Sunday, July 30, 2006

THESE GO TO ELEVEN:

Why "America's Best Comics" Is No Idle Boast

By John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL


Alan Moore, frequent surly genius and superhero comics writing phenomenon, left us sitting in the dark for far too long in the 1990s. Apparently, he needed the time off. After literally turning the industry on its head with his and Dave Gibbon's astonishing (if, unfortunately, fundamentally flawed) WATCHMEN, he seems to have found himself a tough act to follow. Continuing scripts on SWAMP THING and MARVEL/MIRACLEMAN seemed to steadily decline in quality from the standard he had initially set with such classics as "The Anatomy Lesson" and "A Dream Of Flying", and towards the end of his runs on both books he seemed to become more entranced with obscure arcanities of literary style than actual substance. When Gaiman took over MIRACLEMAN from Moore in the early 90s (I believe) it was very nearly... no scratch that... it WAS a relief. Rick Veitch's creative takeover on SWAMP THING was not, in any sense of the word, but it certainly signaled to any dedicated fan still hanging in there hoping Moore would regain some of his former excellence (as he had briefly in the Adam Strange two parter, perhaps the only case at DC where a technologically advanced utopia had its seamy underbelly revealed and I didn't want to simultaneously weep and vomit) that it was time to move on.

What Moore seems to have learned in his years-long absence from superhero comics is to, at long last, embrace the inherent whimsy and absurdity of the genre. WATCHMEN is a complex work and as such can be defined in many ways, but it seems valid to me to say that one of the things it embodies is an almost desperate attempt to demonstrate conclusively that superheroes don't have to be inherently ridiculous; that, in fact, 'serious' superhero stories can be done, and done well. If that was Moore's intention, I myself feel he failed spectacularly, and in so doing, I also feel he may have learned a valuable lesson: that without the innate silliness underlying the very concept of superheroics, you're left with a grim, humorless construct indeed, which may be compelling, touching, moving, stirring, deep, and powerful, but sure as hell won't be much FUN. Others, of course, may and probably are at this moment leaping to their feet screaming their violent disagreement, but to my mind, WATCHMEN was anything but fun... and if superhero comics aren't fun, I myself see little point in their existence. At the very least, they're missing a vital element without which they're much poorer.

Moore's eventual return to superhero comics, at, of all places, Image, writing an issue of SPAWN for Todd McFarlane, was a revelation. Anyone who had read D.R. & QUINCH, or any of Moore's earlier SWAMP THING or MIRACLEMAN work, already knew of Moore's dry, trenchant, razor sharp witticisms, and his black humor was back in full force with that one SPAWN script. Moore followed this, though, with 1963, an undeservedly obscure mini-series that joyously celebrated the vigorous, enthusiastic cross-continuity romps that made up the early Marvel Universe. Through thinly disguised character tributes like Mystery, Inc., the Hypernaut, U.S.A., the Unbelievable N-Man, and various others that brilliantly evoked the early Marvel pantheon of motley, tights clad champions, Moore restored, for one brief, shining moment, a by then long comatose and all but dead sense of wonder that seemed to have departed superhero comics perhaps as long ago as Jack Kirby's walking away from Marvel back in the late 60s.

Moore's newly found enthusiasm for the absurd sense of sheer jolly bouncing-and-trouncing FUN that is, in my opinion, the heart and soul of superhero comics, along with his apparently resurrected razor sharp wit, propelled a distinctly superior VIOLATOR miniseries, as well as the only intelligent run of storylines the conceptually retarded WILDC.A.T.s is ever likely to see. As comics in their own right, these are some of the very few and far between bright spots of a mostly dismal decade for long-underwear literature. However, we can now see in hindsight that they are also something else: a segue between the deadly serious (and in many ways, deadly dull) WATCHMEN, and the sheer celebratory wonderfulness embodied in Moore's latest and current creative project, America's Best Comics.

With the above introduction, my wildly plunging and often out of control narrative stream has led me to pretty much skip over the majority of Moore's other work during his early superhero career in America, including several notable Superman stories, an interesting Vigilante two parter, some intriguing Green Lantern Corps back up stories, and a disappointing and somewhat dismal Batman graphic novel that, despite its somber tone and rather stock, cardboard portrayal of the Joker, has been embraced as a work of genius by the vast majority of fans who have read it. In all of these stories, though, Moore's rather somber 'by-God-we're-going-to-take-these-nutjobs-with-their-underwear-on-over-their-trousers-SERIOUSLY-aren't-we-lad' attitude was fairly overpowering. Moore's admittedly brilliant Superman Annual, "For The Man Who Has Everything", displayed as its thematic centerpiece a terrifyingly cynical and grimly nihilistic vision of a Krypton that had never exploded, and was one of the few cases where Moore demonstrated a misaligned perception of Superman's basic characterization. Simply put, the essentially optimistic and eternally hopeful Last Son of Krypton would never, even subconsciously, have conceived of such a depressing, Brunneresque hell as his lost and longed for homeworld. It was a dramatic, moving story, and is one of my favorites to reread and savor simply for the sheer quality of both the actual text and the gorgeous Dave Gibbons art, but unfortunately, it's just not a Classic Superman story. Moore went on to make up for this by writing what to my mind stands as the BEST story of the Classic Superman ever done, a so-called Imaginary Tale called "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" in which he demonstrated as deft and brilliant a grasp of the basic character of Superman as any writer ever has. The same underlying theme he had explored in the Annual, that all Superman really wants is a normal life, was brought through wonderfully here as well, but Superman's innate decency and positive attitude also shone throughout the story. (The major problem with "For The Man Who Has Everything" is simply that Moore self indulgently allows his own cynical, depressing, bleak vision of how Krypton really should be to infect Superman's dream of his long lost homeworld, without giving sufficient thought to the fact that this cast a shadow across Superman's own intrinsic character. A hypothetical Krypton surviving to the modern day might, perhaps, realistically resemble the one Moore presented, and that version of Krypton was haunting and compelling... but the pre Crisis Superman would never have conceived such a hellish version of his beloved lost planet, and certainly, he would not have visualized such a thing as a happy fantasy provided by a telepathic parasite as his 'heart's desire'. It's interesting to note that later on in the story, when Batman falls victim to the same parasite, he apparently experiences the sort of idyllic 50s TV fantasy life that would have been far more appropriate to the eternally optimistic Kal El than to the brooding, illusionless Dark Knight. Apparently, the space flower mixed up each hero's fantasies. This is one of the very few cases where Moore was so caught up in creating a story with great melodramatic impact that he unwittingly tromped on the basic characterization of the hero he was writing.)

For all the undeniable pleasure there is in reading these for the most part extraordinarily well written stories, though, it must be admitted that these are some bloody godawful grim tales indeed. "Whatever Happened To...?" is a deadly serious story, rife with treachery, heroic sacrifice, senseless killings, and the violent deaths of virtually everyone Superman (or we, his fans) has ever cared for, and it climaxes with Superman breaking his most sacred oath and deliberately murdering his ancient enemy, 5th Dimensional imp Mr. Mxytplzx. (I may well have misspelled that, but honestly, how would I know for sure, since I've never had more than a vague idea how it's supposed to be pronounced?) However beautifully moving the story itself is... and anyone who doesn't find their eyes moistening at the end of the first chapter, where a sobbing Kal El is pictured with the overlying caption " He looked like he'd been crying", simply has a heart of solid stone in my opinion... it's still not a particularly fun one, and it takes true talent to manage to divorce any and all sense of whimsy from such Weisenbergesque elements of Superman's mythos as colored Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen's Elastic Lad serum, and Krypto the Superdog. In fact, Moore not only manages to distill all these elements from their essential absurdity, he turns them all into deadly serious elements in an ongoing, almost operatic story of heartbreak and tragedy completely unleavened by the slightest ray of hope or optimism until the very last panel.

