An interview with Brent Anderson

As penciler of Kurt Busiek's Astro City, artist Brent Anderson gives form to the vision of one of the top creators working in comics today. Recently, Brent spoke with Westfield Creative Director Bennett Neuhauser about what it's like to work with Kurt Busiek

Westfield: It's only natural, given the success of Marvels, that the majority of the attention lavished on Astro City has focused upon Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. Nonetheless, have you ever felt like the "unsung hero" of the Astro City creative team?

Brent Anderson: Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way - the unsung hero. Alex and Kurt both had a more recent exposure in the industry, and at the time I took on Astro City, I had been out of the industry for probably three and a half years, doing things outside or things that haven't seen print yet, so there was this sort of absentee quality in my career at that point. One of the reasons I took on Astro City, at the behest of my agent, was to regain that exposure.

Westfield: What attracted you to Astro City? What was the challenge as an artist?

Anderson: The main attraction was the enthusiasm Kurt showed for the stories he wanted to tell. He approached me at WorldCon (World Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention) when it was at San Francisco. That must be three years ago now. I had never heard of Kurt. I only recognized his name, very vaguely, because I had talked to Scott McCloud about comics and stuff on one occasion, and he said, "ya know, they way you're talking about comics, there's a guy who would really like to talk with you and his name is Kurt Busiek," and he gave me Kurt's phone number, but I never had the chance to call him. So, I never made the connection between that guy and Kurt at WorldCon until after the fact.

Westfield: It sounds like you had a sort of philosophical chemistry going on.

Anderson: There was, yeah. At WorldCon he came up and said, "Hi, I'm Kurt Busiek. I did a book called Marvels, have you heard about it?" And I went, "No." [laughter] I said I'd been out of the industry for awhile and I hadn't seen it. He started telling me about this project he wanted to work on, but he didn't name it. We kept in touch and then at WonderCon (a year later) he asked whether I wanted to do this series, Astro City. I was looking for work at the time, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to take on. Then in San Diego, a couple months later, I had decided to go ahead and try and get the book.

So, Kurt and I got together at San Diego and sat down at a lunch table and he told me the story of the first issue. As he told the story, I just got sucked into it. I kept thinking this is great, this is great, this is a neat story. Then we got to talking further about other story ideas he had. It seemed like Kurt had a never-ending supply of really fun, interesting point-of-view stories about this place that had superheroes in it. I've always enjoyed working on books and stories that deal with the human condition ... where the characters would see the world they lived in and the world they lived in was a superhero world. But superheroes and superpowers are only metaphors for the human condition, so the stories really have to tap into the reader's identification with the characters for them to work, and Kurt does this very well.

Westfield: What's it like to work with Kurt and how do you two interact when you create a story?

Anderson: Well, I think we have a very clear understanding from the outset what our roles are. Kurt is the visionary for this series and I never want to lose sight of the fact that I'm here to facilitate his vision. ... I don't mean to downplay my contribution to the series, because I work very hard to realize what I think Kurt wants. But it is his project and they are his stories, and I don't want to overshadow that. And I certainly don't want to try to make his vision my vision. I want to contribute whatever I can to his vision and make that part of the vision. We work very well together ... do you want to hear a typical day in the life?

Westfield: Sure that would be great.

Anderson: The story usually starts out with Kurt telling me what he's working on - I'll give him a call - and he'll describe to me the story and the characters. I get all excited about it because the off-the-cuff way he tells the story is very rough and very spontaneous, so I get jazzed. I don't know if you've ever experienced late, late nights at conventions, sitting in hotel rooms with your friends, talking about comics and stories, and how the later it gets the more exciting and interesting the stories about comics and comics characters get to be, well, that's the way I feel with Kurt. I feel like I'm, you know, 12 - 13 years old again [sitting up way too late] with a friend talking over stories. [laughter] ...

