Jul 4, 2011

An ABC Retrospective, Day 1: TOM STRONG

Welcome to Day 1 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on America's Best Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on TOM STRONG, by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse!

WHAT IT'S ABOUT

Tom Strong was the flagship character of America's Best Comics, partly because he fits the physical description of most flagship characters: he looks good, he's male, he's got a big chin and a broad chest, and he wears red. More importantly, I think, it's because he was the one ABC character who was really open to all sorts of interpretations, which really led to him having the largest number of published comics of all the ABC characters. Although the fact that he's not as tightly and strictly conceived as a character in comparison with the others, it does give him more of a longevity. After all, if you think of the most enduring characters in the comics medium — Superman, Batman, Spider-Man — the key is adaptability. The more three-dimensionally conceived characters such as Jack Knight and Jesse Custer aren't as adaptable and aren't open to as much interpretation because their characters are so firmly set.

Tom Strong was, at the time of the series' debut (1999 bordering on 2000), 100 years old. He was born to Victorian-era scientist era parents on an island in the West Indies called Attabar-Teru. His father, Sinclair Strong, raised him in a chamber with very heavy gravity and very little human contact, inside a volcano. Sinclair was cold, as most scientists of the late 19th century were depicted, and as a result, the only time Tom actually hugged his mother was when he was eight years old, when an earthquake brought the volcano down around them. He broke out of his chamber, and was possessed of superstrength and a genius-level intellect, using it to rebuild his father's pneumatic manservant (Pneuman, the teen robot you see above). He moved back to his parents' hometown of Millennium City, a town of high-level cable cars and immensely tall skyscrapers and flying cars, and fought crime there. He married his childhood sweetheart Dhalua, and they had a daughter named Tesla. Tom also performed experiments on an ape named Solomon, who then gained the ability to speak and a preference for British accents.



By eating goloka root, native to Attabar-Teru, Tom also prolonged his aging process. At the series' debut, Tom is 100 years old, with a rich history, and a world that was just waiting to be filled out.

WHAT MADE IT WORK

If I had to think of any one word to describe TOM STRONG the series, it would be "subtle." This is true of all the ABC books, but TOM STRONG did it to greater effect. It was deceptively simple, hiding beneath its simplicity (as seen in the clean line art of Chris Sprouse) a complexity that is entirely up to the readers to dwell on. It's never actually focused on, for example, that how Sinclair raised Tom was cold and creepy; it was simply what it was, and if you find it creepy, then you find it creepy. If a young kid read it simply on its surface level, then it was still very enjoyable. That's one of the strengths of the series: the appearance of simplicity and its ability to be enjoyed on multiple levels.

The series was also subtle in terms of its world-building. It constantly showed instead of told, and never bashed you over the head with a storytelling sledgehammer. For example, it does not tell you that Millennium City has residential buildings that are too high that it necessitates high-rise cable cars for people to get around; it shows you. It does not tell you that Tesla and Solomon see each other as siblings; it just has them interact and leaves it to you to make that connection.

So subtle and well done was the world-building in TOM STRONG that by the series' 20th issue, Moore, with Jerry Ordway as the artist, told a three-part alternate universe story. Alternate universe stories are only fully effective when the world has been fully and firmly established. Moore and Sprouse, with other artists such as Art Adams, Gary Frank, and Dave Gibbons, did all that in 20 issues.

This is an homage to FANTASTIC FOUR #26.

Tom's 100-year history and general broad character description also led the character to be interpreted in various ways, and as seen from the cover above, it provided the series an opportunity to homage various points of comics history. In issue #13, for example, Shazam and the Captain Marvel Family is paid tribute.

Homage to MARVEL FAMILY #1

In the main story, one of the chapters is drawn by Pete Poplaski in the style of C.C. Beck, the co-creator of Captain Marvel!

Yes, that's a rabbit named Warren. THIS COMIC RULES!

And although the original premise of Tom Strong was based on Doc Savage, a pre-Superman character, the series' homages to superhero comics were plentiful. The issue before pays tribute to the Silver Age JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA crossovers with the Justice Society of America!

Homage to JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #22

The characters used here were from the Golden Age publisher Nedor, which actually did have a series called America's Best Comics! Alan Moore realized that the character "Doc" Tom Strange resembled Tom Strong, and that provided the impetus for this story.


I didn't actually collect TOM STRONG feverishly at the time as I did the other ABC books, but I bought this particular issue because I'm a sucker for "duplicate" stories. At the time, I'd thought it was just more world-building, and it was very well done, but when I found out that Moore and Sprouse were using public domain characters, it made it even more special, and I demanded a spin-off, which I actually got.

