Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tom Strong: Book One

Tom Strong: Book One
by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse
America's Best Comics / Wildstorm / DC, 2001 (originally published 1999-2000)

Hillary Brown: Let me start off by saying that, while I'm intrigued by the project of Tom Strong (and the America's Best Comics line in general), I'm not sure how much I can tell from seven issues, or maybe that's not a particularly great sign with regard to the particular comic. After all, Top Ten didn't mystify me. It made me want to read more, immediately. Tom Strong just feels like either I need to know more about its background (although it's not unclear what it's drawing on, at least in a general sense) on, at least in a general sense) or I need to forgive its flaws as resulting from the genre. That is, if you're going to do a sort of retro jungle-man/scientist superhero thing that comes straight out of old book while correcting their problems (e.g., racism, random violence on the part of the good), you might end up with a lot of really brief, weird story arcs. And that all leads to a kind of disjointed feel. The origin story is really well done, but some of the other ones feel like they're missing set-up, like we've been dropped into the middle of a story that predates us. And, if I remember my early Spider-Man etc. well at all, there is almost always set-up. Maybe Moore just wants it to seem like the story existed before he got to it, and I suppose that's valid, but it doesn't quite work. That said, I'm definitely going through a phase where I'm very big on Mr. Moore. All four volumes of Top Ten were marvelous stuff, and it's possible that Tom Strong, with its relatively innocent storytelling style and comparative lack of jokes, just suffers in comparison.

Garrett Martin: I think you hit it when you said that "Moore just wants it to seem like the story existed before he got to it". Almost nobody reading comics today got in on any of the classic characters on the ground floor. Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, whoever, had years and years of backstory, but that didn't prevent countless kids from randomly jumping on over the years. When you're young you just accept that shit has already happened, and that it was probably awesome, and that it will be referenced and discussed but also explained enough within the current narrative to make sense. That explanation makes those older comics stilted and dull to newer readers, but it doesn't lead to the current problems with readers often failing to understand what's happening in any given 22-pager. Anyway, Tom Strong is another Moore pastiche, another revisitation of classic genre archetypes barely updated for a modern audience, and I think that sense of years and years of past adventures is a part of the tribute to the medium's past.

Tom Strong's not as singularly focused as other Moore pastiches, like the obvious early Marvel homage 1963. Moore cast a wide net with this one, combining elements from pulp novels, early science-fiction, adventure serials, and both Golden Age and Silver Age comics into one giant mess of no-signifyin' fun. I don't know if Moore is trying to really say anything about any of the afore-mentioned genres, angling more for pure enjoyment, for both reader and creator alike. Tom Strong is swift, breezy fun, to cleanse the palate between the meatier Top Ten and Promethea, which were both published concurrently with Strong. I maybe wouldn't hold it to the same artistic or intellectual standards as those two, or most of Moore's most famous work, but I enjoyed reading Tom Strong as much as anything Moore's ever done. That's also probably because Chris Sprouse's artwork is so damn pretty to look at.

HB: See, I think it's a little odd to describe Top Ten as "meatier," unless you mean that jokes are the meat. It's not that Top Ten doesn't have any weight to it, but... okay, maybe "meatier" is just right. I keep having this feeling that Tom Strong does have some meat. I'm just missing it. Maybe it's just Moore doing his own thing for himself, without thinking about audience too much, and sometimes that leads to great results and sometimes it doesn't.

I do very much like the way multiple artists are incorporated into each book, with the use of flashback, which also means you're getting two stories for the price of one. And I mostly like all the artists included, but none of them strikes the real chords of love in my heart. It's all above average, but perhaps the time when it was done (late 1990s, early 2000s) dates it a little? There's just something off to me, in writing, in look, in storyline, etc., although I do want to praise its continual gentleness, which I think is part of its mission. If Moore's setting out with any kind of project, it's a principled one, based on the need for superheroes to use brains as well as brawn, to rediscover a form of justice that results in as few people getting hurt as possible.

