Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review - Top Ten

Top Ten
Written by Alan Moore; Art by Gene Ha
2000 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2000, 2001 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

You won't find a lot of disagreement that Alan Moore's finest work is Watchmen. There might be the odd holdout for V for Vendetta, an appreciation for the richly textured From Hell, or just plain love for his other works but when you break things down what he'll be remembered for is the monumental impact of Watchmen. That series has cast a shadow over superhero comics since it was released as many creators took it as the handbook on how to create adult superheroes. I doubt that Moore intended it that way; Watchmen is a deconstructive work in the sense that it pulls apart the assumptions of the genre and tries to fit them together in a new way but there's more than one way to deconstruct.

Top Ten strikes me as Moore's response to how Watchmen affected the comic book industry. It is bright, cheerful, and hopeful in a way that superhero comics were in the past. It has the adult undercurrents that run in parallel to the goofiness in a balanced way. The book revels in the past and pop culture. And it takes the concept of the superhero and places it in the context of the everyday hero. Top Ten deconstructs superheroes like Watchmen and it shows a different way that things could be taken.

Top Ten is set in a city where everyone is a superhero. The entire population wears funny costumes, has some odd superpowers, and everyone works in archetypes. A city of superheroes still needs police and the men and women (and superintelligent dog) of the tenth prescient do that thankless job day in and day out. Early on it seemed as though the book would focus on the rookie and her hard boiled partner but Top Ten was an ensemble book with a huge cast. Together the cast deals with normal problems like a drunk , a traffic accident, or a homicide only the drunk is a giant monster, the traffic was in teleporters, and the homicide was the god Baldur who keeps getting killed by Loki.

The obvious comparison for Top Ten is the television series Hill Street Blues. Top Ten is also about the day to day life and problems of the police on the beat but it moves them into the realm of the fantastic. It would have been easy to just copy and paste the concepts of the police drama over and put a superficial layer on it but Moore's plays with the contrasts. They're similar enough to be recognizable but different enough that you couldn't transplant the stories easily back to a normal setting.

There is an overarching plot to Top Ten but when it came down to it I never felt like that plot was really that essential. I enjoyed the stories a lot more when they were about the minutia and the bulk of them were just that. I liked seeing the cast deal with the crazy guy who thinks he's Santa or an escalating Crisis on Infinite Mices. It's the little off kilter things that make the book so enjoyable.

And that brings me to Gene Ha. He a fine job illustrating the characters and building the story in his artwork. It wasn't at a level I'd call brilliant but I think that Moore's infamously detailed scripting tends to leave his artists with little room for expressing themselves. Where Ha shines and earns my respect is that every single panel is jam packed with pop culture references. The skies are filled with identifiably famous vehicles and heroes, the city is covered in advertising for products that are references. Top Ten might be the champion of nostalgic references as a given page will contain dozens of call backs but because they're all background details they don't become annoying.

What really makes Top Ten a spectacular book is its cast. There's over a dozen officers who wander in and out of scenes and all of them are interesting. They're not necessarily good people but they are interesting and seeing how they react to their troubles is fascinating. I wanted more about all of them but Moore's work with the series is just too short.

I have to confess that the setting of Top Ten doesn't make a bit of sense if you think about it for more than a second. And if you think about it for a second after that you'll realize that it doesn't really matter. To confront the oddness of the setting would be to confront the inherent problems with superheroes and that's the point. Top Ten is one of my favorite works by Moore but at the same time it is firmly grounded in spinning superheroes in a new direction. As long as you can accept that idea then it is worth checking out.