Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Books: Top 10: The Forty-Niners


Top 10: The Forty-Niners
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Gene Ha and Art Lyon


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I want to say this in the thing I wrote for Top 10: but what the hey - maybe it'll be better if I say it here (or not? I dunno): but the thing that I finally realised makes Top 10 such a big, fat, fun read is that more than any other comic out there - hell - more than any other anything out there (unless I'm missing something obvious? Am I missing something obvious?) is that it's the only thing to ever really capture a sense of proper (I don't know what you want to call it): Multiculturalism? Diversity? Big City Life? I mean - yeah - obvious there are other books out there that do pretty well with giving you a flavor of what it's like existing in a space with a million other people (at least [1]) - Transmetropolitan springs to mind as a book which does a pretty good job at that - but even that is hampered by the fact that if you want to set up a subculture in the reader's mind - well: you need to take the time to describe it: which means that there's an upper limit of how many different subcultures you can describe (unless you wanna write 2666 or something [2]) which means that most descriptions of teeming metropolises (or "metropoli"?) tend to be a little - well - flat. Being that they're mainly about Group 1 who are like this and Group 2 who are like this (and - if you're really lucky - Group 3 - who are like this): but then - there's only so much information you can fit into one book - right?

Well - Top 10 skips (no wait - make that: gambols) over this problem by using the entire history of superheroes (and fantasy (and assorted science-fiction stuff) plus whatever else falls across Alan Moore's mind) to create a place where on of the background of pretty much every single panel there's a reference to something or the other - thus forgoing the need to describe which group goes where and what exactly they're about. Instead the sense created is kinda like what it feels like walking down a city street in real life (only - accentuated because (oh well) - we don't live in a world where everyone is a superhero [3]): you know what those people are, and what that guy in the sawn off Metallica T-Shirt is about: but what the hell is that group of people over there about? Oh well - you'll never know.

Is this making sense?

Sorry - actually - let me start again for those of you who have no idea what the hell I'm talking about (Top 10? Alan Moore?? Comic books???)

Top 10: it's a two volume series about life in a city called Neopolis [4] where everyone has super-powers. It's great. I can't believe you haven't read it already. Top 10: The Forty-Niners is a prequel (with almost exactly the same creative team - although they've swapped Zander Cannon for Art Lyon which gives the whole book a much - I dunno - deeper feel? Less garish - more sepia and faded - which makes sense seeing how - you know - it's set about 50 years in the past) that came out a few years later and is set all the way back in 1949: when Neopolis is more like an idea than an actual fully functioning city and everyone is basically just making things up as they go along.

That kinda Multiculturalism / Diversity / Big City Life stuff is still going on - but it's nowhere near the frantic hustling and bustling of the later books: rather everyone is a bit more cautious and a lot more timid when it comes to - well - everything. It's a brave new world although everyone is kinda of unsure about their place within it - which I guess is kinda the point of the Forty-Niners. I mean - I don't want to get too English Literature student on you and start pointing out what the story is really about [6]: but practically every character in this book is struggling (in one way or another) with who they're supposed to be and who they really are: between their public image and (well: as cheesy as it might sound) their secret identity: and trying to decide if they want to fit the shapes the world has cut out for them. What's interesting about this is that in the original Top 10 books no one really has this type of problem: if you're a devil worshipper like John "King Peacock" Corbeau or just an all around bad-ass like Jackie "Jack Phantom" Kowalski there's not that much subterfuge [7] or people trying to hide who they really are or stuff like that....

Don't be mistaken tho: it's not all "my dark and hidden secret" stuff with people feeling tortured about the oppression of society and trying not to use their powers or stuff like that [8] - most of the characters in the Forty-Niners are actively making a conscious choice to not allow themselves to be restricted by anything as mundane as the country they were born in or whether or not they're human beings - and for me what was refreshing (and maybe this is only really possible in an imaginary version of 1949 rather than the real thing) is that the majority of them are actually pretty happy with who they are and don't feel too burdened by how they come across (there's one particularly nice scene where one guy is talking to another and he's all like: "Yeah - this is who I am. Deal with it - I don't have time to play games and mess around." that stands in stark contrast to the histrionics you might usually expect in - well - comics, books, films, TV - everything).

