Born September 16, 1960 (Boston, Massachusetts)
"I didn't get into comics because I had one particular kind of story I wanted to tell. I got into comics because I love the comics form, and I want to do all kinds of things with it."
You don't have to have read every superhero comic ever written to appreciate Kurt Busiek's stories, though you may suspect that he has. Whether he is creating straightforward superhero action tales or spinning alternate takes on the superhero genre, as he does in his best-known works Marvels and Astro City, Busiek has used his encyclopedic knowledge of superhero character and plot development to craft some of the most compelling stories of the 1990s and 2000s. His stories have focused intently on character development and on exploring the psychological ramifications of living with or as superheroes. Busiek has won nearly every award in the comics business multiple times, and comics critics credit him with leading the movement to reconstruct the superhero genre. But Busiek shuns such accolades, telling Comics Journal interviewer Ray Mescallado: "I write for me and for the readers, and I try to write honestly and well and in a way that'll entertain and involve the audience, and affect them with the story itself.… My job is to tell the stories.…"
Apprentices in comics
Though Busiek is known for his knowledge of comics' past, he actually got a late start as a fan of comics. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 16, 1960, Busiek (pronounced BYOO-sik) was a voracious reader. He told Mescallado: "I learned to read at age three, and was reading my way through the children's library so swiftly that when I was in school and they'd have prizes for the most books read over summer break, I got disqualified since I was already reading more books than anyone else." He read everything but American comic books, which many people in the 1950s and early 1960s did not consider respectable reading for young people. His mother restricted her children from watching all but a few television shows and kept a tight rein on the kinds of comics they could read, allowing only newspaper strips like Peanuts, Pogo, Dennis the Menace, and some European graphic albums like Asterix and Tintin (graphic albums are the European equivalent of the American graphic novel).
Marvels(illustrated by Alex Ross)(1994; 2004).
Editor, with Stan Lee, Untold Tales of Spider-Man (1997).
The Wizard's Tale (illustrated by David Wenzel) (1998).
The Avengers: Living Legends (illustrated by George Perez with Stuart Immomen) (2004).
Superman: Secret Identity (illustrated by Stuart Immomen) (2004).
(With Carlos Pacheco) Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Uniforms (illustrated by Jesus Merino and Alex Sinclair) (2004).
Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories (illustrated by Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates) (2005).
Kurt Busiek's Astro City Series
(All illustrated by Alex Ross and Brent Anderson)
Life in the Big City (1997).
Family Album (1998).
Tarnished Angel (1999).
Local Heroes (2005).
As he grew older and was allowed to visit friends' houses, however, Busiek got to experience what he had been missing at home: unrestricted access to television shows and American comics. When he began a paper route at age fourteen, he took the money he earned and spent it on comics. He started with Daredevil #120, he recalled in an interview with Matt Osterberg for CC Productions: "By the time the [four-issue] story was finished, I'd found a comics specialty shop, picked up back issues of X-Men, Daredevil, and Thor, and was on my way to being hooked for life." While attending junior high school, Busiek became good friends with Scott McCloud (1960–; see entry), who would go on to create comics and graphic novels of his own. "Scott was not a comics fan when I met him," Busiek told Graphic Novelists (GN). "I pushed him into reading comics and surely ruined his life." Together, Busiek and McCloud plowed through comic books and talked of one day creating their own.
All through high school and on into college at Syracuse University in upstate New York, Busiek dreamed of working in comics. He and McCloud had worked on their own superhero comic in high school. It became clear that Busiek would be a writer and McCloud a cartoonist who would both write and draw. At Syracuse, Busiek took those courses he thought would best equip him for his future career, including classes in literature, mythology, and publishing. He penned reviews of new comics for fan magazines and sent scripts for stories out to comics publishers. His break came when he interviewed DC Comics executive Dick Giordano for a school paper. "He invited me to submit scripts, so I wrote four sample scripts and sent them to Dick," Busiek told GN. One script found its way into the hands of an editor named Ernie Colon, who invited Busiek to create a backup story for the DC character Green Lantern. The result was Busiek's first paid work, called "The Price You Pay," for Green Lantern #162.
