Mon
Oct 22 2012 3:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: Top 10, Part Two

The Great Alan Moore Reread reaches the later half of Top 10Tor.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 52nd installment.

When I first began “The Great Alan Moore Reread,” this fifty-second post was expected to be my last. “I’ll do all the Alan Moore comics in a year,” I thought. And that number “52” may have been on my mind because of the DC goings-on from last fall.

But I soon realized that, even skipping some minor Moore works and all of the prose and spoken-word pieces, I’d still need more than a year. So here we are, one year later. More Moore on its way. The goal now is 64 posts, with the rest of the “America’s Best Comics” line and extended League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and some Lost Girls and Neonomicon still to come, along with a couple of posts at the end looking at the best of everything and a few final thoughts on Alan Moore’s career. This reread has consumed a massive part of my life since the fall of 2012, and it’s a testament to Moore’s talent that my interest in his work has only grown since I’ve started this project. I’m not done with Moore yet, and I hope you aren’t either.

On to the final half of Top 10!

 

 Top 10 #7-12 (Wildstorm Productions, April 2000-Oct. 2001)

I don’t know that it’s particularly important to note that the entire run of Alan Moore and Gene Ha and Zander Cannon’s Top 10 series started and ended prior to September 11, 2001, but in a comic so deeply about a major city filled with towering skyscrapers there’s something potentially innocent about not having to look at the series as some kind of commentary about the events of that horrible day. Life in Neopolis is funny and tragic and terrifying in its own way, without real-world analogies slipping in.

Plus, it would be my own American-centric thinking that would grant 9/11 any kind of significance in Moore’s fictional world, anyway, if it had been written later. Moore’s a writer who has been dealing with the politics of power and the media and terrorism since his earliest work. I could say, for example, “Top 10 doesn’t have to live in the shadow of 9/11,” and while that would be true, it’s also fair to say, “Alan Moore wrote the first chapters of Marvelman and V for Vendetta nearly 20 years before 9/11, and he acknowledged the world’s shadow long ago.”

Top 10 isn’t as sharply critical — of, well, anything — as those Warrior­­-era comics, and it seems more interested in telling its story than commenting on the world or the genre. At least until the end. In the final issues, Top 10 reveals a larger secret that positions itself as a weak satire of certain aspects of comic book history. If the finale of the series were all about that punchline, the comic would have been a failure. But it’s the telling of the story along the way, the build-up and not the feeble, ultimate joke that gives Top 10 its heart.

Before that, Top 10 continues where it left readers hanging after the first six issues, with the death of a god.

It’s a Norse god. Baldur.

If you don’t know, and officers Smax and Toybox clearly didn’t, Baldur is a god most famous for dying. That’s what Baldur does. But Moore doesn’t use his death in this series to herald the coming of Ragnarok, but instead uses it to show the recurring symbolism of myth, and how frustrating that can be for officers patrolling the beat.

“Gods are eternally recurring symbols,” says Detective John Corbeau, aka King Peacock, who comes to the crime scene after the other members of Precinct Tencall for back-up when the rest of the Norse gods start acting up. Corbeau continues to explain why the detectives need not worry about investigating the murder: “They’re stories. The death of Baldur’s been going on since before time…and it will happen again tomorrow.”

“Let me get this straight,” Officer Jeff Smax says, “we’re not busting anybody because they eternally murder people?”

“Not unless you want eternal paperwork,” adds Corbeau.

So that’s that.

And the use of the Norse gods, in particular, only helps to contrast how Moore and company tell a very different kind of story than the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Thor comics of old. In those Marvel Silver Age tales, monstrous, epic events would unfold on every page with the eternal battles of these magnificent gods. In Top 10, Baldur and Odin and Loki and pals are a bunch of weird giants who hang out in a mead hall in downtown Neopolis and re-enact the same stories over and over.

And the clock-punching heroes of Top 10 don’t have the time for it.

Meanwhile, the weirdness around the imprisoned former porn starlet, former superhero, likely serial killer, and current giant insectoid carrion crawler beastie M’rrgla Qualtz continues. She’s giving officers inappropriate dreams, and her old comrades (Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman analogues) from the Seven Sentinels come to her defense, demanding that she be released. That’s all part of the larger conspiracy – and the final “punchline” I mentioned earlier. Moore saves the joke of the whole Seven Sentinels until the end of the series. It turns out these pseudo-Justice-Leaguers—the grand old magnificent heroes of the past—were really just running a pedophile operation all along. Those kid sidekicks were brought in for a reason, and it wasn’t to have assistance in crimefighting.

By the time the series reaches its conclusions, the remaining members of the Seven Sentinels are driven to defend themselves, first with desperate excuses, then with physical action. The Superman analogue, Atoman, in his thinking chair inside his “Fallout Shelter” hideaway, eventually panics in the face of imminent arrest and chooses super-suicide over spending “the next twenty years bending over for Doctor Dread or Antimax.”