Of course - none of that utopian good feelings / "oh actually if you read deeply into what this is about you can see it's all an analogy for x, y, z" stuff is really besides the point if the story isn't actually worth caring about [9] and - well - yeah: sad to say (in fact I said it already in [4]) this isn't a book that many people would put up there with his best work. And in fact - coming from the dynamic bold stylings of Top 10 - the Forty-Niners feels a little muted (a feeling that's only exacerbated by the artwork: even tho it's much clearer and seems like it's had a lot more work put into it (it's a little like Alex Ross if he decided that he was going to calm down a little and take a step back so that he wasn't always so much in people's faces): it's a more "morning after the night before" than a "hey we're having a party!" Yes - there are so nice choice moments (that Time Travel door cutting through the pages is a very nice effect once you get your mind around it) but by the time you get to the end - it doesn't really feel like it's all added up to much: and if you didn't know it was Alan Moore - well - I'm not entirely sure you'd be able to guess [11].
[1] The population of London (at the time of the last census in 2011) was 8.2 million (which - hey - is a lot).

[2] Hey - I work in a library: which I think gives me the right to (now and again) make a reference to a proper book rather than just something from the graphic novel section.... (You never heard of 2666? Well - look it up).

[3] Yet.

[4] And I have only now this very second realised the repetition (reflection?) of Neopolis and Neonomicon (H. P. Lovecraft inspired comic book also written by Alan Moore). Neo of course is the hero of the Matrix trilogy a prefix from the ancient Greek word for young, neos (νέος), which is derived from the Proto-Indo European word for new, néwos: which (obviously) reflects Alan Moore's lifelong obsession with the new and breaking new ground coming at just the point (if you want to be cruel about it) where he finally started to run out of good ideas (Top 10: The Forty-Niners and Neonomicon in particular being books that don't tend to trouble the "best of Alan Moore" lists - and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the only other comic book he had coming out around this time) being very much an acquired taste [5]).

[5] "Acquired taste" of course being an excellent way to describe something as being rubbish whilst still trying to sound polite.

[6] Although - obviously - that's exactly what I'm about to do. (And speaking personally - I do really love it when I can make some sorta insight into what a book is really about: it means that I can something more than just - the writing is good and the art is nice (which is probably about 75% of all the posts I have up on here) but - hell - (I'm not going to lie to you) it makes me feel a little bit smarter: and that's always cool isn't it?)

[7] I mean - there's a bit. And one character (I won't so who) does lie about their sexual preferences - but that's more by choice (and to get out of what could have been a sticky situation) rather than due to the fact that they felt conflicted or because it was socially unacceptable or anything like that...

[8] I'm thinking here of that scene in the first (second?) Bryan Singer X-Men film where that teenager has to come out to his parents and tell them that - sorry mum and dad: I'm a mutant.

[9] In fact - just the other day I was talking to be literary flatmate about Skyfall and he said that I should read this article on Lenin's Tomb ("SKYFALL: conformity, rebellion and the British post-colonial trauma") and although it seemed quite interesting and well thought out - I couldn't actually read it properly seeing how much I ended up disliking the movie (I agree with what the New Yorker said: "This Bond installment is weighty with calculation: it feels like a ploy of demographically targeted marketing, with the personal drama attached to the espionage, the highly specific motives grafted to the thriller plot, looking like a studio decision to attract women viewers rather than like a mapping of any person’s imagination. Its humanism reeks of cynicism, and the sentimental nods to the old-fashioned ways that underpin the story (not least, at its dénouement, at the rustic Bond family estate in remote and rural Scotland) have all the heart of an ad for whiskey.") I found it really hard to actually give enough of a fig to read the article all the way to end. The lesson being: it's only really interesting and fun to read in-depth analysis of things that you already enjoy (or - failing that: it has to be an in-depth analysis of why whatever it is that is talking about is so rubbish: if it just talks about whatever in neutral terms without making any reference to the fact that the thing that it's talking about is shoddy or whatever - then it just kinda feels like the person isn't smart enough for you to want to spend your time on (so something [10]).

[10] Even when it's someone that I normally love (eg Zizek) - it's hard to care when the thing that they're talking about was such a colossal disappointment (eg The Dark Knight Rises).

[11] Yes - it's obvious a good thing that people don't always write in exactly the same way telling exactly the same story: but that's not what I mean by saying that you won't be able to guess it's Alan Moore: more that - no matter what he writes there's always a sense of someone operating at the height of their ability and constantly pushing the medium as far as it can go and spinning as many plates as possible: while this book feels a lot more like a relaxation and rest upon (considerable yeah) laurels. Or - to put it in Radiohead terms: it's a little like Hail to the Thief. Yeah - the song's are alright. But it's not going to change your world.


Further reading: Top 10, SmaxTransmetropolitanArrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms, Aetheric MechanicsNeonomicon, GrandvilleSwamp Thing.

Profiles: Alan Moore.

All comments welcome.

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