Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A buddy of mine recently loaned me a couple of trade paperbacks, collecting the first twelve issues of a comic book series called Top Ten. I just finished reading them this past weekend. Here’s the two main things you need to know about the series before I start really tearing into the nitty-gritty of it:

1) it’s got a several-miles-high-concept, namely superheroes crossed with NYPD Blue, but instead of NYC it’s set in the fictional Neopolis and not only do the cops all have superpowers but so do the citizens they are sworn to protect.
2) it’s written by Alan Moore, who is the mad genius who brought the world masterpieces like Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea, as well as various memorable work-for-hire stories using other people’s characters, including the definitive take on Swamp Thing in The Anatomy Lesson, and a eulogy to Superman in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

I love Alan Moore (if you only know those first few works I rattled off through their hit-or-miss Hollywood versions, I can’t recommend enough that you track down the original comics) and I love superhero comics in general and I love high concepts, so my buddy assumed I would adore Top Ten as much as he did. But a funny thing happened in the course of reading the series, in that the initial impact it had on me was underwhelming. I wanted to like it more than I did, but a lot of elements just didn’t work for me. (This was pretty apparent by the time I finished the first of the two trades, but of course I went right ahead and read the whole second book, too.) Yet I kept mentally obsessing over it, out of some kind of weird fannish loyalty to Moore, and even now I can’t quite make up my mind if Moore had a rare misstep with the series, or just phoned it in, OR … if he’s actually achieved something amazingly sublime which confounded my expectations but only because it’s operating on a wholly different level.

One thing I am fairly certain about is that Top Ten does have significantly more going on than what’s on the surface. It’s a police procedural about superheroes (and supervillains) and therefore it utilizes a lot of the tropes of both genres to create a world that on the one hand is brand new and on the other hand is instantly recognizable. The police force has a wise old captain, some crusty veterans, and a brand-new rookie who serves as the POV character in the first issue. The citizenry is composed of mutants, aliens, gods, robots and mad scientists. All of those are things that an audience would reasonably expect from a boilerplate cop show or a superhero universe.

But because this is a comic book and not a tv series, and thus we’re on the superheroes’ home turf medium-wise, it’s those very tropes that Top Ten actually ends up being about, with the state-sanctioned law enforcement trappings simply providing a different way of looking at things. “Tropes” may not actually be exactly the right word here (although it is one of my favorite pop-analysis terms that drive some people nuts, right along with “meme”) – the subtext of Top Ten is all about taking commonly accepted elements of superhero comics that people might sit around and say “Isn’t it funny how …?” about in extended geekish bull sessions, and then examining those funny elements taken to ridiculous extremes. For example, isn’t it funny how in superhero comics there’s lots of aliens who come to Earth and decide the best thing they can do with their xenomorphic gifts and abilities is uphold American law and/or Western values? Top Ten explodes this by (spoilers!) leading off with an open serial killer case and revealing the culprit as the green-skinned-but-still-sexy Vigilante From Venus, whose alien biology requires the consumption of human pineal glands in order to survive, resulting in a lot of decapitated prostitutes. I mean, sure, fighting crime is a good way to spend time and all, but our human morality means little to nothing to the VFV when it comes down to evolutionary mandate. Fair enough.

Here’s another example, and this one really tied my brain in knots. Meet Girl One:

Wish my scanner was working, as this was the best shot of her I could find online.
She was grown in a lab, which means that she’s a curious blending of artificial technology and living creature. She’s super strong and fast and also has “chameleonic skin” which she apparently never uses to blend into the background but rather to create interesting and complex patterns of shapes and colors all over her body (her natural, default complexion seems to be a medium shade of purple). The skin trick also turns out to have an added advantage, at least from Girl One’s perspective, in that she doesn’t have to wear clothing, and nudism is her preference anyway. The shifting coloration provides just enough visual interference to preserve her modesty and professionalism.

Then one day someone offhandedly points out that one of her fellow officers, who is an intelligent Doberman in a robotic exoskeleton, is colorblind. Girl One flips out as she realizes that Hyperdog has probably been ogling her for years because the colored patterns on her skin don’t work on him. She confronts the dog (with her fists) and he admits that she’s right about everything except the ogling, because they are at the end of the day different species and he’d be no more likely to ogle her than she would be to ogle him if he walked around denuded of his exoskeleton.

Of course, as amusing as the farce of sudden embarrassment was, I realized immediately that it makes almost no sense at all. Girl One’s opprobrium stems from being made aware of a failure of her unique method of avoiding being ogled, yet she walks around every day in the (anatomically correct, we assume) altogether wearing the super-pseudo-science equivalent of body paint. I think it is safe to say that if a woman built like a supermodel walked down the street wearing nothing but body paint, no matter how elaborate the patterns or where the contrasting colors were placed, she would be ogled. So the notion that she has never before observed anyone checking her out, and suddenly feels violated by how a colorblind animal might perceive her nudity, is problematic at best.

But let’s give Alan Moore the benefit of the doubt. Truthfully, the issue of Girl One’s modesty (or lack thereof) gets at a deeper truth about superhero comics. Why do superheroes wear spandex, anyway? Everyone always jokes about how unrealistic and impractical it is, and almost every translation of superheroes into three-dimensional realism in the movies changes the costumes into some material with a little more heft, but comics keep the practice alive to this day. There are several reasons for this but one of the most fundamental is this: traditionally when artists learn to draw human figures, they do so with nudes. Clothing with all its folds and textures is a lot more complicated to reproduce on paper than a smooth, clean, classical nude. So what’s an artist facing a monthly deadline to do: draw the superhero hundreds of times wearing ever-shifting, loose-fitting clothing, or draw him/her in the buff plus a couple of straight lines for collars, cuffs, briefs and boots and include a note to the colorist that it’s a skintight blue costume? From a draftsman’s perspective there is absolutely no difference between a drawing of Wonder Woman in costume and a drawing of nude Diana, goddess of the hunt, except for strategically placed pigment. And Moore may very well be deliberately lampooning this with a reduction ad absurdum personified by Girl One. Her attitude is ludicrous, but no more so than the fact that comics audiences accept an artist’s shortcut at face value.

