Monday, November 10, 2008

What Could Have Been: Tom Strong #20

What a difference a week makes.

Last Monday, skeptical Americans, on the brink of an undoubtedly historical Presidential election, wondered about the fate of their country. A week later, Americans either celebrating a victory or lamenting a loss can still be proud that their nation has made a giant step forward in abolishing its reputation for racism, perhaps setting a standard for the rest of the world. That's how I see it, anyway.

The question is, did Barack Obama win because of the Dragon bump? Pundits will argue that one for the next four years, I'm sure . . .

To acknowledge America's celebration of change, I decided to read a few of the comic books in my stable of unread issues that star black protagonists -- a theme I've traditionally utilized in February for Black History Month, but black history has been made this month, so the obligatory wait would be a disservice. My hope in these next few reviews is to find some parallels between the black heroes of comics and our President Elect, who has become a real life hero to many, many people (and who has now starred in a few comics of his own!). Leave it to Alan Moore to kick off the concept with practically prophetic results.

When the Comic Bookie closed last month, I was delighted to find several issues of Tom Strong in the fifty cent bins. Tom Strong remains one of those series I regret not buying monthly, yet also remains a guilty pleasure when I flip through discounted back issue boxes, as it isn't foremost on my mind but always climbs the must-buy list when I find a cheap issue. With all the publicity surrounding the release of The Watchmen movie, Moore's other works are likely to take a backseat in these coming months, until of course each of them are optioned for film production, too. I dare say that Tom Strong is one of the writer's most ambitious works, though, with thirty-six issues spanning eight years (the longest Moore has been associated with any one character or story, with the exception of Swamp Thing, unless someone can cite another example). Reflecting, sometimes satirizing, the science fiction pulp of the '50s, Tom Strong also combines strands from almost every other significant comic book genre, as well (western, romance, horror . . . it's all in there, sometimes in a single issue!), utilizing flashback sequences and/or chapter breaks liberally yet with reverence. Again, why I still haven't read every issue is beyond me.

Tom's origin is perhaps the most interesting contribution to the entire series, however, as Moore successfully tells a complex, engaging origin story with striking originality. When scientist Sinclair Strong and his wife Susan are shipwrecked on a deserted island, Strong makes the best of it by building a laboratory where he and his wife raise their son in a high-gravity chamber, educating him and nourishing him with an indigenous root, goloka, in a culminating effort to perfect his mind and body. When a volcanic eruption destroys the lab and kills Tom's parents, Tom finds comfort in the local, hidden tribe, and he takes a bride who eventually joins him on a journey back to Millennium City, where he becomes a science hero. Of course, fans know there are many more critical intricacies to this story, but these are the nuts and bolts necessary to understand issue #20.

See, in issue #20, Tom encounters a visitor from an alternate timeline, one where his origins are vastly different. Apparently, when one of Susan's pre-Sinclair suitors gives her an element capable of dividing time, she does just that, creating a history that prematurely kills Strong and strands her on the island with Tomas Stone, their ship's Jamaican (?) captain. When Tom Stone is born, he attains the same longevity and strength from the island's beloved goloka and learns vicariously through Sinclair's stranded books, essentially becoming the same man from the original timestream, but with darker skin. In Millennium City, this alienation actually builds a bridge of camaraderie with the one that would become his mad scientist arch nemesis, and together they become a force for good. However, Susan soon discovers the timeline's split, and . . . ha, to be continued. Surely a tale with such chronological consequence couldn't be told in a single issue, eh!

So, what does all of this have to do with Barack Obama? Well, Moore pens a prolific line that reminded me of the Illinois Senator's recent accomplishments. When Tom's mother sees how beloved her son is in Millennium City, she muses, "And everyone's so friendly to colored people now. You must have educated them, son." The implication stands, that the positive impact of a single individual with a high enough profile could redirect the perspective toward an entire group of people. Racism certainly isn't over, in either our reality or Strong's alternate history I'm sure, but racists can at least tangibly grasp that they're in the minority, that they're in the wake of something much more progressive than their rooted and anchored beliefs. Thankfully, we didn't need a skewered timeline to teach us that.

Yet, this catalyst in Tom Strong #20 is what appealed to me most of all. A week ago, Americans were like-minded in their contemplation of another reality, one in which their candidate of choice didn't win -- an Earth-2, if you will. How exciting is it that those that aren't into comics or science fiction can understand the Doc Brown concept of an alternate timeline? In this other world, how many of your friends really moved to Canada when McCain-2 won the election? How did his spending freeze affect the economy-2? Most interestingly, how soon did Palin-2 take the White House, if at all? I'm hoping to discover some traits in black comic book heroes that reflect our reality now, the one with Barack Obama poised as America's President, but Alan Moore turns racism on its ear a bit and shows us that sometimes the color of one's skin does matter, just enough.

Tom Strong #20 was published by America's Best Comics in June 2003 and was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Jerry Ordway and Karl Story, colored by Dave Stewart, lettered by Todd Klein, and edited by Kristy Quinn and Scott Dunbier.

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