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 44th installment.
According to Alan Moore, within half an hour of hearing that Awesome Entertainment went “belly-up,” he was contacted by other publishers, courting him to write something for their companies. Jim Lee’s offer was the most attractive at the time, and Moore jumped at it, pulling from a list of names from one of his notebooks to develop an entire line that would be called “America’s Best Comics.”
He had developed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen idea earlier, originally for Kevin Eastman’s Tundra outfit, with Simon Bisley slated to draw, but the idea expanded and turned into something else and veteran 2000 AD artist Kevin O’Neill became Moore’s collaborator on the creator-owned project.
The rest of “America’s Best Comics” weren’t creator-owned. Moore struck a deal with Jim Lee that would allow Moore and the artists to get up-front payment which gave Wildstorm ownership of the characters they would create in Tom Strong, Promethea, Top 10, and Tomorrow Stories. But soon after Moore signed the contract, Wildstorm was bought out by DC, and Moore was stuck working for a company he vowed never to work with again. As he told George Khoury in The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, “For better or worse, I decided that it was better to forego my own principles upon it rather than to put a lot of people who’d been promised work suddenly out of work.”
Moore and his “America’s Best” collaborators continued their comic-book-making, and Jim Lee mostly kept DC at a distance, although a few cases of publisher interference would annoy Moore enough to remind him that the large corporate publisher hadn’t changed much since he had last worked with them. Moore and the artists were able to produce over 100 issues of high-quality comics before he walked away from Wildstorm and DC for good, effectively closing down the “America’s Best” line even if a few series still trickled out under various non-Alan-Moore writerly guidance.
Though The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was chronologically the first “America’s Best” series to be released, it’s not the one I think of as the flagship title of the line. And because The League is still going, with Moore and O’Neill working with Top Shelf, I’ll save that one for last. Instead, I’ll begin my look at this Alan Moore Wildstorm imprint with the series that seemed to be the poster boy for the entire lineup: Tom Strong. The mighty science hero.
Tom Strong #1-12 (America’s Best Comics, June 1999-June 2001)
Though I picture Tom Strong—lantern-jawed, muscle-bound, red-shirted—as the icon most representative of the entire “America’s Best Comics” line, that’s more of a product of the marketing and the in-house advertisements than anything else. Because the Tom Strong comic isn’t the best of the bunch, though there’s still plenty to recommend it.
I have to admit, I always found the series good, but not particularly memorable. It seemed a bit thin, even with all the science adventures and large cast of characters. But I chalked that up to inattentive reading on my part. I bought Tom Strong as it was originally released, at least for the first few years, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was just a comic, and not one that I would rush home to read whenever I saw it.
I assumed that this read would give me a greater appreciation for Moore’s work on Tom Strong. That reading all the issues in a short time would show connections I had missed, or give me more of an emotional investment in the character’s deeds and words.
Not so much, it turns out.
I appreciated Tom Strong with this reread, but I didn’t love it. I still ended up liking the look and the idea of the series a lot more than I liked its execution as a serialized narrative. My initial impression of Tom Strong wasn’t due to inattention, after all. It was due to the series not having any particularly great depths. It’s just an action/adventure comic that does a good job of being an action/adventure comic. It has a bit more heart than normal, but that heart hardly shows up at all in the first twelve issues of the thirty-six issue run (not all of which were written by Moore). Mostly, it’s about a family having cool adventures and not resorting to punching everything in their way. It’s fine. It’s good. But there’s still something missing.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about what does work. Let’s talk about why Tom Strong is still worth recommending, even if it’s far from Moore’s best.
The art is consistently excellent, with Moore’s superior Supreme partner, Chris Sprouse, sticking around as the regular artist for most of Moore’s issues of Tom Strong, and with incredible guest artists coming in for flashback sequences or fill-in tales: Art Adams, Jerry Ordway, Paul Chadwick, Dave Gibbons, and Gary Gianni, all within the first dozen issues.
Tom Strong feels like a slicker version of what Moore was doing with Supreme—but instead of a Superman pastiche, this time Moore was playing with pulp archetypes. The same kind of genre playfulness is evident, and the flashback scenes allowed Moore to flesh out his brand new series with a fake but artistically evocative past that connected Tom Strong to other kinds of stories readers would have been familiar with, from Wild West adventures to vicious Nazi babes to tentacle monsters to funny animal hijinx.
What Moore does in these first twelve issues is build—issue-by-issue, with barely any story taking more than 24 pages to tell—this world where pulp heroes are the dominant heroic form, and superheroes didn’t take over the comic book medium. And in each issue, Tom Strong (sometimes solo, sometimes with his multicultural family), has another type of pulp adventure. He protects Millennium City from the sentient machines that make up the Modular Man, or he holds off an interdimensional Aztec threat, or he travels back to Pangaea to save the future, or he faces off against Victorian-era ghosts in his autogyro.
Entertaining enough stuff, in small doses. But there’s a a bit of a hollow sameness to the stories. A bit like watching a bunch of decent-but-not-great Doctor Who episodes all in a row, but, and this is an important but, without a companion to act as audience surrogate. It’s Doctor Who and his equally-impressive family on a series of pulp adventures that they solve with ingenuity! Clever, sure. Fun, mostly. But not particularly substantial.
There’s a promise for something more by the end of the first twelve issues, though. The two-parter in Tom Strong #11-12, introduces the world of Terra Obscura, an alternate reality where superheroes have remained the dominant genre, and super-strong Tom Strange, not Tom Strong, is a major hero. Terra Obscura is populated by public domain superheroes from the Golden Age, with guys like the Black Terror and gals like Miss Masque plucked from obscurity to serve as alternate reality superheroes in Moore’s lineup.
The epic battle for Terra Obscura ends up being less epic than it initially seemed (though Peter Hogan would go on to write two quite-good Terra Obscura miniseries for Wildstorm with stellar art by Yanick Paquette), and while Tom Strong seemed to actually face an obstacle he had to truly struggle to overcome, the two-parter leaves him relaxing on the spaceship headed back to his home planet, reading some comics to pass the time.
That’s ultimately the problem with even the best of the early Tom Strong issues: the stakes never seem high enough, not matter how much of the world is at risk. Tom Strong and his family seem to risk nothing—they are too smart, too strong, too technologically-equipped to have any substantial weaknesses. And while that may be true of plenty of heroic characters, there is little in the way of emotional underpinnings in these Tom Strong stories. They are swift-moving and full of action and ideas, but they feel like perfect machines rather than stories that connect with anything human. Tom Strong feels like a product of a writer and his artists mashing up genre modes, but he never feels like a living fictional creation. Not in the first twelve issues.
But issues #13-24 would add some substance to Tom Strong’s style. And Alan Moore would end his multi-year run with a story that makes the whole series more powerful in retrospect.
NEXT TIME: Tom Strong Part 2. Another parallel world, this time with feeling.