Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More on Moore: Tom Strong

I thrive off escapist literature. I can't help it. We all have our weaknesses, our foibles that take us down a peg. While part of me yearns for the acceptance of the literati, the hoi polloi who follow such sacred and wise institutions as Oprah's Book Club, or the CBC's latest opus on which Bavarian eccentric recluse author is just the darling of the 500-plus page introspective coming-of-age story drawing room crowd, you give me wirepoon guns, steam-powered pneumatic men, talking gorillas and helicopter backpacks and I am in, no questions need be asked. Be it super or science heroes, I love a thrilling tale of good versus evil that not only takes me away from the conventional reality of the everyday, but makes me feel this new vision of reality has it's own (albeit tweaked) ideas on the true strength of family and friendship.

When last we spoke I waxed lyrical and at length about Alan Moore's take on the Superman archetype in the form of Awesome Comics' Supreme. Shortly after Awesome Comics folded up its tents (nobody ever said Rob Liefeld was the greatest entrepreneur in the world) Jim Lee of Wildstorm Comics offered Alan Moore the chance to create his own line of comics about whatever he chose. With his Watchmen cache, Lee knew that anything Moore put to paper would be taken seriously by the comicbook reading elite, and Moore didn't disappoint. With Kevin O'Neill, Moore launched one of his most ambitious works to date in the form of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a six-issue miniseries that brought the greatest heroes of 19th Century literature together in common cause in the bet Stan Lee meets Charles Dickens manner. Flush off that initial success, Moore returned to another primal archetype of serial adventure fiction, a spiritual successor to his work on Supreme, in the form of neo-pulp adventure hero Tom Strong. With the Tom Strong series, Moore created a work that at once hearkened back to the classic heroes of pulp fiction whilst simultaneously crafting a vision of family adventurers comparable to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

Rather than go into a lengthly diatribe about Tom Strong and his world, I'll let the inside cover flap of Tom Strong Book One do the heavy lifting for me:

'Unorthodox American scientist Sinclair Strong had a vision for his only son Tom—to raise him as the perfect human. To do so, he and his wife Susan retreated from civilization in 1899 to the peculiar, remote South Seas island of Attabar Teru. Creating an advanced high-gravity environment for the boy, with revolutionary teaching tools and a special diet, Sinclair and Susan began the bold social experiment, and Tom developed with unusual strength and intelligence. When tragedy struck the family, it was the native Ozu people who helped Tom continue his unique upbringing and prepared him for a life of invention, exploration, and adventure that came to span the 20th century.'

Tom is a mental and physical paragon, the pinnacle of human achievement. He can't lift massive weights or fly of his own power, but he is an inventor par excellence, able to out brawl a score of men with his near-superhuman strength and get around his American home Millenium City with aid of his helipack. Thanks to the age-retarding properties of the Goloka root, a plant native to the pristine jungles of Attabar Teru, Tom's relative youth and vitality have remained largely unscathed over the sum span of the 20th century, from his debut as a 'science-hero' of the 1920s to the series present-day of 1999. Considering the world-threatening challenges he tends to face he's not doing too badly for a guy pushing a century old.

It's interesting to note the similarities Tom shares with the pulp heroes of yesteryear as well as the differences that make him a product of the current day. While his origins clearly indicate a strong Doc Savage/Tarzan ancestry, the contemporary can clearly be felt in the manner in which Tom is raised. The Ozu people and their culture had a strong effect on Tom's moral upbringing, and his wife Dhalua is no swooning damsel in distress. Nor is his daughter Tesla who's a developing science heroine in her own right (though appearing to be a teenager due to the influence of Goloka she's actually well into middle age). The family unit is completed by Sinclair Strong's formerly steam powered pneumatic man (named Pneuman by a young Tom) and of course King Solomon, an intelligent ape whose brain was enhanced by Tom who tends to affect the manner of a P.G. Wodehouse character. And seriously, if you can't get a kick out of a talking gorilla speaking with the diction of Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster, I'm not really sure how I can sell you on this series. One either embraces the inherent mad genius of the concept, or you don't.

Another key difference is that Tom is no Doc Savage, at least in the sense of being infallible and beyond need of assistance. Indeed, rather than being mere sidekicks, the rest of the Strongs are heroes in their own right, bringing a postmodern Fantastic Four feel to the book.

Tom Strong is escapist adventure fiction at it's finest. Under Moore's hand and with art by his former Supreme collaborator Chris Sprouse, it told some pretty damned cool neo-pulp action stories. As with Supreme, there are a number of flashback stories detailing Tom's adventure-laden past, with art provided by such luminaries as Arthur Adams, Gary Frank, Jerry Ordway, and Dave Gibbons. Set in the sprawling vertical metropolis of Millenium City, Tom grappled with evil like the frozen foe Jack Frost, the mob boss Charley Bones, Nazi superwoman Ingrid Weiss, and of course the arch-criminal and Tom's opposite number, the notorious Paul Saveen. As the first volume of the book progresses we see a lot of guns being hung on the wall, creating a world that begs to be explored, and Moore does with a crazed enthusiasm that carries well into the first four volumes.

While a great read, Tom Strong does get a bit choppy. A sudden breakdown in the relations between Moore and Wildstorm (mainly due to the latter's being bought out by DC Comics, whose relations with the author have been strained to say the very least)caused the writer to largely abandon his ABC work, only returning to draw the whole thing to a close. Tom's adventures were chronicled by a succession of other writers, making the book a bit of an anthology. Though still entertaining, the book kind of locked into a bit of a holding pattern until Moore's return for the finale in volume six. There Tom Strong faces down the end of the world. . .and is powerless to prevent the apocalypse. How does the hero who's managed to save the day time and again withstand the unstoppable? The answer may surprise you.

While much credit is given to Alan Moore as a creator of the sublime and the seminal, there's something to be said for an artist who can simply sit down and produce an enjoyable piece of entertainment. While not the groundbreaking magnum opus of Watchmen caliber, Tom Strong is an entertaining read from start to finish, a pulp hero for the new millennium that you'd do well to check out. It's well-written, well-drawn, largely self-contained fun of a kind you don't get to see much of in the world of sprawling ginormous epic crossovers that will change the status quo forever(this time for real)! In a time when comics seem to be becoming stuffier and more congested with continuity and a need to have been a fan for a decade or more to appreciate the Big Two's current status quo, books like Tom Strong are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Strongman of America #7157.

Ps. If you'd like to get a peek at what I'm talking about, check out the entire first issue of Tom Strong offerred online by Wildstorm absolutely free! It can be found here. The entire run of Tom Strong is currently available in trade paperback from Wildstorm and can be found at finer comicbook stores everywhere(No I don't get a cut, I just like to help point out the awesome where I can).

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