Twenty (and fifteen) years of Astro City

The comic Astro City turns twenty this year. Not the best known comic in the world and not part of the “Big Two” comic universes of Marvel or DC. But it’s a comic series that means a lot to me and it played a part in getting me back into comics.

When I turned eighteen, back in 1993, I decided that I was going to give up on comics. Partly, it was a desire to seem more mature and grown up, and partly because most super hero comics by the early nineties had become parodies of themselves, featuring heroes with big guns, big shoulder pads and tiny feet. (Although, it was probably more of the former than the latter.)

Fast forward to 1997. I was still  interested in comics, but I’d not bought one since 1993.  I had been following comics fans’ websites on the internet and some of the more nostalgic fans had become excited about a new comic called Thunderbolts.

The central conceit of the comic was that the Avengers (before they were famous) had been sucked into another dimension where they had even tinier feet and really big shoulder pads. The Thunderbolts then arrived to to fill the Avengers’ (tiny) shoes.

Except, in a shock twist, the Thunderbolts were actually villains in disguise, seeking to exploit the public’s trust. (Spoiler – they reformed. Well, most of them did.)

I cracked. It sounded good and the shoulder pads looked pretty small. Thunderbolts issue 3 became the comic that brought me back.

But how does Astro City fit into all this?

Thunderbolts was written by one Kurt Busiek. He had an obvious fondness for the long history of the Marvel Universe and the tropes of the classic super hero comic. Thunderbolts, despite its premise, was not a Watchman-style deconstruction. If anything, it was the opposite; an affirmation that even a small-time hood in a rocket suit can be heroic.

I wanted to read more Busiek. The word on the internet was that his best work was probably in his creator owned title, Astro City.

It seems it took me a while to get to Astro City. My first issue was #16, which came out almost two years after Thunderbolts #3. (In that time, Busiek had also ended up writing Iron Man and Avengers.)

But it was worth the wait. The central premise of Astro City is  how classic style super heroes would affect the people around them and  the life those heroes might lead between stopping the doomsday device of the week.

The first issue also dealt with the redemption of a small-time super villain, but it was a more nuanced story than Thunderbolts; the redemption was harder and less spectacular and the tones more muted. Marlowe meets Batman.

Over fifteen years later, and I’m still reading Astro City. The comic has had its hiatuses and changes, but it still has the same creative team – Busiek writing, Alex Ross painting the covers and Brent Anderson drawing the interiors.

And the stories still resonate with me. Perhaps more than they did  before.

As the comic’s twentieth anniversary looms, it’s turned to Quarrel,  a Hawkeye-like hero who was a background character in the first ever issue.

Twenty years on, she’s facing up to the fact that she’s getting older and can’t do what she did when she first appeared.

I’m going to be forty this year and I also find that as time passes, you look back the decisions you’ve made, and question if you can keep on doing the things you’ve been doing for years.

I don’t know the answer to that; I don’t think anyone really does. But I am glad I started reading comics again and I’m glad for the part Astro City plays in my comic reading life.

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Cocktail of the Week – Americano

In the past couple of months I’ve finally managed to acquire something I’ve coveted for a long time – a soda siphon!

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It’s an old fashioned way to make soda water – you pour tap water into the siphon, put the lid on, attach a carbon dioxide capsule and you get a pressurised bottle full of soda water, which you can then spray around like an unwieldy water pistol.

Arguably, it’s a lot easier to pop round to your local corner shop and buy a bottle of soda water, but where’s the fun in that? It may explain why they’re so hard to find, though. There are a few secondhand siphons around, but they’re not always in the best condition. (It’s particularly worrying when you pick one up and it sloshes – I’d rather not think about how long the water’s been in there.)

All I needed was a cocktail that uses soda water – I chose the Americano.

I’ve mentioned the Americano in passing once or twice before. While it’s nothing to do with coffee, the origin of its name is similar.  Both were favoured by American tourists visiting Italy in the early 1900’s and the locals renamed them accordingly.

Americano

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2 msrs sweet vermouth

2 msrs Campari

Splash of soda water

Pour the vermouth and Campari into a short glass with ice. Add a splash of soda water.

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This is a strange one, but in a good way. It’s initially quite sweet but with an extremely bitter aftertaste. It’s not unpleasant – in fact it’s extremely refreshing and makes for a good aperitif.

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Cocktail of the Week – The Holland House

Last week, I made a Hoffman House Cocktail. Being easily confused, I then spent most of the week referring to it as a Holland House Cocktail.

Fortunately, there is a Holland House Cocktail, so it only seemed reasonable that I had a go at making one of them too.

(Both cocktails are named after bars or hotels in late 19th century Manhattan. Personally, if I was running a bar, I’d try to make sure my name was radically different from any rivals, but there you go…)

There are actually a number of different Holland House cocktail recipes, one of which uses genever, a Dutch gin (the ‘Holland’ in ‘Holland House’, presumably).

