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 = :(