A Superheroic Love Letter To Comics: Reviewing ‘Astonishing Times’ TPB
by Scott Redmond
‘Astonishing Times’ wears its big superhero and comic book-loving heart right on its sleeve for all to see on every single page. A truly gorgeous and brilliant series that showcases just what the medium of comics is capable of doing while serving as a love letter to that same medium and genre. If you love superheroes and comic books, this is a book that you need to read.
Superheroes and comic books have a long-storied history at this point, and comics that explore the idea of superheroes being in the real world are also not something new. Those explorations often center around more cynical and violent takes where the heroes become warped or are packaged products that become the worst of overindulgent celebrity types.
The comiXology Original and Dark Horse Comics collected series Astonishing Times takes a much different approach. What if heroes have been around for decades and were heroic but rather than becoming hedonistic or villainous, the public just lost interest and is no longer astonished by the heroes among them?
Right off the bat, Frank J. Barbiere, Arris Quinones, Ruairí Coleman, Lauren Affe, and Taylor Esposito present a truly intriguing new world. Presenting it through the lens of a young legacy journalist (Noah, the son of a journalist who was close to the superheroes) and his superhero-focused column is just the cherry on top of this delicious dessert, I say somewhat biased since one of my college degrees is in the realm of journalism. A murder mystery wrapped up in a story examining the reality of superheroes as well as elements of human nature, is a pretty fantastic combination.
Described as a love letter to superheroes and comic books as a medium, the series shows that on every page. Barbiere and Quinones pull from many superhero-related ideas, and deconstructions, that we’ve seen elsewhere but made sure to frame them in new ways that ask new questions. We’ve seen worlds where a Superman-like character went “bad,” but here we get something that has a far more solid backstory to why this character made the choices that he made, even if they are of a more villainous nature. Astonishing Times does not shy away from tough questions about what really makes a hero a hero, and where the line between hero and villain can be even if one believes they have the best intentions.
Because they pull from many of the archetypes we’ve seen in pop culture for decades now, the characters of this series feel familiar while being unique in their own wonderful ways. Papes are filled with superhero battles that are similarly familiar, but they are filled with even more raw emotion and beauty as we also get glimpses of the horror that comes with these super battles.
The work that Coleman, Affe, and Esposito are doing artistically is phenomenal. Every bit of energy that this story deserves, and more are pouring off the pages, the very detailed and well-crafted pages. No two pages look exactly alike, because the paneling and the setup change to suit the needed moment or mood.
Coleman has a very detailed and “realistic” art style that really nails placing superheroic stylings into the real world that we inhabit. Making this work, even more, is the colors of Affe which are bright and shiny in the daylight/lighted scenes and shadowy or dulled some in the darker scenes, but not overly bright or dark. There is an inherent pop of brightness in a lot of superhero books to hit home the otherworldly nature of them, but here things have a more ‘real’ look to them.
I keep using that world real which is really hard to quantify, because clearly in the art there are things that are beyond our own world which makes sense with heroes having been around since the ’70s. At the same time, the world we’re presented with here is closer to our real world than Gotham City or Metropolis or the Marvelized version of New York City really is.
The action scenes especially are kinetic and gorgeous to behold, as the action truly feels like it could just burst right off the page and into our world. Affe’s hit that great spot where they are bright but also muted at the same time, really matching the environment whether it’s outside as the sun is setting or inside a darker metallic lab or anywhere else. There are a lot of really distinct bright flashy colors that fill the background and foreground or work as filters of sorts over the characters that match the sorts of lighting that would come from the current environment.
There are times when the duo employs old-school Ben Day dot-style artwork to depict not only flashbacks but also classic comic books within a comic book since these heroes of this world also had comics about them. The juxtaposition of those flashback/comic pages alongside the modern/real pages is a quick way to fully bring the reader into this world and remind them that the things we love (superheroes/comics) are fixtures of this world as well.
Esposito knocks it out of the park with the lettering work across the series, from the bubbles to the SFX that fills some of the pages. Not only does a letterer have to lay out all the dialogue in a way that doesn’t clutter a panel or detract away from the art, but there are also all the little things with font changes that help really make the dialogue even more realistic. Esposito does that dance well with the perfect uses of smaller fonts and bolds for emphasis/tone and the big bold block letter exclamations.
Noah’s journalistic caption boxes are a true highlight of this book, as they are just such a perfect character piece. The SFX are big and bold and fun, while also at times there is a dire nature to them as they match some of the more dangerous settings later in the story. Along with little indicators within the dialogue, they help heighten the stressful feelings that would very much come from moments of this nature.
Through this series, this creative team has expertly shown how one can take notions and story tropes that feel familiar or have been seen a million times, and still come up with something unique and different to say about them. One can take the same puzzle pieces or set of ingredients and come up with an entirely different just as pleasing outcome in the long run.
Astonishing Times is now available digitally on comiXology Originals and in printed trade paperback format from Dark Horse Comics