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posted October 10, 2001
Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Zander Cannon
America's Best Comics
Let's Be Careful Out There
For those growing up on 1970s episodic television and the next decade's spate of straight-to-cable crime movies, sustained exposure to the serial police procedural may come as something of a shock. Television shows like Hill Street Blues and movies like High and Low (not to mention the 87th Precinct books from which the latter is taken) allow an audience to believe that not only may the most bewildering crimes be expected to plod towards resolution but that there is some inner sense of solidarity that helps point the police in that necessary, crime-solving direction. The formula is so strong that even the occasional attempt to subvert it -- in television shows like Homicide and NYPD Blue -- yields characters of larger-than-life decency, heroically stemming the tide against that lack of resolution. Like the newspaper drama, the serial police procedural's main act of subversion isn't in the individual moral choices presented but in the initial decision to explore the precinct house in terms of drama, drawing attention away from the apathy, ignorance and banality which no doubt fuels our frustration with their equivalent in the real world.
In terms of plot progression, Top 10 draws deeply from police drama convention. Robyn Slinger, the young police rookie superhero Toybox, acts as the reader's eyes and ears within the world of her first professional assignment. Her new place of employment is Precinct 10 of Neopolis, a city jam-packed with superheroes of varying power and social position, all of whom act out in various shades of post-Kirby moral complexity. In some ways Moore seems to intend Neopolis as the physical container holding the history of American superhero comics -- World War II-era roots, a 1960s explosion of concept and character, and guest-starring roles from god-like beings, fantasy archetypes, and straight adventure-story types at about the same percentage as they stumble into the worlds offered up by Marvel and DC. Watching the sincere rookie Slinger and the other decent, broadly-drawn characters of Precinct 10 pursue standard case trope through the exaggerated superheroic world of Neopolis gives the title its crazy, loopy energy.
Because of the size of the Top 10 cast and the scope of Neopolis as their stage, Moore's new identity as craft-king of superhero comics writing gets its best workout here of all the ABC titles. The ability to squeeze any life out of the same three dozen basic superhero stereotypes following the line creation fever of the 1990s would be a remarkable feat. The fact that Moore creates so many characters, seemingly effortlessly, and that all of them have some semblance of pop charm cements his status as all-time smart fan favorite. The art provided by Zander Cannon (one of the better young penciler and inkers in independent comics with his fantasy Replacement God, here used for layouts) and Gene Ha dances between very serviceable to outright solid. Ha in particular weighs a heady mix of old-school Buscema/Palmer muscular linework and better-than-average costume design. However many of the three main creators contribute to the background jokes -- WildStorm characters as hookers, buildings in the shape of Kirby machinery, walk-through ranging from the Rat Fink to Little Orphan Annie -- deserves special mention. The entire world of Neopolis bends over backward in service of its demented in-jokes, and the breathless execution conveys the good time being had by the creators even for those with a different sense of humor.
By valuing a good time, making the plots recognizable, creating character who are for the most part decent rather than morally repugnant, and by writing snappy dialogue that is lettered in over imaginative art, Moore and the Top 10 artists have created the closest thing in three decades to an early Marvel comic book. Where Kirby, Lee and Ditko gave their characters humorous soap opera equivalents of personal lives, Moore, Cannon and Ha have given their crimefighters police drama versions of professional lives. Almost by accident, therefore, Top 10 sidesteps the fascist overtones and vigilante wish fulfillment of superhero comics from Thomas to McFarlane in favor of characters whose authority derived by vocational choice, law, and implied social contract. Top 10 provides the most interesting take on a tired, over-examined concept since Kirby linked morality and motivation in his New Gods comics -- even when compared to its stablemates. It is undeniably a unique achievement.
But is it a great one? The trade-off in making a imaginative teenage superhero drama seems any contribution Top 10's costumes and colorful characters make to the procedural drama. Like Galactus on a genre-bender, the superheroes devour the police story whole. Not only are the Top 10 plots extremely cliched for police-style investigations and broadcast issues ahead of time, the broad resolutions (a major fistfight in issue #10) and detailed plot points (discussion of various superpowers) that walk hand in hand with men in tights draw attention away from the sense of verisimilitude upon which procedurals often thrive. The issues of Top 10 published to date depict a precinct house and justice system much less detailed than seen in the bustling walk-throughs and competing institutions found in a television drama. In addition, the comic's cast is almost completely limited to the police officers themselves, the victims and suspects they meet, and a few personal relationships. Barney Miller felt less insulated.
Like the early Marvel comics, Top 10's combination of genres provides little in the sense of valuable real-world commentary. Moore hints at a comparison between policemen working a city of superheroes and real-world cops working in cities where suspects may be better armed than they are. But Precinct 10 still has the big hitters -- one of them even carries the conversation ender of all conversation enders, a nuclear bomb -- and the one time Precinct 10 faces a problem that is beyond their immediate firepower, it's resolved in a smash walls, haughty speech, blow up buildings kind of way. A tinge of pan-cultural idealism also hangs over the book, almost by definition, although such issues haven't barely started to bleed into storylines. Like the mylar snug into which individual issues may be slipped, Top 10 is a perfectly entertaining exercise in drama-blending, and a laugh-out-loud battery of visual in-jokes for the aging fan. But rather than creating a high-end superhero book as a partial beacon to revitalize a dormant subgenre, Top 10 reads more like a warning as to how much furious, creative energy it takes to lift a certain type of comic to the level of valid entertainment. If, -- to use the statements of a dozen years ago -- Dark Knight Returns was the superhero's funeral, and Watchman was the euology, then Top 10 just may well be its eternal flame.