Monday, 2 November 2009

ALAN MOORE AND AMERICA’S BEST COMICS: initial thoughts towards a more extensive article.

 Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie on their wedding day.
I’ve been reading –well, no, not reading, re-reading- quite a few Alan Moore graphic novels recently for the simple reason I’ve been buying them in attractive and expensive hardback editions. I have all the original comics and in some case trade paperbacks, but they are just so good it’s nice to have them on good quality paper, sometimes with enlarged artwork and occasionally re-coloured. The latest book to arrive is volume 1 of Tom Strong the Deluxe edition from America’s Best Comics, an imprint of Wildstorm Comics which is now an imprint of the mighty DC.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Some time ago, Moore fell out with DC over, we were informed at the time (though it’s widely believed there were other reasons), there imposition of the ‘For Mature Readers’ tag, and he vowed never to work for them again. For several years, Moore worked on his own projects including, with Eddie Campbell, From Hell from Tundra Press and, with his future wife Melinda Gebbie, on Lost Girls. He also had to earn a crust and did a fair amount of work-for-hire for Image and the independent imprint, which was distributed by Image, Wildstorm. Most of his work for hire stuff was, while competent superhero stuff, relatively minor Moore. The one exception being his re-working of the Superman-clone Supreme into a genuine riff on Superman in a seemingly sincere homage to the character.
Moore then struck a deal with Wildstorm to publish America’s Best Comics, his own imprint and he would write –and this news frankly staggered comics fans- four monthly titles. Needless to say it wasn’t long before he fell behind. But then, if memory serves me correctly, almost before ABC were published, the owner of Wildstorm sold it to DC though it was nominally independent of this. Moore only continued on the understanding that he would have nothing to do with DC and because it would have resulted in financial hardship for the artists who had contracted to work with him. And, for longer than most people expected, this worked and it resulted in Moore producing some of his best work for years.
The titles were: 
Tom Strong 
Top Ten
Tomorrow Stories the anthology title which was the weakest of four being a combination of homage (Greyshirt, a Spirit clone), humour (an absurd child genius), and satire (The First American, which was painfully unfunny), and a Plastic Man figure made of sentient ink
What I haven’t mentioned so far is that all these stories are set in the same ABC universe –I’ve already mentioned that the final issues of Promethea and Tom Strong are linked- and there are references throughout all of them to characters or events from other titles.

Promethea turned out to be the most ambitious, successful and beautifully illustrated of the four thanks to the amazing talents of JH Williams III. Significantly it’s the only one to have received the Absolute treatment (see my review on Amazon for details). But the other titles weren’t peanuts either.

Top Ten is, on one level at least, an amazing job. Set in a city where everyone has either super powers or enhancements to simulate them (either scientific or magical), where aliens and travellers from other worlds, dimensions, parallel universes are regular visitors, where sentient robots (‘clickers’) are the despised underclass, the focus is on an elite group of police persons. Moore managed to juggle all this, a large squad of key characters, subplots and a central plot in a marvellous display of invention and wit. It didn’t last a dozen issues which is hardly surprising because it must have taken an enormous amount of work. It also spawned a prequel in the form of an original graphic novel The 49'ers.

But, Promethea aside, it was Tom Strong which proved to be the most endurable of the ABC titles. It lasted as long as Promethea (indeed the final issues are closely linked) and even had a lesser spin-off anthology title, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales,  written by Moore plus diverse hands which, for a while, alternated with the main title (later issues themselves written by others) on a bi-monthly schedule.
Tom Strong was Moore’s riff on the superman, but not Superman, derived more from the Philip Wylie figure in the novel Gladiator. He does have considerable strength, an extremely high intelligence, and a high resistance to physical damage but he is very human.  Tom Strong is a humane celebration of all that is fun in superhero comics which ranges from domestic crises, time travel, parallel worlds, supervillains, space travel, Nazis and more. Tom is 99 years old as the series opens and the stories often have flashbacks to earlier adventures. Tom always tries to resolve conflicts without violence and by using reason. His wife is black (though this is never an issue except on one occasion), indeed there is a great deal of implicit social commentary which is always there either as text or subtext resulting in this being the most human of superhero stories. I the course of the series, Moore uses just about all the tropes of the superhero which have been used during the genre’s history by the uses of flashbacks to incidents in Tom’s earlier life which are often illustrated by different artists. There is a wonderful parody (see below) of men’s magazines on the cover of the issue where Tom encounters Ingrid Weiss –a sexy Nazi superhuman- in Berlin as the Russian attack. While the super hero genre is often parodied in these pages it is done with affection. 

There’s an elephant in the living room and I’ve no doubt that anyone aware of the ABC line (hello, Ian P) has already spotted it.
The first title to be actually published under the ABC imprint was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This was to outlast the imprint itself and eventually as, unlike the other titles, it was owned by Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill, the latest volume is being published by the independent Top Cow and not Wildstorm/DC.
Probably the most commercially successful (it spawned a widely disliked –though I’m quite fond of it- movie with Sean Connery), it takes the premise that all fictional (including books, comics, tv and cinema) characters exist in the same universe. This ultimately makes for an incredibly dense reading experience as you try and catch all the references. Indeed there have been three professionally published books by Jess Nevins devoted to explaining them. They are a wonderful read but I’m not prepared to tackle them in an essay just yet.

While writing this relatively brief piece, it's occurred to me that Moore might be more interestingly examined by looking at the different themes or types of graphic stories he's written to uncover underlying links between otherwise disparate title such as that one above and, perhaps, Lost Girls.
Keep watching the skies, and then this blog.

1 comment:

Ian said...

I've often wondered where Moore could have gone creatively if he hadn't wandering into homage and pastiche.

(Meinda Gebbe must be pretty tall!)