Selling his first story didn't make Busiek an instant success in the comics industry, but it was a promising beginning. In the early 1980s, he wrote a set of stories for Marvel's Power Man and Iron Fist series, and during that time he kept developing stories of his own. Though he worked for a time as an assistant editor for Marvel Age Magazine, he was mainly a freelancer, taking writing jobs for a variety of different employers, including Disney's comics publishing arm and the adult men's magazine Penthouse. He also worked for several years as a literary agent, then returned to full-time freelancing. During these years, Busiek wrote comics stories about every possible topic. As he told Comic Book Galaxy Web site interviewer Alan David Doane: "I wrote everything from humor stories, to horror stories to superhero stories to Mickey Mouse stories, and that gave me a nice practical education in writing a lot of different varieties of material." It was a long apprenticeship in comics writing and, after about ten years, Busiek began to see the payoff for all his hard work.
New life for the superhero genre
By the early 1990s, comic superheroes had been around for more than fifty years. The character Superman made his debut in 1938 in comic books published by DC Comics, and he was followed within the year by a series of superheroes introduced by Marvel Comics (see sidebar), DC's big rival. Over the years, the number of superheroes multiplied, and DC, Marvel, and other comics publishers released issue after issue of superhero stories. By the 1970s, many felt that the superhero genre, or category of story, had run its course, because so many of the stories were repetitive or boring. In the 1980s—following a trend begun by Frank Miller (1957–; see entry) with his Batman story The Dark Knight Returns (1986)—a number of comics creators breathed new life into the genre by breaking it down: they explored the dark side of superheroes' motivations and did not shy away from the violence of the superheroes' world. But within a few years, even these stories began to seem formulaic. Kurt Busiek, however, had an idea to revitalize the superhero genre.
Busiek's idea was to view the superheroes from an entirely new angle: that of a human living in the midst of a world populated by superhuman beings. He imagined that a photographer named Phil Sheldon was present in 1939 at the arrival of the first Marvel Comics hero, the Human Torch, and later at the emergence of all the other Marvel Comics heroes. Sheldon and the other humans looked upon the activities of these superheroes with both wonder and horror, respect and sometimes distrust. The stories that Busiek told were not about the superheroes so much as they were about the lives of normal people living in a world that was deeply influenced by superheroes.
Busiek teamed with another relatively unknown comics creator, artist Alex Ross (1970–; see entry), to create Marvels. The first volume in the pair's four-part miniseries tracked Sheldon's observations of the first generation of Marvel heroes. In subsequent volumes, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men all enter Sheldon's world, and he tries to publish a book on the group he calls the Marvels; humans begin to get suspicious of the motivations of the Marvels, even as the heroes battle against the evil menace, Galactus; and Sheldon follows the emergence of the most modern Marvel hero, Spider-Man. By the time the series was complete, Busiek had retold major portions of the history of the Marvel superheroes in a single compelling narrative. The volumes, published as the graphic novel Marvels in 1994, firmly established Busiek's reputation as a major comics creator.
Marvel Comics was the biggest comic book publisher in the United States in the 2000s. But in the late 1930s, when it started, it was playing catch-up with DC Comics, which introduced Superman in 1938. Founder Martin Goodman started the company, then called Timely, in 1939 by introducing its own superheroes, including the Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, and the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett. In late 1940, Marvel added Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. During World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), Marvel superheroes supported the war effort by waging war against German and Japanese forces. This patriotism helped their popularity and boosted sales during the war, but by the late 1940s, Marvel's superhero comics were selling very poorly and the Marvel line dwindled through the 1950s.
In 1961, Marvel made a stunning come-back in the world of superheroes when Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee teamed with artist Jack Kirby to introduce a new generation of heroes, called the Fantastic Four. Marvel followed these first with the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and then later with the X-Men, Iron Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, and the Silver Surfer. The introduction of all these superheroes prompted comics critics and readers to label this the "Silver Age" of comics, second only to the "Golden Age" of the 1930s and 1940s. Not only did these superheroes gain huge numbers of fans, but comics creators Lee and Kirby became known as some of the great figures in comics history.
Marvel remains a major entertainment corporation, producing comics, television shows, movies, and merchandise. Yet most of the Marvel heroes have been around for years, proving that certain American superheroes really are timeless.
Marvels was greeted with great acclaim in the comics world. Busiek was hailed for his storytelling skills, and Alex Ross was identified as a major new artistic talent (he has gone on to become perhaps the best-known comics artist of the 1990s and 2000s). Comics critic Ray Mescallado and others claimed that Marvels offered a new approach to the superhero genre, which he called "nuevo [new] traditionalist" or "reconstructionist." The "reconstructed" superheroes imagined by Busiek had the capacity to inspire admiration and awe, as they did in their early days, but readers could also see the uncertain influence that their actions had on the world of mere mortals. As Busiek told Marv Wolfman in an interview on the Silver Bullet Comic Books Web site, "We put [superheroes] back as figures of wonder, without losing a sense of humanity." Though many comics creators cite him as an influence, Busiek told Mescallado, "I don't feel terribly like a trailblazer.… I wouldn't mind being an influence in terms of technique, or in terms of people keeping their mouths shut about upcoming plot twists, but as far as direction goes, I'd just as soon people found their own, and embraced what works for them."
