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Comic Books
Wednesday 17 April 2002

Red Hour Orgy
A Column about Comics by Philip Shropshire

  • Top Ten, Books 1 and 2, written by Alan Moore; artists Gene Ha, Zander Cannon (DC Comics, April 2002, $14.95)
  • Kingdom of the Wicked, written by Ian Edginton; artist D'israeli (
  • Fallout, written by Jim Ottaviani; artists Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault and Jeff Parker (G.T. Labs, November 2001, $19.95)

"Once described as a 'strontium wedding cake', Neopolis as it is now brings to mind more a four-story, car-pound designed by a varied committee including Ray Bradbury, Fritz Lang and Zeus. The traffic gushes back and forth along the four-lane spiral freeway that connects the city's different levels, in a tide of vehicles whose lurid colorings and fins and spines suggest a river seething with fantastic and primordial fish. At the crossings, in the red light pauses, recent model robots, some no more than 10 years from the date of their manufacture, trundle out to clean the windshields of the exhaust antlered Stagmobiles and sparkling Terrificars."

Top Ten is one of the great books put out by ABC comics and its one-man svengali Alan Moore. It is arguably the most science-fictional genre book ever put out. It doesn't just have science-fictional ideas; it has every science-fictional idea — good, bad, silly, indifferent — that has probably ever been imagined, as reduced and reseen through both pulps and comics. It has parallel worlds (Our home city Neopolis, in a kind of sarcastic aside about DC's multiple Earths, is just one city of Many Earths) populated by Roman Gods, sentient AIs, and others. It features interstellar travel, interstellar species, and a busy (sometimes dangerous) teleportation. It features not only your basic telepathy, but people with synesthesia, precogs, and even Stochastic Fats. Bioengineered bots, mecha-hybrids, and lamprey-legged thingies dot the landscape. If ever placed in the Neopolis, Jeremy Rifkin would faint dead away. And it has your basic Superhero 101 templates: genetically designed gals (and their oddly annoying creators), the athletic African satan worshipper (he's a good guy, and no I can't quite figure that out; it must be a pagan thing), the girl in a mechanical suit, the girl who can walk through walls, and your basic superman type. There's even a Popeye-like pirate. It makes for a nice stroll through Superhero Icon Park. 

The first 12 issues of Top Ten are referred to as its first season. It's actually structured like the show Hill Street Blues, which is acknowledged by Moore. Instead of the actors and actresses who conducted the morning roll calls, you've got your basic talking Doberman Pincher in an exoskeleton. This is all quite the norm here in Neopolis (read description above).  

There are also some wonderful revelations that unfold in the story over 12 issues. We have the Superman who really isn't a very good cop. We learn about the superhero whose abilities really aren't that impressive — heroes get injured and killed in this series. We learn about the very very dark side of child heroes. I personally like the AI cop with the heart of gold (or does he want to rule the world?). Moore does a good job of explaining why people fear the AI potential. Joe PI, who looks like he walked off of a Voltron casting call, isn't just scary because he can logically talk a perp into committing suicide. He's scary because he's funny. And a portly middle-aged woman with several kids fills his Iron Man suit. Not only that: she's lower middle class. How does she afford her nuclear weapons? Hmmm... Moore's deconstructions just never stop.  

Yet the highlight for me would have to be the background allusions. I'm not sure if this is the artist's idea or Moore's, but it's pretty impressive. Every few pages contain an in-joke that only comic guys would get. There are several Kirby allusions, and one or two Stan Lee references. Scott McCloud makes an appearance, wearing a Zot shirt no less. Howard the Duck pulls a cameo; so does Spock with goatee; even that girl from Run Lola Run, who looks to be running. Alan Moore appears as a shackled slave. John Belushi's Samurai serves food at the Top Ten cafeteria. The crew from Futurama makes an appearance, and there are two Watchmen allusions — and on and on it goes.

I'm at a loss for words to explain just how enjoyable this series is. The backgrounds alone will give you hours of joy. It has a number of winding and complicated stories that aren't wrapped up in the first season. You'll find yourself asking, who or what is the Rumor? Who are those level one telepaths who can snuff out Suns, and where are they kept? Will the Grey Goose ever be captured? Will the Captain ever be outed for being gay? "Sigh." Better wait until next season...

So go out and buy the Top Ten trade paperbacks and all the other ABC books. Alan Moore simply isn't just the greatest writer to ever write comics. He's one of the world's greatest living writers, period.      

