Why do I recommend Astro City to people who don't read superhero comics? Two reasons. Reason 1: It isn't a superhero comic. It's a comic about a city (that happens to have superheroes in it). Reason 2: I have to tell you a story.
There were these two guys who loved superhero comics. But they didn't like what they saw them turning into... dark, ironic, gritty and grim slashfests loaded with gun-toting anti-hero vigilantes. So they decided to do something about it. They designed their own worlds, complete with histories and futures. They created adventures featuring fallible, interesting human beings, some of whom happened to have impossible abilities. They examined big questions such as 'what does it mean to be human?' and 'what does it mean to be a hero?'. One of those guys (me) played to an audience of five, doing this all via a superhero role-playing game called Champions. The other, Harvey and Eisner Award-winner Kurt Busiek, was kind enough to share his far more engaging world with us all. Thank goodness!
Astro City is the series and the setting. There is no one star, no central person or group we follow, but if you consider the city to be the main character, then what we have is a collection of vignettes that illustrate its 'life'. It changes, it grows, it has good features and shady ones, and joy is in the discovery. One of my favorite bits is a story about a family moving to the city and their eventful trip with a cheerful cabbie who wouldn't live anywhere else. Superheroic battles rage in the background, but the real story happens in the cab. Will they be scared away by the cosmic forces battling in the skies?
Another tale features a city teen sent to stay with her country cousins, rolling her eyes at the small-town hero helping the locals. She sees REAL heroes back home, OMG! But is there more to the story? Why does this 'Roustabout' seem so interested in her family?
There are certainly stories that focus on the heroes, but even those are far more than biff-pow action spectaculars. One shows a day in the life of Samaritan, whose free time consists of stolen moments between emergencies. What he dreams of is flying free, just for the joy of it.
The graphic novel collection Life in the Big City is a great place to start, although most collections are self-contained story arcs. For those who love this as much as I do, there are lots more, and Kurt is now releasing new Astro City stories again. (Yess!)
If you'd like to see this 'human's eye view' applied to superheroes you may already know, check out Busiek's Marvels: Eye of the Camera, where he follows
the history of the Marvel Universe through the eye of news photographer Phil Sheldon, who saw it all from Day One. Or have a look at his take on the first superhero (DC's 'Superman') as he confronts the effects on humanity of his Always Having Been There to Save the Day.
Kurt unfailingly finds the human element in superhuman worlds. Astro City would make a great setting for a Champions campaign... (grin)....