Creates a world of his own
In Marvels, Busiek inherited an existing set of superheroes; in his next series, Kurt Busiek's Astro City (later renamed simply Astro City), he invented a whole new world of superhero action. Astro City was based on the same premise as Marvels: that it would be interesting to tell superhero stories from the perspective of those living in their world. In the foreword to the first collected volume, called Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Life in the Big City (1997), Busiek offered this explanation of his intent in the series: "We've been taking apart the superhero for ten years or more; it's time to put it back together and wind it up, time to take it out on the road and floor it, see what it'll do."
With Astro City, Busiek invented an entirely new locale, Astro City, which was guarded over by the Samaritan, Silver Agent, The Black Rapier, Cleopatra, and an ever-shifting array of additional heroes. Because these superheroes had no backstory (the historical record of their deeds from other comic books), Busiek was able to introduce them and tell their stories strictly through the eyes of the citizens of Astro City. The material that Busiek discovered in Astro City was so rich that it has allowed the Astro City series to continue publishing, intermittently, from the first issue in 1995 up to 2005. Over the years, the series has also been collected into graphic novel format five times, and all five remain in print.
Unlike Marvels, which was told by one character, the stories in Astro City are told by many characters, each with their own perspective on the strange universe they inhabit. In Astro City: Local Heroes (2005), for example, the first story, "Newcomers," is told by a doorman at a local hotel. As he watches the superheroes of Honor Guard battle with colossal stone villains, he notices a small girl lying in the path of danger. Risking his own life, he rescues the girl from danger, then goes back to his job, thoroughly satisfied. In "Shining Armor," an aging lady tells her lesbian daughter how she tried to win the heart of a superhero named Atomicus, only to drive him away, from her and from Astro City, by trying too hard to prove herself to him. The lady thinks she has failed, but Busiek reveals at the end of the story that the daughter has learned a great deal from her mother, and uses what she has learned as the superhero Flying Fox. Like all of Busiek's Astro City tales, these focus on the human feelings of accomplishment, loss, and learning—feelings that are enriched by the characters' encounters with and reactions to the superheroes that live and fight amongst them.
In Astro City: The Tarnished Angel, Busiek demonstrates the flexibility of his approach by telling a novel-length tale through the eyes of a villain called the Steel-Jacketed Man—Steeljack for short. When the story begins, Steeljack is an aging and bitter man, just released from prison and eager to rebuild his life away from the crime of his youth. But it's hard to find a regular job, and he is lured back into the criminal underworld of Astro City, only to uncover a plot by a failed superhero hoping to redeem his reputation by killing every criminal in the city. Determined to save the lives of downtrodden people who have made bad choices by turning to crime, Steeljack must overcome his own feelings of failure and uselessness in order to save the lives of his friends—with some help from Astro City's superheroes. By the end, Steeljack has worked through his feelings of despair to find a reason to go on living. He has become, in his own way, a hero.
Over the years, critics and reviewers in a variety of comics Web sites have heaped praise on the Astro City series. Reviewers have praised Busiek and his artists for creating an entire world from scratch, and they have acknowledged Busiek's great skill at using everyday characters to help readers explore and understand their own fascination with comics and with superheroes. Mainstream reviewers have sometimes been less kind, when they've paid any attention at all: Library Journal's Stephen Weiner found Astro City: Family Album "too slow" and only partially successful, and other reviews have been unenthusiastic. This mixed reaction illustrates the gulf that still exists between comics fans and the mainstream book-reviewing magazines.
Like so many comics, Astro City is not the creation of a single man, despite the original title. Brent Anderson (1955–) has been the lead artist behind the project from the beginning, always providing the penciling (the pencil drawings) for the series, and sometimes completing the drawings with inking. Alex Ross —Busiek's companion on Marvels—has created cover art, Will Blyberg has been the inker, Alex Sinclair has provided color, and the design studio Comicraft has provided lettering and design work.
