In a literary sense, I cut my teeth on pulp heroes. Not the hard-boiled, grim and gritty pistol whippings of the detective writers, but the real "heroes", those characters that were the precursors to what we now call superheroes. Even though I came along well after their glory days, still characters like Tarzan, Conan, and the Shadow seemed to follow me through all the phases of my life, turning up in collections given to me, school fundraisers, used bookstores, and even occasionally in new editions. And I ate them up. I mean, how could I not? Here were characters that were truly unique, situations that were truly memorable, and a sense of adventure that was truly bold.
Foremost among my youthful icons was The Man of Bronze, Doc Savage. I was introduced to the books in the quarter bin of my local used bookstore, and in high school actually made a point of reading one of the adventures every day. I revelled in each and every detail of the stories, was endlessly enthralled by the near-mystical self-discipline of the Doc, constantly amused by the bickerings of Ham and Monk. I could quote passages of oft-repeated text concerning Doc's gold-flecked eyes, or his ominous trilling sound that indicated deep thought. I closed each book in eager anticipation of opening the next one.
I get that same feeling from "Tom Strong."
Considering that I am a lot older, and think that I am a lot wiser, and have long outgrown the adventures, though not the ideals, of Doc Savage and his ilk, that is quite a statement. However, with "Tom Strong", Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse and Al Gordon have created something wonderful, a book that restores that same sense of adventure, intrigue, and excitement that I got from those Bantam paperbacks of so long ago, without sacrificing the intelligence or quality that I demand from my choice of reading materials today.
No doubt, part of the appeal is the character's strong resemblance to the Man of Bronze, both in physical stature and context. Tom is a much larger than life character, physically and mentally. Through disciplined use of both his advanced intellect and cultured physique, he is apparently master of any situation, and his life is rich with both accomplishment and adventure. He has a loyal entourage of aides, including a constantly bickering pair of mismatched right-hand men (a Victorian robot and a talking gorilla, obvious parallels of the sartorially perfect Ham and the low browed Monk), and is surrounded by amazing technology of his own design. It is not difficult to see from where Moore drew his inspiration, and his modernistic treatment of this heroic archetype is removed from its brazen predecessor more temporally than it is morally, physically or spiritually.
However, "Tom Strong" is a creation in its own right as well. The details of the characters past are different in many ways from that of the good Doc, not least importantly in the fact that Tom has a wife and daughter, and all the familial concerns that go along with it. Though they are not a dominant theme, the sense of familial bond is present in the characters' interactions. Sometimes dramatically, as in issue #2's battle with the Modular Man, and sometimes amusingly as in the scene in issue #5, when at the beginnings of time with his wife Dhalua, Tom says to (what he thinks is) his wife: "Oh. I understand...The thought of us being the only people in Eden has started you feeling romantic, huh? Well, I guess maybe we do have a little time before we're taken back....so why don't we make the most of it?" You'd never hear that in a Doc Savage adventure....he would have been too busy analyzing the composite odors of the fauna or practicing his isometrics.
As well, in Tom Strong, you will find influences from other sources such as Superman, historical events, diverse cultural mythologies, and E.C. Comics....and I'm only up to issue 6. Issue 5 sports a nice flashback sequence by Jerry Ordway doing his best Wally Wood impression, while Art Adams does some interesting stuff with Nazis in issue 4. Meanwhile, Chris Sprouse and Al Gordon's art calls to mind such animated greats as the Fleischer Superman cartoons, or the new animated Batman. The lines are slick and expressive, and the sets rich with detail, without falling into the trap of hyper-muscularity that seems to be a signature of superhero books in the last 10-15 years.
All these details combine to make "Tom Strong" a unique and thoroughly Fun presence in the field today. It is my personal favorite of Alan Moore's ABC line (all of which are quite good in their own way), and is one book that I actually find myself looking forward to each month.
And a big one it is. Alan, if you're listening: I don't trust you as far as I can throw a stack of Swamp Things. This is, after all, the same individual who gave us the cynicism of "Watchmen", the anarchy of "V for Vendetta", the horror and violence of "Swamp Thing", the carnage of "Miracleman", and the historical trauma of "From Hell". While a large part of me enjoys this book just as it is, there is another part which is very paranoid about what he is actually up to. In any issue, I expect him to pull the rug out from under me and show me what a dupe I am for buying into all this stuff so far. I can't help but think that he is leading up to a defenestration of the American heroic myth, a deconstruction of the way and sense of life that permits and encourages it. All it would take is a subtle sequence in the middle of a story, or a simple character insight pushed in the right direction, and the ball would be rolling. Think about it: America's Best Comics is owned and written by a Brit, and a rather antisocial one at that. He is, as far as I know, a practicing magician and demonstrates a knowledge of sociology, culture and mythology that sometimes causes my head to spin. He can go from nice to nasty in the flick of a panel, and can disembowel a tradition with the precision of a surgeon. Enjoy him for what he's doing, but don't turn your back for a second.
I think that Alan Moore is arguably the best writer in comics
today, and probably one of the best writers in comics ever.
I enjoy almost everything he does, and read any of his material
I can get my hands on. My paranoia about this book comes
not from any dislike of the author's style, but as a result of
my own feeling about the book itself. Nobody likes to see
their heroes brought low. I'll keep reading "Tom Strong'',
and appreciating it for what it is, but at the first hint of a
John Totleben guest spot.....I'm outta here.