Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Alan Moore Obscurities: Top Ten: Book 1 (#1-7)

 "What did your last partner die of?  Drown in charm did they?" - Robyn

In the late 90's Alan Moore was working for Rob Leifeld's Awesome comics studio and was given the chance to revamp the whole line.  But before he got very far into it, Jim Lee, the owner of the Image imprint Wildstorm gave Alan an offer he couldn't refuse.  He could create a whole shared universe with characters of his own creation rather than working with already defined ones.  The studio was named ABC - America's Best Comics and the three main series that Moore came up with were Promethea, Tom Strong and Top Ten (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was also published under the ABC imprint, but was not part of the ABCverse, relying as it did on literature and pop culture from "our" universe). Of these three comics, Top Ten feels like the most overlooked.  Promethea is a stunning tour de force that was pretty much Moore's mission statement on life. Tom Strong was a love letter to the Silver Age that people were beginning to feel intense nostalgia for after the EXTREME 90's soured people on darker comic tales.  Top Ten though for my money is actually my favourite Moore work since Watchmen, predecated on one simple idea.  What would police work be like in a city where everyone, including the cops were superheroes?  The story manages to mix the gritty slice of life detective drama of Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life On The Street with the bright and colourful world of the American superhero tropes.  Packed full of homages, jokes, clever references and just general all round awesomeness, these twelve issues, split across two trade paperbacks are gorgeously illustrated by Zander Cannon and Gene Ha and are something pretty special.

After a written, in universe description of a trip round Neopolis with a pair of cops, the comic begins. The first well-worn cop trope of the rookie police officer as our P.O.V character to all the weirdness that is due to unfold is put into action. Robyn, who doesn't have superpowers, but does have a set of mechanical toy helpers gets in a cab driven by a man with a blindfold on who uses his "zen senses" to get around the city. At the precinct she meets Jackie Kowalski, a lesbian who can phase shift, Duane, a cowboy with mechanical legs and Kemlo, a talking doberman in a robotic humanoid exo-skeleton.
Robyn and Smax
The Hill Street Blues style daily briefing takes place, where cases are updated and handed out. A serial killer called Libra is on the loose, killing prostitutes.  This provides one of the two on-going cases that thread through the series as a whole.  The next cop show trope to come into play is the teaming of the wide-eyed newbie and the gruff veteran, in this case Robyn with Jeff Smax.  He's a large blue man who is invulnerable and can fire an energy beam out of his chest.  His previous partner died, which adds extra layers of awkwardness to their relationship.

After breaking up a domestic dispute, Robyn and Smax are called to a murder scene.  Already there are Detectives Corbeau (a devil worshipper) and Jackson, a female detective who has synathesia and is reading the scene with her enhanced senses.  Robyn lets her toys comb the scene and finds some ID and a high tech saddle in the area.  Back at the precinct she has a chat in the canteen with Irma-Geddon, a woman with high tech armour and firepower and Li a woman who can make shifting patterns across her body.  They are called away by Kemlo who says they have traced the murder victim to a drug factory which they are now going to raid.
The factory raid
Robyn, Smax, Corbeau, Li, Irma and Jackson all gather at the factory and start the raid.  They meet armed resistence which they deal with and Robyn manages to disable a Professor Gromolko who was disposing of evidence in the cellar.  He lawyers up, so they take him back to the precinct for interrogation.  They bring in detective Glushko who is a telepath, but this makes Gromolko panic and before anyone can stop him, he grabs one of Duane's guns and blows his brains out.  The day comes to an end and Jackie invites Robyn out for a drink, but when Robyn realises Jackie is hitting on her she makes her excuses and leaves.  Back home she bids her senile father goodnight and so ends her eventful first day on the job.

Next day, Irma and Li are chatting in a car on the way to work when the Zen Cabbie crashes into them.  Back in the precinct Jackson is discussing the Gromolko case with Peregrine, a woman with wings who is also a devout Christian.  They are looking for the partner of the "saddle" man Stefan Graczik, a Marta "Boots" Wesson who was also a runner for Gromolko's drug operation.

Kemlo gives a briefing, Corbeau and Jackson are to handle the Gromolko case, Duane and Cheney are to keep an eye out for Libra and check the prostitutes are safe, and someone needs to go and help Irma and Li who have broken down in a bad part of town.  Smax and Robyn go to their aid.  An unruly gang has appeared and the leader is a drunken, green monster man who Smax stuns with his chest beam.  They take him and the Zen cabbie back to the precinct.
A drunken Grograh
Meanwhile, Duane and Cheney are called to what turns out to be a headless corpse of a hooker.  The signature of the Libra killer.  Cheney is upset because he recognises her as one he let off with a warning earlier when he found her about to service a man who could inflate himself. Back at the precinct, Robyn has had an idea about using the Zen Cabbie to help them out:

Cabbie: "Where'd you want to go?"