But hang on, because there’s even more to the whole Girl One and Hyperdog exchange that doesn’t make sense. Even total colorblindness still allows an animal to perceive contrasts of light and dark, so in theory when Hyperdog looks at Girl One he should see a light gray woman with dark gray swirls across her bathing suit area instead of a light purple woman with green swirls. Yet somehow that’s not what’s suggested. I’m reasonably sure that a photograph of a body-painted model run through a Photoshop filter to turn down all the colors would not be transformed into a nude photo, but apparently that’s pretty much what’s presented here. It’s just shy of asserting that Hyperdog would be able to see what was lying under an orange piece of cloth, because orange is a color and Hyperdog can’t see colors, ergo he can’t see the cloth. Fail.

But hang on again! I have a vivid memory of reading a Flash comic when I was a kid, one which actually was published before my birth, and in the story the Flash keeps getting challenged to races by professional speedboat and racecar drivers and inexplicably losing the races. Eventually he figures out that they were all hologram disguises of Doctor Light, who is logically able to travel at the speed of light, whereas Flash had been holding back and running only just fast enough o beat a car or boat. So in the final race, Flash wins with tie to spare because the Doctor is inherently limited to travel only as fast as lightspeed, whereas the Flash can run … as fast as he wants! Which probably sounds like typical comic book silliness, but in case you’re not well-versed in Flash lore I should point out that his day job was as a police scientist and he was supposed to be quite smart and in the context of the comic all of this is presented as scientifically sound deductive reasoning. And this was by no means anomalous. The so-called Silver Age of comics is overflowing with good guys outsmarting bad guys with applied scientific knowledge, even if the demands of the narrative make the “knowledge” twist into counterfactual pretzels to meet the pre-determined outcome. So … is Alan Moore playing up this classic comic book trope as well? The man loves to deconstruct ideas, as Watchmen and Swamp Thing attest, so I can’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Is he messing with me? Did he put bad science into the comic as a deliberate homage to the generation of kids who grew up with wild misconceptions about black holes and radioactivity learned from four-color heroes? Or am I trying too hard to give the storyteller too much credit because he’s one of my heroes?

I just don’t know. But it is kind of comforting that I’m not yet so cynical and disillusioned that I automatically assume my snarkiest instinct is the correct one.


  1. To ramble:

    Moore's entire body of work boils down to two elements, worked over and over. One is "The Power of Imagination" (e.g., His "Youngblood" run, "Promethea," etc.). The other is "Playing with Pop Culture Detritus." (e.g., "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "Watchmen," "Supreme").

    Moore's interest is not in Life As She Is Lived. He's much more interested in farting around with pre-existing tools and looking at them in new ways. Sometimes it's "what do they mean, if examined critically," like in "Watchmen," "Miracleman," or "Swamp Thing." Sometimes it's "if you took unlike elements and mashed them together, what would the reaction be?" There you get a lot of the ABC line, like "Tom Strong" and "Top Ten."

    (This is why I get tired of Moore. His entire body of work is fiction about fiction. How narrow. Pushing away from fiction tropes and into Life As She Is Lived leads to much greater, richer work. He'd disagree with my critique with twaddle about Limitless Imagination and the Divine Powers of Creation, but he'd be wrong.)

    So, as you note, when he's messing with "Top Ten," his approach is not one of realism, but screwing with genre expectations. The genre expectation created by Girl One is that since she's secretly naked, somebody, sometime is going to see through it. (Superhero/SF genre sexuality is nothing if not predictable.) She's a Chekov's Gun with boobs. In the superhero/SF style, how would that "gun go off?" The Hyperdog solution is perfectly fitting the genre. It's a "clever" answer, with the extra-clever twist tacked on, the way the nerds like. As you ask, the big question is, does Moore know how dumbass the "clever" answer really is? Does he care?

    I hesitate to say that a writer as accomplished as Moore would throw in a weird and nonsensical bit like that just because he thought it was nifty, but it does read that way. Plus, it has a weird sexual element, which Moore does enjoy playing with. Did he create a "clever" moment that requires handwaving to accept or is he making a bigger point? Given that we're dealing with two of Moore's favorite preoccupations (playing with speculative fiction tropes and weird sex), I don't think he's making a point beyond the frisson that's supposed to come with the collision of sex, superheroes, and cleverness.

    But hey, I could be wrong.

  2. To keep from sounding like one of those internet fan gripers, I gotta add that I do like and respect Moore. I can't read a ton of him at one go, because the thematic repetition does me in, but man, he's good at what he does.

    My vote for his best work: "From Hell." Damn, that was amazing. "V for Vendetta" is a personal favorite.

  3. All good points, Harv. I think Top Ten for me was the tipping point into a lot of revelations in line with what you explain above. I went from loving him as a writer to appreicating him; maybe Top Ten was the first time he went whole-hog into deconstruction without even token attempts at lifelike plotting, but maybe it was simply the first time I noticed it so much. And once it's been seen it cannot be unseen and all that. Ah, well. There are worse things than a living legend moving on from his great, universally appealing early works and into wonky mental wankery. At least he's not re-imagining his own classics as "special editions", ahem.