Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alan Moore's Writing: Tom Strong

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, I'm trying to work through Alan Moore's entire corpus, or what of it I can get my hands on, before school starts in the interest of trying to absorb Moore's writing into my own. I thought a wise element of that would be to, on this blog, try to dissect some of Moore's tools hopefully distilling his craft into an ingestible tonic that will grant spirit powers. In the spirit of that, I just finished Tom Strong volume 1, the Deluxe Edition. A couple brief observations:

  • It's twelve issues long.

  • The issues appear denser than, say, a standard offering from DC or marvel.

  • Published by America's Best Comics, Moore's own line, which I think is distributed through DC.

Despite the fact that I really really dislike DC, I love their off-the-beaten-path stuff, like America's Best (of which I've also read portions of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Top 10) and I've never read a Vertigo comic I didn't like, most of which I loved. I don't know what it is about those English comic writers, but they are some clever and unabashed mothers.

So Tom Strong is kind of like Superman brought about through Batman means: he's incredibly strong, slow aging, and uncannily resilient, but it's mostly thanks to a special regimen of diet (slightly magical) and exercise. He protects a city called Millenium City from its many would be adversaries with the help of his wife, daughter, and talking gorilla friend. It's very much modeled after and feels like old comics. Which is actually the first Moore device I wanted to address.

Most of the issues in this first bound edition feature what Moore calls Untold Tales, which is a flashback into Strong's deep past (being 100 years old, it's extensive), the art and narration reflecting an appropriate comic genre. Moore is really big on homage. V for Vendetta was built up on a lot of literary and cultural allusions, V himself being derived directly from a significant part of England's history, and Top 10 is essentially a big love letter to a half century of superhero books with all the tropes and easily recognizable characters and situations. More on Top 10 some other time.

Tom strong lapses into a sort of Archie style whenever the comic focuses on Strongmen of America (his fanclub) number 2059, but the rest of the present stories have a very classic comic look. The coloring is very smart: the characters look very much like cartoons. In fact, one of the homage pieces is even in a mock Disney style.

The first flashback's style I don't totally understand. It takes place in WWII Germany, but nothing about the style looks Golden Age. In fact it looks very 90s, and it's even difficult to say why. It has a vaguely Joe Madureira or Humberto Ramos look to it, which might be why. Both artists gained prominence in the late 90s, and all the women are ridiculously out of proportion (90s comic tradition), which isn't in keeping with the bulk of the art. It definitely has a 90s feel, but I don't know why a WWII story is reflected. I'm stumped on this one. As near as I can figure, it might be an homage to some Captain America retooling that happened around this time, but apart from WWII there's nothing to really make you think of the Cap himself.

The second one is easy. Strong and wife Dhalua fall backwards in time and meet a giant creature composed of millions of algae cells that mimics both the biology and psychology of its prey, but living on Pangaea, before there were even reptiles, Strong and wife are the first chance it's had to mimic complex biology or physiology. A fight ensues, and Strong escapes safely. The art is definitely done in a Tales of Suspense faux-Scifi/horror art style, complete with a total lack of though bubbles, and every word being spoken outloud. Most sentences end with an exclamation point. The art looks very comic book, and is probably the style that comes to people's minds when they hear comic book.

The next homage is a flashback to a Riddler type character that likes to kill the hero in complex Rube Goldberg situations. The art is pure Detective Comics. I wish this one had gone a little further, losing the modern six color process and adopting a more era appropriate three color process. Things look too vibrant for a comic mimicking a nearly 80 year old style.

There are other homages – western, Disney, and horror included, complete with Lovecraftian scratchy pen renderings, and narration that's contained entirely within paragraphs, more like an illustrated book than a comic. That one was the most striking as it presented the greatest deviation from the art. Tom looked a little stupid and out of place though, as his rendering wasn't as scratchy, but with everything else looking so victorian and rough, almost like a woodcut, he looked cartoony and ridiculous. And of course there's a Kirby homage. If you have the words Comic and Homage in a single sentence, it will invariably include Kirby. Kirby is to comics what Jesus was to religion. Just saying.

So apart from very careful homages makes Tom Strong worth reading? Well, at first glance, not a lot. At first glance.

