When I decided to try and touch on some of the tricks and intricacies found in a single, well-drawn piece of art, I hadn’t really expected to go to Astro City. I like the series, yes, and I love the interior art, I just haven’t seen much metacommentary in it. Of course that would turn out to be because I wasn’t looking for it. Take a look at this panel from Astro City #6 as drawn by Brent Anderson.
Two people standing together. Samaritan and Winged Victory, the two most prominent superheroes in the Astro City universe. A broad-shouldered man in primary colors, an All-American hero and a soft-featured woman in golden armor. Posture is immediately noticeable. You can tell he’s tense, he’s standing tall and looking formal while she’s more relaxed. Neither of them know what to say, the uneasiness embarrasses him and amuses her. Look at the slight dimple on the corner of her lip. A half-smile, ready to laugh at the situation. They’re at least able to make eye contact. The lines of her eyebrows and her eyelashes, with the pupil positioning imply that she’s gazing directly at his face. His eyes are obscured, but the position of his head meets her look.
We see the story through Samaritan’s eyes. His eyes are heavily shaded here, as they are in much of the rest of the issue. The emphasis for the character design is on the broad shoulders, the thick neck, the square jaw. Samaritan is not so much a person as a symbol in the artwork. This is how Astro City views him, though the reader knows better from his narrative. He’s designed as the Iconic American Hero, and the shading on his face reinforces that. Without small and often shadowed eyes, his expression is difficult to convey, the artist works through his posture, the tilt of his head and the writer writes from his viewpoint, so we know how he feels. Here, he feels nervous. He’s too stiff, too rigid. His smile is off. His chest looks tight, like he’s holding his breath. His palms are probably sweating.
With Victory, we don’t have the luxury of internal monologue. Her eyes are prominent and very expressive. So are her lips, and her posture. This is important, because throughout the story we’re watching her reactions, this is how we get to know her along with Samaritan. She coyly — so strange to have such a character act coy but it seems natural here — leans away with her shoulders as she tilts her head towards him. Her wings are timidly folded back. She’s interested, thinks he’s cute, but can’t think of what to say. She’s more relaxed than he is, but she’s also nervous.
This is their first date.
Take a look at the background here. I wasn’t going to go on about the pink wallpaper this time, but it is a really good color choice. Very warm and comfortable. The furniture (cabinet, bookshelf, and vase) has a reddish tint, and the only flower on the plant is red. Red and pink are romantic colors, Valentine’s Day colors. It’s their first date. The red flower is very close to the center, but slightly on Samaritan’s side. We know, from the first few pages that he is very attracted to Winged Victory, but we’re not sure about her feelings for him yet.
On the whole, going into this issue, we know more about Samaritan. He was the narrator from the first issue of the series, and he’s the narrator here. Victory has shown up from time to time, but we really know nothing about her. First they meet at an apartment, and then they go out to dinner. He tells her his origin story. We learn about him and watch her reactions. Then, rather than learn Victory’s origin story, they start to discuss the politics of saving lives. She tries to explain who she is and why she does what she does (against a background showing the other Astro City heroes taking care of what these two normally would). He misunderstands, and she needs to explain herself. As he starts to understand, he steps on a hidden nerve, and she angrily storms out of the restaurant. He has to follow her to find out exactly what was wrong.
Look at the background again, and follow it from left to right. Behind Samaritan, a blank wall with some shadows, and a little decoration. Behind Winged Victory, a bookshelf and a cabinet. We’re seeing the story through Samaritan’s point of view. It goes from his story, which, while very interesting, is unremarkable to him, to information about her. He’s open, but she’s a little more guarded. She lets him in on some philosophy, some facts about herself, information that’s really available to anyone, and he learns to understand that. But just beyond that is a part he can’t understand. There’s a private area, a closed cabinet for her emotions. When he breaches that, she retreats.
It’s a cute scene that subtly reflects the structure of the story. The entire point of the issue is getting to know Winged Victory; what we learn about Samaritan is new information, yes, but the meat of the tale is what’s going on inside Winged Victory. She seems open; he knows her professionally. He admires her, but she’s a layered personality. His early impression was of her beauty (reflected by the plant), then he discovers her intellect (the bookshelf) and finally her guarded heart (the closed cabinet).