Tom Strong, the title character of America’s Best Comic’s successful new book, is not a modern superhero. His exploits sit on the same comic shelf rack as Spider-Man or The Avengers.
But, he is not a modern superhero.
The character is a lost archetype from a passed time, now brought and revived for the new century by legendary comics writer Alan Moore and his teams of artists.
It should be made clear that comic book heroes and trends are assigned to various ages of the medium. Heralded as the first superhero, the success of Superman ushered in the Golden Age, where the genre would flourish. Eventually, though, a revamp of many much-loved characters was called for after the Second World War, leading to the Silver Age; many superheroes were replaced with new alter egos and powers such as the Flash or Green Lantern. Also during this time came Marvel’s comics introduction of the conflicted hero Spider-Man with the guilt of his uncle’s death or The Hulk with his fear of losing control that created what they call the Marvel Age. Finally, the ‘70s brought in the Bronze Age, largely defined by its new approaches to social ills and its maturation out of the Golden Age’s lingering innocence. While comic books are in a new, amorphous time currently, arguably either a damned Recession or a slow Renaissance, Tom Strong belongs to none of these eras.
Alan Moore has shaped Tom’s mythology out of the strong fabric that preceded the Golden Age: the American pulp and serial hero. Tarzan, Doc Savage, Alan Quartermain. Go further and you have the heroes of public domain: Paul Bunyon, Sherlock Holmes, Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed. Even the cover of Tom Strong #1, immaculately painted by artist Alex Ross, hearkens back to the tale of rail-splitter John Henry Irons. Like many of these men, he has a unique origin, being born and raised outside of society by his scientifically inclined mother and father on the lost island of Attabar Teru at the turn of the 20th century. Eventually, his parents are slain, but he becomes the adoptive son of the island’s wise natives. Forged in science and nature, Tom is obligated to return to his mother and father’s Western world and become the force for Reason and Food that he was invariably designed to be. Designed by his parents, designed by destiny, but most consciously designed by Alan Moore.
Moore wants to give modern readers a return to innocence with Tom Strong. In the mid-‘80s, it was his comic book Watchmen that along with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns ushered in the era of the “grim and gritty” hero. They answered the public’s need for more realism in comics, but also bowed to an arguably unnecessary bloodlust and psychological perversity at the expense of plot. Now, after 15 years of a far darker comic book industry, Moore returned under the new imprint America’s Best Comics to perhaps realign the scales. With titles like Promethea, Tomorrow Stories, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore seems to be rebuilding the darkened empire with modern variations of archetypes from before the rise of the superhero genre.
For this reason, Tom Strong comes built with its own mythology: the Island of Attabar Teru, Tom’s wife Dhuala, his daughter Tesla, their adoptive home of Metropolis-meets-Brazil Millennium City, his genius ape sidekick King Solomon, his steam-robot servant Pneuman, and his Rogue’s Gallery consisting of Paul Saveen, the Modular Man, and the Pangean. As readers, we enter into the Tom Strong mythos after already a century’s worth of his exploits; a long-time fan club, “The Strongmen of America,” already exists, celebrating their legendary idol. Issue #1 even contains a back up feature about the history of Millennium City and the arrival/reception of Tom over the many years. But even with all of this fabricated history, Moore is careful to still attract the modern reader with solid reality: Was Tom’s mother having an affair with her late servant, Thomas? Was Tom’s father mentally twisted to create the first child raised on pure science? And, how can one explain the impossible longevity of Tom, born in 1900, yet still battling crime on New Year’s Day 2000? Moore carefully and expertly counters the naiveté of the pulp hero (and its audience) with a modern reader’s sensibilities, without losing the excitement and joy of the latter.
In a time where comic companies have had to reinvent their heroes repeatedly to meet society’s shifts, Tom is born whole, the product, not of science and nature, but of innocence and intellect. With the genre rules of spandex costumes, alter egos, secret headquarters, and superhuman powers crumbling beneath the publishers who rely on them, America’s Best Comics could stand as America’s only comics, thanks to the keen foresight of Moore to look past the mutated rules of making comic superhero even while writing a comic superhero book.
Who will save these heroes from obsolescence, who will rally and guide the muscle-bound masks and costumes? Tom Strong, the product of the lost pulp/serial heroes and modernity’s yen for realism, could just be the right man for the job.