Alan Moore is known as a pretty grim guy. He’s the dark wizard of comics, famous for works like The Killing Joke, Miracleman, Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and a little comic called Watchmen. He creates tightly knit works of horror and fatalism that often end in grotesque and morbid twists—and he writes this stuff incredibly well, there’s no doubt about that. If there’s a list of greatest comic book writers, he’s probably on the top, and with good reason.
The thing is, nearly every time you read about all his accomplishments and the lasting impact he’s had on comics, his best and most beautiful work is not likely to be mentioned. Alan Moore has done some truly masterful comic books, but none as stunning and brilliant as the adventure series Tom Strong.
Tom Strong is a love letter to comic books. It’s fun, bright, and filled with positivity and energy. Created by Moore and artist Chris Sprouse, the series embraces the history of comic books, mixing the heroes of the pulps with modern day super heroics. It is, for the most part, completely all-ages-friendly and the sort of comic you read with a huge smile on your face. Tom Strong had heart in a way few other works from Moore did; it felt like he was reminding his readers that comic books can inspire us to do good and have fun. A strange message for a creator who is often pegged as a somewhat bitter and jaded fellow.
A big part of what made Tom Strong so amazing was the size of the world the characters occupied. Strong and his family felt like they had been around forever. Moore and Sprouse told the adventures of Tom Strong as if they stretched for years in either direction. From the very first issue, you felt like you were jumping into a series that was decades old, like picking up the eight hundredth issue of Action Comics. This was the continuing adventures of Tom Strong, and Moore and Sprouse just happened to be the creators handling it at this particular moment in time. That’s no small feat, and these guys pulled it off with a casual grace.
Every issue of Tom Strong made his world—and multi-dimension universe, for that matter—bigger and more harrowing. Villains appeared and announced their longstanding history with Tom. Old allies resurfaced, and Tom Strongs of different dimensions with different names came calling for help. Tom Strong was bigger than anything Moore had previously done, and yet never felt unwieldy or out of control. Sprouse and Moore told Strong’s adventures with passion and affection, and pure admiration for the comic book medium. The series served as a tribute to everything that had come before, making clear just how much Alan Moore loved comic books.
But you can’t discount the contribution of artist Chris Sprouse. His designs really sell the book, and his storytelling throughout is topnotch. From the title character’s chiseled jaw to the finely detailed world he inhabited, Sprouse made Tom Strong one of the best looking comic books ever produced. The single issues were released bimonthly, which allowed Sprouse to remain its main artists throughout its entire run. Sure, other artists stepped in here and there to tell tales of other worlds and classic Strong adventures—including legends like Jerry Ordway and Howard Chaykin—but the look and feel of Tom Strong was all Chris Sprouse. Everyone else just played in his world.
So, why does this title always seem to be left out of Alan Moore’s career retrospectives? Why is it so often ignored? Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t fit into the narrative we’ve constructed about the man. We like to think of him as a gritty worshipper or a forgotten snake god, as a man who despises everything about the comic book industry and just wants to be left alone. We call him famous for deconstructing superheroes and shaping the dark future of the entire genre. Looking at that version of Alan Moore, it’s hard to admit he’s a guy who loves comics, but Tom Strong proves he does. With Chris Sprouse, he created one of the most fun and inspiring series of the modern age… and the industry often pretends the series doesn’t exist.
During its initial production, Tom Strong ran under an imprint of Wildstorm called America’s Best Comics. Every title in that imprint was written by Moore, and they were all pretty amazing, but Tom Strong was the best of the bunch. Reading it then and rereading it now, it’s easy to call these the best. It’s time we put Tom Strong at the top of Alan Moore’s bibliography—the series is simply too great to be pushed aside and forgotten.
Images: DC Comics