Instead of that, I’m using the version in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930. It’s very similar to the Aviation, but with pineapple taking the place of creme de violet.

I’m generally sceptical about pineapple in cocktails – it reminds me of the excesses of the 80’s when cocktails were all lurid colours and paper umbrellas. But it never hurts to try anything once…

Holland House (Craddock Version)

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2 msr dry gin

3/4 msr dry vermouth

1/2 msr lemon juice

4 dashes maraschino

4 wedges pineapple

Muddle (mash) the pineapple pieces in the bottom of the cocktail shaker. You can buy cocktail muddlers to do this, but a wooden spoon will do. (Best not to try in a glass cocktail shaker though.)

Add the other ingredients to the shaker with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

The pineapple really works in this – it gives sweetness with a little sting, while there’s bitterness from the maraschino and sourness from the lemon. It’s a well-balanced and tasty cocktail.

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Cocktail of the Week – The Hoffman House

Elinor and I have, over the years, amassed a fair number of recipe books.

Or more accurately, Elinor has amassed a fair number of recipe books, while I have two; “The 1000 Recipe Cookbook” from my student days and the uncompromisingly named “Eat Like a Man“.

The latter is produced by the food editors of Esquire Magazine, and as the decidedly pink steak on the cover indicates, its title gives a fair idea of the sort of recipes contained within.

Not that is a bad thing. The recipes are by America’s top chefs, there are lots of useful tips throughout and the recipes we’ve tried have been pretty successful.

And, best of all, it has cocktail recipes.

Not a lot of cocktail recipes, but it has the five essential cocktails.

Four of these (Martini, Manhattan, Sidecar and Old-Fashioned)  I’ve already done. I’ve not done the Gimlet yet, but that’s a story for another time (namely the time when I’ve bought lime cordial).

But it also has variants on the essentials – including the Hoffman House. (Not to be confused with the Holland House, which a different cocktail, akin to an Aviation.)

In simplest terms, this is just a 2:1 gin martini, but it’s made with the slightly harsher Plymouth gin and adds two dashes of orange bitters for more tang that the normal martini.

It was invented in the bar of the Hoffman House, one of the great bars of New York’s Belle Epoque, which was torn down in 1915, just before Prohibition.

Hoffman House

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2 msrs Plymouth gin

1 msr dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

Add ingredients and ice to a cocktail shaker. Shake, strain and pour into a cocktail glass and add a lemon twist.

As I said, this is very nice – there’s a nice bitter tang to it that helps it work as an aperitif.

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Cocktail of the Week – Nick & Nora

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Cocktail of the Week – The Vanderbilt

As I’ve probably said before, the Golden Age of Cocktails was probably the 1920’s and 30’s, when exotic recipes were devised to hide the taste of the bathtub hooch that passed for spirits in Prohibition America.

But the cocktail dates to before then, and it’s fun to try some whose Belle Epoque origins are suggested by their names.

One of the these is the Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilts were one of the richest families in America at the turn of the twentieth century, their fortune built on the steamship and railroad empire of their patriarch, the impressively monikered Cornelius Vanderbilt (commonly known as The Commodore).

The Commodore’s fortune at his death was the equivalent of $143 billion today. The Vanderbilt cocktail, invented for one of his descendents in 1912, is also very rich.

The Vanderbilt

1 1/2 msr cognac

1 msr cherry brandy

1/2 msr sugar syrup

2 dashes angostura bitters

Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist and two maraschino cherries.

As I said, this is very rich – it’s full bodied, quite sweet (but not sickly) and feels really rather indulgent.

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Cocktail of the Week – Vodka Martini

The vodka martini. Arguably the best known of all cocktails, mostly due to a certain cinematic superspy who’s been around for 50 years.

But in the year and a half that I’ve been blogging on cocktails, I’ve never featured the vodka martini. (I refuse to call it “a vodkatini”.)

Partly it’s because the vodka martini is a cliché among cocktails – ordering it is almost guaranteed to result in at least one James Bond reference.

But the other reason is that I’ve never thought of myself as a vodka fan. I suspect that the world of clear spirit drinkers divides into gin drinkers and vodka drinkers, and I’m firmly in the gin camp; I prefer the subtle botanics over the clean flavour of vodka. 

But while I was on holiday in Paris, Elinor and I went to a restaurant that gloried in the wonderful name of Les Zazzous (“The Hepcats” in French.)

On the cocktail menu was a vodka martini – but no gin martini. Throwing caution to the wind (I was on holiday, after all) I ordered a vodka martini.

It arrived, and after the inevitable “shaken, not stirred” joke, I gave it a try.

It was really good. So good, I would say it was better than a gin martini.

The cold, clean vodka is offset by the herbal taste of the vermouth. It’s complex, yet somehow very pleasing.

When I got home,  I made my own, and I’m pleased to report that the homemade version is just as good.

Vodka Martini

2 msrs vodka

1 msr dry vermouth

Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker half filled with ice. Shake until very cold. (Yes it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that works.) Pour into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

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