Astro City’s longevity is in part due to its creators’ willingness to take risks with its subject matter. In breathing new life into the superhero genre by looking at it from a series of strange, unusual or bizarre perspectives, its writer Kurt Busiek manages to make familiar concepts fresh and archetypal heroes touchingly human. The risk is not so much that Busiek will find himself re-treading old ground, but rather that he might end up looking a bit silly in the process. And nothing says ‘silly’ quite like an anthropomorphic superhero. In this 47th issue of the book’s Vertigo iteration, the focus is on G-Dog, a super-powered melding of human and corgi. So, do we get something akin to the sublime Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew or something closer to the decidedly less impressive Loony Toons/DC crossover specials? There’s only one way to find out…
Actually, we get neither. Busiek and guest artist Mike Norton present us with a tale whose protagonist is Andy, a small-time crook, who is shown doing some pretty morally dubious things, including confiscating someone’s dog in lieu of payment on a debt. That, of course, is how the whole dog-man hybrid thing starts. It isn’t long before Andy is sneaking around in the house of an architect looking for stuff to steal and realizing that the owner of the house had some kind of connection to Honor Guard, Astro City’s version of the Justice League or Avengers. Stealing a nice-looking amulet on a whim, Andy goes back to his humdrum life, but Busiek and Norton make it clear that Andy is forming a bond with Hank, the aforementioned corgi, and that Hank is making Andy a better man as a consequence.
This reformation of Andy’s character undergoes a quantum shift when the amulet Andy had stolen and is now wearing touches Hank and, improbably, the pair undergo a startling canine-human hybridization. Andy is the senior partner in the relationship in that he gets to decide how to use his newfound abilities, while Hank is a disembodied head voicing ‘advice’ in the background, a canine Martin Stein to Andy’s Ronnie Raymond. Hank, however, is a far more powerful influence on Andy than Stein ever was to his Firestorm partner and the magical transformation hastens Andy’s change of character. While Andy initially wants to use his powers to enrich himself, he finds himself reluctant to do so, because the bond he’s already formed with Hank has intensified and he can’t face the corgi’s disappointment.
This is where the name G-Dog comes in. The ‘G’ stands for ‘good’, a call-back to a rather sweet page in which Andy housetrains Hank and plays with him at the park, using the phrases ‘good dog’ and ‘bad dog’ to reinforce his expectations of Hank’s behaviour. Now, it is Hank who is training Andy to fulfill his potential as a superhero. And he does. We see him take down the crime boss to which he owed money in a former life and we see him gaining the solemn approval of The Samaritan and his colleagues in Honor Guard after dispatching a huge monster whose lichen-based powers threaten to destroy much of the city.
It’s all rather heartwarming stuff, rich in pathos and the kind of gentle humour that is rarer than I’d like in comics these days. Just when you think we might drown in a sea of (admittedly well-written) sentimentality, though, Busiek reminds us just how good a comic book writer he is with a final page that threatens to upend everything we thought we knew about our characters and adds a shockingly sudden gravitas to the story. It’s one heck of a cliffhanger and provides a powerful incentive to buy the next issue.
Busiek has been writing comics since I was a kid in the 80s and it’s clear that, just like me, he loves them. I said earlier that this issue could easily have become quite silly, but Busiek adroitly sidesteps some of the more obvious clichés and instead gives us a story whose central relationship is, despite its fantastical nature, utterly believable and incredibly affecting. Norton’s art is clear and conveys both the warmth of that relationship and the dynamism of G-Dog’s heroism beautifully. The subject matter might be a little off-putting to some potential readers, but I found the issue an exceptionally satisfying read.