Jackson: "Well, you tell us, right? I mean 'where we end up is where we're meant to be'. Isn't that your line? Well, you take us where we're meant to be."

They make somewhat erratic progress through the streets and wind up at a derelict museum.  There they find Marta Wesson cowering in a corner and arrest her.
Nice boots Marta
At the precinct, the pathologist Sally-Jo, who can shrink down to a minute size, is exploring inside the dead, headless hooker who has been bought in.  Cause of death being fairly obvious. Jackie and Peregrine discuss the fact that this means Libra will strike twice more if he keeps to his pattern.

Marta Wesson is kicking up a fuss at the front desk, but she is subdued and taken into interrogation.  She says all they were doing were running supplies of 'goose juice (mongoose blood) and when she is told Gromolko killed himself she goes quiet and lawyers up.  Jackson is still pondering the Mozart music she heard round "saddles" Graczik's corpse.  Cheney and Duane go to collect Glushko, and their car is vandalised by gang members angry about Grograh's incarceration.  He's in lock-up currently being needled by Smax.  Robyn is concerned about gang violence escalating over this, but Smax doesn't care.

Smax: "If Duane and Pete want to treat him like he's some special, off-limits case, then fine.  To me, he's just the delinquent kid of a wino, has-been, fifties movie monster.  He screws up on my turf, he goes down.  End of story."
Jackie, Peregrine and Cheney
Meanwhile Cheney is confessing he met the hooker to Peregrine and Jackie, who are quite angry with him.  They look up the man she was found with and go round his house to question him.  He turns out to be married and has a panic attack and starts inflating uncontrollably, trapping Peregrine in the doorway to the house.  While this is going on, Marta Wesson's lawyer has got an affidavit to prevent mind reading.  Then suddenly there is a loud rumble from outside.  A huge Godzilla like creature has appeared outside the precinct.  It's Grograh's dad and he wants his boy back.

While everyone rushes outside, a woman comes into the precinct, gives Kemlo her severed finger and faints in his arms.  Outside, the drunken monster Gograh throws up radioactive puke all over the street.  The Captain takes charge, ordering cleanup and building evacuation.  He then starts reasoning with the monster until Smax comes out and starts baiting Gograh.  The pathologist, Sally-Jo arrives and uses her shrinking technology to shrink Gograh down to a size small enough to fit in the Capatains palm.  Then Sally-Jo goes to check on the fainted woman, noting the cleaness of the cut.
Grograh's dad comes to call
In interrogation, Corbeau and Jackson manage to get Marta to tell them Graczik was delivering something special.  But he decided they could make more money dealing it on their own and ripped Gromolko off.  They went into hiding at the museum.  So Corbeau, Jackson and Glushko go to investigate.  Robyn and Snax are sent to raid a club that had been supplied goose juice, and Jackie and Pergrine arrive with the inflatable man to question him over the hooker's death.

At the museum, Jackon hears music, but not Mozart, instead The Ode To Joy.  They discover Marta and Graczik's squat and the mysterious substance they were going to deal.  It's in a cylinder and turns out to be dangerously radioactive so they can't take it away just yet they need someone immune to radiation to collect it.
Corbeau, Jackson and Glushko find the mystery substance
At the precinct Ernesto Grograh and his still tiny dad are released. In autopsy the woman is introduced as Annette Duvalle.  She saw Libra and it wasn't human:

Annette: "I saw what I saw.  It came out of the drain, and it was like purple candyfloss".

So Kemlo, Annette, Duane, Cheney and Jackie go to where she was attacked and find a drainage hole open.  They are also fed the news that the bio-traces are extra terrerestrial in origin.

As Duane and Jackie descend into the hole, Duane gets a call from his Mum about a hole in her flat. Back at the precinct, Smax and Robyn are sent to collect the radioactive substance.  Lieutenant Peregrine is being told more about the alien.  It takes heads because it requires the pineal gland.  It's lifecycle meant that it's kills fell in a pattern, but otherwise it was a coincidence they all fell under the period of the sign of Libra.

In the sewers, Duane and Jackie joke around, then suddenly Duane yells at Jackie to phase.  They are faced with a huge alien, with thrashing, razor sharp monofilaments. Pete Cheney arrivesa and usesa his electrical powers to force it into a retreat.  They call for back-up, but everyone is busy.  Jackson says there has been a break in the Graczik-Gromolko casae, a transworld ticket was found along side the radioactive susbstance.  So Duane, Cheney and Jackson carry on chasing Libra themselves.
Jackie and Duane discover Libra
It bursts out of the ground where Kemlo and Annette are, slicing off Kemlo's ear and into his exoskeleton. Pete manages to run a charge through it powerful enough to knock it out.  A special wagon arrives to take it away and the cops go for coffee to recover.  Later Duane goes to visit his Mum and finds her flat has been invaded by Ultramice.

