Astro City: Specials Beautie and Samaritan and ‘Show ’em All’

September 9, 2010

Astro City Special – Beautie;

So, the android doesn’t know where she came from, who built her or for what purpose? Wah, wah, wah, we’ve heard it all before … But the android is built in the form of a life-size Beautie doll (the Astro City equivalent of Barbie). And I mean, exactly like a life-size doll, down the immovable features and reduced points of articulation. She likes pretty clothes, has built up a sizeable collection of wigs over the years and she even has a gig representing the toy company that makes Beautie dolls.

Also; she lives above a gay bar and is a darling of the community, deflects come-ons by specifying the metallic nature of her body and lack of genitalia (often in clipped tones and graphic detail), and periodically goes to talk to the lifeless Beautie toys on the shelves whom she considers her sisters of sorts. This is how you know you’ve been Busiek’d.

Beautie is part of the Honour Guard – possibly the longest serving member, not counting legacies – and is fairly isolated. And this is team with the Samaritan on it (more on that later), so that isolation bar is pretty high. She ‘formulates appropriate responses’, but has lately had problems keeping up the act … so she decides to look into her past.

She arrived on the scene in the 1970s, in a field, with no memories, and only the powers of superstrength, flight and being an android to her name. While attempting to deduce why all these small, commonly sold dolls resemble her, she catches a girl falling from a window, returns the girl to the window, finds the girl’s kidnappers there and beats them up.

 Beautie the superhero is born.

Still, a doll come to life is unnerving – to adults at least – and, while grateful, the girl’s parents give Beautie a cabin to get her head straight. Which proceeds to do for six months … until a guy called the Toymaker (but not the maker of Beautie) attempts to control her, replicate her. He fails in both attempts, and she in turn defeats him and his statewide attempt at domination.

Beautie thus joins the Honour Guard.

Beautie wins a case to use her name and identity separate from the publicly marketed Beautie doll – and (much like Samaritan’s Asa Martin) you have to be pretty desperate to want to use a doll’s name, to not change your appearance, and Beautie is because it is the only single … artifact of what made her. She wins, of course – just so long as she represents the company.

Beautie becomes a rep for Tip-Top toys.

Then: 1972. A villain-vigilante group attack a gay pride parade with rocket packs and lasers. Beautie deals with these in the time honoured fashion – and is honoured by the community (as opposed to being thanked, and Busiek makes the distinction), moving into her above-bar residence weeks later. The toy company isn’t happy, but she is keeping sales up, bigger than before.

I find Busiek’s look at this period fascinating. Beautie can connect with this community better because they immediately relate to her as outsiders who have realised they are not alone. A worthy Aesop. But Busiek makes sure this isn’t all of Beautie’s character – Beautie is aware they still associate her with the doll; they just see the doll differently, and because she is still alone.

A fellow Honour Guard member, MPH – and it is nice to see, consistent with earlier depictions of them, that the HG can relate to each other as people – gives Beautie schematics of herself, devised from those times that she has been damaged in battle and repaired, and these designs are consistent with the style of a Dr Girbachs (Dr Gearbox, villain), though much superior to his stuff.

Gearbox is dead, from a fight with the Honour Guard no less. Still; he had a daughter – maybe she’ll know who could have adapted his technology.

She will find the daughter-

She will-

She-

Because everytime she flies off to the daughter’s address, it cuts to her at home later, trying to remember something. She retraces her steps, looks at the files MPH gave her, writes HE HAD A DAUGHTER on the wall in red paint. It is desperate as it sounds, and you’re with her every second, willing her to break through whatever is happening to her, horrified at the idea of it happening to a thinking thing.

 We follow her to the house on one occassion. She meets her ‘mother’ – the little girl, all grown up. Gearbox believed that little girls shouldn’t be interested in math, should keep to their dolls. So his daughter did – building at eight an android Beautie doll that was way ahead of his inventions, and getting dismissed both because it was a Beautie doll and because it was an android, something she wasn’t supposed to be interested in.