The story is astonishing, brilliant, a work of utter genius... and about as much sheer, childlike fun to read as Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" or Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations". Both are classics, both are remarkable works of short science fiction/fantasy... and a steady diet of such stories would quickly make men mad. Superhero comics, it should be remembered, are part of a fictional adventure subgenre essentially concerned, even obsessed, with the notion of paranormal beings who put on tights and masks and capes and go out looking for other paranormal beings in similar garish attire so they can then do their darndest to beat the other costumed lunatic into concussed unconsciousness. Sure, you can make that into something deadly serious, especially if you have carte blanche to dismantle and destroy an entire heroic mythos while doing it... but you can't do that very often, and superhero comics are also serial fiction. Open ended serial fiction, for the most part, in an ongoing, open ended format. Despite HELLBLAZER doing its best to prove the contrary, you can't keep killing off your supporting cast in grisly ways every issue.

The contrast, then, between the dark, grim, tragic stories Moore produced in the 80s for DC, and the stuff he's doing now for America's Best Comics, is an extreme one, and mostly found in his restored sense of humor, and his newly discovered enthusiasm for the essential silliness of the superhero concept.

Without that new silliness, sense of wonder, and innate whimsy, would TOM STRONG, TOP 10, PROMETHEA, or even LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN be anywhere near as good as they undeniably are? I myself would have to say no. For one thing, if Moore were still writing in the same deadly serious vein he was seemingly trapped in during the 1980s, he most likely would never have even created the iconic, immortal, irrepressibly good humored and rather daffily named Tom Strong. (Of course, he also most likely would not have recently subjected his faithful fans to the gruesomely ludicrous spectacle of Tom Strong teaming up with an animated super-rabbit in some appalling cartoon dimension, either. Sometimes a sense of whimsy can be taken too far, as with horrifying concepts like Bat-Mite and Warren Strong, which as a name isn't even a particularly clever pun.) Certainly his TOP 10 would not be infused with such charmingly whacked out concepts as ultramice and hypercats, or an entire museum dedicated to Nazi supervillains. PROMETHEA would be a much flatter production without the delightful sense of the absurd embodied in such characters as the Five Swell Guys, and even L.O.E.G. would be a less effective and entertaining work of fiction if Moore didn't take such sly delight in lampooning various obscure historical literary characters and writing absurd social satire into his hilarious fake Victorian era advertisements.

Over a time period when superhero comics became almost uniformly grimmer, greyer, grittier, and grungier, Moore's work seems to have travelled in the opposite direction, back towards a more light hearted and cheerful, even ridiculous, sort of high spirited heroic adventure. Oh, there's plenty of darkness and nastiness to be found in the subtext and storylines Moore is scripting now, but still, underlying it all is an essential faith in the basic rightness of reality, and the goodness of human nature, that has been missing in comics for decades, and was never present in Moore's earliest work on SWAMP THING (where, we may recall, Earth had "belonged to hell forever", a pretty goddam cynical and depressing statement) and MIRACLEMAN (which only ever included classic superhero elements at all as government induced mind control delusions, an almost equally cynical and depressing statement to the one already mentioned). Such a cheerfully, iconically, Capital G Good HERO as Tom Strong would have had no place in Moore's 80s work except as a big dopey parody.

However, beyond a point, it's useless to speculate on what Moore's current work would be like if he were doing it 15 or 20 years ago, since, thankfully, he's not. Without a sense of wonder and whimsy to breath life into them, TOP 10 and PROMETHEA might well be on their way to ending up as sterile, convoluted and nearly indecipherable as V FOR VENDETTA, or as thematically shallow as HALO JONES. Thankfully, as I say, we'll never know.

Of all the America's Best Comics I actually enjoy, the one I probably enjoy the least is TOM STRONG. More of an icon than a human being, Tom almost seems to be less a character Moore wants to write than a concept he wants to explore. This is the same problem, I think, that makes TOMORROW STORIES the one ABC Comic I don't read; in that particular anthology title, the different characters are for the most part simply colorful figureheads and thematic anchors that allow Moore to explore various different heroic subgenres and concepts... boy genius, hard boiled pulp adventurer, cultural satire, weird illustrated pulp fiction set in a variety of milieus, and whatever the hell that weird Splash character is. To the same extent, in TOM STRONG the title character has always been almost secondary to the exploration of the very essence of the altruistic super-adventurer. Since characterization is the primary hook that draws me to enjoy any work of fiction, this fairly obvious subordination of that element to the clear fascination Moore has for the underlying premise of the book has always kept me from fully engaging with Tom and his adventures. Moore's work here has been, for the most part, both shallow and narrow, in what is likely a deliberate evocation of both the purple prosed pulp fiction of the 30s and 40s, and the bright, simple, colorful, surface characterizations of DC superheroes in the 50s and 60s. Tom Strong is a very obvious combination of Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burrough's immortal fighting man archetype, and the best character traits of the Classic Superman, with a few undeniable details of Scott McCloud's ZOT! thrown in for flavor. Hundreds, if not thousands, of published appearances of Doc, John Carter, and the classic Kal El never deepened nor broadened their essential personalities a whit. Tom fits right into this fairly shallow mold, and unlike the comics I like best, his characterization does not drive the plots so much as the plots occur around his character.

As I say, I don't think this is any sort of failing of Moore's writing, I'm sure, in fact, that it's intentional. However, the fact that Moore, like PeeWee Herman, "meant to do that", doesn't make me like it a whole lot.

Over the last two or three issues I've even found myself thinking seriously about dropping the title from my pull list. About the only thing I'm still interested in is the admittedly delightful adventures of Tom's drop dead gorgeous daughter Tesla, in whom, it should be noted, Moore has managed to accomplish what is an apparent impossibility for writers like Chris Claremont... namely, write a strong, competent woman who is still humanly, emotionally dependent on others and distinctly feminine. But even fascinating stories in which Tesla meets a dozen or so intriguing alternate timeline versions of herself are hardly worth wading through a goddam boring badly illustrated Victorian style text piece in which Tom flies a necromantic autogyro into the world of the dead and watches a buncha rude ghosts stand around and do nothing in particular for eight pages... and this useless farrago of rubbish that I paid good money for is paradise, heaven on earth, a joyous feast for the eyes and the intellect, compared to the truly appalling, degrading, repellent nonsense Moore presents us with immediately following it... a truly twerpish tale in which Tom Strong explores a cartoon timeline, meets all sorts of awful and annoying funny animals, and tops the whole idiotic and undignified experience off by sharing an adventure with his cartoon funny animal doppleganger there, an appalling imaginary creature named Warren Strong, who is (gag), in the tradition of Bugs, Roger, and Captain Friggin Carrot, a bloody for god's sake just SHOOT IT NOW rabbit.

