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 = :(

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