Astro City: The Tarnished Angel

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“Why would you want to write about something old?”

That was the question my wife asked me when I first told her the topic for this initial review. The first reason is that I wanted to write about something that I liked. Secondly, I wanted to write about something that I had read several times so I had a firm idea for what I wanted to write.  Finally, if I’m going to get people to read this, I should try and write about something that doesn’t have its own page yet. That way, if you google search it, you can read about it from me instead of who edits it on Wikipedia.

Anyway, the better question to ask yourself, dear reader, is why should you want to read this review? You like comic books and you want to know if this is something worth tracking down. Yes, simply yes. This collected story arc is one of the best examples of comic book storytelling that you can read. It comes from a series that I wish I could collect every single issue of because of the high quality of every aspect of it.

It starts with the amazing cover art. Alex Ross is one of the most influential and revolutionary comic book artists of all time. There is probably a different article somewhere about how his life like painted superheroes in Marvels and Kingdom Come made the acceptance of Superhero’s in movies possible, but that isn’t what this is about. Just do yourself a favor and track down some of his artwork; it looks like he just painted a scene from real life, like the characters were posing for a picture for him. [1]

Why you should read this #1

It is a really fun comic. That is what I want in my comic books. Is it fun? I don’t mean it can’t be serious. One of the other books I hope to review is Sleeper, and it is the exact opposite tone from Astro City. That’s okay though, Sleeper is a John Le Carre novel disguised as a comic book and the Tarnished Angel is a Raymond Chandler novel described as a comic book.  I have fun reading both. They are both fun, just different kinds of fun.

I also realize that describing Astro city as a Chandler novel might make it sound like its tone is dark, and it is. It isn’t Chinatown dark, but it is also not a Golden Age Superman story where Lois proves Clark is Superman by repeatedly trying to kill him. [2]

If you have never read Astro City, Kurt Busiek has created a superhero universe with a concrete history that ages in real time. If a superhero was active in 1965 and they were just a normal human or didn’t have some story reason not to age, then they would be thirty years older in a story set in 1995. That sense of time and history is one of the things that I love most about Astro City. There is a deep back story to this universe and Busiek and his collaborators keep creating more characters that seem to have always existed effortlessly in the universe.  This leads me to reason #2.

Why You Should Read This #2

I love me a good redemption story and that is exactly what this story is. The main character, Steeljack is an ex-con that has spent most of the last 20 years in jail after a mostly failed criminal enterprise. Those years in prison have mellowed Jack and all he wants is to get some job that provides him a living and live out the twilight of his life in peace. You can figure that doesn’t happen. He gets called on to investigate the murder of various lower tier super villains from the neighborhood that he lives in, Keefer Square.  Over the course of 7 issues, Steeljack  investigates as best he can, intersecting with all manner of super-beings from the past and the present, trying to stop the murders and also to make sure that the daughter of a former colleague doesn’t begin her own life of crime.

Astro City the Tarnished AngelThe first image of the first page references angels and Steeljack is haunted by feelings of failing his mother and of the boy he murdered that solidified his path towards a life of crime. It is the irresistible pull that he is constantly battling against. Through the course of the story he is battling both evil forces in the world and his own inner demons to atone for a life of crime and win the approval of both the Earthly angels he encounters, Astro City’s superheroes, and heavenly angels, personified by his constantly referenced mother.

There is so much to like about this story. I have cranked through almost 1,000 words and have been light on spoilers. Why worry about spoiling a story that is almost 20 years old? If you’ve never read the story, why would I want to ruin the experience for you? I’m not going to tell you who the killer is, what happens to the residents of Keefer Square or if Steeljack actually finds redemption. I just want to give you enough of a taste to give this a shot. It’s an awesome read and I haven’t even mentioned Chicano Batman, the League of Stuffy British crime lord stereotypes or how Steeljack is modeled after Robert Mitcham…oops. So that last one isn’t really plot sensitive. I don’t like spoilers because I’ve had people ruin the plot twist of both Watchmen [3] and the 6th Sense [4] and I would have to do that to you. Now, before I go, I did want to say one last thing…

On a Serious Note

One of the things that I most like about this story arc is its depiction of the cycle of poverty that people can get trapped in. [5] The struggle of Steeljack to reform is one that many people can face. Many middle and upper class Americans dismiss those living in poverty as if it’s their choice. Yeah right, I’m sure that they all chose that. This comic book manages to show how difficult it can be for someone to break out of the system they are living in.

If your role in society is that of criminal it can be very difficult to break out of it. The book isn’t preachy about that; it’s just something woven into the background. For the kids in Keefer square, they watch their supervillain parents reap huge benefits from their crimes and then go in and out of jail and then think what all kids think about their parents: “I’m smarter than they are and I won’t make the same mistakes they did.”

Sadly, for many kids in this story and in the real world, the system squeezes them into the cycle of poverty whether they like it or not. I know that was really heavy for a review of a comic book, but I’m a social studies teacher in my alter ego, what did you expect?



[1] To a certain extent they do, he uses human models or inanimate objects to do most of the basic sketch and then adds the heroic touches over the top of them. Also, artists, please cut me some slack, I’m not an artist, okay. I flunked 7th grade art class and it’s scarred me ever since. I can appreciate great art because I can’t create it; the same way the KU football team can appreciate the K-State football team.

[2] Wow, that sounds pretty dark too.  Come on Golden age of comics.

[3] Thanks Wizard Magazine

[4] And if you know the plot twist to that movie, what’s the point of watching it?

[5] If you want a much more thought out explanation, look up some books by a woman named Ruby Payne. They will change your mindset.


  1. Thank you for writing this. It confirms why I chose ‘Tarnished Angels’ and delayed my shipment to a DJ in Cebu, Philippines.

    The rest of the shipment consists of:

    – ‘Batman, Hellboy and Starman’, the two-issue series from the late 1990s.

    – ‘Secret Identity’, another book written by Busiek.

    – The six biggest battles between Batman and Superman, because it’s popcorn-fun, has Byrne and a lot of other good artists, and the movie just came out…

    The DJ from the PI (my wife listens to the radio station as it streams on the internet) jokingly asked me to send some comics his way. I went down to the local and couldn’t find anything I wanted to send. Certainly none of the modern storylines. So I resolved to send him a handful of ‘keepers’, ones I have on my own bookcase. The only thing I have not sent him is ‘Sandman’. Though I probably should. I just can’t decide which of the graphic novels to send!

    Again, thanks for confirming my choice.


    Steve Satak

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