Yesterday Stories.

*And what can be more fitting than


The Mystery Play (in a thrilling twist, I review an old Grant Morrison work)

Tom Strong #34

JLA: Classified #11, Astonishing X-Men #12

Or Else #3 (buy this)

Seven Soldiers - Shining Knight #4 (of 4) (although at this point I ought to just call it Seven Soldiers #14 (of 30), judging by how it's playing out)

Make them work again!

*It’s Labor Day. That means that comics gets the day off, and doesn’t even have to show up until Thursday of this week. Considering that I didn’t have the day off (and that I’m a jealous, spiteful git), I confronted comics earlier today about its lack of drive.

Damn it, comics! You’ll never make the big time if you keep acting like this! And now my whole schedule is thrown off by having to go to the store on a Thursday. A Thursday! That’s a downright shame!”

Comics seemed to be listening to me, but then I noticed that it was making humorous faces in the middle of our very serious conversation, and I realized that it wasn’t comics at all, but a sinister imposter. Now I’m confused and hurt, and only the bottle can take my pain away.

The bottle of new reviews, that is! Hotch-cha-cha-cha-cha!

Top Ten: The 49ers

The product of a famously protracted production, this book, from title co-creators Alan Moore and Gene Ha, has unwittingly taken on the burdensome mantle of ‘creative team's last hurrah,’ happenstance and delay colluding to render it a work of more intense nostalgia than originally intended. Just as the story is set decades prior to the events of the original 12-issue superheroes-as-policemen-among-superheroes series, the devoted ABC fan will surely find themselves transported back to a slightly earlier time in recent comics history, when Moore decided to ramp up his output to provide a sparkling, restored vision for Big Two comics, one resonant with a rich sense of history (and not just comics history), and a strong personal vision (is there any doubt that the work-for-hire Promethea is among Moore’s most unabashedly personal works?).

That time is over, and Moore is again at odds with DC (owner of Wildstorm, which is ABC’s parent studio), though echoes of the ABC spirit are audible in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers project; Morrison’s work, however, is arguably more canny in its set-up, sporting plenty of pre-existing links to the extant DCU (without really emphasizing them), rather than simply building up a new continuity from the denuded earth of Ideaspace. And while similar in execution to the ABC universe (though with necessarily tighter interrelation of events), Seven Soldiers likely reaps a certain measure of collateral sales benefit simply from standing upon the same plane as Green Lantern in the fiction omniverse. Of course, Morrison is also a well-known writer of big-time established superhero books, which brings its own brand of attention. But when you think about it, one of Moore’s defining characteristics in today’s comics scene is his utter recalcitrance toward working on Big Two superhero properties, which instantly separates him from Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis, and Garth Ennis. Even From Hell cohort Eddie Campbell did a Batman special and drew a few issues of Captain America - and it’s not that such activities aren’t fulfilling for the people engaging in them, but the sheer absence of a formal JLA or Superman piece in Moore’s recent output provides a symbol of formidable, perhaps Quixotic individuality.

But superhero titles like Top Ten are built for entertainment, and so is this book; it doesn’t strive for a greater weight than average in the Moore oeuvre (which still means it retains a strong sense of social justice, as we'll get to later), even if its involuntarily positioning in history might tempt the reader to hope otherwise. Actually, as many sources have already noted, the book feels suspiciously similar to a hardcover collection of a four-issue miniseries. The situational irony is tasty indeed, since many superhero books are now specifically written to read as a single piece in book form, yet this classic-minded tome features chapters with their own build and climax and fall, each intended to provide a satisfying single-issue experience which was never to be. Thus, even if DC’s ad campaign for this book wasn’t patently erroneous in a purely factual sense (this is not Moore’s first original graphic novel by any stretch of the imagination, as readers of A Small Killing no doubt know), it would be void in spirit. But couldn’t this also be seen as indicative of the book’s position as exemplar of a (slightly) earlier time?

