Tom Strong really has it all. A generically heroic main character with a dramatic origin, a love interest that is integral to the story, several appropriately cartoonish villains, and not one but two comic relief sidekicks – a talking gorilla and a stuttering robot. He even has a sensible, yet instantly recognizable costume. Tom Strong seems like an easy mark for a movie, so why hasn’t Hollywood fed it into the meat grinder yet?
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tom Strong was part of the America’s Best Comics line created by Alan Moore for Wildstorm back in the late 1990s, a line which also included Top Ten, Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tom Strong was Moore’s attempt to bring the concept of the superhero back to its pulp roots, and has as much in common with Doc Savage or the Shadow as it does with Superman.
Referred to as a “science-hero,” Tom Strong is raised in a high-gravity chamber and educated by his scientist parents on the fictional island of Attabar Teru until an accident kills his parents and releases him from the chamber as a teenager. He grows up among the natives of the island, and his exposure to a local root combined with his time spent in the gravity chamber results in him being nearly perfect physically and mentally, and extremely long lived – although born in 1900, by 2000 he looks to be in his early 40s.
He has adventures throughout the 20th century, fighting Nazis, killer robots and sentient Aztec temples, and frequently travelling in time and visiting alternate realities. He is ably assisted by his wife Dhalua and their daughter Tesla, both natives of Attabar Teru with similarly long lifespans, as well as by Pneuman, a steam powered robot butler, and Solomon, a gorilla who talks like an Oxford science teacher. His recurring villains include Paul Saveen, a classic 1920s sinister stage magician, and Ingrid Weiss, a buxom Nazi obsessed with bearing Tom’s children to jump-start the master race.
The current Tom Strong series, written by frequent Moore collaborator Peter Hogan with artwork by original series co-creator Chris Sprouse, concerns Ingrid Weiss and the son she tricked Tom into fathering, and their plot to change history, creating a world where the Nazis win the war with the help of a race of robots from Atlantis. It’s been done before, but Hogan and Sprouse have so far managed to pull off the story with enough charm that it feels fresh.
The most important thing about the Tom Strong comics is that they are bright, cheery and fun, telling exciting and engaging stories without lapsing into the dark angst that seems to pass for sophistication in many mainstream comics today. The series seems tailor made for a Hollywood summer blockbuster, with its world threatening plots and larger than life characters.
And besides, Alan Moore hasn’t had a reason to complain about Hollywood since last spring’s Watchmen movie…
— Jefferson Powers
One of the many things I love about the world of comic books is its acceptance, both as a publishing industry and a reading audience, of bizarre ideas. This remark may sound strange in reference to an entertainment medium so completely dominated to a single genre, but even within the superhero genre comic book publishers have shown much more willingness to explore unusual themes and ideas, from Alan Moore’s thought-provoking reworking of Swamp Thing to Walter Simonson’s “Frog of Thunder” story in Thor, which saw Marvel’s God of Thunder transformed into a frog for three issues.
Which brings us to Gutsville, a story with a setting so bizarre you will only find it in a comic book.
The premise of Gutsville is that in 1850 the SS Daphne, a British ship bound for Australia, is swallowed whole by a giant sea monster. But instead of being digested, the crew and passengers survive and build a permanent settlement in the beast’s stomach, surviving by fishing for salvage every time the monster swallows. The story opens 157 years later, with the descendents of the Daphne‘s original survivors led by a religious sect who believe they must purify their spirits before they will be allowed to return to “the dryplaces of the Earth.” The main character is Albert Oliphant, who has just inherited his recently deceased father’s job of catching the giant mutant rats that prowl the fleshy passageways of Gutsville. The plot thickens when Albert finds that his father has drawn a detailed map of the maze of passageways, which may just show a way out of the beast.
This entirely original set-up is accompanied by some sharp writing and an intricate plot by British novelist Simon Spurrier, and gorgeous, atmospheric painted artwork by Frazer Irving. It is set to be a six issue limited series, but with a setting this rich and complex that hardly seems like enough issues to do the idea justice. It seems like there is a lot of Gutsville to explore, so here’s hoping Albert won’t find his way out too soon…
John Constantine began life as a supporting character in Alan Moore’s successful and groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing. The story goes that Moore created the character at the behest of the book’s artists, who wanted to draw a character that looked like the musician Sting. Constantine was envisioned as a streetwise master of magic, foregoing the wooden dialogue and cheesy mysticism of Marvel’s Dr. Strange in favor of a much more contemporary, urban sensibility. The character proved so popular that DC soon spun him off into his own series, Hellblazer, which became one of the founding titles of the progressive Vertigo line (along with Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol) and is the only one to have enjoyed an uninterrupted publishing run to this day.
The series’ longevity is likely a result of the strong personality of its main character and his ability to consistently attract some of the top talent in comics, including writers Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Eddie Campbell, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis and Brian Azzarello, and artists John Ridgeway, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips and Steve Dillon, among others. Each creative team has brought their own unique viewpoint to the character, but Constantine has remained consistent in his characterization throughout the 19-year run of the title.
The current issue begins writer Andy Diggle’s second story arc, and it sees a return to the dark urban horror of the Jamie Delano years. Diggle’s bleak script follows a fairly standard formula for Hellblazer stories, but is no less effective for it: an already horrific situation is made only slightly worse through demonic interference as a group of teenaged hooligans begin a destructive rampage at the behest of the supernatural entity that is controlling their leader. Constantine arrives halfway through the story and, sensing that something is amiss, decides to investigate. Diggle has a good handle on Constantine’s character, which is of course the most important element of any Hellblazer story. The dark artwork by Leonardo Manco and especially the muted color palette used by colorist Lee Loughridge complement the writing nicely and give the story the atmosphere of urban decay that always sets Hellblazer apart from DC’s other supernatural fantasy titles.
As the first part of a new story this is as good an issue as any for new readers. For a book with such a long history, Hellblazer has acquired little in the way of continuity baggage and is an easy series to jump into. And it is always a satisfying read.
Categories: Blog, Reviews Tags: Andy Diggle, Brian Azzarello, Dave McKean, Dr. Strange, Eddie Campbell, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Hellblazer, Jamie Delano, John Ridgeway, Lee Loughridge, Leonardo Manco, Neil Gaiman, Paul Jenkins, Sandman Morrison, Sean Phillips, Steve Dillon, Sting, Strange, Warren Ellis, alan moore, musician, writer