Review: Top Ten: The Forty-Niners

Artist(s): Alan Moore, Gene Ha.

Alan Moore is one of the most gay-friendly writers in comics. That’s nothing new. His Mirror of Love book with José Villarrubia is the best proof of that. But there’s also lot of interesting LGBT characters and themes in his comics, both creator-owned and corporate.

The Top Ten series, from the America’s Best Comics DC/Wildstorm imprint, has shown that more than once: this cop show set in a town where absolutely everybody wears a costume and displays powers is a wonderful blend of humor and drama. Collected in two volumes (2001 & 2003, plus the 2004 Smax mini-series, showcasing two of Top Ten‘s characters), those twelve comics telling a complete and dense story included Phantom Jack, a lesbian cop who could phase through matter, and Steve Traynor, the semi-closeted captain of the Top Ten precinct, who was called Jetlad in his youth during World War II, when, still a kid, he flew a combat plane.

The whole series can be seen as a description of a real melting pot which doesn’t work too badly, with people of all ethnic, religious and skin color background, not to mention the aliens, gods, talking animals, robots, etc. living together. It might sound silly, but Moore manages to make it believable, in part because he allows each and every one of his characters his own personality and view of life, without trying to force any kind of universal truth on them. He also touches on a lot of very real-world problems, like in the last issue of series (possible spoilers ahead): a ring of pedophiles superheroes is discovered by the team which works at Top Ten, and things get quite ugly. At the same time, we see Traynor get home to his long-time partner Wulf, whom we learn he met at the end of WWII, when he was 16 and Wulf about 24. In a few panels, Moore shows an enduring love between two people who, at one time, would have been branded as criminals, not only because they’re men, but also because one was a minor. The contrast between the love between those two men and the way the abusive relationships in the pedophile ring were portrayed is of course striking, but more importantly, Moore takes the time to give a balanced view of relationships which are usually only vilified. And I’m not talking about gay relationships here. I’m sure a few readers will feel Moore advocates relationships between minors and adults, but of course, he does no such thing: he only shows, with restraint and an optimistic view of humanity, that things aren’t as simple as Manichean people would like to have us believe.

Steve and Wulf

The all-new graphic novel Top Ten: The Forty-Niners, with art by Gene Ha, one of the illustrators of the series (with Zander Cannon), continues that fine tradition with a story set in 1949 around the first cops of Top Ten, when all the costumed-people where sent to one city, because ordinary citizens didn’t want them around the rest of the country. Jetlad arrives in town, looking for a job, and quickly meets a group of former plane pilots, one of them being Wulf. In the course of the story, we discover a number of elements which were hinted at during the first series and meet some of those early characters we saw as old people there. Steve and Wulf’s story is one of the sub-plots of the book, amid ex-Nazi scientists who now work for the US being murdered, and the plague of the gangster vampires who are trying to take control of the city, with a severely undermanned police force doing its best. But it’s also the only love story of the book, which is something we don’t often get in a mainstream comic. As usual, their particular story is set against a broader canvas where robots are seen as not deserving any respect and vampires from Old Europe are all gangsters. It’s about discrimination and fear of the unknown, of the different.
Moore’s fiction is a great example of how social conscience doesn’t prevent a writer from telling a great involving story full of wonders and colorful characters. The fact that he works with such talented artists as Gene Ha (you can see a preview of the graphic novel here, courtesy of the publisher) is of course a big bonus. Ha’s skills as a world-builder are only rivaled by his talent for drawing varied people.
Top Ten: The Forty-Niners is a book I’d been expecting for about four years, since it was announced at the end of the original series. As clichéd as this will sound, it was certainly worth the wait.

UP. 07/2010: the original hardcover is no longer available, but a trade paperback is.

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