Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 47th installment.
Alan Moore did more with Tom Strong than just write twenty-three of the thirty-six issues in the Tom Strong series. He also spun the character off into various short stories, first in the celebratory, early-in-America’s-Best-lifespan America’s Best Comics Special from 2001 and then in his recurring opening short stories in the Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales anthology.
Tom Strong, of all the America’s Best characters, seemed to most easily lend himself to different kinds of stories. As somewhat of a bland character himself—though one with plenty of gusto and a fine problem-solving mind—Tom Strong could participate in any kind of adventure without sticking out. His globe-trotting, dimension-hopping exploits allowed such narrative diversity, but if Strong were a more specific, well-defined type of character, it would be more difficult to give him the range of adventures you see in his own series or in the various spin-off shorts.
I never thought of it this way before, probably because it’s isn’t completely accurate, but Tom Strong is close in narrative purpose to Will Eisner’s Spirit. He’s often the least interesting aspect of whatever story he’s in, but that doesn’t mean the stories can’t be excellent.
But, as I say, that’s not completely accurate. Tom Strong is, particularly by the end of Moore’s run on the ongoing series, a well-defined character in his own way, capable of shouldering the burden of a story and usually taking the lead role in its resolution. But not always, and some of these short Tom Strong tales show just how flexible the character could be.
America’s Best Comics Special #1 (America’s Best Comics, Feb. 2001)
The cover date on this comic places it a year-and-a-half after the launch of the “America’s Best Comics” line, which is curious because it reads like a book intended to preview the characters for a new audience. The final story in this primarily-Moore-written anthology comic talks about the production staff hard at work on “Top 10” #1 (which came out a year before this issue), and the final page announces that the “America’s Best Comics” line is “coming soon,” even though some of the series would have been headed into double-digit numbering by the winter of 2001.
I can only assume this comic was written and scheduled as a kind of preview of the lineup, and with all the artists involved (from ABC regulars like Chris Sprouse and Kevin Nolan to guests like John Cassaday, Sergia Aragones, and Eric Shanower) the issue was delayed for over a year.
None of that really matters much now, except when you’re attempting a vaguely chronological reread of all the Alan Moore comics and you stumble on something as temporally out of place as this and you’re left to wonder.
What about the guts of the issue, though? How’s the Tom Strong story? How about the rest?
The Tom Strong story is one of the weakest of all the Tom Strong stories ever written by Moore. Drawn by Humberto Ramos, it’s a generic pulp-and-gangster action sequence and though I suppose it’s a type of tribute to the old-fashioned Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster square-jawed Superman stories of the Golden Age, with a young Tom Strong making his claim as protector of Millenium City, it’s a story that could have been told with anyone in the lead role. As much as a cypher as Tom Strong can be in his early appearances, and as thinly-written as he is until the end of Moore’s first year on the character, he’s never as bland as he is in this short story, where he’s just a two-fisted adventurer saving women from monstrous gangsters. Even his cleverness isn’t put to the test here, and that’s the one attribute that most gives him his personality.
If you’re taking notes, and I’m sure you are, you can mark this Tom Strong story down as another example to show that the scripts for this 64-page special were written before the launch of the “America’s Best” line. Moore had a better grasp on what a Tom Strong story was by the winter of 2001, if the ongoing series is any indication, and what we get here doesn’t line up with what Moore would give us over there.
As for the rest of this issue, there’s some good stuff. Some Jack B. Quick precociousness and some Splash Brannigan cartoon zaniness (the latter drawn by Kyle Baker, while the former was from regular artist Kevin Nolan), with the best of the stories coming from Alan Moore and Eric Shanower, as they give us Promethea in the most impressive Windsor McCay parody I have ever seen. Many artists have done Little Nemo riffs, but none have matched Eric Shanower’s delicate mimicry, nor have they had the whimsy of Moore’s script.
The opening Tom Strong story is actually the worst thing in the whole comic, when you add up all the other pieces worth reading.
Alan Moore once mentioned that Chris Sprouse’s interest in drawing high-tech gadgetry changed Moore’s original plans for the character, and if that’s true, and if it’s true that the Tom Strong short from this special was a script written before the ongoing series launched, then this tale is a window into a Tom Strong that could have been, had Sprouse not brought his perspective to the character. And it shows how much more the character would have been lacking.
Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales #1-12 (America’s Best Comics, Jan. 2002-Jan. 2005)
This anthology series was primarily a Steve Moore showcase, with Alan Moore providing only a single story each issue (except for in the first, where he provided two), and Steve Moore writing the second and third shorts every month. Or every two months. Or three. It took three years for all twelve issues to come out, so calling it even a bi-monthly series would be too generous.
I don’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned Steve Moore in this Great Alan Moore Reread project, but here’s the short version: Steve Moore (no relation) is an old friend of Alan’s, from before he even started writing comics. They both produced work for Warrior (and, for those who recall the “Laser Eraser and Pressbutton” strip, you might not know that “Pedro Henry” was a Steve Moore pseudonym), but while Alan Moore gained great acclaim and success in American comics, Steve Moore mostly continued to work on strips in the U.K. When Moore kicked off the “America’s Best” line, he not only made sure he had work lined up for his former Awesome Entertainment artists, but he also hooked his old pal Steve Moore into a paying gig on Terrific Tales.
