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 55th installment.
“What on Earth is wrong with anthology books?” Alan Moore asked, rhetorically, to interviewer George Khoury. “Do any of these people who say, ‘Oh, we don’t like anthology books,’ do they realize where the comic industry came from?”
When “American’s Best Comics” launched, Moore made sure the lineup included an anthology series, and Tomorrow Stories was it (though Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales would be added to the imprint, giving Moore two regular anthology series to work with). With Tomorrow stories, Moore would have a chance to work with a variety of recurring features and a handful of artists who might not have been able to produce full-length monthly comic book work. He also just really liked the flexibility that anthologies offered.
As he goes on to say in his interview with Khoury, as printed in The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, “I like the way that in anthologies, you can do these wide mixtures of things. You can do things that have completely different genres. It doesn’t have to be an anthology of humor stories or an anthology of horror stories. It can be a mix.” Also, the compact nature of the six-to-eight page stories in the anthologies allowed him to tightly focus on a single idea, rather than dragging it out to a full-length story.
He cited the case of “Jack B. Quick,” one of the recurring features in Tomorrow Stories, as an example: “They’re so intense, and doing ‘Jack B. Quick’…was really difficult, because you have to sort of get your mind into this completely irrational state. You have to take scientific ideas to absurd lengths. You have to be able to think a certain way to do those stories. I couldn’t do them all the time.”
In addition to “Jack B. Quick,” starring the precocious boy scientist of the same name, and drawn by Kevin Nowlan, Tomorrow Stories features four other recurring shorts: (1) “Cobweb,” a postmodern twist on the innocent-but-still-daringly-sexy-female-adventurer genre, drawn by Melinda Gebbie, who was also working on Moore’s pornographic Lost Girls at the time, (2) “The First American,” a superhero satire that mixed the sensibilities of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Fighting American with the vicious humor of Harvey Kurtzman, as drawn by Jim Baikie, (3) “Greyshirt,” a Will Eisner homage drawn by longtime Moore collaborator Rick Veitch, and (4) “Splash Brannigan,” a slapstick strip – one that didn’t appear until the sixth issue of the series — in the vein of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, drawn by Hilary Barta, an artist who once drew a brief revival of Plastic Man for DC.
There’s little to connect these strips, other than their tendency toward the strange and absurd, but in the first issue of Tomorrow Stories, in a text page by Moore, the writer ponders the out-of-the-way locales from which the artists create their pages for the series and proposes that there might be a unifying thematic thread behind it all: “Maybe this is a book of collected rustic dreams about technology, about civilization seen from far away.”
That doesn’t tell you much about the contents of the series, but it tells you, truthfully, quite a bit about the sensibility behind what you see in each issue. There’s an innocence in this comic, and even in its most wickedly satirical mode, it has the feel of a rural tale-teller, colorfully describing a recent adventure in the big city, complete with hilarious exaggeration and knowingly preposterous scenarios.
Tomorrow Stories #1-6 (America’s Best Comics, Oct. 1999-March 2000)
The series lasted a dozen issues, with a few unpublished stories finding their way into a two-issue follow up (mostly not written by Alan Moore) a few years after its twelve-issue end. But I’ll be talking about just the first six issues this week. The launch up through the first “Splash Brannigan” appearance. Let’s see what’s inside these first six covers:
Tomorrow Stories#1 is the best of the first half-dozen, with strong opening tales from “Jack B. Quick” to “The First American” to “Greyshirt.” Only “Cobweb” falls flat, as it tends to do throughout the run of the series. Perhaps Moore and Gebbie are reaching for something I don’t quite understand, but the “Cobweb” strips generally seem the most serious-minded of the bunch, even if they are filled with scenarios obviously intended to be oddly allusive or confrontationally experimental. In the first issue’s installment, for example, half the “Cobweb” story is presented in “Doll-o-Vision,” which ends up looking like grainy photocopied photographs, sketched over in delicate inky scratches. It’s a jarring visual display in a comic that’s otherwise filled with more traditional cartooning and thickly-inked lines. It might just be the juxtaposition of “Cobweb” to everything else that makes it less pleasing, but it’s the strip I’m mostly likely to skip when I reread these early issues.
