Kurt Busiek introduced the Broken Man in Private Lives, a man with haunted and haunting green eyes who broke the fourth wall, having an awareness of the audience and addressing them directly. He’s back, and while learning more about him (and maybe him about us), he fills us in on the history of Astro City from way back, even before it was called Romeyn Falls. The unexpected way he does so to begin with is through music, relating how important it’s always been, and how the musical undercurrent of the times has always produced a hero attuned to those times. The idea reflects The Authority’s Jenny Sparks, but Busiek splits the spirit over a number of people whose talents are more grounded and who’re distinctively designed by Alex Ross to be a succession of variations on a theme. That could be a deliberate musical reference, or just chance, but it’s a wry comment anyway.

Ross may be the designer in chief, but it’s Brent Anderson (on the cover) or Brent Eric Anderson (internal credit) who moves those designs across the page, and for six chapters gracefully recreates the past in beguiling detail. Every period visited is given the appropriate trappings and decorations, while being populated with people who’re memorable whether superheroes or not. Some pages are almost Rockwellesque, and is that Judy Garland we see in an inventive revelation about 1940s hero the Gentleman?

Astro City’s often taken brief trips back to the past, but Broken Melody presents a cohesive timeline from the 18th century to the problems the Broken Man’s been trying to tell us about on and off for a while. It’s clever on Busiek’s part because a question that may well occur to readers is eventually revealed to have considerable significance, both as a threat to Astro City itself and concerning the Broken Man, although readers may be ahead by that revelation. Not too far ahead, though.

This is the penultimate Astro City graphic novel collecting the serialised comic, and presenting the answers to questions readers may have provides a valedictory feel. There’s a touch of sadness to several stories, including that of the man who gave the city its name, but if anything that adds a gravitas to a selection that’s up there with the best of the run. Aftermaths gathers the final serialised stories.