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 51st installment.
With Tom Strong as his riff on Superman-meets-Doc-Savage and Promethea as his meditation on magic and reality via a Wonder Woman gateway, Alan Moore had jumped into comic book/myth/pulp history to create relatively simple archetypes around which to build his ideas. With another entry into the “America’s Best Comics” line for Wildstorm, he decided to draw from a different well of inspiration: television. Specifically, the large-ensemble police procedural.
Moore conceived of Top 10 as a way to do a superhero team book without the normal superhero team book clichés: no weekly meetings, no secret headquarters, no “monitor duty,” none of that typical Justice League/Avengers/Teen Titans kind of stuff. Instead, he replaced those things with tropes from shows like Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue, or your other television shows created by Steven Bochco and featuring the color blue.
Basically, Moore realized that superhero team comics always seemed to struggle with giving a large cast of heroes enough time on panel. The comics seemed overstuffed and yet underdeveloped with so many costumes all vying for attention. But these cop shows on television were packed with characters, and overlapping plotlines, and plenty of dramatic tension.
So he lifted that approach and applied it smack on top of a superhero team book, only this comic would take place in a world where everyone was a costumed character. In Neopolis, everyone is a superhero (or supervillain, or sidekick, and even the vermin pack an atomic wallop), and the men and women (and robots and dogs and dragonslayers) who patrol the Tenth Precinct are just doing their job. They’re police, these characters in Top 10, and almost anything can—and does—happen on their beat.
While Tom Strong might be densely packed with pulpy, super-science ideas, and while Promethea might be densely packed with allusions to magic and mysticism and metaphysics, Top Ten is just plain densely packed. Alan Moore and artists Gene Ha and Zander Cannon overload this twelve-issue series with characters and scenes and background details and mysteries and seemingly attempt to capture a kind of stimulus overload that makes Neopolis feel like an overwhelmingly chaotic world unto itself. In other words, they capture contemporary city life far better than any other comic I’ve ever read, and they weave in enough tension and humor to allow lively stories to emerge from within.
It can be exhausting. But it’s quite good.
Top 10 #1-6 (Wildstorm Productions, Sept. 1999-Feb. 2000)
Because the original Top 10 series lasted twelve issues (plus a five-issue spin-off and an original graphic novel prequel published years later, not to mention the post-Moore era of sequels best forgotten), I’ll talk about the first six issues this week and the final six next time. But there’s no clear break halfway through. It’s not Watchmen in that it’s a perfectly symmetrical, balanced-on-a-razor’s-edge, delicate twelve issue structure. No, it plays out like a rich, full season of a television show, as appropriate to its origins. So issue #6 ends with a cliffhanger, a reason for “viewers” to stay tuned.
I suppose that kind of thing is no surprise at all. Comic book serials have long used the cliffhanger ending as a way of engaging readers and bringing them back, month after month. But it is surprising that few, if any, superhero comics before Top 10 fully embraced the obvious techniques of the police procedural.
Just as an aside here, I wonder if the Brian Michael Bendis era of Marvel’s Avengers over the past decade was influenced by the appearance of Top 10 at the turn of the millennium. In the Bendis-written Avengers comics (and all the comics he’s written with some variation of “Avengers” in the title), the characters act more like super-police going about their business, and the banter between the characters and matter-of-fact way in which they interact with the world around them seems to recall Top 10 more than it does the classic Avengers comics of Roy Thomas or Steve Englehart or Roger Stern. Perhaps Bendis—who also co-created the police procedural comic series Powers for Image soon after Top 10 debuted—was just influenced by the same television shows as Moore.
No matter the connection between the Bendis work of the past dozen years and the Moore work from Top 10, it is quite clear that Moore and his artistic collaborators were providing a fresh take on old-fashioned superhero melodrama in 1999 when they mashed the Steven Bochco approach to the world of capes and cowls. I remember these Top 10 comics being overstuffed, delightfully so, when I first read them. Rereading them now, in the context of so many decompressed comics and multi-issue, underplotted story arcs in the superhero genre, Top 10 seems like a barrage of visual information. It’s refreshing to experience such density of storytelling, but it takes a minute to re-adjust when you open the first issue and begin reading something so different.