The comic feels like it tries to start both en medias res and at the beginning, as if after having heard of Superman your whole childhood you decided to read his first issue. It almost feels like as if on a meta level, the reader is expected to already have knowledge of the person contained within the comics, which is sort of what's happening. The first issue is a split between 2059 (referenced above) reading his comic initiating him into Strongmen of America, and the comic he's reading: Tom Strong's origin. A clever device, but it makes getting into the book a bitch. If I wasn't turning Moore's writing into a project, I would have put the book up. And I did. I first tried reading this book about a year ago. I should have known then to push through, because honestly, when has a Moore book let you down? Never is the correct answer.

Nevertheless, I hate it when books just open up by throwing names and places at you. Few things make me want to learn about them less than having to keep track of names of people and places before I'm given a reason to care about them. Watchmen was expert in that way: it revealed a character at a time, peeling back the layers of characterization back like an onion. It opened with an exciting murder scene, which gives you the incentive of learning about who these characters are.

Another thing that made the book difficult is that the first two issues feature barely any Tom Strong. The first book features him only in exposition inside the comic in a comic, while the second one features his daughter, Tesla, and his Gorilla, Solomon, trying to understand this bizarre machine symbiote. He only shows up at the end to deliver a spoonful of Deus Ex Machina. Related to this is the fact that we watch his supposed greatest nemesis die in a single panel without seeing any of the conflict or who his villain is. By the time I got to issue three, I was using lots of will power to get through it. I wasn't even sure if this comic had real characters, but like any Moore comic, he starts to administer hook after hook and there's no getting free.

It's hard to say how Moore did it, but by issue four when we meet Strong's opposite in gender and philosophy, I felt like I knew how Strong would react to situations, the kind of character he was even though the amount of character revealing dialog is kept to a strict minimum. The third chapter about space faring dimension hopping Aztecs with a quantum computer bound Quetzalcoatl had me hooked enough to get through to the fourth chapter, and then the book really started to gain altitude.

I think Moore depends on what we as the reader know of superhero archetypes to fill in Strong's character. In many ways the character is himself a cypher. He rarely does anything that seems unique to him, but seems in many ways generic, as if the compulsion to read doesn't emerge from Strong as a character, but Strong's universe, which I suspect a vehicle for Moore to tell us a little about how he thinks time, the world, and the universe(es) are structured. And in that regard, the book is successful.

Strong himself though acts as Superman would, and has a lot of Batman's characteristics, such as the reliance on wit and technology. But he's willing to go a step further: he kills his arch nemesis. Strong is benevolent to a fault even relocating a self replicating machine that was eating the planet to reproduce itself to Venus where it would be free to replicate without impinging on other life. Strong seems to recognize when someone is a villain simply because of a clashing world view, and when someone is malevolent and needs putting down, as in the case of his nemesis. This draws attention to Superman and Batman's own failings to do the same. Yet, Strong isn't tortured by it. He simply recognizes what needs to happen and does it, but reserves killing for the absolute final solution.

Also interesting is that he's Earth's (or Millenium City's) ace in the hole: there are no other super heroes that we see, only Strong, yet apart from the introductory issue, he doesn't meddle in the small scale stuff. Being significantly weaker than Superman (though he could probably take Batman), he only really deals with stuff that is threatening on a planetary or often larger scale.

This whole idea of a character that is defined by what the audience knows is a double edged sword: ultimately the character himself doesn't matter resulting in a character medium that's totally driven by concepts. That part I like: it's experimental and risky, and Moore's ideas are immaculate. On the other hand, the character is ultimately meaningless. There's absolutely no tension worrying if the character will live or not, because he's not the point. The point is seeing where the situation will take him. In a way, he's more like a spiritual force, like Jesus; something that enters into the world and whose actions unlock real potential around him, but being spirit, he himself isn't ever in genuine danger. I never once found myself worrying that Strong would die, but rather instead wanted to see what idea Moore was going to show me next. But honestly, when was the last time you read a superhero comic and actually worried that the hero would die? Never. Even when they actually die (see: Superman (4 times?), Captain America, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Spider-Man), the tension that they'll stay that way is near zero. Moore knows that, and he expects the reader to know it too.

At least that's my working hypothesis.

This Post: 60 Total: 145/600,000 Minutes

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