Astonishing Times brilliantly combines superheroes with the literal actual world right outside our windows in a way that celebrates the joy and spark that superheroes bring. Every page is filled with stunningly beautiful artwork that fully encapsulates this wonderful clash of the fantastical and our reality. Truly, a magnificent debut issue.
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. Often those explorations center around more cynical and often violent takes where the heroes become warped or are packaged products that become the worst of overindulgent celebrity types.
The latest ComiXology Original 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, this is a very intriguing world that Frank J. Barbiere, Arris Quinones, Ruairí Coleman, Lauren Affe, and Taylor Esposito are presenting. Wrapping it up through the lens of a young legacy journalist 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.
Right away the issue pulls the reader in with a murder mystery and jumps right to Noah Sans explaining this world through column entry as he moves through the world. What Barbiere and Quinones setup here is just so engaging because it’s well written and the voice is strong in the character already. But also, it’s engaging because it’s so realistic in a way that the other takes on superheroes in the real world don’t often hit upon.
Sure, people with powers in our real-world might become jerks or villains, but with how quickly things go from being the talk of the town to forgotten in our current culture this book’s focus feels so true. Our society as it is surely would have reached that “Oh cool heroes are around, what else is new.” There are often shades of this seen in some of the big long-term superhero publisher’s books, and here it’s given the space to grow that it deserves. It’s quite the story hook.
Within the first section of the book, the main character and the supporting characters and others around them are fleshed out just enough that they feel real and have weight while leaving room for more explanation of them in future issues. Noah and the hero he encounters as part of the murder mystery, Kokin, get a majority of the focus which helps center the story and gives us the folks whose eyes we will see this story through.
Coleman and Affe do the other heavy lifting of bringing life to this universe, and it’s very well done. 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 are.
Both Affe and Coleman employ some other artistic tricks that catch the eye. With Coleman, it is the fact that he uses the growing, and favored by this reviewer, trend of pushing beyond standard paneling constraints to play more with white space and panel spacing/sizing. It just really expands what a story can do when sometimes the page can go outside the proverbial box in how it presents the images for the reader.
For the colors and what Affe does, it has to do with the aforementioned light and dark panels. Often in a lot of mediums, the darkness around a character or the darker aspects are somewhat lightened in order to better ‘see’ things. Affe though makes things easily seen but the moments in a dark bedroom or walking around on a dark rainy night are accurate to what they often would look like with the darkness and shadows. It’s a ‘small’ thing but it just sells the idea of this reflecting the reality of how the world works.
The final important piece to any work like this is the lettering, and Esposito does a tremendous job on that front. 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 and the big bold block letter exclamations. Not to mention the location indicators with their fantastic style and the newspaper-like caption boxes that are a delight.
Letterers far too often don’t get enough credit for what they do, because honestly quite often the full scope of what they do doesn’t really get communicated as well so it feels like often many don’t know how to address it. What they do though is an art all itself and great lettering can truly help elevate a story just as much as great writing and art and colors.
Astonishing Times #1 is now available through ComiXology/Kindle/Amazon Prime.