. In the second chapter, when Carl wears a green plaid shirt, there is a constant green sheen on Carl’s face. Fittingly, many of the story’s characters are reflections of Carl; El Hombre seeks the same redemption as Steeljack but from the point of view of a hero, Yolanda – the murdered Goldenglove’s daughter who wants to take up his mantle – is a reflection of Carl’s youth, and even the conniving Ferguson mirrors Steeljack in that he seeks redemption without even knowing it or being able to admit it openly. Ironically, while Ferguson is clearly much smarter than Carl, in terms of who he is or who he wants to be, Ferguson is much more confused than Steeljack. The very fact that Carl’s skin is reflective and takes on the visual properties of the world around him, added to the fact that his home – Kiefer Square – is a home to so many villains, could be a signal that Steeljack is a product of his environment, that he takes on the qualities of whatever surrounds him.

One of the most interesting visual moments comes in the beginning of Chapter 3. Carl and Ferguson slump lazily outside a stoop by a bar. Because so many felons are in the bar and associating with them would be a violation of his parole, Carl pays a kid to run beers from the bar to his stoop. Carl’s hit a dead end with no more leads and no more money, and in the narration he tells us, “the world feels as sour and bitter as the beer I’m drinking.” For the next six pages, and for the only time in the story, the colors dull to an almost metallic hue, as if now the world is reflecting Steeljack rather than the other way around. The same scene carries a quiet but telling moment when a stray cat happily lets Carl’s steel fingers pet him, while recoiling and hissing at Ferguson.

It’s Steeljack’s skin that tells us exactly who he is. In spite of the title (in part it references another character, and it’s also part homage to the 1957 film The Tarnished Angels), the Steeljack that Anderson, colorist Alex Sinclair, inker Will Blyberg and cover artist Alex Ross create has no tarnish and no rust. Though old and drooping, always looking tired – like if Robert Mitchum had been the Silver Surfer, or maybe the X-Men’s Colossus, but without the ridges – Steeljack never looks tarnished. While he may be weary – looking so weary that it is a shock when his eyes come alive in action scenes – nothing about his skin reflects it. Carl always looked up to the super-heroes – who his mother told him were angels of the Lord – and wanted to be one of them. And there’s plenty of angel/demon imagery; particularly in the penultimate chapter. When Steeljack breaks into the Honor Guard’s floating headquarters to enlist their aid, it’s nestled in the clouds like a pie wedge of Heaven. When he escapes them and emerges from from the flames of the Honor Guard’s crashed aircraft, he looks exactly like the fallen angel he sees in himself. There are numerous angelic “falls.” The penultimate chapter opens with Steeljack falling from a police helicopter into the ocean. It ends with him crashing an Honor Guard aircraft into the ground. And in the final chapter Steeljack leaps into Astro City from a propeller pane (more homage to the 1957 The Tarnished Angels), and it’s worth noting that of all these falls, it is only after the final one that Carl lands on his feet.

“So I wasn’t an angel,” Carl  tells us, “I was one of the guys they fought. So what did that make me?” Whenever Steeljack runs into heroes, though we might expect it, he never seems hateful, resentful, spiteful, or angry with them. He doesn’t even seem to dislike them usually. At worst, he envies them for a heritage out of which he feels cheated. Mostly, he looks at them with the same awe and wonder you would expect from a tourist to Astro City. But as much as he sees himself as a demon in contrast, his skin betrays the truth. He is the angel he always wanted to be, and he was never anything else. He is, after all, literally a Man of Steel.

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