(As an editorial aside, I should note for those who simply need to have such things noted that I have never been a huge fan of the funny animal subgenre. Though I have at times -- while still in the single age digits, mind you -- enjoyed various issues of UNCLE SCROOGE and SUPERGOOF and such like things, I have never particularly liked the various misbegotten and creatively accursed attempts to cross pollinate the superhero genre with bloody goddam Hanna Barbara Saturday morning cartoons. Frankly, these bastardized abortions make me ill; sincerely, if every single issue of CAPTAIN CARROT AND HIS ZOO CREW's mercifully brief run were to be rolled together compactly, heated until the edges blacken, and then stuffed briskly up Roy Thomas' and Scott Shaw!'s... er... nostrils... it would only, in my opinion, be long delayed cosmic justice occurring at last. Hypermice and ultracats I can accept, more or less; most likely, they're the result of some weird Nazi experiments whose subjects escaped into the wild and bred like... er... rabbits. But a jesus-help-us flop eared cartoon rodent named for the love of GOD Warren Strong interacting with a more or less 'real' superhero... as somebody or other once said about something, I say it's asparagus, and I say the hell with it. I like a sense of wonder and a good, healthy, dose of the absurd as well as anyone and much more than Frank Miller, but super cartoon animals are where I draw my line.)

If a funny animal version of ANY of my favorite superheroes were to show up in any of their titles, I'd most likely be revolted (if a funny animal superteam were to show up in AVENGERS, I'd just go kill myself, or better yet, the writer); to have such show up in a comic I'm already thinking of dropping simply because its not quite making my extremely picky grade is like getting a message from God Himself that I really have better things to spend $4 on than this. And given that we've been promised that the "Angora Ace" (aaaaaarrrggggggghhhh) will return in some TOM STRONG SPECIAL next year, I may well have to ditch the title before THAT misbegotten event drives me to drink, drugs, or depravities the like of which my poor addled mind can barely comprehend (but that I must admit, in certain moods sound kind of fun).

However, while we're on the subject, it's worth noting that TOM STRONG has established probably the first interracial romance I've seen in comics since Danny Rand and Misty Knight started dating in IRON FIST back in the mid 70s. Given that we now live in an era where an actor on a popular television show can DEMAND that his character's romance with a character of a different race be broken off and that an actress of his own race be recruited specifically to play his love interest, to keep from sending the wrong message to young boys of his particular ethnicity about 'dating outside their people'.... and his producers will not only not laugh hysterically at him and then fire him (as they would any, you know, white guy who came up and made the same ridiculously racist request) but will immediately initiate a talent search for a black actress to write into the show just for this guy to make out with... well, in that kind of world, for Moore to quietly marry off his fictional Earth's most admired white superhuman to a dark skinned chieftain's daughter is quite refreshing. In fact, I can't think of any other interracial relationships in superhero comics right now,(aside from the truly weird one in TOP 10 we'll discuss in a bit) although Chris Priest has recently revealed that T'Challa used to have something going on with a white woman who is currently dating one of his supporting characters. Still, that's not quite as brave as putting a character named the Black Panther front and center playing tonsil hockey with some blond Pam Anderson clone, and I will note that all the Panther's more or less current relationships are with women who are safely Nubian.

Moving on up from TOM STRONG, we find my third most well liked ABC comic, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. If Alan Moore has any one area where he generally does not excel, it's most likely in picking out good names for his characters and concepts, and LOEG is hardly an exception, so we'll just call it by its initials from now on.

First, I admit, I'd like LOEG a great deal more if it had an actual artist. Now, having said that, I will also admit that that is an unfair sneer against the artist on LOEG, who is, I believe, named Kevin O'Neill, and who, from my knowledge of various storytelling elements and compositional requirements and other impressive sounding artsy things, I can see is actually quite a talented and skilled artist. It's just that, like Rick Veitch in 1963, the artist here is deliberately drawing in a way that he and Moore most likely feel evokes the illustration style of the historical period. And I'm sure he's doing a jolly good job. The problem is, to these tired, aging, prejudiced-by-living-in-the-actual-20th-Century eyes, it looks like crap. I realize it's all in the rendering and the surface style, and in fact, Mr. O'Neill manages to draw some of the most difficult and complex things so that the reader can always clearly see exactly what is going on... no easy task, and one he is to be commended for. But all I can say is that if LOEG were drawn in a far more conventionally John Buscema-inspired style, I'd enjoy it just heaps more than I do.

LOEG also showcases one of Moore's more offensive writing tendencies, namely, taking a beloved character and making him ickie. Fortunately, in LOEG, the beloved character is Alan Quatermaine, and since I did not grow up on the adventure-romances of H. Rider Haggard, I have no emotional bond with this inspirational adventuring icon, and so, can regard Moore's inept, laudanum-addicted version of the character with bemused interest. However, I can only imagine how someone who did read this character's adventures as a child would probably respond to his presentation in LOEG... most likely, with much the same horror and disgust as I responded to Byrne's trashing of Superman in MAN OF STEEL, or Grell's hatchet job on Green Arrow in THE LONGBOW HUNTERS.

It is, I think, a generally mean spirited and opprobrious writing technique, this smearing of a beloved literary idol with shit in order to lend a spurious air of versimilitude to one's work. "Look, look," the writer chortles gleefully, "Captain Courage actually likes to bugger the living daylights out of his faithful canine partner Bravehound! Isn't that just SO grimngritty?" Frankly, I generally find this sort of approach nauseating, and to my displeasure, it's something that has become more and more common in the modern age of comics. Fortunately, Moore's tendency to do this has, for the most part, been confined (through editorial directive) to characters of his own devising. Moore's much vaunted TWILIGHT prospective, in which he would have given a dismally sleazy 'hyper-reality' makeover to virtually the entire array of DC super-characters, was by the grace of God rejected by DC, and I think it was Dick Giordano who required Alan to turn all the Charleton characters he wanted to thoroughly smear excrement on into thinly disguised dopplegangers of themselves. I grant you, this last wasn't done to spare the feelings of any Blue Beetle or Question fans out there, but simply to conserve DC's capacity to actually USE those characters in mainstream comics, something they would have lost had they allowed the plot machinations of WATCHMEN to be worked on Captain Atom, Nightshade, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, et al.

(I am now braced for a flood... or at least, a trickle... of email informing me snottily that it was not, in fact, Dick Giordano who forced Moore to alter the Charleton characters in his original WATCHMEN scenario into somewhat different versions he could more freely heap abuse on, but was, rather, the third drummer from Spinal Tap during a brief career as EIC at National Comics, or, perhaps, the same anonymous Dutchman previously hired to set fire to Lord Snowden.)

Nonetheless, though I generally revile the tactic, the pragmatic fact is, I couldn't care less what anyone does to Alan Quatermaine (or She Who Must Be Obeyed, or Gunga Din, either) so if Moore thinks it lends LOEG an air of historical verisimilitude to make the man who re-discovered King Solomon's mines into a fumble fingered buffoon, he can rock on with his bad self. I don't personally care. However, I'm taking the opportunity presented to note for the record that I think that particular writing technique is, like 1-800-COLLECT, cheap and easy, and Moore's fondness for it makes me pray no one ever lets him write on an ongoing basis a comic book containing Silver or Golden Age characters I actually have some emotional attachment to. The thought of what Alan Moore would do to FANTASTIC FOUR, given a free hand, makes me shudder. (Conversely, it must be admitted that the thought of Moore turned loose on the New X-Men or the New Teen Titans is one that brings a twinkle to my eye as I contemplate the lovely image of a necrophiliac Raven or a meth addicted Wolverine, but that is very much neither here nor there.)

