Alan Moore Beyond Watchmen: Tom Strong
Last week, in the shadow of the looming cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, I turned a spotlight onto one of his lesser-known works, Top Ten. In the late 1990s, Alan Moore began his own comics line, The ABC Universe, and from it spun some of his most personal and literary work to date. I enjoyed revisiting the ABC Universe so much that I decided to settle in and re-read another of my favorites this week: Tom Strong.
The disarming nature of the Tom Strong series begins at its name, especially when coupled with the image of its titular hero. Tom Strong is as broad-shouldered and barrel-chested as Superman, but without the cape and goofy tights. Put plainly: Tom looks strong, but unlike Superman, Tom is no alien. Yet his origin begins, like so many heroes, with the death of his parents.
At the turn of the 20th century, Tom is orphaned on the strange island of Attabar Teru. Inheriting his scientist-father's experiments, Strong is the archetypal scientist/adventurer, mixing aspects of Tarzan and Doc Savage (especially the latter; note the same number of letters in their names, as well as adjectives for surnames). This throwback characterization is aided by Strong’s ingestion of the “goloka root,” which is revealed by the island natives to be an edible fountain of youth. While a large conceit, the device allows Moore to play heavily with nostalgia, as Tom battles evil in the present day, while recollecting villains and faux Silver Age team-ups through a century's worth of flashbacks. It’s also a gentle elbow nudging to the Peter Pan nature of comic heroes who never age despite decades of publishing.
Chris Sprouse, the stellar artist and co-creator, uses his bright, clean work to bring the Strong cast of characters to life. Each character is unique in the wide-open, ever-expanding Strong mythology—especially daughter Tesla, whose features are a mixture of both the open, everyman look of Tom and the regal, sharp features of Tom's wife Dhalua. Sprouse also has a knack for bizarre villains, and has ample room to develop all the giant, killer ants, outer-space vampires, Aztec snake-gods, and busty Nazis. The world of Tom Strong grows so large that the stories sprawl into two spin-off series, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Terra Obscura, both worthwhile for fans.
In Tom Strong Books 3 and 4, though, Sprouse and Moore really come into their own, revealing intricate plots that the previous books deceptively and quietly built. Villains return and new heroes are introduced, including one of my favorites, Svetlana X, the female Russian counterpart to Tom. Svetlana is a cheery, hulking sexpot, but to Moore’s credit, she’s never used as a romantic foil for Tom. In fact, much unlike the anti-heroes Strong’s appearance is modeled after, his family is the heart of the series. “Let her make her mistakes, Tom," Dhalua soothes as her husband worries over Tesla’s strange new boyfriend. “Just like we made ours.”
In later volumes, both Moore and Sprouse break from storytelling, but accomplished writers like Ed Brubaker, Geoff Johns, Michael Moorcock, and Brian K. Vaughan take over the scripting duties. It’s still high-class material, but the adventures are centerstage rather than the characters, and it isn’t until Moore and Sprouse’s return in the final chapter of Book 6 that the lifeblood pumps again. In typical Moore fashion, not much can be said about the apocalyptic final chapter of Tom Strong. It’s too rewarding to give away the neatly-tied threads, Top 10 character cameos, and, yes, big twist—except to say that it is not a stand-alone chapter. In fact, it serves as a coda to Moore’s ABC crown jewel: Promethea, which must be read to grasp the context of Tom Strong’s winning finale. It's the least cynical work Moore has written to date, and its infectious sense of adventure and family values are most surprising. (More on the enigmatic Promethea next week as we wrap up our "Alan Moore Beyond Watchmen" feature.)