We get plenty of Steve Moore in these twelve issues, some of it good, some of it not-so-good, but all of it thoroughly readable. Often, his “Jonni Future” stories (the second story in every issue but the first one) are actually the best parts of any issue of the series. His “Young Tom Strong” shorts tend to be consistently the least interesting, and the Alan Moore “Tom Strong” strips in the anthology fall somewhere in between, depending on the artists involved.
It would be great to see one of those oversized hardcover reprints of just the “Jonni Future” stuff, actually. It’s a lascivious T&A time travel space opera comic on the surface, but artist Art Adams absolutely packs the strip with background and character detail. It’s the kind of visual maximalism that you rarely see in American comics, but “Jonni Future” has it in abundance. Unfortunately Art Adams doesn’t complete the series, and Chris Weston is brought in to help with the last couple of strips. Weston is another hyper-detailed artist, but he doesn’t have the dynamic flair, or even the obsessive linework, of Adams, and the art in the final installments doesn’t match the insane beauty of the opening handful of “Jonni Future” stories.
Steve Moore’s “Young Tom Strong,” drawn by veteran Alan Weiss, feel too claustrophobic, even though they’re set on a tropical island, with little bits of Tom Strong’s personal history woven into his youthful exploits. The stories feel repetitive, and ultimately without much lingering substance. The “Jonni Future” stories may not have much substance either, but they are visually delightful and full of crazy energy and leopard men and flying fish spaceships and bizarre alien landscapes. That always trumps adolescent curiosity that leads to important life lessons. Every single day.
And the Alan Moore “Tom Strong” stories that lead off each issue? Some of them show more narrative ambition and playfulness than most full issues of the regular series, while others just feel like deleted scenes from Tom Strong. Paul Rivoche’s art is always nice to see, and his art on the first two “Tom Strong” strips in this anthology give the character a Kirby-esque setting in which to romp around. There’s also a Jaime Hernandez-drawn “Tom Strong” comic in the opening issue, and any time one of Los Bros Hernandez draws a genre comic, it’s always worth checking out.
But it isn’t until Terrific Tales #5 that Moore really tries to push these short stories in a different direction than the rather conservative main series. In issue #5, he and Jason Pearson tell a whole story using Mars Attacks-style cards, with images of the Strong family and their opponents on one side of each page, and prose on the back four quadrants of the images. Telling a story in that style isn’t shockingly innovative or unique (an issue of the recent Image series Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred did basically the same thing), but it’s a break from the more customary Tom Strong adventure tales. Changing the method of storytelling radically changes the feel of the story and gives it a kind of aesthetic life, even if the plot isn’t all that different than what’s come before.
Moore follows it up with a story where Tom Strong takes a “ten percent solution” of Goloka Concentrate, the naturally-occurring substance that gives him his vitality. It’s a drug-trip story where Strong expands his horizons and has an out-of-body experience that makes him see, briefly, the very comic book page on which he appears. Sure, it’s been done before, but at least it’s not another variation on the Millennium City hero facing off against another grandstanding bad guy.
Terrific Tales#7 gives space for Alan Moore and Shawn McManus to tell about a visit to Tom Strong in the form of a children’s picture book, while Jason Pearson returns for #8 to illustrate images from the “Tom Strong Cartoon Hour,” produced like a Hanna-Barbera special called “G-g-ghosts at the Gear Stick” as the heroes face off against the Grim Reaper’s hot rod.
As the series progressed, you can see Moore trying new things with the characters to amuse himself and do something markedly different from the straightforward storytelling of the Tom Strong ongoing.
The next issue features an illustrated prose story, written by Moore and drawn by Michael Kaluta, and Terrific Tales #10 brings in Peter Kuper to draw a nearly-silent slice of life-and-imprisonment story about a George W. Bush look-a-like who aspires to be Tom Strong but fails in the most horrific way. Issue #11 teams Moore and Bruce Timm on a jungle girl romp, with Tom Strong not appearing at all, and, in perhaps the best story of all, Terrific Tales #12 shows us what Peter Bagge’s Tom Strong would look like, in a story written by Moore in which the great hero is a sad-sack retiree living in the suburbs, surrounded by other has-beens like the Kool-Aid Man, Dick Tracy, and Betty Rubble. Well, not exactly them, but the analogues are close enough to suggest precisely who is being mocked in this story.
The series ends with Alan Moore working with Bagge to deconstruct his own heroic adventurer and to turn him into a pathetic suburbanite, a parody of Bagge’s own disgruntled 1990s characters. The final panels of the story show Dhalua Strong, the sassy wife, laying down the truth of Tom’s reality: “Tesla burned the house down freebasing,” she declares to her stunned husband, “and I’m divorcing you.”
Tom Strong—drawn by Peter Bagge, and that’s a visual that’s essential to the story—stands in front of the pit that was once his nice little house as his wife storms off suitcases in hand and all he can say is, “oh.”
And that’s why Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales may not be the greatest comic book series of all time, but it gives Moore a place to make fun of his own too-serious tendencies in the Tom Strong ongoing, and it gives a group of distinctive artists a chance to draw stories that aren’t the usual superhero fare.
The stories don’t add up to anything more substantial than what Moore would ultimately do with Tom Strong, but they can be a lot of fun. And if Steve Moore and Art Adams want to push DC to pull together a “Jonni Future” Absolute Edition, I will not stop them at all.
NEXT TIME: Alan Moore revamps Wonder Woman as a visual essay on the history of magickal thinking. Because he can. Promethea, Part 1!