The concept behind LOEG is a fascinating one, though. Sort of a Victorian DOOM PATROL, LOEG concerns itself with the gathering together of various misfits and freaks from adventure fiction of late 19th Century vintage into a team of covert operatives ostensibly working for the British Crown's intelligence apparatus. To date, the regular group consists of the aforementioned Alan Quatermaine, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and his more infamous alter-ego, and Mina Harker, whom most modern audiences will remember as the chick played by Winona Rider in Coppola's lugubrious version of DRACULA. Moore has made Nemo, interestingly, a fanatic Indian national, Quatermaine, as described, a laudanum addict, left Jekyll and Hyde pretty much intact except for grafting the Hulk's 'transforms when he gets angry' schtick onto them, the Invisible Man an immoral thief and brigand, and transformed Winona's cinematic ditz into a coldly cerebral woman who may or may not have some sort of superhuman abilities, but who is clearly the brains and natural leader of the group, despite the fact that women with either an active intellect or a position of authority were all but unheard of in this particular era's adventure fiction.

So far, the League has mainly been concerned with assembling itself into one team, and then recovering some stolen Cavorite from Fu Manchu. The next mini-series, apparently, will involve them in H.G. Wells' Martian invasion (and should, I suppose, really see me rooting for the Martians, given my sobriquet and that of this column). The stories to date have been well written, awfully drawn, strewn with fascinating historical details, and generally, entertaining and rewarding reads. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the title, at least for me, has been Moore's ongoing efforts to make his Victorian period setting historically accurate in ways that doubtless have any politically correct editors or publishers that may be in the food chain over him tearing their hair out in big swatches. LOEG to date has displayed virulently racist and sexist attitudes on the part of nearly all its characters, as was commonplace a hundred years ago in the most ostensibly civilized empire on Earth, and the book also hasn't shied away from showing the seething sexual hypocrisy of the times, either, with a prim, proper, utterly repressed upper class facade snapped tight over a boiling caldron of decadence and depravity the sort of which most of us would find more fitting in an Old Testament city about to be destroyed by Jehovah than Victoria's England. (Those of us who have studied a bit more actual history, though, are aware that in that distant shimmering golden era, the legal age of sexual consent was 12, children were frequently sold into prostitution by their destitute parents and ten year old whores of either gender were commonplace rental chattel in any lower class neighborhood. More children died of hunger, exposure, neglect, overwork, and abuse in Great Britain during the 19th Century than had been born in all of Europe in the 17th or 18th, and a charming and widely believed myth of that time, namely, that sex with a virgin was a sure cure for syphilis, would lead to a plague of madness in the early 20th Century that would nearly overwhelm the entire Victorian governmental apparatus.)

I still think Moore could have accomplished all this wonderfully accurate recreation of a lost historical era without making Alan Quatermaine into a hophead, though.

Okay, now let's do TOP 10.

TOP 10 started out strongly as my favorite ABC comic, for several reasons. First, I am an admitted and unabashed police show fanatic... not those lousy reality shows like COPS that purport to show real actual police officers doing real actual things just as if they didn't know there's a guy in the back seat videotaping them the whole time... but police dramas like HILL STREET BLUES and LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT and NYPD BLUE and BROOKLYN SOUTH and, going back into the past, DRAGNET and ADAM 12 and even THE ROOKIES, God help us all. (I will admit, if someone could come up with a way to sneak a hidden camera into the back of a police car in New York City or L.A. and broadcast what it picks up live, I'd watch it avidly, and I suspect millions of others would too... but that isn't gonna happen any time this millenium, or likely, next.)

Since I am a cop show fanatic, TOP 10 had a big leg up on TOM STRONG and LOEG. TOP 10 also has truly fine art by Gene Ha, I believe, or someone with a name like that (maybe he's the inker, aren't I terrible?) and that certainly doesn't hurt, especially when you're talking about a comparison with the ickie stuff in LOEG. And, in the beginning, TOP 10 also easily beat out PROMETHEA for my top spot because for its first four issues, PROMETHEA was apparently written by a drunken toxophilite with hedgeclippers for hands, or, at the very least, in a surreal and deliberately non-linear way that was obviously brilliant, or so you assumed when reading it, because you couldn't actually figure out what the hell was going on, but it sure seemed cool.

TOP 10, on the other hand, was and is a much more linear and straightforward story about a young female rookie cop who has weird mental control powers over a strange assemblage of mechanical toys, going to work with a bunch of other cops who have equally bizarre superpowers such as being a hyperintelligent dog wearing a humanoid robot body, in a city in which EVERYONE has superpowers, including the mice, the cats, the dogs, and the extradimensional lizard people. Not to mention the aliens, time travellers, ancient gods, robots, and alternate timeline gladiators.

I admit, had someone explained the concept to me just that succinctly, or in those very words, I'd probably have given the book a pass until such time as every intelligent comics fan I know had threatened to kill me with soup unless I started reading it immediately. By that time I would have missed the first four or five issues and found them impossible to find (believe me, I know, I still haven't been able to get my hands on PROMETHEA #1 and all the local shop owners down here just laugh at me when they see me coming up to the counter these days with a supplicatory look on my face) and generally it would have been a stinking, sordid mess better not to contemplate in detail. So I'm happy that instead, I just started buying all the goddam ABC books (including the dismal TOMORROW STORIES, which I soon stopped) on the strength of Alan Moore's name.

You would think that a world in which EVERYONE has superpowers would simply not work very well as an ongoing creative concept. Or, certainly, I would have thought that. Were this a comic by Kurt Busiek or J.M. DeMatteis or Chris Claremont, I wouldn't even have to read it to pan it, and I could write pages, sight unseen, on the essential foolishness of creating a world in which superpowers were commonplace, everyday, and mundane, thus robbing the reader entirely of any sort of sense of wonder so necessary to quality comic books.

Truth be told, I don't think that DeMatteis or Claremont could handle the concept well. (Well, truth be told, I don't think DeMatteis or Claremont should be trusted to write the ingredients panels on breakfast cereal boxes.) I'm not even sure that Kurt Busiek, whose work I generally enjoy on AVENGERS, or perhaps even Tom Peyer, whom I think is pretty much a goddam genius, could necessarily handle it well. The reason Moore can handle it well, and the reason I suppose I like TOP 10 so much, is that Moore, when he wants to be, is so much more brilliant at characterization than anyone else who has ever worked in comics that there is simply no real comparison between him and whoever the next guy down is. In this particular creative area, the gulf between the number one spot -- Moore -- and whoever you might think is holding down the number two spot -- Peyer, Busiek, Morrison, Ellis, Waid, whoever -- is the size of the fricking Motari Nebula. It is an uncrossable abyss across which the poor schmucks trailing along in the runner up categories cannot even see the unchallenged and unchallengeable champion.

(This is another reason why, in general, I find TOMORROW STORIES and TOM STRONG so generally disappointing... STORIES far more so than STRONG, but still, same reason: Moore's real strength is characterization, and when he plays to anything else, it's like the Silver Age Batman spending a day ice sculpting instead of tracking down criminals in weird costumes with bizarre M.O.s. Bruce might make a decent ice sculpture, but you just KNOW you'd have a helluva lot more fun watching him figure out who the hell the Hooded Kruggerand actually is instead, and how the hell he got all that gold out of the unopened vault in the submarine at the bottom of Gotham Harbor.)

Now, TOP 10 is just ALL characterization. That's it. It's a big frickin' soap opera from start to finish, about cops with superpowers in a city where everyone has superpowers, and you'd think that would be too weird for words, and well, yes it is. But it's also just the coolest thing. I mean, this is what Alan Moore DOES, what he is the best in the world at, what, in the words of Paul Newman in THE COLOR OF MONEY, his 'area of excellence' is. Alan Moore just friggin' ROCKS at characterization, and I just friggin' LOVE characterization, so I just friggin' LOVE TOP 10.

