Friday, 22 June 2012

Top 10 - recommended reading

There can't be many comic fans who need to be told that Alan Moore is the single most lauded writer in comicdom. There are many pretenders to his crown, many wannabes, but - to my mind - none of the other Big Name writers  has really managed to rival his capacity for wit, intelligence or pure entertainment value. Certainly no one has managed to combine all three as perfectly as Moore does in Top 10.

Not as well known as those of Moore's books which have, with varying degrees of success, been made into films, Top 10 is a two-volume under-appreciated masterpiece.

So, what's it all about?

On a purely narrative level, this is the story of Robyn Slinger, a rookie police officer in the precinct known as Top 10 - the precinct responsible for maintaining law and order in Neopolis, a city built after the Second World War to house America's booming super-powered population.

So far, so Kingdom Come. But this is Alan Moore and, unlike Alex Ross's monolithic oeuvre, Top 10 is about so much more.

Every page bristles with new ideas, some only glanced at in passing, others apparently cast aside only to be picked up again later as the focal point for a totally unexpected sub-plot. Casual comments about superhero costumes and the absurdity of certain characters' powers jostle alongside barely disguised reflections on AIDS, racial prejudice, life, the universe and everything.

Art

The artwork in Top 10 is by Gene Ha ("finishing artist") and Zander Cannon ("layout artist"). I have no idea what those titles mean in terms of process (I suspect there's a touch of computer trickery involved?) but the result is a style which is unique. It's not as slickly mainstream as work by Jim Lee, not as artistically idiosyncratic as Dave McKean or as photorealistic as the paintings of Alex Ross. Instead, in keeping with the book's premise and the nature of the characters, the artwork has a quirky charm, and - as befits a story with so much substance to its content - is often incredibly detailed. There are many, many panels in which events unfolding in the background are almost as significant as those playing out in the foreground.

The characters are drawn with sufficient realism for the reader to accept them as real people, with a refreshingly wide variety of faces and body types. Read it more than once, and you'll discover something new with every reading.

Writing

As for the writing, do I really need to say anything other than that it's by Alan Moore? Well, yes. Even for a huge admirer of Alan Moore (like me!), not everything he's written is of equal quality. For me, V for Vendetta was little more than a prolonged rant against the 1980s Thatcher government, From Hell read like a dull text book and Promethea was a self-indulgent coffee-table book, full of pretty illustrations but little story.

Top 10, I'm pleased to say, is none of those things. Along with the better known League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10 was one of the first projects launched by Moore under his ABC comics imprint and, free of his wranglings with DC, his joy at being able to write exactly what he wants in exactly the way he wants is palpable.

Stylistically, Top 10 is written as a police procedural. We join Robyn (a.k.a. Toybox) on her first day on the job. She is partnered with Smax, a Superman-type figure with a surly, unsociable personality made even worse by the recent death of his former partner. We sit in on the precinct's morning briefings, we follow the characters' investigations into the hunt for a serial killer (and an invisible groper!), we get glimpses of their private lives, we get to laugh at their interactions and to share in their losses. Forget the X-Men. Never has a group of super-powered beings felt more like a group of people that we might all know in real life.

And all the time, on every page, Moore is dazzling us with new ideas, new concepts, new philosophical musings and new observations on life, comic books and everything in between. There is more dialogue in one or two panels of Top 10 than most of today's so-called writers put into one or two pages, and yet not one word is superfluous. It all serves to reveal character, explore themes, advance plot or create atmosphere. This book is a masterclass in (intelligent) writing for comics. Plus, Moore also makes it fun!

The city of tomorrow, today

One of the things that make Top 10's characters so believable and the reading of it so enjoyable is the skill and care which Moore and Ha have put into building the city of Neopolis. Described by Moore in his foreword as a "four story carpark [...] designed by Ray Bradbury, Fritz Lang and Zeus", Neopolis is very much a futuristic sci-fi world for futuristic sci-fi characters. Where it differs from the domed environment created in Alex Ross's Kingdom Come, however, is that this city feels real. It feels lived in. The people in it eat, live and breathe.

The inhabitants of Neopolis may have outlandish names, colourful costumes and superhuman abilities but, for the most part, they aren't heroes. We can identify with them because they work as taxi drivers, insurance salesmen or, of course, cops; they worship boy bands and go to night clubs; they care about their partners, children and mothers; they grapple with injuries, prejudice, diseases and even pest control. To quote The Incredibles, it's a city where - because everyone's super - no one is.

If you've ever wondered what New York would be like if super-powered characters really were commonplace or if you just think that a good comic should be both intelligent and a lot of fun, get hold of a copy of Top 10 and treat yourself to a visit to Neopolis!

3 comments:

  1. Yup - a great comic I need to reread some of these days!

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  2. Oh, and by the way - Regarding the distinction between layout and finishing artist, I assume Cannon just did, well, layouts. Scribbles that indicate how many panels there are on the page, how they're laid out, the perspective and composition of the individual panels, etc. And Gene Ha followed these layouts when drawing the pages. So I don't see how you come to the conclusion that "computer trickery was involved" :) By the way, Keith Giffen (one of my favorite DC mainstream artists) did layouts for the entire weekly 52 series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/52_%28comics%29) - he would obviously been unable to draw a whole issue every week, but the book draws some visual cohesion from the fact that the same person drew all the layouts. In the first TP collection of 52, some of Giffen's layouts are reprinted, and they basically look just like quick pen drawings.

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    Replies
    1. Just showing my ignorance, that's all!

      Since no one was credited as (the more usual) "penciller" or "inker", I assumed some other method had been used. Thanks for enlightening me!

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