GUEST REVIEW: Chris Roberson on ‘Tom Strong: Deluxe Edition’ by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse (and others)
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Born on a hidden island and raised to be the perfect physical and intellectual specimen by his father. Tom Strong has spent the better part of a century defending the people of Millennium City from all manner of threats. Along with his family–which in addition to his ageless wife and daughter includes a talking gorilla and a pneumatic robot–Tom battles high-tech Aztecs from another dimension, Nazi Amazons, a primordial slime-monster from before the dawn of history, his mad scientist nemesis, and many more, while traveling to other times, other worlds, and other planes of existence.
PROS: When making Tom Strong, Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse were two talents working at the height of their abilities, producing the comics that all of us wish we could have read when we were kids. And that’s not even taking into account the all-star lineup of guest artists.
CONS: Tom Strong may not be the most sophisticated comic Alan Moore has ever written, and may lack the gravity of his more critically acclaimed work, but it is without a doubt the most fun of any of his books.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t hate goodness.
Have you ever revisited as an adult something you loved as a child? If so, you’ve run the very strong risk that the thing you thought was golden as a kid was, in fact, a little less so. You might have discovered that the thing that was so great in your memory was, let’s be honest, crap. This has happened to me countless times. Cartoons, books, comics, movies, music, you name it. The stuff that glows so brightly in our childhood recollections is often dimmed when viewed in the harsh light of an adult’s gaze.
But how great are those rare instances when something you loved as a child isn’t crap? Of course, in most cases even the best things we enjoyed in our youth aren’t quite the thing of perfection we recall. How terrific would it be to find something that’s not only as good as you remember it being but better?
Tom Strong is the comic you never read as a kid, that’s even better than you remember it being.
(Okay, that sounded confusing, put that way. I’ll try again.)
In the adventures of “science hero” Tom Strong, Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse have created the perfect all-ages adventure comic, and when you read it you’ll wish that it had been around when you’d been a kid the first time around.
Moore is perhaps best known to the wider audience for things like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, two landmark comic series of the 1980s that did much to establish the “grim and gritty” phase which the American comic market is only now beginning to shake off. Moore has been quite public in expressing his distress over the part he played (however accidentally or incidentally) in upping the grimness and grittiness of American comics. The perennial headline in mainstream media articles about comics for the last couple of decades nearly always proclaims “Comics: Not just for kids anymore.” But when the majority of the mass-market comic releases by the major houses became mired in grim nihilism and sophomoric brutality, it began to appear by the mid-90s that a more accurate assessment might read “Comics: Not for kids anymore.”
In the last half of the 90s, after several years away, Alan Moore’s name began to appear in the credits of American superhero comics once more. With titles like Awesome’s Supreme and Wildstorm’s WildCATS, it seemed as though Moore was trying to atone for his part in the grim-ification of superhero comics, writing intelligent and thoughtful adventure comics that could appeal to young readers, without the needless nihilism that dominated so much of the comic-shop racks.
The culmination of Moore’s apparent atonement was ABC, America’s Best Comics, and in particular its flagship character, Tom Strong. And his strategy for undoing the damage wrought to the American superhero genre?
“I was trying to wind the tape back to a point before Action Comics #1. Or at least, insofar as that was possible, to wind the tape back and then play it forward along a different direction. So I was looking back to the early newspaper strips, weird fiction of the late 19th century, pulp magazines, all things that preceded the modern comic-book character, and then imagine a way forward from that point that would end up with characters who were distinctly different from the way the super-hero comic has played in reality.”–Alan Moore, Comic Book Artist #25 (June 2003)
In a nutshell, Moore was going back to the roots of the superhero, and imagining a kind of divergent evolution. It was like glimpsing the popular culture of some parallel world, where things had taken a slightly different path.
“Tom Strong was an attempt, with all due respect to Siegel and Schuster, to pretend that they had never happened. How might those original thoughts evolved?”
“Tom Strong is a science adventurer. With Tom Strong, as with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I went back to the fantastic novels of the nineteenth century that had inspired so much of the superhero culture. A big influence on Tom Strong was Tintin. I wanted a story that had fantastic lands and exotic adventures, Natives with paint on their faces and volcanoes erupting.”
“ABC is trying to restore some of the values that I think are important in comics, like literacy, imagination, nothing too heavy or too light.”–Alan Moore, Tripwire #10, April/May 1999
Moore was joined on Tom Strong by Chris Sprouse, with whom he previously worked on the aforementioned Supreme. Sprouse’s clean line and ability to blend realistic characters with more stylistic designs is a perfect fit for Moore’s vision, and the artist’s attention to detail helps bring the hero and his world into focus. (Anyone interested in seeing the level of detail that Sprouse brought to Tom Strong should check out TwoMorrow’s Modern Masters Volume 21: Chris Sprouse, and take a look at the designs sketches throughout.)
Tom Strong inhabits a world of high adventure. Mad scientists, alien invaders, lava men, Nazi Amazons, monsters, interdimensional Aztecs, you name it-it is a place where every cliché and trope of adventure fiction can (and usually does) happen.
But more than that, Tom Strong himself is this kind of ideal adventure hero. It’s as though you rolled up all of the greatest adventurers and superheroes from 20th century popular culture and distilled them down to a single, Platonic ideal. He is born to shipwrecked parents in a strange, uncharted land (like Tarzan), raised by his scientist father in a strict physical and education regimen (like Doc Savage), goes to the big city and becomes the world’s greatest hero (like Superman), becomes the head of an extended family of adventurers (like the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic), and so on.
I’ve said that Tom Strong is kid-friendly and all-ages, and it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s just for kids, either. This is an incredibly smart, well put-together book, where minor asides and isolated episodes are eventually revealed to be part of a larger, richer tapestry. Brief flashbacks to Tom’s previous adventures (often done by different artists in the style of by-gone days, much like the flashbacks employed in the earlier Supreme) are revealed in the course of the story to have much greater significance than either the characters or the reader suspect. But for all of that, the main thing about Tom Strong is that the book is just Pure Fun.
The original Tom Strong series ran for thirty-six issues over the course of several years, inspiring a spin-off anthology series (Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales) and a number of one-shots and miniseries along the way. Moore left the book over disagreements with DC Comics on a variety of subjects, well documented elsewhere, but returned to pen a single-issue finale after a number of fill-in issues scripted by other hands. Sprouse did the art for all of the Moore-scripted issues and a number of the fill-ins, and along with Peter Hogan (who scripted some of the best of the fill-ins and spin-offs) will be doing a new Tom Strong miniseries next year, Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom.
This first “Deluxe Edition” hardcover collects the first twelve issues of Tom Strong, and is a bargain at any price. If you’ve visited the world of Tom Strong before, like me, you’ll be glad for the opportunity to reacquaint yourself. (I’ve probably reread these comics a half-dozen times over, and I still get a kick out of rereading them again.) If you’re a first time visitor to Tom’s world, you are in for a treat.
If there’s a young reader in your life, do them a favor and give them a copy of their own. If you don’t, then get one for yourself–I assure you that there’s a young reader somewhere inside you somewhere who’ll be glad you did.
Filed under: Book Review
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