guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

March 2006

Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, et al., Tom Strong (America’s Best Comics, 1999-2006). irregularly published, $2.99

by Alex Boney

After seven years, Alan Moore’s and Chris Sprouse’s Tom Strong comes to an end this month with issue 36. Alongside Promethea, Tom Strong has served as an anchor of Moore’s America’s Best Comics line since it was launched in 1999.  While Promethea (which ended last year) provided a conduit for Moore’s growing interest in magic and mysticism, Tom Strong was always more grounded in the pulp origins of comics.  The first seven issues of the series rolled out a series of high-octane, high-adventure stories in the tradition of Doc Savage and Silver-Age Superman (heroes are called science heroes, not superheroes), and the series managed to maintain its pace and scope even after the first story arc.  The series has had its peaks and plateaus, but for most of its run it was the most stable, consistent book in ABC’s lineup.  If any of the ABC books deserved a powerhouse sendoff, it was Tom Strong.  Unfortunately, this last issue slips into Promethea territory and ends with more of a whimper than a bang.

Moore and Sprouse began Tom Strong with twenty-two straight issues of epic, sweeping, action-driven storytelling in which each story-arc topped the one before it.  A strong cast of villains was introduced early in the book and returned in various forms as the series unfolded.  Some villains, such as the Modular Man, became allies in later stories, while arch-nemesis Paul Saveen plagued Tom and his family throughout the series.  Even Tom’s supporting cast was compelling and well-established early in the book—a feat that usually takes decades to accomplish in traditional superhero series.  Moore and Sprouse closed out their initial run on Tom Strong with a multi-part multiverse “crisis” patterned after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Issues 20-22 offered alternate realities, identity crises, and deep introspection, but this was all guided by action/adventure narrative.  The story felt true to its genre, even as it reached beyond its genre to tell an innovative, engaging story.  It was Moore at his best.  When Moore first began ABC Comics, he said in an introductory column that “We love comics when they scare us, thrill us, make us laugh or tell us something we don’t know. We love them for their sexiness and glamour, for their innocence and charm. We love great art, strong stories and a handsome cover. We love comics for adults and funnybooks for children. We love cowboys, knights and superhumans; we love monsters, sweethearts, pirates, gods and any animal in gloves. We love the pictures and we love the words” (Planetary #22, May 1999).  The first twenty-two issues of Tom Strong were precisely what Moore said ABC would be.

After issue #22, Moore handed Tom Strong over to rotating teams of A-list creators such as Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Jerry Ordway, Duncan Fegredo, and Michael Moorcock.  Single issues such as Brian K. Vaughan’s and Peter Snejberg’s “I, Pneuman” (#28) fleshed out quirky minor characters, while two-part stories such as Ed Brubaker’s and Duncan Fegredo’s “The Terrible True Life of Tom Strong” (29-30) built on the action-driven intrigue of Moore’s early storylines.  The book stayed fresh and interesting, though it lost the cohesive direction that had been established earlier in the book.  Moore returned to the series with #36 in order to bring the book to a close.

The last issue of Tom Strong is, as are most of Moore’s stories, clever and witty.  Moore mastered self-reflexive comics metatextuality in the 1980s—well before Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis started using it in books like Animal Man and Planetary—and no other writer has handled the device as effectively as Moore has.  In fact, clever self-reflexivity seems to come so naturally to Moore at this point that he uses it in nearly everything he writes.  Tom Strong #36 begins out of time and place, as all of the characters and cities of the ABC books have converged in a cosmic, temporal mash-up.  Apparently, as Tom notes in his journal that opens the book, “Promethea intended to end the world.”  Moore’s favoritism becomes clear early in the issue and guides the story to its conclusion.  The last issue of Tom Strong is a quest to find Promethea.  In fact, it seems that Moore wrote this issue not just to end this book, but to put all of ABC to bed in as quiet, dignified a way as possible. 

In this last issue, Tom wanders through time and space with the spectral form of Paul Saveen, his arch-enemy, who reveals secrets about their past that are not terribly shocking.  The revelation that Strong and Saveen are brothers is not entirely revelatory, since the true identity of Tom’s father (hinted at throughout the book) is actually Tomas, the captain of the ship that crashed off the coast of Attabar Teru in 1899.  Tom and Paul are not biologically related.  Even Tom’s encounter with Promethea at the end of the issue is anticlimactic, as Tom slips into the familiar, sleepy rhetoric that Promethea inspires in nearly everyone she meets:  “I’m standing here in this familiar room with her…. Time unfolds in new shapes at her every breath. Mindless amino acids tangle into pythons, blowfish, mailmen and proud dynasties at every word. And then the whole fantastic weave of life, time and existence that she’s spinning seems to turn to the most wonderful bedtime story…” (20-1).  This is all very beautiful, ornate prose, but it’s in the wrong book.  Even after Tom returns from his encounter with Promethea, he seems to be infected with the pat, flat paralysis that has gripped everyone in this issue:

DHALUA:  Everything’s changed, hasn’t it?
TOM:  Since the pan-global event? Yes. It has. And yet, in some ways, everything’s still the same. Maybe we’re just looking at things differently now. Things like time, and life, and death.
DHALUA:  And each other?
TOM:  Especially each other. We know what we’re worth now. What everybody’s worth. (22)

The end of Tom Strong is far too stagnant for a book that began with such force and vigor.  Comics series should progress and change as they unfold, but they should also maintain a unity of vision.  After a consistently solid, engaging run, the final issue of this series is a disappointment.  Although Chris Sprouse delivers a stunning visual tour through the convergence of ABC’s worlds, the story doesn’t deliver a satisfactory end to a book that started out so energetically.  Moore would have served the series better if, in the end, he’d returned to the action-driven, epic foundations he set up at the book’s beginning.  It’s not a shame that Tom Strong has come to an end.  The book had a respectable, memorable (if sporadic) publication run.  But it is a shame that the book ended the way it ended.  It deserved better than this.