Of course, there's far more to TOP 10 than just the character driven soap opera aspects, but those are the parts I really like, so they tend to be my focus. However, TOP 10, like everything else Moore writes, is far more than merely a way for him to tell an amusing story and generate a royalty check. In TOP 10, Moore has put together a veritable orchestra with which to play endless variations on the superhero theme. Nazi mad scientists, genetically enhanced superfolks, aliens, robots, giant radioactive monsters, time travellers, interdimensional doppelgangers, bionic fellow travelers, Russian cosmonauts with telepathic monkeys, super-pets, hyperintelligent animorphs, ancient gods, giant iconic space entities, shapeshifting sex offenders, Golden Age superheroines turned porn stars... all of these are simply instruments for Moore to conduct through various fugues and contatas as he deftly builds a hyperWagnerian opera in a dozen different dimensions at once. In the hands of a Byrne, a Chaykin, a Waid, a Millar, all this would crash together in a catastrophic cacaphony, but Moore interweaves it all into a soaring symphony of unparallelled sophistication and rolling grandeur.

No comic most commonly described as being "HILL STREET BLUES with super powers" could possibly publish an issue without scads of searing social commentary, and TOP 10 is rife with wry, understated, ironic insights into the various cultural ills and issues that assail us every day. Moore's commentary on such is more sure and simultaneously subtle than that of a Gerber or an Ostrander, though. In a recent issue, Moore played on the typically liberal smugness of the vast majority of his audience by having one of his characters, Shock Head Peter, make openly racist comments about the robotic minority that, but for the shifting of a few crucial syllables, could just as easily have come out of the mouth of any white supremacist. No doubt Moore calculated exactly the effect this would most likely have on his audience of adult, sophisticated, intelligent, primarily liberal fans... a tired, weary, "Oh God, here's another idiot" silent response, as we fatuously congratulated ourselves yet again for being reasonable and compassionate enough to see through such toxic nonsense. Just as that fine complacent feeling of being Enlightened and Noble was washing over us, Moore hit us with the kicker: a scene showing hyperintelligent canine character Kemlo Caesar, the local turn out sergeant at Top 10, in an affectionate off duty kiss with his human girlfriend.

Speaking for myself, it stopped me dead. Made me shudder. Filled me with insensate disgust and revulsion. And, being the kind of person I am, who hates to feel a powerful emotional response without immediately analyzing WHY I felt it, I sat down... as I'm sure Moore hoped most of his audience would... and thought about it.

Obviously, the immediate emotional response comes from the innate sense of wrongness and outright depravity a normal person raised in our society feels at the sight of a... well... a DOG... a Doberman pinscher, apparently... tongue kissing a human woman, who is, in turn, enthusiastically kissing it back. The romantic and sexual overtones of such an enthusiastic sensual exchange... well... they just sicken you. Me, anyway. Maybe you're more open minded than I am.

And yet, Sgt. Caesar is a sentient being, who interacts with more conventionally shaped sentient/human beings every day, whose speech patterns are indistinguishable from humans, who thinks like a human and acts like a human. In the course of his duties, and in fact, on this particular date we suddenly find ourselves bearing inadvertent witness to, he wears a prosthetic, cybernetic robot body harness which surrounds his normal torso, giving him the use of humanoid legs, humanoid arms, humanoid hands. So... he's as human as anyone... by any sane, rational standard... and if he wants to date a fellow human, well, who the hell are WE to stand in his way or let our primitive emotional responses interfere in his private life? Who are we to pass judgement, to think to ourselves "but when they have SEX he's out of the cyberharness, and she's basically screwing a Doberman pinscher, EWWWWWWWWWWW"? Who are we to gag and retch and mutter "That's DISGUSTING" behind our hands as the two of them walk by happily hand in... er... paw? Isn't the body encasing the soul ultimately secondary to the soul itself?

It's illuminating, educational, even enlightening... and painful. Is THIS how the well conditioned racist in nearly every human society prior to the late 20th Century felt when he saw an interracial couple walking happily down the street? Did their stomachs clench tightly in the same way, did they feel the same irrational disgust quickly shading into anger that a member of their own race would demean itself with such a... a THING... in PUBLIC? Coming with demonically perfect timing right on the heels of Pete's more conventional, transparent, easily dismissed anti-klickers diatribe, this shocking scene has even more kick. Sure, we can see how poisonous Pete's attitudes are when applied to an entire race of sentient beings... but... but... THIS is DIFFERENT!

Nearly any comics writer, liberal or conservative, of any basic skill level at all, can (and most have) write about the issues that concern them in ways that move and sometimes even persuade us. It takes more skill and talent to actually educate us, to give us the tools we need to think about something in a way we hadn't considered previously.

Ah, but to enlighten... to give us the illumination, the sudden, gut level comprehension, bursting through us on every level... THIS IS HOW THE OTHER GUY FEELS... that takes genius. And Moore has that genius, and Moore does it perfectly. Where a Claremont or a DeMatteis would drone on for endless captions around this scene, underscoring and explicating, hammering us with all the subtlety and deftness of a Robert Zemeckis film, making absolutely SURE we GOT THE DAMN MESSAGE... Moore sets us up with a feint from his right, lets us shift our weight to lean away from the punch... and knocks us on our ass with an unseen left. It's beautiful... disturbing... it makes you feel, and then, it makes you think about how you feel.

About the only drawback to TOP 10 is that the huge size and complexity of the cast makes for a criss crossing and convoluted labyrinth of intertwining subplots and story threads, all of which are utterly fascinating, all of which have to be given carefully rationed and eked out parcels of plot and panel time, all of which actively compete with each other for the limited space in every issue. So it is that storylines seem to drag on forever or blur together, with things brought up and then seemingly dropped again in what would be a completely frustrating manner if anyone but Moore were handling the script. Fortunately, with Moore writing the book, every competing plot thread is as fascinating as any other, so while each reader may have his or her favorite character or plotline we are anxious to have Moore develop further, we're perfectly happy if he stops paying attention to Dust Devil for awhile and instead focuses on King Peacock this issue instead.

All told, TOP 10 is an utterly fascinating, thrilling, fun and entertaining read that stimulates on virtually every level... the visceral, the psychological, the emotional, and the intellectual. I don't necessarily recommend you start reading it if you haven't been, though, unless you're sure you can pick up ALL the back issues, since it's the sort of thing where if you miss even one installment, you're hopelessly lost forever.

Of great aid to the hypothetical new reader in making sense of TOP 10 will be the fine, nearly photographic artwork of can't-be-praised-highly-enough artist Gene Ha. His gritty, sometimes seemingly stiff, near photo-realism works beautifully in giving TOP 10 the sort of credible, immersed in the mainstream world feel that Bochco and Milch strove so assiduously to create on HILL STREET BLUES, and in the first season or so of NYPD BLUE, as well. Although I'm normally someone who pays far more attention to the script than I do to the art, and I haven't even mentioned the generally beautiful art turned in by that guy who draws most Tom Strong adventures whose name I cannot recall at the moment (but will come to me the instant I stop typing)(Chris Sprouse... see, I told you), I'd be severely remiss not to mention just how much of the vivid impact of TOP 10 is purely visual... and I'd be completely out of character if I didn't take the opportunity to point out just how much more impact LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN would be if its obviously competent artist weren't working so hard to make it look like a Victorian era illustrated magazine, which art style is not pleasing to a modern eye, and would simply draw it so we can bloody stand to look at it without wanting to take a Tylenol.

As with its thematic progenitor HILL STREET BLUES, you can, eventually, work yourself into TOP 10's narrative to the point where you have a fair grasp on what's happening now. It just... takes a while. So I suppose I should modify my advice to being, if you start picking it up in the middle, and can't get all the back issues, then just... hang in there. Eventually, it will start to make some kind of sense.