The little girl reacts predictably – telling her doll to go away, to forget – understandable and entirely forgiveable at eight. Twenty years on, still telling the doll, her daughter, to get lost, isn’t so. What is different this time? MPH was following, watching. He calls Lanie Girbachs out on doing that to her creation. She doesn’t finish her sentences, not quite, which is a lovely dialogue trick in this instance.

 She could never please her father, and then he died. Not because of the Honour Guard, which might have given her a reason for revenge – Dr Gearbox died due to a design flaw in his Robosaur – one which she could see at eight, could have fixed if he’d let her. She won’t recognise Beautie because no one can know about her past – and not necessarily because of who her dad was, but because, possibly, of who’d she wanted to be.

MPH isn’t going to tell Beautie the truth – because Beautie has, earlier, told MPH that she doesn’t want to be ‘told’ who she is – she wants to ‘feel’ it for herself, which would sound like so much sanctimonious claptrap if we hadn’t been fighting alongside Beautie while she regained her memory earlier. Confronting Lanie with the fact that she is doing the same thing to her ‘daughter’ as her father did to her, MPH at least opens the possibility for breaking the cycle, the next time that Beautie works it all out again – and earlier scenes at libraries implies she has been at this a while now.

The art has several things to recommend to it – firstly how unearthly Beautie looks, confronting us with the reality of a doll. In the imitation of humanity, the disparaties are delightfully disturbing – such as when Beautie turns her head almost 180 degrees to tell someone he is kind and generous, or the afforementioned stiffness at her joints and facial features that doesn’t get in the way of sympathizing with her.

Secondly, there are flashback panels, from Beautie’s perspective of her own fractured memories of her creation throughout, leading up to the one which explains her origin. Similar to Beautie herself, the complex-wax-crayon look used here is genuinely jarring, in the best possible way. Just like a child’s doll, life-size and brought to life, a child’s crayon medium used with great skill is very evocative of B’s disorientation.

The narration, from Beautie’s perspective, seconds this disorientation. Referring to herself in the third person as ‘she’, this form is put to work, expressing the disconnection from herself in Beautie – hence the connection with dolls, little girls, superheroes, clothes and the pink mafia. Some degree of what she does appears to be inferred as programming, but the narration is absent when she displays real emotion.

One of my top-favourite Escape Pod (Podcast) stories -and given how many of those there are, that is saying something- is ‘Private Detective Molly’. While robot private detective stories are common enough (check out the short Automata archs in the Penny Arcade webcomic in particular) the spin on this one is: Molly is from a line of dollies that walk and talk – and, if you put them in their attached transformation unit, they can take on any identity among the doll’s range – Fireperson Molly, Doctor Molly, etc – with the accessories and intellectual traits of those professions. When trying to get a Debutante Molly – the ‘Barbie Classic’ of the range, a little girl gets the gumshoe, pulp noir Private Detective Molly – but not by accident. The doll was actually lent to the little girl by an insurance investigator, who believes the girl’s mother committed suicide rather than the accident it appears to be. PD Molly is ordered to find evidence to this effect by the investigator, allowing him to use her journal as evidence to quash the insurance claim. Molly does find out the truth (not telling – go listen!) – but she is still a little girl’s doll, and anyone who has seen the Toy Story trilogy knows what that means. So she destroys the journal, which isn’t enough, because the investigator will just put her back in the transforming box, get a fresh-minded PD, and do it all over again. So Molly banjaxes the box so that it only turns out Debutante Mollies, none of which have PD’s memories or personality – essentially destroying herself to protect the little girl. I mean, I’ve listened to most Pseudopod’s archive with nary a shiver – it just isn’t the way I react to horror stories – but this, like ‘Save Me Plz’, another favourite, with a similar theme, on the ‘lighter-than-Pseudopod’ Escape Pod podcast gave me outright chills. Particularly the part about the Mollies being thinking children’s toys that can’t defend themselves from being played with from humans – or even rats. Yeah.

But the point to the above paragraph of ramble is that this type of ‘loss of memory, loss of control’ affects me more than tentacles and lasers ever could.

So consider the disclaimer served; maybe it isn’t as good as I’ve made it out to be. But it may just be.