Gene Ha is largely responsible for the visual density of the series. In the pantheon of meticulously-detailed pencilers, he’s the Lord of Insane Amounts of Texture. His panels are jammed with information, giving Top 10 an increasingly Where’s Waldoesque sensibility as each issue gives way to the next. Wait…is that the classic Flash villain the Mirror Master in the corner of that panel? Is that…Charlie Brown dressed like Doctor Doom? Dumb Donald from Fat Albert? Surely someone has devoted an entire website to chronicling all the unofficial cameo appearances in Top 10 and a quick glance at the internet will show you pages devoted to identifying some of the best hidden treasures from the series.
Apparently, Zander Cannon, the artist who provided the layouts for the twelve issues (upon which Gene Ha crafted his meticulous wonderworld of panel detail) originally inked some of the issues as well. Or some of the pages. Or some of the panels on some pages. But from what he says in the letters page of one of the later issues, he decided to stick just to the layouts when he saw how hyper-detailed Ha’s work needed to be, even joking about having to ink with brushes only a single hair wide because Ha was working his super-precise magic on original art that was only slightly larger than print size. Perhaps he wasn’t joking, actually. Gene Ha works that tightly.
All that detail brings a level of grounded realism to Top 10 that gives it a different tone from anything else in the “America’s Best Comics” line, and helps add to the matter-of-factness of the way the story unfolds. The first six issues are filled with ideas that could seem whimsical, from a Zen taxi driver who navigates blindfolded, to a Godzilla parody who wears a “No Fat Chicks” shirt and sports a six-pack of beer tanker trucks hooked to his enormous belt loop, to a telekinetic Santa Claus out of control. And while Ha doesn’t make them “gritty and realistic,” he does make everything feel tactile and substantial, and the humor of the series is tempered by a straightforwardness of depiction. I cannot imagine anyone else drawing a Top 10 story even half as effectively as Ha, and in later years when Wildstorm attempted to continue the series post-Moore, with the venerable Jerry Ordway providing artwork, it was a meek failure compared to what Moore and Cannon and Ha were able to pull off.
So – I’ve talked a lot about the setting and tone and style, but I haven’t dipped into the plot and characters (other than a few cameos and notable moments of comedy). I haven’t ignored the plot and characters because they are problematic, because they aren’t. But they really are so deeply part of the tapestry of Neopolis that it’s impossible to see Top 10 as a Jeff Smax story. Or a Toybox story. Or an Irmageddon story. Yes, those are all characters from the comic, and they’re all supremely important—along with a dozen other notable police officers and supporting cast—and their struggles form the heart of the story, but the characters aren’t the story. The world of Neopolis is the story, and the intersection between the characters becomes the emerging story as the series moves through its run.
Top 10 really is like a crazy superhero-ridden Bochco melodrama, with over half a dozen plots and even more subplots running through the first six issues. It’s not just a high-concept Moore runs with. It’s a structure Moore builds upon with enthusiastic energy. There’s Toybox, the new officer, learning the ropes alongside a grizzled tough-as-nails veteran in Jeff Smax. There’s a series of murders, and sideline investigations, and interrogations, and a lawyer who is literally a shark. There’s prostitution busts and sons of monsters and relationship squabbles, and, to be honest, that’s just me flipping through the first two issues and offering up some highlights.
I told you this comic was dense. In a good, packed-with-richness-and-story kind of way.
By the end of the first six issues, the good guys have captured the thing that has been killing and decapitating people all over town – it’s M’rrgla Qualtz, a kind of female variant of DC’s Martian Manhunter, if Martian Manhunter were a female ex-porn star alien who had become a hideous giant insectoid monster in later life. And Santa Claus has come to town. And, on the final page, Smax and Toybox show up to investigate the death of a god.
“Nobody move in a mysterious way,” Smax says commandingly, to the assembled crowd of deities.
Alan Moore’s funny. Gene Ha is a meticulous madman. Top 10 is utterly entertaining. And we still have six more issues to go.
NEXT TIME: There are larger mysteries afoot and bad things happen to good people. More Top 10.