The content of the book also bears an awareness of history, on multiple levels. First and foremost, the book’s concept (to wit: following WWII, the our nation’s now-aimless costumed heroes are relocated to the incomplete city of Neopolis) acts as a cute metaphor for the postwar decline in popularity of the superhero in US comics. Our two main characters, future Neopolis police captain Steve Traynor (here only 16, and already a boy war hero under the name JetLad) and his ex-foe Leni Muller (SkyWitch, a mid-conflict defector to the Allied cause), must now find other lines of work. For Muller in particular, options seem to be limited to homemaking, entertaining, and prostitution, but a glorious new frontier is already opening: police work! There’s little doubt that the ’50s rise of crime comics holds some metaphoric significance here, but Moore cleverly opts to make his chief gangs of criminals literal vampires, pushing the timeline a wee bit farther to that dizzy moment when Crime Patrol began its transformation into The Crypt of Terror, a comics industry as uncertain of where to go as those many young persons returning to their postwar homes. And so it is with Moore’s costumed heroes, participating in something of a genre-bending alternate-universe version of Captain America’s Weird Tales, in which Cap actually did fight horrors and monsters after settling into peacetime life.

Which isn’t to say that Moore himself is exempt from the gaze of history; that’s the second level of this book’s historical awareness - self-awareness on the part of the author. In one sequence, Steve and Leni attempt to rent apartments from an elderly woman; it turns out that their landlord is a former newspaper strip character (somewhat indelicately characterized in the context of the book’s world as someone who had a newspaper strip built around their real-world exploits). “Me, all my crowd, we got moved here first,” the woman remarks.

This is an unmistakable reference to Moore and artist Don Simpson’s acclaimed 1986 short In Pictopia!, a work of lacerating industry critique (which, in Moore's case, was arguably inseparable from self-critique at that time) in regards to both the domination of the superhero over the US comics scene and the destructive darkening of superheroes themselves, through its examination of an apocalyptic all-comics character city. Granted, this didn’t stop Moore from diving right back into his own dark superhero pursuits with 1987’s Batman: The Killing Joke, but the writer’s subsequent disavowal of his own gritty superhero stylings (he’s practically disowned The Killing Joke in particular) has retroactively enshrined In Pictopia! as a time-displaced statement of purpose, one that eventually drove Moore to the creation of the ABC line itself. This book (and by extension, the Top Ten premise itself) works as a slightly more genteel spin on In Pictopia!’s concerns; now that the author has worked to restore hope to the capes, the notion of a comics city need not conclude with a fiery razing. There can be hope yet for the future.

It’s a lovely city indeed. Ha is working in a heavy realist style (perhaps a result of his separation from regular Top Ten inker Zander Cannon), with soft, ink-washed colors by Art Lyon (who, judging from his bio in the back, was assisted by the otherwise uncredited Ellen Starr Lyon). It’s an attractive look, the color lightening any potential stiffness of Ha’s lines, and all the usual pitfalls of this brand of visual presentation duly sidestepped (no grossly overacted photo-ref faces, for example). That much-loved Top Ten 'chicken fat,' hidden background cameos and gags, is very much present; more studious types than I have uncovered everything from secret Curious George references to cameos by Mr. Monster and characters from Astro City. But Ha’s real backdrop skill stems from his world-building talents: the incomplete spires of Neopolis are looming and majestic, and period details from fact and fiction are deftly combined into a breathing environment for Ha’s characters to inhabit. The handsome style of the book puts one in the mind of those deluxe painted comics of the ’90, prestige projects dedicated often to examining the personal and social impact of superheroes, whether for good (the thoroughly messianic Kingdom Come) or ill (the infamous, Warren Ellis-scripted Ruins). This book is connected to those, and maybe it shares in their weaknesses, though it has a more allegorical bent, examining social problems in the guise of superheroics, rather than presenting a fantasy application of superheroes to the real world.

