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 45th installment.
One thing I didn’t mention last week, but is worth making a note of, just for the sake of context, is that part of the approach Alan Moore ended up taking with Tom Strong seemed to originate from his abandoned plans for Awesome Entertainment’s Prophet. These days, Prophet is one of the best serialized comics on the stands, thanks to Brandon Graham’s elliptically enchanting approach to the story and a decidedly unconventional flair to the artwork by Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannia Milonagiannis.
But Prophet was once a practically incoherent space barbarian superhero comic that spun off from Rob Liefeld’s original Youngblood series.
Alan Moore’s take on the character – seen only in a brief cameo in Judgment Day – was to recast him as a long-lived pulp adventurer. A “Man of Marble” according to that miniseries, clearly as a nod to the Man of Bronze himself, Doc Savage.
The John Prophet of the early days of Image Comics doesn’t much reconcile itself with the idea that he was once an adventurer in the Doc Savage mold, so it would have been interesting to see what Moore would have done with the character to give him some much-needed substance. But we have the Brandon Graham Prophet now, and maybe that’s enough.
Back to Tom Strong!
As I mentioned last week, Tom Strong is like a polished storytelling machine without much of a soul. It’s good, entertaining, but not particularly meaty.
And that remains true for a few more issues as Alan Moore and his artistic collaborators continue to tell one-off stories in a multitude of genres, using Tom Strong and his family as their guides though the unusual. But things start clicking into place around issue #16, and Alan Moore finishes his twenty-two issue run with the best of all the Tom Strong stories, before leaving the series for a few years and letting other prominent writers take their shot at the Tom Strong mythos.
Tom Strong #13-22 (America’s Best Comics, July 2001-March 2004)
Paul Saveen – science villain, intellectual dandy and nemesis of Tom Strong – gets the spotlight in issue #13, a story drawn in a variety of styles to emphasize the time-tossed, dimension-hopping nature of the plot. The most notable chapter features Kyle Baker drawing the leporine Warren Strong and his wolfish foe, Basil Saveen. These anthropomorphic incarnations of the characters come face-to-face with their human counterparts as the crisis of nearly infinite Saveens unfolds at the end of time. It’s all solved by a Shazam analogue, in a sequence drawn in the style of Captain Marvel creator C.C. Beck.
Paul Saveen would become a more important character (more important than a nemesis you may ask!) in later issues, making Tom Strong #13 a bit more resonate in retrospect, but as a single issue it has all the same problem as the majority of the issues in Moore’s run: it’s full of clever moments and nice artwork but it’s about nothing. It’s a collection of scenes that are delightful diversions and that’s about it. It turns out that there’s a bit more substance than there seems, but Tom Strong is still mostly a series that’s merely a pleasure to read on the surface level. If it were anyone else, that would be enough. But Alan Moore’s work is always in the shadow of all of his other work, and so this stuff seems slight by comparison.
The following issue is no better, with an E.C. Comics pastiche drawn by Hilary Barta where Moore makes the same jokes (one of the alien monsters says “Squa Tront” while another says “Spafoon” in reference to old Wally Wood stories and a few legendary fanzines) he made in the Supreme issue that parodied the same kinds of stories. And issue #15 gives Tesla Strong a love interest in defiance of her father’s wishes. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, except she is the genetically perfect child of two science heroes and he’s a lava man who lives under a volcano. But it’s one of the few times in the first fifteen issues that any kind of substantial emotional core was central to the story. So it feels like it’s important, even if the relationship between the characters is underdeveloped.
But then Tom Strong #16 comes to town, with a “Showdown on Laundry Street” promised on the cover (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and a laser gun duel ominously drawn on the cover. It doesn’t seem like anything more than the usual Tom Strong fare: a genre mashup about Tom Strong vs. a space cowboy. But the story in the issue is a good one, and we soon learn that the space cowboy is a herald of something greater. A threat from deep space. A story, finally, that will give Tom Strong and his family something to truly challenge them.
