There are very few stories I would say are “must-reads” when it comes to comics. But when it comes to recommendations, my first two are usually, “A Death in the Family” and “A Lonely Place of Dying”, which are both Batman stories, and shockingly, both about Robin, Batman’s partner. “A Death in the Family” is the story of the first major, lasting death in the Bat-Family: that of Jason Todd, the second Robin. It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve ever read and I got to read it as it came out when I was a kid. A couple years later, “A Lonely Place of Dying” came out as a crossover story for Batman that dealt with introducing a new Robin: Timothy Drake. In the first story, we see the deconstruction of the hero; the angry 80’s hero who is deeply flawed ends up biting off more than he can chew and ends up paying the price for his mistakes, despite showing at his core that he was a hero to the end. The second story is a reconstruction of Robin as a character; it’s about why Robin is a symbol and why that symbol is so important to the DC universe and to Batman. But most importantly, it’s a reconstruction for the audience to remind us why the character matters and why Tim Drake was going to be different from Jason Todd.
That brings us to Astro City. Kurt Busiek and the team on Astro City dove deep into DC, Marvel, and other classic comic inspirations when creating their own universe: Astro City. Many of the characters in Astro City feel like analogues for characters like the Fantastic Four in regards to the Furst Family, The Astro City Irregulars to DC’s Outsiders, or in the case of “Confession”, the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin now being portrayed by two new characters: The Confessor and Altar Boy.
What’s great about Astro City is that the story isn’t bound by 40+ years of canon, or even audience expectations of who these characters are supposed to be. And the story is done as a post-modern deconstruction of what Batman and Robin are as a team and as heroes, and it’s a deconstruction to reconstruction done right!
My biggest problem with most post-modernism in comics is that everyone wants to be Frank Miller when he wrote, “The Dark Knight Returns”; it’s a process of breaking down a character to their grittiest, nastiest elements, and then telling a grim-dark story. However, GREAT writers will build something back up in its place. Frank Miller’s best works were with editors who understood this, like Denny O’Neil, who was the editor for the Batman & Robin stories I mentioned above and “The Dark Knight Returns”. Good deconstruction is about breaking all the elements down to their basic building blocks so you can see how each piece works; then you put it back together: this way, the audience has a deeper appreciation for how good stories and good characters are built.
“Confession” is such a story. To break this dynamic of “Batman & Robin” down, this story is told through the eyes of the junior partner, Brian Kinney, who comes to Astro City with dreams of becoming a super hero. He’s from a rinky-dink town, and his father, who was a poor doctor in that town, recently died. This lights a fire in Kinney’s stomach to not die nameless, penniless, and alone, like his father. Instead, he wants to do something significant and important with his life.
This begins the hero’s journey of, “The Boy Learns a Lesson“, a classic story writing technique. That’s an important technique because it opens a door to reconstruction; once the problems in the early parts of the story are identified, it puts the character in crisis and they have to make a choice based on their virtues or vices on how to overcome that challenge. We follow Brian on his journey to getting started in Astro City, and eventually finding a mentor in the form of “The Confessor”, and night-time hero who solves crimes and bring criminals to justice with his two fists and deductive reasoning.
But it’s the journey that is important here, because along the way, Brian is challenged on his beliefs: “What is a hero? What makes a person heroic, and what are they obligated to do with that knowledge? What is the reality of being hero in terms of self-sacrifice vs. glory, and helping people vs. helping yourself?”
Thankfully, Brian’s answers to these questions leads to a terrific reconstruction of the hero and a significant milestone in the hero’s journey. It’s a page turner to the end, but it’s driven by Brian’s growth as a character as first has to unlearn his preconceptions about heroism and then rebuild them through being put through hard situations and being asked hard questions by his new mentor.
I can’t talk too much about it without spoiling the terrific plot and some of the big reveals. Plus, I really want you to dig in to the story, which despite having a big backdrop, is deeply personal. Also, as you can see from some of the art here by Alex Ross and other artists, it’s an inspiring world and set of characters that are best met on the page.
Overall, “Confession” is the story of a boy becoming a man, and a man becoming a hero. It’s about learning how to appreciate the heroes around us and deconstructing what it is that actually makes a hero so that we can recognize these pieces in those around us.
It’s amazing to me that “Confession” might be one of the best Batman & Robin stories ever written, and it doesn’t star Batman or Robin; however, there is something amazing that was created back in the 40’s with Batman and Robin that is so iconic we take it for granted, and “Confession” is a story that helps us remember why the Dynamic Duo… and Confessor and Altar Boy… are so important for those of us who love good stories.