Perhaps social justice is the most potent theme in Top Ten: The 49ers, even if its resolutely hopeful attitude occasionally leads it into overly familiar and occasionally troublesome period-piece social critique. There’s a lot of struggle in young Neopolis: aside from the expected problems inherent with allowing mad scientists to roam free in the halls of research, robots are constantly discriminated against, eager military interests lick their chops over the potential for metahuman martial law, and the populace is swiftly losing trust in its appointed protectors due to a rise in organized crime. Moore is secure enough in his talents to imbue even his leads with prejudiced characteristics: in regards to vampires, Leni sniffs “If Hitler did one good thing, it was sending them to the camps!” as Steve passively flips through some papers.

Interestingly, Moore doesn’t characterize any of his vampire characters as particularly nice people, perhaps depending on the reader to extend his general social justice motif to cover them on his behalf. Maybe this is a sign of Moore’s trust in his readership, but other, less admirable shortcuts are taken. Certainly there’s more than enough time spent on the horror of robot injustice, which poses some obvious allegorical problems: most of the early-model robots as seen here don’t seem to possess anything resembling human intelligence or basic awareness, and we’re essentially asked to accept that they’re fully-alive beings worthy of human rights as a given. But (at risk of sounding as ignorant as one Shock-Headed Peter) why? You can’t simply extend this line of comparison to traditionally exploited minorities, you need to do some work to smooth out the rough edges in order to add sense and impact and real-world relation (for example, is there meant to be a correlation between the robots’ simplistic manner of speech and the language barrier an immigrant must face?), and there’s none of that here. The military villains fare even worse, ultimately devolving into sneering, recklessly destructive caricatures, with only the fact that most of the heroes (all neatly apolitical, I must add) happen to be ex-military left to provide some form of de facto balance.

So it’s interesting that the most successful element of the book’s quilt of social commentary is the one least affected by its superheroic milieu, passing references to kid-sidekick laws aside. There’s this classic love triangle, you see, with Steve torn between two interests: the fascinating girl from out-of-town (Leni, her ex-Axis turncoat status playfully adding to her mystique), and a more subdued object of True Affection. Of course, said object of True Affection happens to be a strapping, mustachioed pilot named Wulf, and most of the tension in the triangle is a direct result of JetLad’s sexual confusion. And while there’s the occasional clichéd bits of longing and groan-worthy soap operatic tension (“You looked good. Women in the cinema whistled. Men too.”), the subplot provides a good anchor for Steve’s portion of the book, and perhaps acts as a defiant sniff in the direction of a Big Two superhero universe still overwhelmingly heterosexual. And naturally, Steve’s confidence in himself translates to successful action against bombastic, high-flying wrongs, just as everyone in the book benefits (super)heroically from becoming more open-minded people.

But as I said before this is an entertaining book, which almost goes without saying given the writer, even if it shouldn’t. I feel that I’ll be remiss in my duties if I don’t note that amidst the vaguely medicinal barrage of characters learning things and overcoming assorted prejudices (one supporting character’s hidden secret is so flagrantly telegraphed that I can’t imagine Moore actually intended it to be a secret, although that’s basically how it’s played), there’s some nice action, including a gleefully gratuitous snatch of that all-time favorite Moore trope: time-travel! This is where Ha proves his skill as a crisp storyteller to be as formidable as his world-building acumen - there’s few taller hurdles for painterly heavy realist art to clear than that of the illusion of movement, but Ha pulls it off, his characters never frozen or sluggish. As silly as some of the book’s villains are, to see a heroine swooping down on her rocket-powered broomstick is a grateful admission of the power this creative team’s talent for entertainment has, themes or no themes, history or none.

So while it comes as no surprise that kindness and hope win out in the end, this is still a recommended book, a fun and worthwhile book, and obviously a must for big-time Moore fans, though I’m sure they’ve already bought the damned thing by now already. Neopolis remain a work-in-progress in the book’s final pages; one has to wonder if maybe the rotten sprawl of In Pictopia! still lies in its future, continuity be damned. But we’re never led to believe that, proud lovers staring out into the street as the final image we receive. An apt place to stop for this accidental avatar of the future past, a poignant final metaphor for Alan Moore’s ongoing farewell to tomorrow.