"On Sunday afternoons The Honourable Order of Tap Dancing Philosophers would hoof in heated debate as to the nature of their world. Opinion deviated wildly. One school of thought proposed it was laid by a marvelous celestial chicken. Another, that it grew from seeds in a humus of belly-button fluff and furballs. A radical third party contended it solely existed in the mind of a small child who'd simply thought them into being. But to Wavy Davy Dali and Tiny Tom Fish Head this meant little. So long as the sun shone and it snowed at Christmas they were happy."
--From the Flash Animated Prologue of Kingdom of the Wicked 

Kingdom of the Wicked is just one of the many stories — almost a dozen now — being offered at Cool Beans world ( It kind of feels like the old Moonshadow stories directed by a very dark Terry Gilliam, or if you remember, those brilliant Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children comics of some time back. I can't say enough about writer Ian Edginton (yet another talented Brit writer I presume). He compares it, unabashedly enough, to Roald Dahl, in his background piece at Cool Beans. No argument there. The spare precise poetry of his prose reminds me of Brautigan or Vonnegut at his sixties peak. The art by D'israeli is beautiful and occasionally enhanced by Photoshop-like effects. Think of D'israeli as kind of a fuller figured Ted McKeever.

The story concerns a children's writer who finds that the imaginary play world (Castrovolva) of his youth has been turned into a dark, dystopian Hell, full of murder, butchery, and war. It's run by his alter-ego, the Evil Great Dictator. It's an incredible story. There isn't a wrong note in it, even though the origin of the Nemesis is a little bizarre. The Great Dictator has an origin that reminds me of Jim Starlin's Star Thief villain in his epic Adam Warlock books of the seventies.  

The prologue also features the best use of Flash animation for comics that I have ever seen. The soundtrack, probably produced by one guy with a midi synth, starts off pleasantly, but when we introduce the monster, things go sinister and dark in a quick hurry. You have to pay $2.95 to get access to all these comics for a month, but it's a bargain. Kingdom of the Wicked alone is worth the price of admission. But there are other stories here, by Pat Mills, two of Clive Barker's classic horror novellas ("The Yattering and Jack" and "In the Hills, the Cities"), and other gems.  

I might also note, for those science fiction fans who are wondering whether this micropayment thing might ever take off, that this is probably the most successful paid content site I've seen for comics. I hope somebody who sells and markets science fiction or fantasy gives this format a shot, and soon. My only request is that these guys gather their content in either a CD or DVD format.  

Fallout succeeds more as a clichéd putdown of science fiction, as opposed to the science history that it's supposed to be. It bills itself as the biographical story of Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the political science of the atomic bomb. I suppose I'd compare it to science fiction in that the genre is primarily a fiction of ideas — character and story are often sacrificed. Fallout has the same problems. In terms of storytelling, it often falls short. The art is inconsistent in that many artists put the book together in short sections. It's not unlike having different directors, of varied quality, directing alternative scenes. Some of the art is just plain bad, either too sketchy or too cartoonish. I could have done a more compelling art job using Photoshop and archival photos. As a story, it doesn't quite work because it doesn't give perspective into what the politics mean. I suppose the writer was trying to be objective, but I wish they had made some judgment calls in terms of what actually happened. Were Szilard and Oppenheimer Commie sympathizers or weren't they? Stake out a position, please.  

Fallout does offer, like the best science fiction, a number of stunning insights (if not artistic execution). We learn that Szilard probably had more to do with developing the bomb than Einstein, whose influence was used almost in a celebrity-like way. We learn that Oppenheimer hired the best scientists he could find and didn't pay attention to political backgrounds. We learn a lot about the details behind the Manhattan Project. We learn that there were key women involved in building the bomb. We also learn that Oppenheimer was left out of further nuclear weapons development because of his alleged ties to Communist groups. He fell victim to the McCarthy era — or did he? This is where some perspective would be appreciated. It's like reading about the Kennedy assassination and realizing that the writer isn't going to take a stand on that single bullet theory.   Bottom line: this is not the most engaging comics journalism/history that I've read. It's not in the class of anything by Joe Sacco, Tim Truman or Scott McCloud (even though he praises the book in a back cover quip). Still, if you're interested in just how messy science can be, or in the serendipitous history of the atomic bomb (Szilard came very close to being captured by the Nazis), Fallout has something to offer.

Random Notes: Over at a Philip K. Dick website they're offering a free online version of comic legend R. Crumb's take on Philip K. Dick. For those of us who enjoyed Crumb's work on Kafka, this is no less entertaining. It's well drawn and tells the definitively weird events that surrounded and informed Philip K. Dick's religious beliefs. If it's to be believed, it sounds like Dick experienced past lives, whacked out religious experiences, and may have been inadvertently slipping around in his own timestream. The life of Phil Dick sounds like the kinds of things that you read in a Phil Dick novel. Scary stuff — and it's free. But it is a little hard to read. You might want to try looking at it in 800 by 600.  

Philip Shropshire is an avid fan of both comics and science-fiction and he runs two personal blogs: and, as well as a message board. He is hard at work on both a collection of essays and a first novel called Virtual Gods.

Please send all promotional copies to Philip Shropshire, 496 Grove Road, Verona, Pennsylvania 15147.

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