Issue #10, the one directly before this two-parter, is an even better showing of how wide-ranging this series is in terms of tone. "The Phantom Autogyro" gave off a dark, pulp feel:


In the latter part of the issue, however, Tom Strong runs into some members of his fan club, The Strongmen of America, and a fun time is had by all!


How's that for range? That was one of the things that really blew my mind — I couldn't believe one guy was writing all this.

Tom Strong was the series that went through the largest number of writers and artists. Towards the end, Steve Moore and Peter Hogan were writing the bulk of the series, but we also had stints from Geoff Johns, Ed Brubaker, Moore's daughter Leah Moore, and famed fantasy novelist, Michael Moorcock.


As for artists, aside from Chris Sprouse, we had people like Art Adams, Gary Frank, Dave Gibbons, Jerry Ordway, Kyle Baker, and Hillary Barta. How's that for elite?


THE SPIN-OFFS

TOM STRONG the series lasted a whole 36 issues and spans six collected editions (three if you get the deluxe editions, once the third volume comes out), but it also had the largest number of spinoffs. In addition to the aforementioned TERRA OBSCURA (with the Nedor heroes), we got 12 issues of TOM STRONG'S TERRIFIC TALES, an anthology with regular features such as "Young Tom Strong" and "Jonni Future."


Jonni Future, by Steve Moore and Art Adams, is about a spacewoman in the future who inherits the mantle of her uncle, spaceman Johnny Future, who was a friend of Tom's.



Interestingly, Jonni Future herself never crossed over with Tom until the final story arc of PROMETHEA (which we'll get to on Friday) and the final issue of TOM STRONG.

TERRIFIC TALES also featured other stories such as the writing debut of Alan's daughter, Leah, which focused on Solomon's lovelife. It was drawn by none other than Sergio Aragones:


There was also a Tesla Strong story done by the one and only Jaime Hernandez.



In fact, Tesla proved to be so popular that she actually merited her own one-shot, THE MANY WORLDS OF TESLA STRONG, which was about her voyaging through different alternate earths to find the missing Solomon. Each earth was drawn by a different artist, including Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez!


Throughout the entire ABC timeline, Tom Strong was established as being a member of the superteam America's Best. Though we see them in the Tom Stone alternate reality story mentioned earlier, we do not actually see them on the "real earth" until the final arc of PROMETHEA and the second issue of TOMORROW STORIES SPECIAL, which would turn out to be the last of the main ABC books that Moore would write:


I mention this because I want to share the following sequence with you. Drawn by Rick Veitch, this has Tom solving an unsolvable riddle. And it is indicative of the fun that was being had, not only in TOM STRONG, but in ABC as a whole.



Last year, Peter Hogan and Chris Sprouse drew a new adventure in the life of Tom Strong, called TOM STRONG AND THE ROBOTS OF DOOM. I haven't read it, but I can't imagine it would be anything less than a high quality.

THE FINAL WORD

I would certainly love to see Hogan, Steve Moore, and Sprouse continue with the adventures of Tom Strong and Jonni Future. There's a lot of potential there that's just unmined. This character was created to be ongoing and enduring, and he has now 112 years of history to tap. DC Comics is sitting on a quality series here, and I'd just love to see more.

As a final word, I just want to introduce you to Coleman Grey, the Weird Rider: 


He's a SPACE COWBOY!

This comic is awesome.

Check back tomorrow for TOP 10!

For your convenience, the TOM STRONG series:

7 comments:

"T.V. Barnum" said...

If Superman had never been created, we would have gotten a hero like Tom Strong. :)

Duy said...

Well, Tom WAS based off of Doc Savage... but after a couple of issues, it didn't really feel like that anymore, especially when Moore started doing the tributes.

Kid said...

I only ever bought and read one issue - the one which featured a cover homage to that of the first Superman/Spider-Man team-up. I have to admit I was completely underwhelmed by it.

Duy said...

That wasn't an issue of TOM STRONG - that was an issue of PROMETHEA, and it was an issue in the middle of a storyline. I'm not surprised you were underwhelmed - it works much better in the larger context.

Kid said...

See? That's how underwhelmed I was - I couldn't remember the title. Early Marvel FFs, even in the middle of a longer storyline, still entertained at an individual issue level - Promethea (starring Tom Strong) failed to achieve that. Had it been well-written, I would've wanted to read the 'larger context' - it wasn't and I didn't.

Duy said...

I can't disagree with you any more on that level, Kid, I'm sorry. For my money, PROMETHEA was beautifully written, and I actually was trade-waiting for them, but I picked up that individual issue from the stands and it still blew me away.

Duy said...

But to be completely honest, PROMETHEA was always a love-it-or-leave-it title that shouldn't be compared to early FFs. I'll get to it on Friday.

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