Other stories, other battles
While Marvels and Astro City have won Busiek acclaim for his creative vision, they are far from the only work he has done since his breakthrough in 1994. In fact, much of Busiek's other work is also in the superhero genre, though typically in sequential stories that have seen multiple writers over the years. For example, Busiek has written single issues or sets of issues for Iron Man, Spider-Man, Avengers, and Thunderbolts. These more mainstream superhero tales, in which the superhero is the center of the action, provide Busiek with a way to keep in touch with the kinds of characters who form the supporting cast in his other work. In 2004, Busiek penned a heroic fantasy titled Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Uniforms, illustrated by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino. Set in 1915, Arrowsmith imagines a young flying ace who goes to fight in World War I (1914–18), though in Busiek's alternate world the war is fought with magic, sorcery, zombies, and vampires as well as military weapons. Reviewers praised both the book's storytelling and artwork.
One of Busiek's consistent interests has been bettering comics creators' ownership and control of their work. "Traditionally, American comics have been overwhelmingly publisher-owned, with writers and artists having little if any control of their own work, or financial benefit when well-loved characters become movies, television series and such," Busiek told GN, "unlike, say, book publishing, where it's traditional for an author to own his or her work." While this has been changing over the last few decades, the majority of mainstream comic books are still company-owned. Busiek and several other comics stars, among them George Perez and Mark Waid, decided to do something about their frustration with typical publishing arrangements. In 1999 they formed a publishing partnership called Gorilla Comics, which promised full creative control and financial benefits to creators. With Gorilla, Busiek teamed with illustrator Stuart Immomen to release six issues of Shockrockets, a science-fiction adventure about a teenage boy who joins an elite squadron of pilots, flying hi-tech aircraft built from salvaged alien technology and protecting Earth in the wake of a devastating space war. Almost immediately, however, Gorilla's financial backing dried up and the partnership disbanded. Fans of Shockrockets were pleased when the series was published as the graphic novel Shockrockets: We Have Ignition in 2004. School Library Journal reviewer Matthew Moffett wrote that "this well-detailed, well-thought-out title stands to rival many of today's better science-fiction novels."
Following the demise of Gorilla Comics, Busiek continued his intermittent work on Astro City and teamed with publisher Dark Horse to release a new set of stories about Conan, a barbarian swordsman who pits his strength and wits against wizards, monsters, and corrupt civilization in an ancient fantasy world. Busiek and artists Cary Nord (penciller) and Dave Stewart (colorist) made no attempt to account for the many variations on the original Conan stories that have appeared over the years. Instead, they returned to the originals, created in the mid-1930s by Robert E. Howard (1906–1936). In an interview posted on the Comic Book Resources Web site, Busiek claimed that he saw a long life for the series and said "I'd love to be around for the whole thing. Beginning to end, from the birth of Conan on a Cimmerian battlefield to the adventures Howard hinted he had after the last Conan story, 'The Hour of the Dragon.' It'd take years—more than 20 years, I'd guess, to tell it all—but I think it'd be a blast." With Busiek's prolific storytelling ability, it seems that comics fans know what to look for in the bookstores in years to come.
For More Information
Flagg, Gordon. "Busiek, Kurt and others. Local Heroes." Booklist 101, no. 12 (February 15, 2005): 1070.
Moffett, Matthew L. "Busiek, Kurt. Shockrockets: We Have Ignition." School Library Journal 51, no. 3 (March 2005): 239.
Weiner, Stephen. "Kurt Busiek's Astro City: Family Album." Library Journal 124, no. 7 (April 15, 1999): 82.
"Astro City #1/2." DC Comics. http://www.dccomics.com/features/astro/astrocity05.pdf (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Astro City Rocket. http://www.astrocity.us/cgi-bin/index.cgi (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Brent Anderson Art. http://www.brentandersonart.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Doane, Alan David. "The Comic Book Galaxy Interviews: Kurt Busiek." Comic Book Galaxy. http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/busiek.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Lewis, A. David. "To Be Kurt, Not Short." PopMatters. http://www.popmatters.com/comics/interview-busiek1.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Mescallado, Ray. "Trimmings: Kurt Busiek." The Comics Journal. http://www.tcj.com/3_online/t_busiek.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Osterberg, Matt. "An 'Astro' Interview with Kurt Busiek" CC Productions. http://www.geocities.com/hollywood/3362/kurt.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Wolfman, Marv. "Speaking with … Kurt Busiek—Part One." Silver Bullet Comic Books. http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/wolfman/103145870776678.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Yarbrough, Beau. "Swords and the Sorcerer: Busiek's Fantastic Worlds of 'Conan' and 'Arrowsmith."' CBR. http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=2772 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through direct correspondence with Kurt Busiek in September 2005.