I wrote last week about the return of Metamorpho the Element Man, a character that more or less disappeared when the New 52 started but who returned in a new series from DC called The Terrifics.
Well, it turned out Rex Mason wasn’t the only character to pop up unexpectedly in that first issue as it also marked the return of someone I didn’t think would appear in a mainstream DC book, namely Tom Strong.
So, who is Tom Strong? Essentially, he’s a creation of Alan Moore for a line of comics he created with Wildstorm, sometime before his hated nemesis DC bought them, called America’s Best Comics. Tom Strong himself is a throwback character to something that pre-dates the comic book hero, namely the pulp hero. These would be characters like Tarzan, the Shadow, or Fu Manchu who came out in fairly cheap novels and had a series of adventures fighting the forces of evil (or being the force of evil in the case of Fu Manchu). Tom Strong’s most obvious inspiration would appear to be Doc Savage, and I may have to bend the rules a bit to write up a Doc Savage entry for this feature in the future because, well, Doc Savage is a rather cool concept. Essentially, Savage was a genius in every known field while also having a body in peak physical condition that traveled the world with his various sidekicks doing altruistic deeds. He’ was a Superman without the powers.
That’s more or less Tom Strong as well.
Now, casual comics readers may ask themselves: how did Alan Moore of all people come up with such a character that hearkened back to an earlier day. That doesn’t sound like Moore if you judge him by his best known work.
And that is true if all you know of Alan Moore is Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and maybe his run on Swamp Thing. Moore, along with Frank Miller, more or less created the grim’n’gritty superhero craze that swept through the late 80s and into the 90s, so why would he have such an innocent character on his resume?
The short answer there is, Alan Moore actually likes those innocent stories. He’s stated that he somewhat regrets how people took his stories and did away with the more innocent superhero story, and a lot of his work since then has essentially been throwbacks to the sorts of stories he used to enjoy growing up. Unlike some of the British creators who came after him (I’m looking at you, Warren Ellis!), Moore didn’t just make all the heroes he used into cynical assholes who had no problems with creative acts of violence. He may have created John Constantine, but nobody in his stories really liked John Constantine, and certainly not the soulful Swamp Thing who was the main protagonist of those stories. His Watchmen didn’t glorify violence but ask what kind of person would put ona mask to beat up criminals. The violence was meant to be horrifying. The Killing Joke is centered around an act of violence, but the story itself has a very low body count and is more interested in looking at the strength of individual people when faced with a horrible day (Batman and Commissioner Gordon come out more or less OK because they are mentally strong whereas the Joker is shattered because he wasn’t). Moore’s script for the Last Silver Age Superman Story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has a high body count but ends with a pair of panels where a baby crushes a lump of coal into a diamond and a depowered Superman gives the reader a happy wink, letting everyone know he’s OK. That story also opens with the concept that the two-part arc is an “imaginary story,” an old DC term for when they wanted to experiment with an out-of-continuity, “what it…?” type of tale before adding, “But aren’t they all?” And for all that that Superman story is written as a last story where many of Supes’ friends and foes end up dying, it is still written in a clear, Silver Age style.
And that’s Moore’s older stuff. Since Watchmen, Moore has done more than a few stories where he does a homage to the stories of his youth. He did the Silver Age Superman stories he perhaps never got a chance to tell by writing the adventures of the Rob Liefeld Superman-clone Supreme and did a homage to the Lee-Kirby-Ditko era of Marvel for an Image line called 1963.
Much of his other output are various homages to other work, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that basically asks what if every fictional character ever was real, or his…let’s just say controversial Lost Girls story that I don’t plan on reading or reviewing ever. True, there is some heavy violence in LoEG, but much of it comes from Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man, two characters who were already brutal murderers in their original forms, and the work still had a sort of Victorian-era gentility to them.
All this is a long way of saying that Tom Strong makes sense if you know about the entire output of Alan Moore’s work and don’t just focus on the likes of Watchmen or V for Vendetta. He may not be that far off from his cameo on The Simpsons that would be content to just read some Little Lulu. OK, maybe not that close either.
So, who was Tom Strong? He was a “science hero” in his world, a guy who yeah, had some superstrength thanks to some techniques he learned on a tropical island, but who mostly got by with his mind and his decency. He fought evil with his wife Dhuala, daughter Tesla, a stream-powered robot named Pneuman, and an intelligent gorilla named King Solomon. Moore used the America’s Best imprint to tell different kinds of superhero stories. Tom Strong noted early on his greatest nemesis was dead, and when it looked like the guy came back to trap him over a multi-part storyline…nope, the bad guy was still dead and it was just a lesser villain known as a master of disguise messing with Tom Strong. This was a line where the Top 10 series had superpowered cops, but everyone in their city had superpowers, so no matter what the cliffhanger ending suggested for a superhero slugfest for the following issue, it always was resolved as a standard police procedural. Tomorrow Stories featured a wide variety of characters with different tones, some humorous, some not, and the Promethea book seemed to exist more so Moore could discuss philosophy, feminism, and how maybe the Apocalypse isn’t a bad thing (she didn’t stop it…and neither did Tom Strong, though apparently they both could have without any problem).
So, maybe the thing about Alan Moore and his creations aren’t that they are grim or violent, but more that they just subvert our narrative expectations. They look like one thing and then become a very different thing. In the 80s, that was making innocent superheroes less so. After that? It was the reverse,
I’m actually fine with that.