That last phrase... "eventually, it will start to make some kind of sense"... should be translated into Latin and printed above the title logo on every issue of my favorite ABC Comic, and current favorite monthly comic, period, PROMETHEA.

I swear, in the first four issues or so of ABC's run, PROMETHEA was probably the ABC title I liked the least (other than TOMORROW STORIES, which, after buying, reading, and sincerely disliking two issues of, I dropped like a hot brick). It was just so WEIRD. Mind you, I like weird, but this was not weird like an old Bob Haney/Jim Aparo BRAVE AND THE BOLD story, where Batman ends up on Earth 2 teaming up with Wildcat and no one mentions that he's changed planets, or teams up in the modern day with WWII hero Sgt. Rock and no one mentions Rock hasn't aged a bit, or even has his spirit travel into the future, become solidly animate there, and team up with Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, who recognizes him because he had some old Batman comics in the bomb shelter when he was growing up (!!!!). Nor was this even weird like a Neil Gaiman SANDMAN story, which, for all their occasional surreality, were generally, at least, more or less linear in their presentation and made what I considered to be a professional effort to clue the actual paying customer in to what the fugg was actually, you know, GOING ON.

Thankfully, it also wasn't weird like a Grant Morrison DOOM PATROL or INVISIBLES story, either, with a lot of clueless, dislikeable, vaguely unsavory protagonists wandering around questioning the validity of their own existence and ongoing experiences, displaying bizarre superpowers at convenient points in the plot, and spouting a lot of shallow, crypto-philosophical drivel that ultimately turned out to be semantically moot.

No, it was just... busy. Looking back on it, I can see that Moore had taken on an astoundingly ambitious concept in PROMETHEA, or rather, an astonishingly ambitious combination of near-impossible creative tasks, and seeing that it would be utterly insane to try to accomplish these in an conventional superheroic context or format, he decided to make that a strength, not a weakness. And so, he presented the unbelievably complex and intricate backstory, the esoteric occult history, metaphysics, and philosophy, the heroic transformation/coming of age story at the heart of not only this title, but the entire Promethea concept itself, all carefully etched against a canvas composed of perhaps the only truly intelligent rendition of what our modern society would be like if we actually had access to all that high tech that the superheroes and supervillains of a standard metareality keep around at all times, but that never trickles down to the man on the street... as a mosaic. A glittering piece of interaction between our present day heroine and her plucky sidekick/potential paramour wedged into the narrative stream here, a brilliant little scene between a couple of characters from the distant past over here, a weird montage with some guy in an office summoning up every demon in hell to sic on our hapless heroine, all strewn about against a backdrop of a modern day New York City filled with anti-gravity vehicles, billboards advertising Weeping Gorilla Comix, nurses who watch ALLY McBEAL, and a uniquely mundane looking superhero team named the Five Swell Guys, one of whom is distinctly feminine. (Her name is Roger, she is the superstrong team member, and apparently, was recently male, but we don't need to go into that.)

Still, for the first three or four issues, I didn't get any of this. I bought PROMETHEA, I read PROMETHEA, and then I rolled up PROMETHEA and beat myself over the head with it, wondering if, at any point in the next three or four decades, the goddam thing might actually start to make some sort of coherent sense.

And yet, through all the frustration at the utterly deranged incoherence of the narrative stream and my apparent complete inability to grasp exactly what was going on as any kind of whole thematic structure, I could still see that the characters were three dimensional, interesting, and likeable, the dialogue was lovely, the plotlines seemed intriguing, and the artwork by J.H. Williams III was just bloody brilliant... and I'd already dropped TOMORROW STORIES and was being relentlessly mocked by the Jabba the Hutt-like comics shop proprietor I was then doing business with over that... ("Got a new TOMORROW STORIES in this week... oh, I forgot... you're the only Alan Moore fan in the world who doesn't like TOMORROW STORIES... it's not seeeeeeeerious enough for YOU..." Then he'd give a shockingly high falsetto giggle like some 12 year old girl and nudge one of his shop clerks with a ponderously obese elbow as if he'd actually said something witty, while putting BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS FOREVER and maybe a copy of Waid & Peyer's BRAVE AND THE BOLD mini series, which I assumed he must have thought WERE serious enough for me, in my bag, which I would take with silent dignity, generally because I was too busy drooling over drop dead gorgeous counter girl Jasmine and her cute little hexagonal-flower pattern tattoo on the back of her always exposed shoulderblade... she liked to wear open backed garments a lot... to pay any attention to the lout. After Jasmine quit, I realized he really WAS a lout -- as well as an oaf, a poltroon, and a dolt -- and took my trade promptly to Demolition Comics, where I get a much smaller discount but the owner doesn't mock me, so I consider it a fair trade off.)... so I decided I'd keep buying the damn comic, at least, until Moore lost his mind and replaced the amazing Williams with someone like John Totleben or that awful fellow who did the DEADMAN miniseries with Mike Baron and drew most of those "Key to Hell" stories on SANDMAN... Kelly Jones. Right.

(We all know, of course, that if I ever actually get professional work with a real surly curmudgeon of a professional editor, instead of witless droolers like my former CBEM albatross, or enthusiastic avid supporters of my work whose strange enjoyment of my writing indicates a desperate need for powerful anti-psychotic medication like current website and comics shop owner Steven Tice, who is a veritable prince among men... hi, Steve... now where was I? Right, if I ever get a professional surly curmudgeon of an editor... he's going to relentlessly chop out all these long rambling windy parenthetical asides and stupid digressions, leaving my columns all of ten or twenty pithy words long, which will be a great relief to CBEM editor Dave LeBlanc who is doubtless scanning each and every word published under my byline right now in the paranoic fear that I'm about to say something mean about him, and worse, support it with an actual passage from one of his many emails to me in which he calls me names and berates me to stop whining just because I wanted to put a joke in my bio blurb about PROMETHEA not going down on Jack the Faust in her latest issue and he wouldn't let me. And when that happens and all these truly deranged digressions end up in the Windows 98 Recycle Bin of whoever that surly professional curmudgeon is, well, then... um... what was I saying? Oh, yeah. An era will have passed and my columns just won't be as much fun any more.)

So, I kept buying PROMETHEA while despairing of ever actually comprehending it, but at the very least, the main character was damned cute in that skinny urchin way I've really liked ever since dating a similar big eyed waif in my freshman year at college, and there was such an enormous amount of repressed bisexual energy going on between her and her equally cute best friend that I just had to keep watching in lecherous fascination. And... a strange thing happened.

The damn comic started making sense.

Now, here's an interesting thing, which, when I say it, should probably be translated as, skip over the next couple of paragraphs if you're conventionally sane. However, as I was typing and typing and typing straight from my brain to your screen on TOP 10, well above, and waxing all lyrical and shit about how it was just the most awesome comic, which it is, I was saying to myself "well then, godDAM, self, how the fugg is it that we like PROMETHEA better than we like TOP 10?" My self, as he often does, resolutely refused to answer; in fact, I think he may have been out getting a 99 cent chalupa, the feckless prole. Left then to my own selfless devices... and what a weird way to put that, really... I gradually pieced together that while TOP 10 is just a bloody brilliant combination of great cop opera with astounding superhero stuff, PROMETHEA, in its weird apparently brain damaged way, is something more. Something that is, apparently, a one time phenomena at any given time in, at least, mainstream superhero comics: an erudite, intelligent, well written, occult comic.