I can’t overstate how important that is, and how much it’s lacking from so much of the Tom Strong series: there simply aren’t enough significant threats. The conflicts are almost always intellectual – where Tom Strong simply has to learn about what’s going on, probe it a bit, before he devises a way to solve the problem – and that doesn’t make for consistently engaging comic book reading.
But when the space ants invade, it’s something serious.
Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound serious, but it is. Alan Moore makes those space ants terrifying, and he does it not by showing the horrors inflicted by the ants, but by showing Tom Strong running around and gathering all the help he can muster. Tom Strong is freaked out by what’s coming. He’s finally having a reaction to what’s happening in a story, besides a general attitude of “I can solve this, no problem.” Moore brings the series fully to life, finally, with Tom Strong #17 as some of the minor characters and previous villains become part of the Earth-saving task force under Tom Strong’s leadership. The stories from earlier issues become seemingly more important, the world-building Moore and Sprouse did in the first few stories seems to have added weight, all because Moore brings in an intergalactic threat that seems like it might be a real challenge for the nigh-invincible heroes.
The story unfolds in a mere two issues – three if you count the space cowboy prologue – and it’s like a summer movie on paper. It’s big, with surprise twists and unexpected moments of heroism, and an ending that feels satisfying, plus a bit of comedy in the final scene. There’s nothing ambitious about the attack of the intergalactic ants, as a story idea, but Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse finally give us a story that’s not just clever, but clever and vibrant. The doubts and fears of the characters are exactly what this series needed to become more than a collection of perfect people doing things nearly perfectly.
And then Alan Moore tops himself after a breather-of-an-issue #19 (another collection of clever shorts that are mere diversions), with a three-part story to wrap up his five-year run on Tom Strong. He’d come back for the final issue, with #36, but after issues #20-22, he’d leave the series in the hands of other writers for quite a while. He’d done his tour of duty, and ended it with something special.
The Tom Stone story (yes, Tom Stone, not Tom Strong, or even Tom Strange) that fills issues #20-22 isn’t drawn by Chris Sprouse, and Wildstorm didn’t bring in a hot young talent to illustrate this tale. No, it’s drawn by veteran Jerry Ordway, and it may be the last great work of his career. He’s done plenty of comics since, but nothing that matches the power of this story.
In this three-parter, we jump into a narrative already in progress and meet a no-nonsense woman who talks about an alternate reality where Tom Strong’s father died in a shipwreck and his mother gave birth to a mixed-race child named Tom Stone. Tom Stone grows up to be a pulp adventurer in his own right, and meets, but then partners with Paul Saveen, after giving Saveen a shot at playing hero instead of villain.
The Stone/Saveen team do great things. They even bring unity to “America’s Best” universe. Their adventures are challenging, but they never give up. Tom Stone’s gutsy optimism will never let him.
But it all falls apart because of love. They betray each other, and in the process of the story unfolding we learn that Saveen and Stone share a father – and as we piece the puzzle together, we realize that Saveen and Tom Strong of the normal timeline are also half-brothers. They could have been allies as well, if Tom Strong were as human and compassionate as Tom Stone. But he was always so aloof. So emotionally cold.
And, in essence, Tom Strong must help to kill his own mother – or allow her to die – so that his timeline may be properly restored. The Tom Stone universe was a divergence, based on previous temporal meddling. The emotionally-charged, oh-so-human Stone-verse was never meant to be.
Moore and Ordway conclude the powerful story with Tom Strong sitting alone in his lab, defeated knowing what he has had to sacrifice to save everything he currently holds dear. The cold, unbeatable Tom Strong overcame this challenge. The timeline was restored. But he’s completely defeated internally, even though he wouldn’t show it, even to his own wife.
That’s the kind of devastatingly human Tom Strong we never got a chance to see enough of in this series, and it took Alan Moore’s final major story to reveal it. In doing so, Moore shows that his protagonist has been protecting us from seeing his weaknesses all along. He may be the ultimate man, but Tom Strong is still just a man. And he always has been, even if he didn’t want us to realize it.
NEXT TIME: A who’s who of comic book creators makes Tom Strong Part 3 worth exploring, but Alan Moore comes in to finish it off properly.