The work in America's Best Comics just shows an incredibly amount of imagination, creativity, and breadth. With TOP TEN reaching its sixth issue, it's about time to take a look at the entire line. Pipeline hasn't covered the ABC line all that much. Aside from a couple of TOM STRONG reviews everything else has gotten pretty short shrift. In part, this is intentional. I haven't been keeping up with them as they've come out. One of the best parts about writing this column, though, is that occasionally forces you to read a lot of stuff to write a column. And so this week I sat down with Alan Moore's ABC line and had a blast.
…is, hands down, the best of the bunch. I read these books completely in awe of Alan Moore's writing abilities. Here's a guy from the UK who can write better dialogue in the mouths of American characters than most American writers do. And, yes, I think of these characters as Americans, due to the model Moore based this book on.
For those of you who don't know what this book is, everyone tends to regard it as Hill Street Blues done for comics. That's about as good a description as you'll get. It's got a large ensemble cast. It's a cop drama. The twist here is that the cops are all super-powered and living in a town in which everyone is super-powered. They all dress like superheroes, more or less, but they don't live like them. Most of them carry on normal lives. Their powers just allow for some extraordinary crimes and odd tales of police drama. Moore writes the cast as speaking the way I would picture a current 10 p.m. drama to be written. The characters all sound like normal people, without the bluster and extreme elocution of your usual super-hero.
All the characters have their own storylines although some develop more quickly than others. The protagonist from the first issue now assumes a lesser role. Her first day on the job in the first issue allowed for reader identification. It still does, but to a much more limited degree as we've come to know all the rest of the characters. Here's an interesting point, also: The first 6 issues span a time period of about 3 days. And we follow the characters almost continuously through those issues. These aren't three 2-issue stories. This is a series of on-going stories that happen to overlap in some places, much as real life does. Plot points come and go, rise and fall, get spotlighted and then thrown back in the corner. They're not forgotten, though.
There's an amazing amount of creativity in the super-heroes that populate the town of Neopolis. When you're showing upwards of 50 super-powered people in every issue, you've got to think fast. While lots of them might just be background art gags - such as the Doctor Doom/Charlie Brown amalgamation - the characters with speaking roles are diverse and creative. The police captain with a dog's head? He is a dog! The throwaway prostitute character? She's naturally immune to STDs.
Gene Ha and Zander Cannon team up to make for a spectacular visualization of all of this. Forget the storytelling aspect of the artwork for a second and take a step back to look at the sheer technical prowess these two combine to show. Every page is lushly detailed, not just with more lines, but with interesting architecture for buildings, gag characters, signs and graffiti. The style is refreshingly human. These aren't all buff super-heroes. These people look like real people, act that way, and show emotions facially that way, not just with grimaces and blank stares. Each character's costume is as well designed as the next - colorful, functional, true to the character's nature…
There are no shortcuts taken in the storytelling department, either. Each page is packed with panels, respecting Alan Moore's script to a great degree. The average page has 6 panels, and there's usually just one splash page used per issue - and that's the title page at the beginning.
TOP TEN gets my vote for best of breed for the ABC bunch. This isn't to say the rest are all dogs, if I may strain the metaphor.
I've written about anthologies here before, most notably the MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS column during the summer. I really like them, if only because they give new faces a chance to shine, and the range of different stories can be a real treat. TOMORROW STORIES is a little different in that it's Alan Moore's exclusive domain, but he does get the chance to write a diverse set of stories every month. The imagination shown in TOP TEN continues on through here. In the first 5 issues we had four recurring characters: Jack B. Quick, Greyshirt, Cobweb, and The First American (and U.S. Angel). Starting with the sixth, Quick is going on a little hiatus to make room for a new creation.
That's really the biggest shame. I think Quick's stories have been the most fantastic, and the most interesting. It might get back a little to my science geek days, but any story that includes throwaway gags on the first panel to Schrodinger's Cat is right down my alley. Other stories included Quick's attempts to create a duplicate solar system in his hometown, the old chestnut about buttering a cat's back to never land and arresting photons for exceeding the speed of light. It's part Gyro Gearloose, and part uncontrollable kid. Kevin Nowlan does a fine job in making this the best-looking series in TS, modeling Jack on his own son.
