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Tom Strong. Book 1. Written by Alan Moore. Pencilled by Chris Sprouse. Inked by Alan Gordon. (Additional art by various.) La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics, 2000. 1v. (unpaged). $14.95. ISBN 1-56389-664-8.

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Kids, teens, adults; very mild comic-book violence, very very mild innuendo

NOTE: This book collects issues #1-7 of Tom Strong.

Tom Strong is the 99-year-old hero of Millennium City. Born on New Year's Day, 1900, on the island of Attabar Teru, he was raised rather peculiarly by his scientist father in the crater of an extinct volcano: gravity had been quintupled in his special room, and he was fed goloka root, which both retarded his aging and promoted higher cognitive awareness. When he was 8, an earthquake killed his parents, and he was raised by the Oku, natives of the island. He would subsequently embark upon a life of adventure, invention, and heroics throughout the century, bouncing between Attabar Teru and the rest of the world. Along the way he married Dhalua, youngest daughter of the Oku chief, and she sooned joined him in the adventurous life--as did their daughter, Tesla, years later. Their other companions are Pneuman, a steam-powered robot invented by his father, and King Solomon, a gorilla enhanced by Tom into sentience. Tom also has a fan club/following, the Strongmen of America.

The book starts with Tom's origin intermingled with several confrontations (past and present) and the newest member of the Strongmen of America, who is so fascinated by the comic detailing Tom's origin that he completely misses Tom's real-world mid-air heroics outside his cable car. Subsequent stories deal with the return of the Modular Man, a being made up of millions of self-replicating metal "cells"; invading super-Aztecs ("Aztechs") from an alternate Earth, and the computer god they created to serve them; and, in a series of stories, a leftover Nazi superwoman with some unpleasant plans for Tom and his family--and a most unwelcome surprise for Tom. Intermingling with the "present-day" material are "old" Tom Strong stories from various eras in comics; these have been drawn by Dave Gibbons, Arthur Adams, Jerry Ordway, and the like.

The introductory essay by Moore treats Tom and his family as if they were real and touches on some alternate history, such as Windsor McCay being the designer of Millennium City, Dhalua's influence on fashion, and Hanna-Barbera's Tom Strong Cartoon Hour.

In the last years or so of the twentieth century, several new superhero universes were created, usually associated with an individual creator: Kurt Busiek and Astro City, Warren Ellis and the Wildstorm Universe (examples of which include Jenny Sparks and Planetary), and Alan Moore and his universe, exemplified by Promethea and Tom Strong. Whereas Wildstorm was specifically designed to be "realistically" ultraviolent and ultrapowerful, the other two are throwbacks to a gentler age of superheroics and tend to be informed by art deco design, Jetsons-like quasi-futuristic elements, and Golden or Silver Age attitudes (if not Silver Age histrionics). Tom Strong is actually as much of a pulp adventure book as a superhero book

Promethea and Tom Strong are yin and yang to one another; Promethea is supposed to be an archetypal female heroine, and Tom Strong a classic male hero. The books have been critically popular (Tom Strong won some Eisners) but have not attracted much of a following, apparently. And I think I know why.

I've been trying to figure out why I didn't enjoy Tom Strong very much, and it came to me as I was lying in bed: These characters have no sense of fun at all. They have no sense of humor. They take themselves and their antics very seriously, despite the antics' inherent non-seriousness. Nobody ever smiles or enjoys themselves. For example, when Tom walks through the golden walls of the Aztech pyramid, he thinks: "Walking through gold. I'm ninety-nine years old, yet always there are new sensations." A more clinical and less engaging opinion would be hard to find. The character never expresses any even mild emotion over anything that happens; he proceeds through his adventures like--not an automaton, hmm... more like a weary teacher or father-figure, someone going through the motions and probably wishing he were elsewhere. (Actually, he does show a bit of adventurer-type emotion in the "Untold Tales of Tom Strong.") And Dhalua is little better; even when she's supposedly enraged at the Nazi woman for tormenting her husband, her facial expression doesn't change much. (Despite the innovation of Tom being married to her, she's really just a standard Black Sidekick.) This was a problem in Promethea, with the main character being incredibly bland, but at least the supporting characters had some life and said genuinely funny things. In this one, the banter between Pneuman and Solomon is supposed to substitute for light-heartededness, but even that has a forced and weary air to it, as if the characters would prefer to be speaking other lines. (One would think that at least somewhere in the book someone would smile or shake their head in amusement at the silly things being said by the two, but everyone acts as if their banter is normal conversation.)

This approach was probably deliberate on the part of Moore (as opposed to simple incompetent character creation), but if so, I think he made a big mistake, especially for someone in at the beginning of revisionism in the mid-80s. This kind of flavorless characterization was rendered irrelevant at the beginning of the Silver Age; why would anyone want to do a loving pastiche of it in this day and age, at least one that takes itself so seriously? I'm not saying that we need Stan Lee hyperemotion or Chris Claremont whining, but how about a few humanizing touches to make the reader care about the protagonists? Honestly, the bits of banter between characters in the various Wildstorm books show far more characterization than the sum total of dialogue in this one. (How long do you think Jenny Sparks would hang around Tom Strong? About as long as it would take her to locate the door or a handy wall outlet, I think.)

The art is nice standard superhero stuff. At least the visual nods to earlier styles of comics (all done by guest artists) are amusing; probably the best thing in the book is the first panel of the EC-style "Untold Tale of Tom Strong" when he and Dhalua, the latter clad in coconut-shell space bikini, travel back in time to Pangaea. The Aztech god is gorgeous, and the Modular Man is visually thrilling, though some of his punch was removed, ironically enough, after the Pangaea story, when Tom and Dhalua encountered a gigantic slime-mold creature that could reshape itself into anything--just like the Modular Man, only with organic bits instead of metal ones. Hello, did anyone stop to think that showing two villains with the same powers within a few issues of one another was not a good idea?

I thought Promethea and Astro City were bland, but this title makes them look like rip-roarers. Tom Strong is easily the weakest thing I've ever seen from Moore. Recommended only for Moore completists. It might be a good book for kids, actually, since it's pretty tame and there's very little violence compared to most superhero books.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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