Special – Samaritan;

The Eagle and the Mountain – the eagle sharpens his beak and claws against the mountain every year. The eagle tells the mountain that the eagle will miss the mountain when the eagle has worn him away. The mountain laughs at the impossibility of this. The eagle was wrong of course – the eagle didn’t miss the mountain when he had worn him away.

So, the Samaritan? Remember him? I do natter on about him a ways. Still, this is good one. The Samaritan is visiting a curious pocket dimension – once a year in fact – which holds a magnificent citadel hanging in the emptiness inside.

He brings a bottle of wine to dinner, giving it to the man who opens the door – a dark-skinned, green-haired man in sorceror’s robes called the Infidel – Samaritan’s nemesis. And they have the patter of civil enemies down. Infidel notes the vinyard that produced the wine – a subtle joke, of course, as Infidel founded those fields in the 14th century! Except no, Samaritan just heard it was good. So yeah: it is as if Superman stuck Lex Luthor in Fortress of Solitude, with no way across the Arctic (or none that wouldn’t lead to Lex being put in prison again) but with all of Krypton’s supertech.

Infidel was born in Kenya, back when it was called Nubia. Driven by intense curiosity, Infidel travelled to Zanzibar for knowledge – and was sold into slavery. But he was sold North, to Persia a seat of learning. Still he was beaten for asking questions, having pretensions to knowledge. But, sold to an ‘equally mad master’, Infidel is sold to an alchemist, who he learns from throuygh serving – and soon outdoes.

Connecting to the ‘Aether’, making himself immortal – by design rather than Samaritan’s time-travel accident, but with similar artwork styled in different colour schemes – Infidel is soon accused of crimes against nature by his owner. Infidel’s frustration with the close-mindedness of others, of their complacency with mediocrity, their outcasting him for doing different with cold, calculating style, starts here.

Destroying his owner, some swordsmen and some surrounding houses in a manner reminiscent of the film Scanners, Infidel sets out to set up his own tower, unwinding the mysteries of the universe. He is often interrupted by attacking armies, ostensibly from his view for their ignorant views of his activities, but also very realistically for his abduction of people as subjects for experimentation. This happens a few times.

In the end, he moves his citadel – to the end. End of time, to be exact. He finds a time when humanity has died out, and sets up shop. He grabs slaves (yeah, he apparently sees no problem with that) from the disasters of history, from Pompeii to the Titanic, with the promise of life – and nothing more. Back-breaking labour at the end of the universe, while Infidel peers at all of human history and jeers the sciences.

Until the events of Samaritan’s origin occur, as described in ‘Dinner at Eight’. Infidel lands, without his accoutrements and, thus, his powers, in the future the Samaritan created when he prevented his own wasted future. Infidel is locked up as a madman in a happy, utopian future – slaying a jailer and escaping. He ‘occupies’ himself – hinting at his misogyny- until the stars are right for his powers to return.

Which Samaritan? The one, in the present-day story, who sitting across the dinner table from Infidel, asking Infidel if this is squab, because he has never had it before, and yes, he’d like some more. Infidel learns that it was the Samaritan who averted the wasteland future, and simply resolves to recreate it by influencing Castro’s thoughts and causing nuclear war.

Simple enough – then Samaritan hits him with the left hook. Because Samaritan, by his very ability to exist in the universe, is proofed against the ripples of temporal paradoxes. Samaritan is the ultimate jailor, like those of his youth, and is victorious.

Infidel’s vengeance for this in the modern day? He has the extra squab brought in by topless harem slaves (soulless homunculi rather than human abductees) just to make Samaritan worried & uncomfortable.

So, if the slavery & experimentation didn’t bring it home how much of villain Infidel was, the rampant misogyny does. A woman – something with an A, he thinks – was very disrespectful to him, so he BUILT A PARALLEL UNIVERSE, WHOSE SCIENCES WERE WELDED WITH THAT OF ALCHEMY AND ASTROLOGY IN A 1000 YEAR-LONG SUPER-CULTURE, AND THEREIN MADE HER ‘DOCILE’, MAGNANIMOUSLY GIVING HER CLEAN QUARTERS AND FED HER WELL.

