Monday, June 22, 2009

Chapter 5: Top Ten's Extended Family

In my last installment, I discussed Alan Moore's Top Ten. I praised Moore for the range of his interests, and for his ability to cleverly use superheroic tropes to illustrate broader tropes of heroic literature. The twelve isues of the central series winningly provides a foil for the costumed vigilante of the comic book in the uniformed crimefighter of the cop drama. Today, I'll be talking about some of the progeny of Top Ten: the prequel miniseries The Forty-Niners, the sequel miniseries Smax, and the other sequel, and black sheep of the family, Beyond the Farthest Precinct. There is now also a miniseries, Top Ten: Season Two, which reunites Ha and Cannon, but I have not yet read it.

Of course, the role of superheroes in the larger constellation of pop heroics has always been an abiding theme of Moore's work. In Promethea he uses superheroics to explore myth and religion. In League of Extraorinary Gentlemen he draws the pulp heroes of a past century as the superheores of the era. And so the presence of that theme in Top Ten is no surprise. Equally unsurprising is the way that it weaves through the satellite materials of Top Ten.

The first of these, and by far my favorite, is The Forty Niners, which traces the creation of the setting-city of Neopolis, ad the first team of superpowered police to patrol its wards. Where the first series brought in shades of Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Street, the prequel deals in the themes and images of the immigrant story. From the vampires who stand in as Eastern European enclave to the politcally supsect Germans who may be continuing the Nazi war effort, The Forty-Niners is about the hard work of assimilation and the pain of passing in a dominant culture. Gene Ha's art in this book is truly staggering. As fine and expressive as it was in the main series, he truly reaches a new level of excellence here.

I do not own a copy of Smax, and so I am working solely from memory on this fluffy tale in which Moore takes his superheroes into a world of swords n' sorccery fantasy. It turns out that hulking blue detective Jeff Smax hails from just such a world, and the series follows his quest to take care of family business, in the company of his partner, Toybox. Along the way, he finds time to introduce us to some fantasy cultures whose habits will be truly alien to most readers. While the story is successful on its own terms, it has neither the artistic excellence nor the powerful character moments of The Forty-Niners.

Finally, we have Beyond the Farthest Precinct. Neither Alan Moore nor his artisitc collaborabtors Gene Ha and Xander Cannon participated in this project, and it shows on every level. It was written by the cyberpunk author Paul di Filippo and illustrated by stalwart Jerry Ordway. While many enjoy Ordway's style, the crevassed faces and bulging eyes of his characters have never appealed to me. But Ordway's art is not the problem here. The script by Di Filippo, introduces tedious and ill-conceived new characters, and ill-uses Moore's creations. Characters who were formerly complex aqnd multilayred are flattened out into the "cool" cops and the "uncool" cops. Where Moore evinced a deep sympathy and recognition even for the characters he wrote as bigots and reactionaries, Di Filippo is not subtle enough to show anything more than the surface layers of the force. The story attempts to pay off on hints and ideas from the original series, but most of these follow-ups are utterly banal. And beyond its failings as a story, it seems to lack the larger concerns animating Moore's work in this universe. Of all of the Top Ten books, this is the only one I have found utterly unrewarding.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter 4: In Which Alan Moore Writes A Damn Good Comic -- Top Ten

Perhaps I'm a little late to get in on the Alan Moore craze. You know, the one that started when the trailer for Watchmen came out (Watch-mania! Catch it!), and ended about three hot minutes after people caught their first glimpse of a nuclear blue ham-javelin. But I'm still going to take this time to talk about one of my favorite Alan Moore comics, Top Ten.

The formula is pure high-concept: superhero comic meets cop show (or SCxCS=T10). Moore isn't the first writer to think of superhero teams as police forces, but Moore plays with the conventions of each genre to fascinating effect. That the first twelve issues are called "Season One" offers some clue as to what Moore is up to. The superhero and the TV cop "fight crime," in their ways, but the cop show and the superhero comic achieve that end in very different ways. Moore puts them in conversation to illustrate how the genres differ, and how they shape and inform one another.

Top Ten is the story of Neopolis, a city founded after a World War II shaped by the superheroes. But really, it's a city where all the characters went-- from superheroes to the pulps, to the sunday funnies, to folklore and mythology, they all ended up in Neopolis. So the precinct includes fantasy sword-swingers, anime robots, Blackhawk-style aviators, and caped crusaders. As in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore sees comics as an extension of a larger world of popular literature.

"Season One" follows several interlocking plots, including a drug investigation, a serial killer targetting prostitutes, and the murder of a god. The plotting is not as dense as Watchmen, but the story still has its share of satisfying twists and engaging subplots. But the brilliance of the writing is less in the story than in Moore's wonderful characterization. His creations here are among his most inspiring: Irma Geddon, the survivalist in a nuclear battlesuit, to King Peacock, the Yazidi supercop who "talks to Satan." Moore constantly unsettles expectations, but all their contradictions make the cops of the Tenth Precinct seem more real, rather than less.

Just as Moore plays with genre in the writing, Gene Ha draws from a vast history of comics, TV, and movies to populate Neopolis. The series rewards re-reading, and Ha's countless visual jokes and references add another layer to the metafictional fun. (Jess Nevins terriffic annotations are fairly comprehensive.) To see Charlie Brown dressed as Doctor Doom, trying to visit Santa, is to see all three characters in a wholly different light.

In the next post, I'll talk about some of the spin-off material, in its highs and lows. The short version is that the participation of Alan Moore is fairly key to the success of the series, or T10 - AM = :(

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chapter 3: In Which Children are Enlisted into the National Security Apparatus

I read this story from the NYT last week, but it has haunted me through the weekend, enough that I am moved to write about it now. An affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America, known as the "Explorer Scouts," run a careers program, where children (boys and girls) get to explore different occupations, advised by people who work in those fields. 