"The Greyshirt" stories are homages to Will Eisner's The Spirit, done in a similar style and done dramatically well. The story in the second issue of TS gets my nomination for comics short story of the year in its cleverness of design. Rick Veitch does the art duties here and lays out things really well.
"The First American" is a series of slightly political, slightly pop-cultural satiric bits. Jim Baikie does the art here. The highlight of this serial is in the third issue, whose first panel is a parody of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, with various kids standing in a lineup uttering the phrase, "Give me the gum, you thumbsucker!"
"The Cobweb", with art by Melinda Gebbie, is the oddest of the group. Each issue is done in a completely different style, but all tell the tale of the diaphanous wonder of women's crime-fighting. I think this is the weakest of the bunch, but after reading all of them together, I'm inclined to mention that it's still not bad. I thought the first issue's story was nothing to write home about, but as I got used to the character and Moore did more things with her, she grew on me.
The only thing that marred this series, if anything, was the lettering being scanned improperly in some of the Jack B. Quick stories, particularly in the third issue. The jagged nature of some of the lines in the lettering was really distracting. It seemed to be fixed in the most recent issue, but it is an interesting issue concerning computer lettering and coloring. While I'm not a fan of computer lettering, I do like some of the outstanding color work being done with the computer coloring. The occupational hazard to all of this, of course, is the "jaggies" - improperly scanned diagonal lines which look "stair-stepped.". Trust me: Scanning isn't always easy. I scan in the covers that accompany these articles every week. Most of them aren't fit for reprint. I like to think I'm getting better, though.
I may have originally misjudged this series. After the first issue, I was excited about the series. The concept of a character fueled by imagination is a worthy one. In a day and age of hereditary heroes, where the curse of the power is handed down through the family, or via some magic token or sigil, PROMETHEA put a new twist on the old idea.
The second issue, though, just seemed less magical to me. It was stiff and read like every other numbing fantasy crap thing that Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN may have inspired. (I suppose he made mythology look so easy everyone thought that they could do it.) My enthusiasm for the series thus waned.
So I sat down last week to read all five issues so far in order with a fair bit of trepidation. It turns out, though, that if you read them all, you can see where the story is going and why the second issue was the way it was. In the first issue our protagonist, college student-turned-Promethea Sophie Bangs delivers a lecture or two about the history of Promethea. Alan Moore's text piece goes into quite a bit more detail. The following issues have all been treks through time and space to previous incarnations and worlds of Promethea. Moore gets to stretch his writing muscle and his imagination some more in visiting all these timeframes and literary styles, even getting some help from Charles Vess in illustrating part of one issue.
Another problem I remember having with J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray's art in the first issue was the use of border designs and some funky panel work. In retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking. I'm a big fan of Todd McFarlane's early work on INFINITY INC. Williams' stuff here looks tame by comparison to McFarlane's crazy page designs. In fact, Williams' work provides additional flavor to the artwork, keeping everything centered on the time and location of the piece. His page layouts are imaginative, and sometimes just as clever as some of the stuff you might have seen Eisner use on THE SPIRIT. (Of course, if you want to see Moore laying some of that stuff out, go check out GREYSHIRT on TOMORROW STORIES.) With each issue sporting a new setting, the extra embellishments fit right in and become worthy of comment all on their own.
Before any book of the line came out, TOM STRONG was the one I looked forward to most, and that's just because of the pencil work of Chris Sprouse. I've been a fan of his work since his days on LEGIONNAIRES and then NEW MEN and SUPREME. He's a super clean artist who can tell a story well. What more do you want? SUPREME, for sure, has suffered in his absence.
TOM STRONG is the closest of the four books to being a straight superhero book. TOM STRONG is more of an action/adventure hero than a costumed "science hero," though.
Moore uses a similar technique here that he's using in PROMETHEA. If you read the first issue carefully enough - including the text piece at the end - you'll find that the plots for the first half-dozen issues are all laid out there for you. All the throwaway lines become their own issues, and so we see the return of Saveen, the Aztecs, and Ingrid Weiss along the way.
The funny thing is that the more critically I think of this book, the more faults that show up in it.