Now, I would not exactly say I'm a nut on the occult. I have known people who were obsessed with and very knowledgeable about the occult, though, and who have introduced me to writers like Robert Anton Wilson (whose THE NEW INQUISITION should be required reading in public schools throughout the land) and Colin Wilson (whose CRIMINAL HISTORY OF MANKIND, along with THE OCCULT and BEYOND THE OCCULT, should be similarly taught to 9th graders everywhere) and such like. So I know enough of the occult to know what most people think of when they hear the phrase... the general images of vampires, Satanists, and pentagram painted witches dancing naked around a bonfire built of human babies is kind of stupid and insulting and wrong. In fact, 'occult' is merely a term that means 'the unknown', and much though our modern scientific citadel of knowledge would like us to believe that 'the unknown' is a rapidly dwindling puddle of ignorance surrounded by, encroached on, and in constant, imminent peril of annihilation by, the legions of scientific method armed rationalists pursuing it with cyclotron and speculums, the simple fact is, it isn't true. If you want, for example, to find out anything about actual incidences of reincarnation, not just in weird places like India where we can assume everyone is a little barmy anyway, but right here in Anytown, U.S.A., you don't go to any U.S. government grant sponsored institute or website, believe you ME. No, you have to head for the 'occult' section of your bookstore, library, or World Wide Web, where various pieces of information that our particular culture regards as Whacky are safely sequestered. (There is a reason for this, and it's a simple one. While reincarnation could be fairly easily proved or disproved with a relatively inexpensive scientific research project, you will find no one in the hierarchies of Western science interested in making any such effort, because it would be a waste of time, because they already know it's specious twaddle without even investigating it, and anyway, they're much too busy figuring out more uses for wood. And the reason they know without bothering to do the slightest actual research that reincarnation is specious twaddle is that if reincarnation WERE to ever be scientifically established as actual metaphysical fact, our society would collapse into chaos... or so the scientific citadel believes, and to be honest, there is some justification for the belief. Imagine, for a moment, how hugely the suicide rate will shoot up if we establish, as an actual scientific fact reported in People Magazine that when you die, you come back immediately in some other body. And that's the least of it. Now try to imagine the legal repercussions the first time someone tries to sue someone else for something horrible they did to them in a previous life. Or the first time someone sues their heirs to get the property those heirs inherited from their previous identity back again. Or the first time someone tries to write a will holding everything in trust until his next incarnation shows up to claim it. The first time an insurance company tries to get back the huge pay out they gave someone two years ago on a life insurance policy by proving that the insured is currently alive and well again as a five year old child in Skokie, IL. The first time some 12 year old kills the guy who married his former wife after his previous incarnation died. Imagine the insane revenge vendettas that will start to be handed down from one incarnation to another as people start taking hypnotic regression therapy and remembering all the nasty things that still living folks did to them in their previous lives. Imagine the impact on modern, wealthy, influential religions whose teachings have no place in them for reincarnation. And NOW you know why there is no government or accredited university study group doing hypnotic regression on thousands of volunteers over the course of years and then attempting through research in newspaper files and hospital records to verify the details of their recently recalled past lives... which might, quite quickly and irrefutably, demonstrate the undeniable actuality of reincarnation. It would rip the fabric of our society into tiny little screaming, shrieking, bleeding, flaming shreds and then stomp then underfoot. And there are those that believe this is simply too high a price to pay for actually learning some small aspect of the Truth about Life and Death, and besides, they'd take a beating in the stock market, too.)

None of this is actually off the point, strange though that may seem. The 'occult' is actually merely a word that means 'unknown', or, more closely, 'unseen'. And I, myself, am a big huge zealot on finding out the Truth, on advancing resolutely on The Unknown, even if it does kick the props out from underneath ancient, wealthy, influential institutions like the Christian Church and the billion dollar pharmaceuticals business. (Okay, especially if.) Which is why I enjoy the better 'occult' writers, and why I have always enjoyed the very very few good occult comic books.

And which brings us right back to why I enjoy PROMETHEA.

PROMETHEA is the latest in a string of erudite, intelligent, well written, deeply complex, and utterly intriguing mainstream occult superhero comics that stretches back to the mid 70s, when Steve Englehart seems to have set the whole thing in motion with his astonishing run on Marvel's DR. STRANGE. Previous to this, Stephen Strange had mostly been a typical comic book magician, fighting for the main part otherworldly threats with bizarre unpronounceable names lifted straight from 50s monster comics that were all but indistinguishable from the more usual bug eyed otherworldly creatures that either rampaged through the American countryside or schemed to conquer all of Earth three or four times in every issue of WHERE MONSTERS DWELL or STRANGE TALES. Strange had chanted fourth grade level doggerel that allowed him to hurl various energy bolts from his weirdly articulated fingers, seen things occurring in distant lands, sent his astral body out to prowl around intangibly, rescued otherdimensional princesses, and done various and sundry other things more or less typical to a standard superhero of the time.

The strip grew up and got sophisticated in a big damn hurry when Steve Englehart took over. Stainless Steve took a pretty humdrum Roy Thomas/Gardner Fox storyline about "Shuma Gorath" (which Fox later admitted in an interview he'd conceived as the name of some ancient lost city) and transformed it into an astonishing Lovecraftian pastiche which culminated in perhaps Marvel's first meaningful story exploring the ramifications of death as a passage to a higher plane of existence and enlightenment. From here, Englehart commenced to have Strange explore the very metaphysical nature of reality itself in stories of increasing depth, sophistication, and power. Trapped in the Orb of Agamotto by old enemy Silver Dagger, Strange was forced to confront the fact that the difference between fantasy and reality was often difficult to find. Immediately after finally escaping and defeating the rogue adept, Strange found himself launched on a strange series of adventures culminating in Eternity destroying the entire Earth... after which, the Sorceror Supreme managed to persuade the massive entity to recreate the planet, and everything on it, exactly as it had been... raising the fascinating question, is a person who has been destroyed, and then recreated as an exact duplicate of themselves with no memory of their destruction, the same... or different? Contemplating this as merely a reader of a fictional adventure is freaky enough, but Englehart quite credibly evoked how staggered the other high level sorcerors of the Marvel Universe were when Strange disclosed to them exactly what had transpired. After all this, Strange went to Hell for a time and defeated Lucifer in a battle of wits, and then embarked on what should have been Englehart's crowning triumph as a writer, a time travel odyssey through the occult history of America, which was unfortunately interrupted by Englehart's disastrous editorial disputes that culminated in his abrupt abandonment of Marvel... and which, on the DR. STRANGE title, resulted in the story being taken over in midstream by Marv Wolfman, who was simply hopelessly out of his depth, and who jettisoned all the fascinating historical undertones and subtleties of Englehart's fascinating plotline in favor of bringing in a bunch of hooded and cowled evil mages virtually indistinguishable from HYDRA agents to pit Strange witlessly against.

For a brief period, erudite occult adventure had found a home... somehow... in mainstream superhero comics. It was not to return until the early 80s, when Alan Moore started writing SWAMP THING for Marvel.