I stick to the script as closely as I can. I even trust Kurt to give me little thumbnail layouts of the panel shapes that he envisioned in his mind when he was writing, because Kurt has a very good sense of how he wants to tell the story. I say he has a good sense because it agrees with the way I like to tell stories. [laughter] I've been learning quite a bit about storytelling through Kurt. Once I have a script and the thumbnail layouts, I literally draw on those panel boxes, then I blow them up on my copier and fax them off to Kurt so he can comment on them. His comments lead me to the finished pencils. If I'm inking myself, I don't really do pencils, I just do layouts, but I take the full-size layouts and reduce them on my copier and send those to Kurt, so he can refine them a little more. If there's any suggestions he has or any changes he'd like to see made, it's easier to do it at that stage than on the finished, inked product.

Westfield: As far as plotting and story development, it sounds like, if Kurt asks you to "take the ball and run with it," you will.

Anderson: Exactly. Or, I'll take the ball if I don't think Kurt is hitting the mark, if I feel, in reading the script, that somehow it hasn't been thought through completely, as to what the motivations of the characters are or what the point of the story is. This happened with issue four, with (the character of) Marta. Kurt, admittedly at the time, really hadn't thought through the motivation of the character or, if he had, he was having trouble getting it across to the readers - and at the time my wife and I were the readers. We read the story, figured it was missing the mark somewhere, and together we wrote Kurt a three-and-a-half-page critique suggesting a possible change in the plot or a change in the motivation of the character. Kurt really appreciated the interest we showed helping him "fix" the story. He didn't use any of the stuff we had suggested, but in reading our reaction to the original story and recognizing the ambiguity that was there for us as readers, he was able to think it through and come up with the story he really wanted to tell.

Westfield: That's interesting, especially since issue number four, Safeguards, has been nominated for an Eisner Award (for Best Single Issue). Was that issue a favorite of yours?

Anderson: I don't know if it was any more or less of a favorite than the other five issues. I've enjoyed all six issues for different reasons. Of the six issues, that particular story was unique in how it came about.

Westfield: It certainly brought up a lot of questions for me as a reader. There were probably a lot of people who questioned Marta's decision to remain in her home neighborhood at the end.

Anderson: The big question was about empowerment. It was an empowerment story. It was to learn to use your talismans, but also trust yourself and your decisions, and to empower yourself to make the decision that's right for you. From Kurt's point of view - and you might want to call him and find out if I'm interpreting it correctly [laughter] - Marta was empowering herself by choosing to stay in the place she felt the most comfortable. But other people might see her as copping out and retreating from the "big, bad world" so she could stay with mommy and daddy. That seemed to have been the main sticking point. My wife and I had a long discussion on that very point.

Westfield: Was that the topic on which you gave Kurt feedback?

Anderson: Yeah. That was the basic point. At the time we wrote up the little critique of the story, Kurt hadn't really thought through the many facets of Marta that would lead him to the decision to have her empower herself by staying in her home - the Shadow Hill area. Kurt stuck to his original idea, but I think he made the story clearer to both those people who agreed with Marta's decision and to those who didn't. So, it wasn't that they didn't understand the story, it's just that they clearly didn't agree with the main character's decision. And to me a successful story elicits an emotional response from people.

Westfield: Absolutely. The story also served as a metaphor for America. It's the question of whether the immigrant family is going to keep their traditions, even down the generations, or are they going to blend into the big melting pot. I thought it illuminated the fact that there are people with traditions and things about them psychologically that other people on the outside might see as limiting, yet at the same time it's what gives them their strength.

Anderson: Right.

Westfield: Speaking of the part of town Marta lives, your art style is unique, yet, like Kurt's writing, it seems to pay homage to many of the great Silver Age artists. Which artists past or present do you feel influenced your style the most?

Anderson: To varying levels of success, I try to adapt my style to fit the story. I don't really think in terms of trying to change my style overtly. I just try to tell the story appropriately and whatever influences I have from artists who told stories in a similar manner may leak through. Astro City is very much a reflection of, and even an homage to, the entire history of comic books, the comic book industry and comics published during certain eras. The character, The Silver Agent, that appeared in issue two, which is set in 1959, refers to the beginning of what's considered the Silver Age of comics. The Silver Agent dies in 1973, which is considered by many to be the end of the Silver Age. That's not a coincidence. [laughter] Kurt plans these dates to coincide with the real comics time line. The origins of Astro City coincide with the origins of comic books. Astro City existed as a city before comic books existed, but it wasn't called Astro City, it was called something else.

