March 13, 2010

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Top Ten: The Forty-Niners

Written by Alan Moore
Illustrated by Gene Ha
Wildstorm

I'd actually forgotten I had this book sitting around until recently, so I decided I'd read it, and finish up the Alan Moore-written Top Ten books. In this prequel, Moore introduces us to the world created to house superpowered individuals and a new police force named to keep them in check.

We see things through the lens of Jetlad and Brunhilde, the Iron Eagle, or Steven and Lori, as they are now known. With the war over, anyone who had a hand in larger than life exploits is being sent over to get them out of the way.

This leads to the expected tensions, as old evil surfaces and newer evil looks to gain an edge they lacked previously. As things get worse, can anyone handle the mix of tempers, egos, and ideologies that threaten to explode like a powder keg?

The reader obviously knows the answer, one of the weaknesses of a prequel, but how we reach the resolution is filled with the usual layered answers that I've come to expect from an Alan Moore story.

Perhaps he's best with an ensemble cast or the idea appealed to him more, but I liked this collection a lot better than Smax. We're back to the creation of a world that's familiar without being a copy, and the politics that Moore creates for this world deftly mirrors the one that surrounded the United States and Great Britain after World War Two.

What do you do with returning heroes? Can you assimilate them into society? Will some of them want to create their own power, either in the shadows of the night (the mob/vampires) or the shining brass light of day (military men, who aren't all that different on any world, I guess)?
The idea of "reforming" science heroes from the Axis powers was, I think, a brilliant touch that gives a solid subplot to touch on the nature of evil and the idea of how the US protected so many criminals in the name of beating the Communists.

Seeing a struggling police force that's undermanned and overworked was a nice touch. All too often we see heroes always able to solve any problem. The world of Top Ten makes that equation far more complex, in typical Alan Moore fashion. Killing a vampire crime lord leads to all sorts of issues, for instance, whereas in most comics, there would likely just be a few remarks and we'd move on to a new plot point. For Moore, nothing is a throwaway.

That's why I can't help but think that the Blackhawk standins being fascists themselves is an intentional swipe at Howard Chaykin's politics. It's unlikely that Moore would have made that connection unintentionally. Similarly, Lori's complaint that her only job options are singer or whore feels like a slam on the placement of female heroes in comics. Giving her a real role as a member of the police force and making her an active hero, rather than one who is constantly in peril, is refreshing.

Alan Moore may be a pervert (and this comic yet again has forbidden sexual overtones), but at least he's willing to make his female characters assertive in the process. While I wish we'd get a comic divorced from sex out of Moore, I will say this time it's more restrained and works better within the context of the comic. Finding out who you are in a new world can mean more than trying to get a job and a place to sleep. I was still a bit troubled by the way things go down, but this time it didn't come out of left field, like it did in Smax.

Though the story itself wraps up the loose ends within the plots we see, Moore gives us a very open-ended idea of what happens between the time of this book and those of Top Ten. How will Lori and Steve and the rest form the culture of policing that we see by the modern day? Will the politics ever change? Was there a Clicker revolution, with boycotts and protests? I don't know, and we may never get the answers from Moore. But I love the fact that hints are there, letting the reader go off into as many speculations as they desire. That's the layering that a good storyteller can give you, and very few do it as well as Moore.

Gene Ha's artwork is as good as ever. There are less overt references here, at least to my eyes, but that's because we're in the golden age. I'm sure students of that era can find the usual little inclusions that I missed, however. I did see Popeye and a certain mutant in the background of a bar, though. If you look closely, Betty Boop will pop out at you as well. His designs evoke the feel of the old characters without being copies. Similarly, none of them have the trappings of Silver Age heroes. His drawings are simply amazing and look like they're right out of an old Marvel or DC comic from the 1940s. I'd love to see him take a run at Astro City, if Busiek ever needed another artist to work with.

The Forty-Niners is a pretty good prequel that has the feel of the original series. Focusing on a wide variety of characters, Moore is able to weave a world that lives in suspicion and confusion, with characters just trying to find their way. It's a nice send-off to the series from Moore's perspective, at least, and I'd definitely recommend it to those who loved Top Ten.