So yeah, we don’t like Infidel.

He has chosen to internalise his experiences in the view that freedom and equality are absurd fictions, in which Samaritan perpetuates a society of fools overlong.

In the modern day, Infidel plays with this by asking how things are going with Winged Victory. Samaritan comments that they’re still dating – yay! – though it is hard to find the time – aww! – then Infidel asks Samaritan if he’d like to know how it comes out. A perfectly blunt pleasantry from a a time-travelling supervillain. Samaritan’s answer is civil and straight – they both know time anything but set, and besides, Infidel lies.

Infidel brushes it off as a simple offer – then wheedles about how Samaritan must wish he could have more time- not if Samaritan ruled the world, heavens no!, just if he made a little more … orderly. The Samaritan sighs – remember this, as we’ll be coming back to it later – saying nice to think about, but of course inconsiderable for the methods to achieve the means. Infidel brushes it off, again.

If you want to see exactly the game Infidel is playing, it is in the course of one page, where Samaritan asks Infidel not to tell him what is in Infidel’s marvelous cofffee, in case it ruins it for the Samaritan. The Infidel simply replies that it is earth, air and light – no beetle-shells or the fingernails of dead virgins , or anything like that, to which Samaritan replies that he didn’t need to think about any of those things.

The Infidel and Samaritan have fought, yes. Cue montage of every crazy-crisis-cover ever. From aerial whales and insect-winged elephants, to colour scheme changes and Samaritan fighting several skeletal versions of himself. Until they destroy the entire earth, and find themselves facing each other across the wastes of the lands that lie beneath reality, in the ultimate stalemate, asking each other: What now?

So, Infidel agrees to confinement, retiring to his studies to discover a way to totally destroy Samaritan, Samaritan in turn darwing on the world to find a way to depower Infidel, to permanently imprison him. They meet once a year for dinner – either in the Infidel’s citadel, dining on the finest foods, or in a period of history Samaritan ‘hosts’ Infidel in by insulating it against I’s influence – and serving Infidel fast food.

Looking around Infidel’s lab is as good a time as any to gush about how much I love the magic-science mix in Infidel’s idiom. The art follows through with a beautiful device Infidel claims can manipulate superstrings, giving the plans to Samaritan – as just a toy. And just when it looks like Infidel is going to have it all his own way, he mentions Gretchen Hastings, who he compliments, having read her papers that Samaritan brought a while back.

Hastings – having been met by Infidel when he masqueraded as a Cosmidyne employee on one of his schemes – is pleased to note that one of the few insightful minds in the universe is working on the notes he happened to leave at the job – another toy, one supposes – which considers revelatory. Which, concerning a woman, from Infidel, means she is probably Einstein. Still, it is time to go, and they both ask each other: Are you ready to change? Both say no, and Infidel gets Samaritan those plans and some more squab to take home, expecting that it reheats well.

They’ll check each others presents for traps and poisons, of course, though neither of them would stoop to such infantile trickery. Still, it’ll give Infidel something to do while he watches the recording of Samaritan – one part in particular. Watching the sigh after Infidel’s offer to ‘order’ the world, Infidel CSI-analyses the hell out of it until he deduces the Samaritan was going to to say ‘if only’. Infidel is jubilant – the stress of the world on Samaritan, as of issue one, is wearing him down. And Infidel has all of eternity to plant suggests, letting the world Samaritan is saving to do the grunt work of breaking him.

So yeah, Infidel is the eagle, Samaritan is the mountain …

Except.

Of course Infidel only mentioned Gretchen Hastings to make Samaritan wonder if Infidel might take her. But she was capable, in her way, seeing further into things than others. She doesn’t look like the other women he has abducted over the years – caucasian, red-haired, freckled – yet he watches a three dimensional image of her head, culled from her papers, rotate for a quite a while. Would the Samaritan dangle her? No.

Though Infidel is self-conscious enough to wonder – or is becoming self-conscious enough to wonder? – whether he is the eagle … or the mountain. After all, he does have eternity to think on it.