Unsavory stuff, but Moore and Ha and Cannon don’t play it with intense moral outrage and savagery. Sure, there’s a sense of disgust, and disillusionment, from the officers of the Tenth Precinct when they realize that these iconic heroes were not only duplicitous pedophiles but probably didn’t even do the cosmically-heroic things they were reputed to have done. It was all likely manufactured media, and the cover-ups ran deep.

On the one hand, it turns the whole mega-plot of Top 10 into something akin to The Big Sleep or L.A. Confidential, two literary classics of the crime genre, where secrets revealed show the sordid, lascivious underbelly of a high-society world. On the other hand, it’s a tired old cliché: that these superhero sidekicks, heh heh, are just sex toys for the perverts in masks and spandex. Fredric Wertham pointed to the homosexuality (and pedophilia) implicit in the Batman and Robin relationship in his devastating 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent. Alan Moore’s former collaborator, Rick Veitch, tore into the superhero/sidekick relationship with the savagely satirical Brat Pack from 1990ish. And, in the 2000s, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson brutalized every facet of superherodom—including sidekicks in an early story arc—in the unrepentantly grotesque parody of costumed characters in The Boys. That latter example, of course, appeared after Top 10, but the point is that it’s an easy joke to make about superheroes and their teen wards.

It’s a bit disappointing that the grand mystery of the series hinges on it. But it does fit the genre, and does work to contrast the working-class heroes of the Tenth Precinct, who may have their own issues but try to live life honestly and directly, with the supposedly iconic superheroes that the culture seems to adore, but who turn out to be just absolutely terrible people who have done unforgivable things.

I’ve left out a half dozen subplots in my discussion of Top 10, but it’s the accumulation of those subplots that really makes the series worth reading. It’s not twelve issues marching toward that one final pedophile joke. Instead, it’s a series of interwoven ideas and explorations, as characters bounce off each other and change their perspectives based on what they’ve seen and learn to adapt to the world of Neopolis and build their relationships accordingly.

Smax and Toybox, who began issue #1 as the veteran and the wide-eyed rookie, become something more by the end. It’s not love, but at least its respect, and as the injured Toybox recovers from her almost-crippling wounds, the giant-sized Jeff Smax, uncomfortably hunched next to her recovery bed, sitting on a chair three sizes too small, asks her for help.

He has an adventure of his own to take, and he needs Toybox to accompany him. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into.

 

NEXT TIME: Alan Moore zings fairy tales and role-playing games in the Top 10 spin-off called Smax.


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

4 comments
jman313
1. jman313
I've really enjoyed this reread (I wish I could read along but I don't have all of the comics). You've really helped me try to read more of the obscure Moore comics. I've read most of his prominent more serious works, but I've begun to enjoy reading his more purely entertaining works as well.

I found that Top 10 was a great experience even with the "bad joke" towards the end. I really enjoyed the late addition character of the Robot, who was flat-out cool.
Eli Bishop
2. EliBishop
jman313: Yeah - when the robot character first appeared, I was afraid Moore was just going to keep repeating more of the same robots-as-ethnic-minority shtick, but Joe is really interestingly written. I especially like the bit where Irma picks up on his frequent use of "I'm told..." when he refers to information he's been programmed with; it's a pretty sensible way for a human-friendly AI to talk, but it's also a nice joke on how we all fall back on weasel wording when we don't feel like examining the source of our opinions.

Joe also has one of the cleverest bits of science-fictionization of a cop-show cliché: straight-arrow cop proves he's awesome by rationalizing an unethical act for the sake of old-fashioned retribution. Right before he talks Atoman into committing suicide, he asks Irma if "Asimov's laws" are observed in Neopolis and is relieved to hear that they're not. Asimov's Laws of Robotics of course include the detail that a robot not only can't harm humans, but can't passively let them come to harm.

In both of those scenes, Moore is doing something pretty sly: Joe gives the lie to Irma's prejudices by proving he's as good as a human, and that feels good to us (both on principle and because he's such a charming, classy guy), but it's open to question whether his human qualities are actually "good."
jman313
3. Scottly
Thanks for these. Not sure it's helpful to breeze over what happened to Top 10 as "weak satire" or a "bad joke." It might not be resonant to the reader, but it clearly matters a LOT to Moore -- enough to make it the obsession of Smax (what does the dragon "want?"), 49ers and arguably a fair chunk of the Black Dossier as well. Moore's apparent failure to communicate this is the interesting thing from a critical POV.
jman313
4. gibson99
I really loved the Joe robot character too. Aside from the incidents mentioned, I loved the scene where the kids miss playing with Irma's old partner and ask the robot if he can do any tricks. Of course, we're expecting him to just be a robot and decline, but he shows a sense of humor (sarcasm, at that) and naturally engages the kids.

I often find Moore's big emotional moments to be too overly-crafted to affect me, but that one made me tear up.

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