(Some of the more astute and scholarly among my hypothetical audience may wonder at this point why I don't credit Steve Gerber's fine work on MAN THING as being an erudite occult superhero comic, and the reason for that is that, well, in my opinion, it wasn't. First, the Man Thing was never even remotely a superhero, although it occasionally ran into them. Second, Gerber was into social commentary, not the occult. The difference between a monster mag and an actual occult comic are too subtle for many, but then, I don't write for those guys, anyway. Now, having said that, another argument could be made that neither Englehart's Strange, Moore's Swamp Thing, Gaiman's Sandman, or Moore's Promethea are really, truly superheroes... but all of them were immersed in a coherent superhero universe, frequently met and interacted with superheroes, and much of the time, even had adventures with a definite superhero theme to them, revolving around beating up the bad guys and saving the world from imminent peril. So, for lack of a better word, I call them superhero comics. Gerber's MAN THING was also immersed in a superhero universe... kind of... but almost never met any superheroes or took part in anything recognizably structured as a superhero type of plot. In fact, the bad guys often ravaged the innocent without let or hindrance in MAN THING, and the forces of evil were often triumphant. It was Gerber's way of letting us know just how bad the world sucked, as far as he was concerned.)

Moore's SWAMP THING and Gaiman's delightful follow up and exploration of the occult continuity established by Moore on that book in SANDMAN have been dissected at length elsewhere, and would require me to write entirely separate articles if I wanted to address them fully, so I won't. Suffice to say that both were worthy successors to Englehart's unfortunately and maddeningly interrupted work on the DR. STRANGE strip, not only picking up the occult philosophy baton and running with it ably, but expanding the ranges and boundaries of that particular theme enormously.

What's interesting to me, which I've pointed out in various emails and apa articles prior to this, is how clearly Gaiman continued, and expanded on, the basic occult continuity laid down by Moore during his run on SWAMP THING. To my mind, Moore has simply picked up this gauntlet again on PROMETHEA, taking the enormously impressive concept of an imaginary realm that somehow permeates our own, and yet, is on a higher, more evolved level of reality than ours, and making it the basis for one of the most intelligent, erudite, and, yes, now that things have finally started fitting together into a comprehensible whole, entertaining stories of superhumans picking each other up and throwing each other into walls that has ever been done in the serial graphic adventure medium. Boiling down a strip like PROMETHEA (or DR. STRANGE, or SWAMP THING, or SANDMAN) to basics is always treacherous, but the essential confict in PROMETHEA lies between the forces of entrenched influence who want to maintain the material world exactly as it is, for their own benefit, and the sole champion of the immaterial, conceptual plane that all sentience ultimately aspires to inhabit, who fights to allow and actively help everyone who wants to actually evolve past the limitations of the mere mortal flesh and into the untrammeled freedom of unending life on the higher, transcendental planes of reality.

This, it should go without saying, is a few levels of sophistication beyond "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot" or "hated and feared by a world they are sworn to protect".

PROMETHEA is interesting for another reason, though. The central heroine/concept of this title may be an actual first in superhero comics. As a general rule, superheroes battle, on whatever level they may find themselves living and fighting on, to maintain the status quo. Superman's TV show intro ends ringingly with the phrase "a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way". Peter Parker learns in his first adventure that "with great power, comes great responsibility", yet this great responsibility, as with most other superheroes, seems to be mostly manifested as a duty to protect the property rights of the wealthy from the determined attempts on the part of various disenfranchised individuals to forcibly redistribute hoarded wealth and property in a manner they find more compatible with their own needs and desires. If a gang composed of desperate poor homeowners about to lose their houses to foreclosure tried to rob the bank that was foreclosing on them in order to pay off the mortgages, would Green Lantern sympathize and help them carry off a dumpster full of cash in order to keep a roof over their children's heads? Unlikely. Our heroes are innately conservative. Supervillains set out to change the world in some way (admittedly, often at a great expense in human suffering or even death) and the JLA or the Avengers show up and beat them into unconsciousness for having the temerity to think that their vision of social change is somehow superior to the actuality of the existent social matrix. (Since, often, Dr. Doom's vision of social change involves mind controlling the few survivors after he sets off a catastrophic global disaster for the greater glory of Latveria, I must admit, I don't really MIND the Fantastic Four showing up and kicking his armored ass for him.) Still, the fact remains; villains try to change the world, while heroes try, and generally succeed, in keeping them from doing so... a morality that is somewhat disturbing when one thinks of the full implications of it, which would seem to include an acceptance that the world and its present social order are actually just fine as is and should be preserved at all costs, through violence if necessary. Even Dr. Strange fought to preserve reality as it was from the infringements of otherdimensional entities like Dormammu and Nightmare, instead of effecting positive social change. Swamp Thing mostly just acted on whatever emotional whim struck him that week, and Gaiman's Morpheus mainly laid around whimpering about the validity of his existence while fascinating storylines occurred all around him. None of them took any sort of active hand in trying to actually improve the lot of the humans around them. (I suppose it's possible this may have changed in SWAMP THING after Moore left, but I stopped reading it after Moore left. Rick Veitch is a fine artist whose writing I rarely enjoy, so Moore's departure seemed a good time for mine from the book, as well.)

Promethea, in, as as I say, what may be a first for superhero comics, is a protagonist/heroine who wants to change our reality, by giving every single sentient being who wants it the chance to evolve into a higher, freer, more transcendent sentience, unbridled by the sullen, truculent, immoveable chains of solidified energy that hem us in and confine us intolerably on this, the material plane. Of course, she's not going to succeed any more than the genetic flotsam washed ashore on Gilligan's Island is ever going to manage to get rescued, and for the same reason... then the story would be over. But watching her try promises to be endlessly fascinating. And it's interesting, at least to ME, to note that if Kurt Busiek's AVENGERS were to somehow find out that she was trying to accomplish such a broad scale metaphysical transmogrification in the basic nature of reality itself, they'd most likely jump in her shit like a regiment of Marines... in fact, under Englehart, both the Silver Age Avengers and Defenders, led by Dr. Strange, tried and succeeded in keeping the Dread Dormammu from accomplishing exactly such a fundamental metaphysical transformation. (Of course, again, there's a difference: Dormammu would have wound up killing off most of humanity and enslaving the surviving remnants for use as worshippers, sacrifice, entertainment, and minion-food. Promethea just wants everybody to be able to live to the limits of their imaginations, which to a corpulent, allergy-cursed, nearly blind, aging, hyperactively imaginative fanboy like ME, sounds awful damn attractive.)

Nonetheless, out of all the superhero comics I've read and currently do read, I really think PROMETHEA is a first... a comic in which the hero is trying to fundamentally alter our status quo, and the villains are fighting to preserve it.

America's Best Comics. If you're not reading them, you're just plain wrong. Except TOMORROW STORIES, which wanks, and TOM STRONG hasn't been so great lately either, but STILL, dammit. The other three are awesome. Read them. Love them. Worship them.

It now occurs to me that somehow, it's just... fundamentally WRONG... that SUPREME is a Rob Liefeld character...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. This is good, as it will keep the madding throngs of outraged WATCHMEN fans who will now be seeking his head on a platter from tracking him down and surrounding his apartment while shaking their pitchforks and torches and chanting "Beezlenut, rah rah, beezlenut, rah rah, BOIL that dust speck" over and over again. Which generally doesn't bother John much, in fact, he thinks it's kind of cute, but really pisses off everybody else on the street, who are often trying to barbecue, and sometimes even sleep, at really weird times, like 4 AM, when John is wide awake and ready to party down... at least, if wandering the streets quoting the dialogue from MILLER'S CROSSING verbatim in a cracked, strangely sibilant near whisper while waving his hands aimlessly in the air can be called partying down. Um... okay. None of John's neighbors barbecue at 4 AM. But the rest is true. Leave a comment below, if you dare.

1 Comments:

Blogger cease ill said...

Superb.

I've been envisioning Not Another Comic Book, where the force keeping things the same makes it worse and two BFFs represent a drive for positive change. One's named Celestia Englehart. What she brings to a photograph is forever trying to save not the world we know but the one we should know.

3:06 AM  

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