Kurt is very much attuned to comic book history, especially with number two, which shows you Astro City in the late 1950s. I was trying to make it look like the '50s and, in that endeavor, I would invariably be drawing it, I guess unconsciously, like the guys that were popular in the 1950s when they were doing romance comics and there was a wider variety of comics. For the Silver Agent himself I tried to recreate the nobility of The Golden Guardian or Captain American or that kind of 1950s post-World War II hero.

Westfield: Very noble ...

Anderson: Very noble, but very single minded. My favorite line and my favorite scene in that issue was when Shirak the Devourer, this big apparition from an interdimensional rift in the time and space continuums, says he's going to take over the Earth with his shark man army, and the Silver Agent points his finger at him and says, "Your army's not going anywhere, chum, except to the stockade!" [laughter] I mean, that line just says it all about who that character is, and believe me I'm as anxious as the next guy to find out what his "shameful death" really was.

Westfield: Speaking of stories you've done and stories you plan to do, each of the first six issues was a stand-alone story. Will that trend continue or will we begin to see more multi-part storylines?

Anderson: The first issue of the relaunch is a stand-alone story. It's a re-introduction to what Astro City's all about. Issues two and three will be the first two-parter and it deals with the youngest member of the First Family, Astra, going off on her own, as young people are wont to do, to find her own identity. Kurt's explained her as being like Bridgette Fonda. There was Henry Fonda, who was considered a tremendous actor, the leader of the Fonda clan. Then you had Jane and Peter who's abilities were questioned: "are they really good actors or are they just Fondas?" Then, Bridgette Fonda came along and they said: "Is she a good actor? Of course she is, she's a Fonda."

Westfield: And that holds a whole other set of expectations.

Anderson: Exactly. Astra is like Bridgette Fonda. She wants to have her own identity independent of being a member of the First Family. This story Kurt has structured to be a two-parter. Then, issues four through nine will be the first six-parter.

Westfield: As Astro City evolves, which characters or themes do you hope to explore in greater depth?

Anderson: I'm going to continue my initial emphasis, which is to visualize Kurt's stories as best I can. I have a file cabinet with two dozen file folders in it and each one has the name of a different character we have created (Alex, Kurt and I), wherein I keep reference material for each. I'm dying to explore any one of them more in depth. I don't really have a favorite. I have favorites that I like to draw ...

Westfield: Like, for instance ...

Anderson: One of my favorite characters is the Old Soldier. I love to draw him, but, unfortunately, he's a one trick pony. He could not star in his own comic book, because he's the guy that shows up to tip the scales from evil to good whenever evil threatens to win, and that doesn't happen very often. It would be like one of those comics that's supposed to come out monthly but comes out annually. [laughter] He'd only show up in his own comic book for two or three panels. [laughter] So maybe the reason I like drawing him is I don't get to draw him all that much.

Westfield: I think the Old Soldier and the Bouncing Beatnik are classic walk-on bit players.

Anderson: Kurt's told me a little bit of background, that I'm probably not at liberty to discuss, about who the Bouncing Beatnik is. Kurt wants to reveal that in a future story I guess, but the Beatnik is not really what you think he is. Which is true of just about any of Kurt's characters in Astro City, when you come to think of it. He constantly surprises me, and I think he surprises the readers, with just who the characters are in contrast to the images they may evoke.

As I've told Kurt, and as I'm going to tell you, if the reader support is there and the book sells well enough to keep going, and as long as Kurt has stories to tell, then I'll be with Astro City for 10 years. I can only hope that Kurt and I have the same creative synergy Lee and Kirby had creating the Fantastic Four, because I want to be on Astro City at least that long!

Westfield: In closing, are there any conventions at which you will appear in the coming months?

Anderson: Sure. I'll be at the Heroes Arn't Hard to Find convention in North Carolina. That's June 14th, 15th and 16th. Then, my wife and I are planning on going to the San Diego ComicCon this year, which is Fourth of July weekend. Then on November 9th & 10th I'll be attending a convention called SuperCon, in Oakland, California. And, of course I will be a recurring resident of Astro City for the foreseeable future, so you can always find me there!