The post-World-War-II setting has been used as a basis for many memorable stories of alienation and moral corruption, such as the 1949 film The Third Man, a mystery set against the backdrop of the Allied soldiers’ struggle to perform the duties of a police force in occupied Vienna. A common theme of these stories is what soldiers do with their lives after wars. What place is there for trained killers with haunted pasts and few useful skills in a peaceful society, they ask?
(ABC Comics (DC))
US: Mar 2006
The Forty-Niners asks the same question. It’s a prequel to Alan Moore’s Top 10, his superhero-cops story set in the city of Neopolis, where everyone has a superpower and even the guy running the hot-dog stand uses heat vision to cook with. The title refers to the date of its setting, 1949, when the Neopolis is in the process of becoming the place we know and love from Top 10. The Allies have relocated their larger-than-life war heroes here so they don’t get in the way of ordinary suburbanites. Neopolis is also the home of vampires, robots, and Nazi mad scientists—who are treated better than the war heroes, in spite of their dubious politics. As one of the characters says, “It is designers and architects this new city wants. Even if they designed the Blitz-wheel.”
We see this through the eyes of Steven “Jetlad” Traynor, the ace boy pilot who will grow up to be Captain Traynor in Top 10, and Leni “Die Lufthexe” Muller, a German who fought for the Allies. Since this is a prequel, part of it is inevitably devoted to setting up things we’ve already seen—for instance, we know Steve is going to meet and fall in love with a fellow pilot called Wulf, a subplot that is handled with affecting tenderness. The Forty-Niners refuses to get bogged down in endless foreshadowing, however. It doesn’t bother setting up Steve’s role as captain of the 10th precinct; in fact at the end of the story he still hasn’t joined the police force. The appearances by younger versions of minor characters we’ve seen in Top 10 are limited to cameos. Gromolko and Toybox’s father, Sam Slinger, both get small parts, and although Slinger’s appearances are brief it’s heartbreaking to see him still vital and happy before Alzheimer’s claims him. Moore strikes the perfect balance between hiding Easter eggs for his fans and telling a story on its own terms that doesn’t rely on the original.
All this is depicted in the gorgeous artwork of Gene Ha, half of the art team from Top 10. Without his co-artist, Zander Cannon, who is responsible for the cartoonier elements of their collaboration, Ha works in an extremely realistic, painterly style. He’s aided by Art Lyon’s colors, a subdued palette that isn’t black and white, but neither is it the explosion of color that Top 10 and its spin-off I>Smax are. Grays that evoke our newsreel and film-noir image of the era dominate, broken up by the occasional splash of red blood. Fittingly, a Nazi time machine is depicted as a burst of colors in the book’s brightest passage.
There’s an obvious parallel between the color scheme and the story’s theme. As Wulf says, “You know, in some ways, back in the war, it was better. Back in that newsreel, you know? Everything was black and white.” As the story goes on the changing colors depict a world in transition, as Neopolis is born in orange fire and bright-red blood at the story’s climax. More modern problems, like organized crime and racial tension, are replacing the heroes-versus-Nazis simplicity of the war, as they replaced the simpler pulp stories of comics at the time. Of course, this being Neopolis, that organized crime is perpetrated by vampires and that racial tension centers around robots. When the vampire who angrily claims to be “a Hungarian-American with an inherited medical condition” sees his first robot, he cries, “What in hell are you?”
Getting back to the artwork, the game of “Where’s Waldo For Comics Nerds” begun in the backgrounds of Top 10 continues here, only now the backgrounds are populated by characters like Popeye, Li’l Abner, the Yellow Kid, Dick Tracy, and (in a last-panel nod to Watchmen) the Minutemen. Also filling the lush backgrounds are jaw-dropping buildings shown as a meeting of science fiction and Chicago architecture. The attention to detail lapses a couple of times in the final chapter—a vanishing bloodstain, a throne that dramatically changes height—and I wonder if it was rushed. The quality of the writing also slips at the very end, hurrying a climax that feels like it would have been better spread out over an extra chapter, but Moore ran out of pages.
These are nitpicks rather than fatal flaws, however. As a 112-page graphic novel, The Forty-Niners can’t have the exact same denseness or slow-burn tension of a 12-issue series like Top 10. It’s a worthy addition to the line, and a fascinating look at a classic theme that is as relevant as ever through strange new eyes.