After spending several issues focused primarily on the origins of Quarrel, Astro City #20 seems to have finally gotten around to the story proper, as the action in the current story arc kicks into high gear in time for next issue’s explosive finale. Considering that the main problem with the previous issues was that they felt too much like setup, this makes issue 20 undoubtedly the strongest of the arc thus far, finally tackling the promised subject matter of non-powered crime fighters coming to terms with the fact that their prime is behind them and thinking about what the future holds.
The issue still takes place at least partially in the past, this time recounting Quarrel’s time with Honor Guard and her brief romantic relationship with fellow hero MPH before focusing on Quarrel’s present, as she and her partner/lover Crackerjack grapple with the reality of their situation. While the previous issues often felt like they were overly focused on Quarrel’s past, despite her present being much more interesting, issue 20 strikes a much better balance between the “then” and “now”. The brief foray into Quarrel’s romantic history with MPH could have felt like filler, but the details of their relationship, specifically its ending, serve to inform us further about Quarrel’s character, making it feel like a helpful (though maybe not wholly necessary) side-note.
As is often the case, Astro City issue 20 works best when it gets away from larger-than-life superhero shenanigans and into quiet character moments. Scenes like Quarrel and MPH’s relationship fallout and her discussions with Crackerjack over how to cope with the reality that they’re past the prime age for superheroing feel like the strongest scenes in the issue, cementing the reality that when you get right down to it, Astro City just really isn’t an action book so much as a character drama with the occasional foray into onomatopoeia-and-spandex superhero action. And its because of these moments, and the sense that the story is finally moving forward rather than simply putting its pieces in place, that issue 20 is so strong. More than before, a real sense of what the story is about is coming out, and Quarrel is starting to feel more developed and multi-dimensional than she did in the last issues. Surprisingly, the same goes for Crackerjack, though indicators are that ‘Jack’s future may be in serious doubt, which would make his new-found depth short lived. The pieces are finally in place for the finale, and an issue that wholly takes place in the present, moving Quarrel’s story forward in a way previous issues lacked. Whether or not the payoff makes the over-long buildup worth it remains to be seen.