He was right of course – Samaritan would never dangle Hastings – but Hastings would, even if there was the slightest chance of reclaiming a little of such a super-mind. Samaritan recorded it all for her, handing over the plans.

Hard to tell, from Samaritan’s point of view how it went – but, hey, there is always next year.

Volume 2; (issue 10) Show ‘Em All.

So the Junkman is breaking into a bank vault at night. And you’d know it was him – an old man in gold-brocaded jacket, with flight-googled helmet and anti-grav space-boots. He has a hair dryer in one hand, wired to his belt, a mauser pistol in the other, with a lightbulb in the barrel, and a vacuum jet-pack strapped to his back, with an ironing-board as the wings. And it all works, in extremely inventive ways.

The toy soldiers walking on the ceiling turn off the cameras. The hair dryer burns out the locks. The modified etch-a-sketch sees through to the lock mechanisms in the vault door. Sure, he is an old guy – it still takes him hours to haul it all out to his garbage-truck getaway-vehicle. Jack-in-the-Box springs by as Junkman drives away with seven million dollars without anyone even being the wiser that the bank has been robbed.

Back at base – the city landfill, of course – Junkman keeps in trim by pedalling an exercise bike to power the television – the one talking about his magnificent robbery, and how no one has clue who did it. As appropriate a period for a flashback as any, Junkman thinks back to when he was forcibly retired from his old job – partially as it was mandatory, partially because he’d worked there since it began, which was a little too much knowledge.

Unable to get employment anywhere else due his age and despite his fine mind, decides to show ’em all, in the supervillain tradition, by using the junk they throw away, like they threw him away, to defeat the arrogant young. The end result is that while the heroes are chasing handsome young hackers and separatist splinter guerrila groups, Junkman has his money laundered, travels the world.

It was the perfect crime – nobody knows a thing. Junkman is off doing everything he’d dreamed of, while the heroes are on the news, chasing villains and stopping disasters. Nobody suspects the old man. It gnaws at him that nobody is talking about his robbery, that everyone is assuming whoever did it just got caught for some other crime – the heroes always win, right? He knows they don’t, but nobody else knows a thing-

If you want to see Junkman look like the smallest old man in the world, it is that second after he realises what has happened, and his arms are still hanging impotently in the air after his brief rage.

So the Junkman is breaking into a bank vault at night – this one in Detroit, and otherwise very similar. And his toy soldiers make one little mistake, setting off the alarms – summoning MPH in mere moments. Where MPH gets covered in marbles, charged with static adhesion, covering him in a coccoon of them. Junkman gets away with a third of the bank’s vault before the cops come – and you wonder if the alarms were a mistake after all.

Next is New Orleans, where the Black Rapier holds residence, master detective. Black Rapier intercepts Junkman even before arrives at his target – at which point Junkman throws an expanding rubber ring at Rapier which, if popped, will engulf the populace in toxic gases. Rapier will work out that the gas is harmlessly neutralised by an electric charge – like the kind Rapier’s rapier produces – just as MPH will no doubt work out away around the static adhesion marbles.

The situation isn’t entirely different than before – yes, they know who did it now, but it is still a matter of who’ll catch Junkman, not if anyone’ll catch him.

And, appropriately, Junkman returns to the Astro City bank with much the same plan – with Jack-in-the-Box staking the place out. Junkman tries to nail the magnificent clown with some exploding spraypaint cans whose contents will turn as rigid as steel on exposure – but Jack dodges them, having experience dodging explosives in the Confession arc. He captures Junkman, knocking him out with an electric red-nose … while Junkman is smiling, enigmatically. They find one of his bases, still believe they’ll find the money. They drag out all the evidence and ingenuity, all the brilliance of his plans.

On trial, Junkman is pleased that he is going to lose his case – his representative is a wet-behind-the-ears youngster, his prosecutor is an older-than-God DA. He’ll smile for the sketch artists and, when the jury goes to confer, he’ll trigger his escape plan -which has been in place for days, hidden in the courtroom light fixture. Oh, and yes: as of 2010 on herocopia.com, Junkman has committed a great many more now-flawless crimes and has never been recaptured.

So, that is all the Astro City for a while. Later – some other things recently read.

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