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 46th installment.
Alan Moore walked away from Tom Strong after issue #22 while he continued to work on other “America’s Best Comics” properties, including Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales, and anthology series in which Moore wrote at least one story about Tom Strong in each issue.
But his lengthy run on the main Tom Strong series had come to an end, and the only thing he had left to add was a one-issue epilogue that would appear in issue #36, the final issue of the series.
Between the time he left and his one-part swan song, other writers hopped in and out of the series, doing their own versions of the characters of Millennium City and the family Strong.
Moore hasn’t done many ongoing comic book series in America over the course of his career. Prior to the “America’s Best Comics” line, he’d really only spent substantial time—as far as regular, open-ended serialized storytelling is concerned—on Swamp Thing, WildC.A.T.s., and Supreme. You could throw his U.K. work on Marvelman and Captain Britain into that stack as well, but in all but one of those cases, once he left, he was gone. He returned for a brief epilogue in WildC.A.T.s. #50, but that was only a few pages of follow-up and not really any kind of conclusion to the series.
With Tom Strong, Alan Moore closed the doors on the series in his final issue. He let others play around for a while, but eventually he turned out the lights and locked the gate on his way out. The series was done, even if Peter Hogan and Chris Sprouse would do a later miniseries with the same characters. But that never felt like a sequel or a continuation. It felt more like an unnecessary curiosity. Because the story of Tom Strong was over; Moore had waved to us and wished us a fond farewell as he said goodbye.
Before I get into a closer look at Moore’s final issue, let me just list some of the other writers and artists who worked on Tom Strong between issues #23 and #35. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but check out some of these names: Geoff Johns, John Paul Leon, Pasqual Ferry, Steve Aylett, Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Duncan Fegredo, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Casey. Pretty strong list of creators, right? Out of the bunch, Vaughan and Brubaker’s stories are probably the best (one is about a near-tragic misunderstanding thanks to robot logic and the other is a gritty alternate take on a kind of real-life Tom Strong and his struggles—if you know those two writers, I bet you can guess which one wrote which story). But all of the non-Moore issues are worth a glance. They are perfect little dollar bin gems.
Then Alan Moore came back and joined us “At the End of The World.”
Tom Strong #36 (America’s Best Comics, May 2006)
If you flip through this comic, the first thing you’re likely to notice—well, the first thing I noticed, when I flipped through it before my reread—is the haunting color work of Jose Villarrubia. It looks as if—and I’m only speculating here—inker Karl Story used an ink wash over Chris Sprouse’s pencils, and Villarrubia layered a watercolor effect over the top. Whether it was all done digitally or not, the comic has a softness that’s completely absent from any previous issue. The prior 35 issues of Tom Strong had been brightly-colored and dynamic. This one is quiet and almost sedate, even as the world comes to an end.
Throughout the issue, the great science hero himself, Tom Strong, walks around almost passively. Chris Sprouse refrains from any bold moves or grand gestures. In almost every panel, Tom Strong merely stands, watches, and talks to people, with his arms at his side. He only lifts his arms three times in the entire story: once to wipe tears from his eyes, once to put his arm around his wife, and once to wave goodbye to the audience outside his balcony (and wave goodbye to the readers as well).
The heart of the Tom Strong series—the thing that was missing for so long, only brought to beating life with the Tom Stone mini-saga in issues #20-22—is fully evident in this final, Moore-penned issue. This is a melancholy farewell.
Tom and the other “America’s Best” heroes (from Top 10 and Tomorrow Stories and Promethea), find themselves facing imagery from the Book of Revelation, and our hero narrates, “I walked on, with the most basic laws of physics collapsing around me, helpless like everybody else. It was the ultimate human moment and we were all there facing it together.”
The great science hero has no answer to any of this. It’s in the hands of greater powers now.
“I-I think it’s the apocalypse,” he tells his daughter, who hugs him and describes a vision she once had that was just like this moment: “It felt like everything was finished.” And it almost is.
The climax of this issue isn’t some grand battle for the fate of the universe. There is no rallying the troops and fighting back here. It’s all about waiting to see how it unfolds. Or how it comes to an end. So what we get instead of fist-smashing melee or an ingenious solution is a quiet scene between two former enemies. Paul Saveen returns, in ghostly (but angelically glowing) form, to show Tom Strong the truth of their relationship.
He reveals to Tom what happened at the Copernicus Club the night Tom’s parents announced they were leaving for the West Indies, on the trip that would bring them to the island upon which Tom was born. Paul Saveen’s mother was there that night, “smiling, putting her brave face on it,” and thinking about the announcement she was planning to make that night: to announce to Sinclair Strong that she was pregnant.
But she never told him. And Tom Strong never knew that Paul Saveen, science villain, was his half-brother.
We knew it—or could figure it out—after the events of the Tom Stone story. But Tom Strong never knew, and it brings him to tears. “O-our whole lives...” he says, “they weren’t what we thought.” And Tom realizes that even as a man of action, a man who saved the world countless times, that he has really never been in control of anything. “It’s…overwhelming. All of us, cogs in destiny’s machine.”
Saveen, half-brother, former villain, sees it another way: “I prefer to think of everyone as jewels. Jewels in a crown. Jewels in a mechanism.”
That bright, shiny determinism has been the understructure of Tom Strong all along. There was no greater message than this: it may just be a story machine, but at least it’s a beautiful one. That’s the message we’re left with, explicitly, from this final issue, and it’s the message that runs implicitly through every issue.
The world is saved, somehow—with more than a little help from Promethea whose own series had concluded in a magickal mix of philosophy and religion and art by the time Tom Strong completed its run. And Tom Strong is back with his family, a new perspective achieved. “We know what we’re worth now. What everybody’s worth.”
Holding his wife by his side, he waves out to the crowd and tells them…tells us.... “Thank you all so much for all your enthusiasm, for the strong support you’ve given us over these past years. Love yourselves. Love each other….and here’s to a strong future.”
So Alan Moore says, and we’re wise to listen.
NEXT TIME: Spinning off into Terrific Tales with Alan Moore and his pals.