It's snowing in Neopolis and Smax is having a strange dream in which he meets dead people like his previous partner, and also Robyn appears which concerns him slightly.  He wakes up and goes to open the closet, inside is something speaking in rhyme but we don't find out what that is all about until the spin-off miniseries Smax. He collects Robyn, having warmed to her somewhat and they arrive at the station to find out Libra has been captured.  They go take a look, she is inside a glass cylinder being watched over by Kemlo, who is out of his exoskeleton while it gets repaired. 
A disturbance is reported and Irma and Li are sent to check it out.  It turns out to be Santa, surrounded by a horde of kids, deciding who are naughty and nice.  He declares the officers naughty and dumps them in a pile of snow with his psychokinetic power.  Jackson sends a griping Smax out to give them some back-up.  Meanwhile, Duane has called an exterminator to deal with the Ultramice problem and reluctantly allows his Mum to come stay with him while the problem is dealt with.  The pest controller sends in Ultracats to deal with them and a war begins.

Back with Santa, he zaps Smax high into the air, resisting all attempts to deal with him.  Then Harry arrives from the precinct.  He is a hostage negociator who's power is that his voice must be obeyed.   This allows them to arrest Santa successfully.  Robyn and Smax head back, while Smax haltingly tells her about his dream and how he thinks he needs to be nicer to people before it's too late.  Then they are waylaid by the Norse Goddess Freya, who is distraught.  At a party in the Godz bar, someone has murdered her son.  Robyn and Smax arrive on the scene:

Smax: "Okay, Okay, we're police officers. Nobody move in a mysterious way."

Oh very good Alan. Very good.  I shall use that at the club next time I'm there.  People will be slapping my back for weeks.

At the precinct, Libra is using her telepathic power to try and get her guard to free her.  Jackosn stops the man, Hector and tells him that Libra used to be a porn star and is really called M'rrlga Qualtz.  Corbeau tells Jackson they finished testing the isotope, it's more of a compressed powder, designed to be dissolved and injected like a drug.  It's also not on their periodic table.
Trouble at the Godz bar
Jackson is called to the incident at the Godz bar.  The victim is Balder and the whole scenario is an excuse for Moore to riff comedically on Norse myth tropes.  The pathologist finds misletoe inside Balder's chest wound.  Apparently everyone was throwing things at Balder, because nothing could harm him except misletoe.  Turns out the blind God Hod threw it. Smax finds him hiding in the toilets. He says he was given the misletoe by Lokk.  Jackson asks Lokk if this is true.

Lokk: "I mean there's Balder, he's all 'look at me, I'm lovely, everything loves me'.  I mean I'm the God of Evil, what am I gonna do?"

Back at the precinct, the Captain tells Corbeau he should book a ticket to Grand Central to follow up the Graczik-Gromolko case. Then a group of heroes arrive demanding to see M'rrlga Qualtz asa she used to be a member of their supergroup.  They refuse to believe she is a killer, and when the Captain takes them to see her, she has changed into a pretty green humanoid woman.

Back at Godz, Corbeau is having a good laugh, pointing out the death of Balder is a cyclical thing.  To prove him right, Balder suddenly comes back to life to the cheers of the rest of the Gods who decide they'll celebrate by playing the "throw things at Balder" game.  Jackson declares the whole thing a waste of time and all the cops there go for coffee.  Thus ends book one.

I've really only skimmed the surface here, there are plenty of small side cases going on per issue asa well as the two on-going ones I chose to concentrate on.  There is so much character stuff crammed into the book and such a wonderful cast of characters that it really works as a mixture of gritty cop drama and superhero nonsense.  And what a great selection of female characters as well.  Quick thinking Robyn, matronly Irma, sultry Li, uber professional Jackson, gentle Peregrine, caring Sally-Jo, wise-cracking Jackie; it really goes to show Moore hasn't lost his touch when writing believable and very different female voices. It's a very talky book, but not at the expense of action, helping to flesh out the world of Neopolis through a combination of Moore's naturalistic dialogue and Cannon and Ha's exquisitely detailed artwork. It really is a shame there is only five more issues to go.


  1. Why do all the best comics get cancelled?

  2. I'm not sure why Top Ten ceased publication. I've included some speculation why on my review of the second book.