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 54th installment.
After following up the twelve-issue Top 10 series with the tonal shift toward cartoonish and powerfully-entertaining parody in Smax, Alan Moore reunited with artist Gene Ha to explore the early days of Neopolis in a hardcover graphic novel set five decades before the events of the original series.
Like many of Alan Moore’s projects from the “America’s Best Comics” era with Wildstorm, I’m having trouble figuring out an angle of attack for writing about the book. With the exception of the essayistic Promethea, most of Moore’s work at the time is, simply put, highly-competent genre storytelling with a more-intelligent-than-average sensibility. That makes the comics exceedingly readable, and occasionally thrilling, particularly when Moore takes a stale genre trope and provides a witty or unexpected twist, as he often does.
But, overall, the “America’s Best Comics” lineup doesn’t have the deconstructionist ambitions of his work from the early-to-mid 1980s, nor does it have the near-deranged and often obsessively particular focus of his work from the late 1980s and very early 1990s, and it certainly doesn’t have the horrifically grotesque (if high-energy) pandering of some of his Image and Extreme Studios projects. Instead, comics like Top 10 and Tom Strong seem to be the work of a writer who no longer felt the need to prove his intelligence to the reader, but also one who was content to mash-up some things he liked about other stories and mix them together with something well-designed and satisfying.
The Top 10 graphic novel falls into that category, but what’s notable about it—in addition to its value as a slice of well-produced, intelligent comic book entertainment—is that Alan Moore and Gene Ha adjust their storytelling techniques to match the more humble, less-frantic setting of Neopolis in the post-WW II days. This is a book filled not with hyper-detailed crosshatching and a million tiny visual cues, and it’s not jammed with increasingly absurd climaxes. It’s a book presented in graceful ink wash, with subtle colors from Art Lyon (and his uncredited wife). It’s a book that takes its time with the characters and balances a love story beneath the growing threat from within—and without.
It also takes its cues not from the Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue procedurals but from the more era-appropriate noirs and horror films, with a hint of social protest. It’s closer to James Ellroy than Steven Bochco.
Top 10: The Forty-Niners (Wildstorm/America’s Best Comics, 2005)
The Comic Book Database—an extraordinarily useful reference, even if they have the occasional error with names and dates—lists this graphic novel by the spelled-out name of “Top Ten: The Forty-Niners.” For a minute, until I double-checked my copy of the book and triple-checked on the indicia, I thought that Alan Moore and friends had changed the name of the property from “Top 10” to “Top Ten” as some kind of retro reference to, I don’t know, the olden days before people spelled everything with digits or something. I had a flash of thought about how that was a clever commentary on the part of the creators and/or publisher as a way to distinguish this throw-back installment from the modern-day super-futuristic police action comic of 2000.
But no, it was just a database entry error. Such are the perils of jumping to interpretation based on inaccurate details. I’m sure I’ll make that mistake dozens of time before I’m through with the rest of the Alan Moore comics, so don’t worry.
Until I do jump to inaccurate and wholly unsubstantiated conclusions, let me lay down some facts about Top Ten: The Forty-Niners.
Fact #1: It spotlights Steve Traynor, Jetlad, as a young man coming to Neopolis after the war.
Fact #2: The man who was once Jetlad is, in the set-in-the-present Top 10 series, the sturdy Captain at the Tenth Precinct. But this graphic novel takes place way before that, so it’s kind of like a “Secret Origin of how Jetlad Came to Neopolis and You Know What Happened to Him Eventually but This is What it Was Like at First.”
Fact #3: Steve Traynor is gay, and that’s an important part of the book, as he comes to terms with who he is and what he wants out of life, and Alan Moore and Gene Ha portray it gracefully and matter-of-factly and that makes it a more heroic and admirable portrayal of homosexuality than 99.9% of comic books ever published.
Fact #4: DC Comics first attempted an overtly gay leading character in a comic spun out of 1988’s Millenium event series. They haven’t much mentioned him ever since. I can’t imagine why.
Fact #5: Jetlad is an analogue for the kind of youthful aviator heroes exemplified by Airboy in the Golden Age of American comic books. In the Airboy comics, one of his nemeses-turned-allies was the super-sexy Valkyrie. Alan Moore and Gene Ha give us a Valkyrie analogue in this Top 10 graphic novel as well, in the form of Leni Muller, the Sky Witch.
Fact #6: We meet a robot and a vampire in the first scene of the book as well, but it’s really the story of Steve Traynor and Leni Muller in the big city.
Fact #7: Alan Moore and Gene Ha present the Skysharks as pretty-close-to-the-mark analogues for the Blackhawks of Quality Comics. Traynor falls in love and pairs up with Wulf, the Skyshark, who he is still partnered with in the contemporary Top 10 comics.
Fact #8: The book’s central conflict mostly comes in the form of vampires and mobsters. As I said, it’s more Ellroy than Bochco. If Ellroy wrote about lots of vampires.
Fact #9: Jess Nevins, annotator-extraordinaire, has spot-checked the book for allusions, and like the other Top 10 comics, there are plenty of Easter eggs, like appearances by the Rocketeer’s helmet, Popeye, and even Curious George.
Fact #10: The ironic twist at the end of this book is far more innocent than the child-molestation ring that concludes the original Top 10 series. Here, Steve Traynor and Wulf stare out into the streets of the still-under-construction Neopolis, filled with its weird assemblage of citizens, as Wulf asks, “Do you really think we could find love, after a war like that? Or that this madhouse city will last? Nein, mein liebeling…I give it six months.”
Fact #11: This is Top 10, and I have conveniently run out of facts after “Fact #10,” if you ignore the factual, unrelated fact you’re currently reading.
As a graphic novel Top 10: The Forty-Niners works well. Like Smax, it may even stand on its own, since it doesn’t depend upon any prior knowledge of the original twelve issue series to understand what happens here, though the tempered optimism of its final scene is enhanced if you know what kind of crazy conflicts fill Neopolis fifty years in the future and you know that Steve Traynor and Wulf end up together after all those years as well.
But while this is a perfectly good book, with a surprising amount of texture in its tale-telling, it’s not among Alan Moore’s best. To be honest, it’s a little too safe, too tentative for it to rank among his most interesting projects. Perhaps its Gene Ha’s tendency to tell the story in almost all medium and long shots, and that pushes us away from the intimacy the story demands. Or perhaps it’s the energy-sapping effect of a prequel, giving us a story without much potential for tragedy because we already know (mostly) how it’s going to end. Or perhaps it’s that Alan Moore had a relatively straightforward story to tell, with few surprises, and this is how it came out in the end. Nothing to be ashamed of at all. An entertaining comic with a social message, dressed in Gene Ha and Art Lyon’s finest.
Respectable. Award-winning, even. But still kind of bland.
NEXT TIME: A multitude of artists on a variety of genre-bending tales. It must be time for Tomorrow Stories.