One thing that is turning me off on this book is the formula Moore is using with it. Inside of each issue, starting with the third, there's a mini-story forming a tale from Tom Strong's past. A variety of guest artists have drawn these stories so far. Art Adams did one, Jerry Ordway another, and Dave Gibbons a third. These aren't artists you're going to be disappointed in. In fact, they do their stories really well. But I want to see more Sprouse!
It might just be that I read this book last of the four titles, but it also seems formulaic in a bad way. I see the exact same sense of inventiveness and story structure in TOM STRONG that I see in PROMETHEA and, in part, with TOMORROW STORIES. I'm afraid that I'm fast losing interest in backwards-looking heroes. Even James Robinson's STARMAN, once the paragon of superheroes with known histories well incorporated into their lives, is losing interest to me. Moore's nostalgia for the past works for PROMETHEA, in which the past is so integral to her very being, but with TOM STRONG it just seems like a good excuse for filler material to give Sprouse extra time to finish each issue. Furthermore, it almost acts to give TOM STRONG a feeling that every issue is a sequel. And we all know the track records for sequels. Most aren't that good.
TOM STRONG also seems to be the one that is wandering the most. Whereas the other titles are fairly well focused, or at least know what they're doing and where they're going, TOM STRONG seems to meander a bit. At first it seemed like a solo hero story, which happens to have a weird family, including a friendly talking gorilla and pneumatic man. Then it seems to be a team book with a family atmosphere. Then it goes to being a love story for Tom and his wife. While I'm all for showing different aspects of the same set of characters over the course of a series, I'd like a book to show some sort of direction.
The funny thing, though, is that this comic might be the most accessible. It's the easiest to read, still carries the same flair for the creative, and seems the most straightforward. Whereas knowledge of the history is integral to PROMETHEA, TOM STRONG makes use of it without relying on it, and so to the casual reader it can be the easiest. Regular readers, though, will get that "ah ha".
LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN
I have to admit I don't have that much interest in this book. Its constantly delayed schedule isn't helping any, either. Heck, I don't ever think of this book as an ABC book, to be honest, although it is. When the first mini-series is complete, then I'll go back and read it and let you know what I thought. That's why, for the purposes of this column, I'm not including this one.
The only question left to ask, then, is if these four books are, truly, America's Best Comics. If you want to go on the strength of a line of comics, then I think the answer is yes. I don't know who else would come close.
Neither Marvel nor DC put out any amazing strong subsection of books that are this good.
Maybe Todd McFarlane's line of SPAWN-related comics would be in this category, but they don't hold a candle to Moore's stuff here.
You might throw Warren Ellis' PLANETARY and AUTHORITY up against ABC, but that's only two books so it doesn't seem so impressive. And AUTHORITY is more a great book out of form, and not necessarily substance. Ellis plays with many of the same concepts and ideas but not with as much fervor and craziness. (He tends to take one idea and root through it. Moore takes one idea and it's a background gag on the small panel in page fifteen of TOP TEN.) If you were to widen the scope to WildStorm's books as a whole, you'd just weaken the package. (I can admit to having fun reading Gen13, but there's no comparison to be made here.)
Maybe a year from now, Marvel's X books might be as interesting under the direction of Claremont and Ellis, but it's too soon to tell that. DC's SUPERMAN books are a fun read, and I'm enjoying what little I just started reading of the BATMAN titles, but those don't hold a candle to the use of the comics form as these books do.
Top Cow's books? Not a chance.
If you have a line of books or imprint or subsection of a universe you'd like to put up against ABC, please e-mail me. For now, Alan Moore is the champion here. Now if only the line would be on schedule more often…
MORE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Todd Klein does the lettering for the entire line, as well as some of the cover design and overall design work. ABC's covers are always striking and in various ways, from using glossy magazine style covers to some classic painting homage work.
Scott Dunbier also deserves some credit for being group editor and putting this all together. It's got to be a daunting task and he makes it look good. Plus, he had to put up with Scott Lobdell at the WildStorm panel in San Diego last summer. He gets bonus points just for that. =)
Tune in again to Pipeline2 next Friday for another insightful analysis of another corner of comicdom!
That's right; I haven't a clue as to what I'll be writing about yet. But check in again on Tuesday for Pipeline Commentary and Review where I'll probably have my mind made up about the whole thing. In the meantime, enjoy your day and your comics.