GM: Honestly, I haven't read Top Ten, but just from the concept I'd think it'd be a bit more complex than Tom Strong. And I think Moore's got the audience in mind, and that gentleness is there for the readers' benefit. Moore's retro pastiches are, in part, a counter to the pervasive bleakness of modern-day comics, a bleakness he might (justifiably or not) feel some responsibility for. Tom Strong is a relatively kid-friendly alternative to contemporary superhero comics and their fixation with rape and graphic violence. Yeah, you can recognize and respect the craft with which Moore combines archetypes and elements from various forms of junk culture (no disrespect!) to create something that's both fresh and classic, but at its heart Tom Strong is about escapism and doesn't feel the pressure to act all grown-up. It doesn't confuse vulgarity with maturity. It's fun!

Also, I forget; does Tom Strong use computer coloring and lettering? If so, that might explain the datedness. '90's computer coloring is really glaring nowadays, like when you rewatch Jurassic Park and realize how chintzy that once-impressive CGI t-rex now looks. I don't think Sprouse's pencils are dated at all, so I'm assuming it's got to be the coloring.

HB: Yes, I'm assuming it's computer coloring, which is totally jarring with the emphasis otherwise on retro style. I get that Moore didn't just want to do collage of the past, but, um, some of those fashions are not attractive.

Anyway, I guess we're both kind of saying "Yay, Tom Strong--just slightly less yay than some other things," right? I'm all for escapism and immaturity. I'm just not positive this book is the best example of it. That said, it certainly has plenty going for it. I just wish Strong himself were a slightly more compelling
character. He should be with his combination of intellect and brawn, his long history, and his deep desire to do right while thinking issues through, but he comes off a little bland, which may be the real flaw of the book.

GM: I wonder if that blandness is intentional, though. The Phantom, Superman, Captain Marvel - characters like that often are bland, right? They're too busy being perfect to be all that interesting. The color falls to the sidekicks and villains. They're like Pete Van Wieren, solid, dependable, charismatic in their own way, but not as fascinating as their friends.

Anyway, yes, Tom Strong isn't the greatest comic, but I did greatly enjoy it. It's sort of what the standard default comic book is like in my head.


mike said...

that jurassic park t-rex still looks cool, man. COME ON!

also, you should read Top Ten. it's choice. it's where my old band got our name...

Smoggo said...

i think i disagree with you guys on this one. Tom Strong is one of the better Moore creations. Of course, I am a fan of his Doc Savage pulp sources. I enjoyed this more than Top Ten or Promethea.
Tom Strong has:
a story about the Hollow Earth Theory, a super-intelligent ape, a steam powered butler, uses the term science-heros instead superhero, plus more.
How can you say this isn't awesome?

hillary said...

Top Ten also uses science hero instead of superhero.

And it has more jokes and character development.

I am indeed a fan of the veddy British ape and the primitive robot, but they aren't quite amusing enough to lift it above Top Ten, which has a more adult sensibility.

garrett said...

whoa, I'm saying that Tom Strong is awesome! It's a thoroughly awesome comic that fully lives up to what a comic should be. But it's not as deep as other Moore works, like Watchmen, and (from what I've read about 'em, since I've never seen a page of either) the contemporaneous Top Ten and Promethea. So it's an amazing comic, exactly what a superhero comic should be, but it's not working at something deeper, as Moore's work often is.

and Mike, is that Clickers? or is this a different Mike?

Smoggo said...

(hillary) maybe.

mike said...

it's me, mike from clickers! clickers in Top Ten are obnoxious robots who have lousy bands where they sing about being robots.

Jared said...

Dark, you're exactly right that Top 10 is meatier (though still very light compared with Watchmen or V or, I'm assuming, From Hell). I'll just add that I love the Top 10 stuff and loved this first book of Tom Strong. I'm really looking forward to reading more. I liked what I've read (first two trades?) of Promethea, but wasn't as entertained as I've been with these others. But I'm anxious to get back to it as well, as it seems the more comics I read the more I appreciate Moore--especially the lighter fare!