The first “Jack B. Quick” installment is great, though, with the young resident of Queerwater Creek creating a miniature big bang that results in the birth of an entire new solar system in his hometown. Police officers have to hold traffic while the planet George orbits through a busy intersection. Old Mrs. Thrapp has to open her window to allow the small, cold planet Spotty to pass through her house on its trip around the tiny sun. Like the best “Jack B. Quick” stories, it’s cute, clever, and inventive and ends with visual gag that nevertheless puts everything back to (relative) normalcy.
The first “Greyshirt” story presents the title character in a “Spirit”-like tale of deranged madness, as a man assumes he’s a murderer because of a knock to the head, and irony abounds. It reads like an Alan Moore and Rick Veitch tribute to Will Eisner’s Golden Age work, because that’s clearly what it is, from top to bottom.
And the “First American” story in issue one launches the musclebound patriot and his young female sidekick – the U.S. Angel – into the kind of trouble that only the late 1990s would prepare you for: a Jerry Springer analogue who undermines America through national TV as part of his alien race’s large-scale invasion of Earth. You might not think Alan Moore would take such sadistic glee in skewering the idiocy of American television, but this story proves that it’s the kind of thing that excites him.
Tomorrow Stories#1 is a good sampling of what the entire series has to offer, as each successive issue gives us another whimsical, super-science-in-a-small-town “Jack B. Quick” adventure, another weirdly creepy and not-at-all-sexy “Cobweb” installment, a ridiculously campy “First American” satire, and a pseudo-Eisner version of ‘Greyshirt,” with the still-to-come “Splash Brannigan” appearing in place of one of the other features in later issues.
Out of issues #2-6, Moore and friends give us a few more highlights among the generally-fine quality of the tales.
“How Things Work Out,” the “Greyshirt” entry in Tomorrow Stories #2, is the best of the Greyshirt tales and the most ambitiously Eisner-esque thing in the entire run. In the story, Moore and Veitch give us a four-tier story, with each tier representing a different floor of a single building and a different time period. So we see a multi-generational revenge story unfold from 1939 through 1999, with each year represented on each page. On top of that, Todd Klein adjusts the lettering of each tier to reflect a popular comic book font that’s era appropriate. And the whole thing works beautifully, even if the struggle on display is an ugly one. It might be a stretch to say it’s one of Moore’s most formally exciting comics since Watchmen, but it kind of is, even at only eight pages.
Tomorrow Stories#2 also gives us “The Unbearableness of Being Light,” a “Jack B. Quick” short that puts photons behind bars and leads to a large-scale impenetrable blackout. The photons eventually get released, but only if they agree to obey the posted speed limit, which leads to plenty of weird after-effects.
The best of the “First American” stories, after the Springer episode, is probably “The Bitter Crumbs of Defeat!?!” in Tomorrow Stories #4, in which the hero is put on trial for his likely-inappropriate relationship with his young sidekick and also for his lewd shilling of Mistress-brand fruit pies.
Issue #4 also presents the most interesting and entertaining of the “Cobweb” stories with “L’il Cobweb” investigating some trouble at the Ginelli house and foiling a Russian anarchist plot – or maybe it’s just a case of adultery gone awry. But L’il Cobweb really thinks it’s the anarchists.
And then, in Tomorrow Stories #6, “Splash Brannigan” finally appears, in a story that had to be called “The Return of the Remarkable Rivulet!” The tale reveals Splash Brannigan’s origin, or, as the story puts it, “Who he is and how to get him out of your table cloth! (Hint: scissors).” In this first installment, we learn the sad tale of comic book creator Mort Gort who tried to concoct a special four-dimensional ink and ended up with the sentient Splash Brannigan. “I’m ink, therefore I am!” declares Splash. The visual gags are densely-packed, thanks to the work of Hilary Barta, and the verbal twists show Moore's delight in wordplay and unabashed punliness.
All of this stuff in Tomorrow Stories is the kind of goofy-fun Moore comics that we haven’t much seen since the days of “D.R. & Quinch,” even if he’s shown his humorous side in other corners of “America’s Best Comics.” I wouldn’t put the first six issues of Tomorrow Stories up against Moore’s other work from that imprint, but if you pick up any single issue of the series, you’d find plenty to enjoy, I’m sure.
NEXT TIME: More from Greyshirt and the gang as Tomorrow Stories comes to an end.