It all sounds fairly innocuous, and even praiseworthy, until we meet the kids learning about careers in law enforcement. What might such a program include? A primer in constitutional rights? Maybe a discussion of how police officers establish a bond of trust with the communities they serve? Perhaps a reminder that force should be the last resort?

Yeah, right. 

Meet the next generation of cops. 

The program is an education in "the fun stuff." Training with real and simulated (airsoft) firearms, drills in small-group tactics for firefights, and how to identify threats. They then use these methods in competitions simulating hostage situations, drug raids, and the like. But don't worry, the kids are learning important skills that they can transfer directly to their daily life. Like what to do when someone won't stop talking:

“Put him on his face and put a knee in his back,” a Border Patrol agent explained. “I guarantee that he’ll shut up.”
I can't wait to see the first time one of thse young Explorers busts that out on the playground. If the program is run the way it is described, I wouldn't be surprised if one did. Rather than focus on the public service that law enforcement provides to, well, the public, the program seems to emphasize the power of a law enforcement officer over another indvidual. I'm old enough to have played cops and robbers as a kid, but I never had the benefit of an actual cop telling me that the game was an accurate portrayal of police work. Shouting orders, brandishing cuffs, putting faces on the ground and knees in the back. Never taking statements, resolving disputes, or filling out reams of paperwork (that a real career in law enforcement includes), the program indulges a power fantasy. Become a cop and dominate another human being. 

And a lot of that domination was going on in the program itself, according to researchers
(warning, PDF) from the University of Nebraska:
*A San Bernardino, California sheriff’s deputywas sentenced to 120 days in jail in April, 2003 
for the statutory rape of a 16-year-old Explorer scout

*A Clackamas County, Oregon sheriff’s department lieutenant was demoted in July,
2002 for having asexual relationshipwith an 18-year-old Explorer Scout.

*In June, 2003 an Anaheim, California officer charged with oral copulation with a 17-year old 
Explorer fled to his native England. California authorities are seekingto have him extradited.

*A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania police officer with the department mounted patrol unit 
was sentenced to prison in 2003 for over 100 sexual acts with a 13-year old girl enrolled in his
riding club.
There have been more than a dozen cases of sexual abuse in the program within the last 10 years. What are the kids learning about the rule of law now?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chapter 2: In Which Ultron the Robot Puts the Lotion on the Skin

Just about every volume and variant of Avengers features some kind of showdown with the evil robot Ultron. But with very few exceptions, the encounters fall a bit flat. While they do provide ample opportunity for Hank Pym to be wracked with excruciatingly emo remorse over creating Ultron, they never get at the delightful Silence of the Lambs core of the relationship. That's right.  Send the kids to the other room -- I'm talkin' Ultron-sex tonight.

The short version is that Hank Pym created a robot, and imbued it ith artificial intelligence using his own brain patterns. The robot turned evil (as robots will do), and periodically tries to kill everyone. Most especially, he is obsessed with either impressing or killing Pym, who is both his figurative father and a version of himself. That much is enough for a villain , but not for the five-alarm oedipal nightmare that we're going for here. 

Ultron has often been portrayed as fixated on creating a family. He made a "son," The Vision, with whom he intended to infiltrate the Avengers, but Vision defied Ultron to become a hero, rejecting the father in favor of the grandfather. Ultron also created two "wives" with mind-patterns based on female Avengers, one of whom was Pym's wife, the Wasp. The son created a version of mom. And he surrounds himself with other "Ultrons," identical to himself. Does this seem like a little way beyond normal villany? One would think so, but most writers have characterized this as a lonesome drive for family. I think it might be something else.

Most recently, Ultron has been seen commanding a robot army in space, but before that, he even assumed the form of Pym's wife. The son dressed up as mom to get dad's attention. Ultron made his own "mom suit." It's like an inverted oedipus, who wants to supplant the mother in the father's attentions. At the same time, Ultron is not just a "son" to Pym, his psyche is also an imperfect duplicate. Ultron wants to seduce himself. This thwarted and impacted psychosexual fixation - not just a bland and innocuous desire for "family," makes Ultron terrifying and alien. So why not bring out that subtext? Ultron will destroy the world to seduce himself. Stop making Pym feel guilty about Ultron. Start putting him in a pit with a basket of lotion.

Chapter 1: In Which a Title is Chosen and Explained

In the olden time, there was an animated television program called Voltron. For those of you unfamiliar with this cultural touchstone, the action involves young heroes fighting evildoers by piloting robotic lions. In particularly danerous circumstances, the lions could be combined into a single giant robot, not coincidentally named Voltron. 

Growing up in the aforementioned olden time, I watched Voltron almost every day before school. And being an obsrvant young lad, I noticed things about the Voltron team's war against evil. Their battles invariably followed a particular rhythm. The team would fight in their individual lions for a while, before confronting the day's major threat, at which point they would form Voltron (the sum apparently being more than the sum of the parts.) But even as Voltron, the big bad would put the heroes on the ropes. Not even their combined power could win the day...

...until the leader called out "Form Blazing Sword!" And he always called out "Form Blazing Sword!" Every episode. Every day. And with the giant energy blade, Voltron always turned the tide. 

I came to wonder why the team bothered with fighting without the blazing sword, since they always ended up having to use it anyway. They must have known that the blazing sword was essential to their success, but they put off forming it. So, in short, "Form Blazing Sword!" came to be a sort of shorthand for procrastination- putting off doing something that you know you'll have to do in the end.  

HINT: This blog isn't the blazing sword. It's all the ineffectual stuff I do before I go off to finally do the stuff I need to do.