There’s something that almost all of the creator owned super heroes I love have in common – in fact, something many of the corporate superhero stories I love do this as well – they are all made of their history. Invincible, Supreme, Seaguy, Empowered, Tom Strong and many others are all very reflexive characters – often, they are speaking directly to their pulp or genre roots, but even if they aren’t making that blunt of a dialogue about superhero comics history, they couldn’t exist without the dozens of publishers that helped shape and refine the concept, beyond just that of Marvel and DC.
Of course, Tom Strong does this more than any of these other characters. You won’t find a panel in a TS book that doesn’t bleed superhero history – and it goes beyond the Silver Age pastiche you’d expect if you glimpsed the cover walking by the rack. TOM STRONG is sci-fi pulp in the vein of Magnus Robot Fighter, it’s endearing ’70’s era attempts at progressive elements like women’s lib, it’s the lumbering he-man battles of the Golden Age and, yes, there is a lot of Silver Age in there, too – a prominent character does happen to be a talking gorilla after all.
But it’s all these many parts that make TOM STRONG so special, and this first issue of a new series presents Tom’s weird and wonderful world in the best way possible – by focusing on the emotional realism that modern superhero comics excel at. As Grant Morrison (the occasional rival of Strong’s own creator) once more or less said, we want emotionally realistic characters, not literally realistic stories. Peter Hogan opens PLANETS OF PERIL in a way that couldn’t feel more modern when contrasted against the comics’ pulpy old-school cover – a superhero in a fun and colourful costume trying to save the life of his near-death pregnant daughter.
However, Hogan (and Moore before him) understands perfectly the real power of being able to explore mature subject matter in modern superhero stories. Tom’s complete inability to accept the possibility of losing his daughter is beautiful, inspiring and sad in a truly moving way – there really is nothing more melancholic than a man who believes he can change the world, and it’s a hell of a lot more moving and inspiring than a man of unlimited power killing his enemies when faced ‘with no other choice!’
Sometimes it feels expected with a former 2000AD writer, but PLANET OF PERIL also features plenty of meta-textual moments. There’s a line about comic book writers that’s a bit too clever for it’s own sake, but for the most part, this is more than a cheap fourth-wall breaking gag. Tom seeks a cure against death in an alternate world protected by Tom Strange, an alternate version of himself that gained his God-level powers by drinking a strange potion. Oddly, the stories of Tom Strange are chronicled in the comics of Tom Strong’s world – and they’re hard to track down, too, what with the declining popularity of sci-fi superhero stories.
Despite all of these fun moments, the scene that stands out most to me is a flashback to Tom’s origin story – a truly original superhero birth that reads like a cross between the psychoterror of Batman and the sci-fi tragedy of Superman. If Batman is defined by the hole that he could never fill and Superman’s is the ultimate tale of longing, Tom was born as a superhero over years and years of isolation, from his parents and the world at large. Hogan presents these flashbacks in a way that doesn’t just feel like a issue one tack-on for new readers, but rather something that speaks to the heart of the bigger story being told.
Of course, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story draw like their lives depend on it. This is the work of their career, and considering the talent we’re talking about, that’s saying something. Sure, there aren’t the big and crazy cosmic set pieces that we’re used to seeing in the title, but I like the choice to start off the new series on a bit of a downer note. It’s a beautiful, beautiful comic book, and Jordie Bellaire’s colours bring the four-colour pop world of Tom Strong to life perfectly. Todd Klein’s letters are also a lot of fun, particularly the big and bold style of Strong’s dialogue that avoids the over-bearing feel that we sometimes get from Ben Grimm in FANTASTIC FOUR.
TOM STRONG is one of the best on-going superhero stories of all time, and the fact that it’s back is something to be celebrated. TOM STRONG AND THE PLANETS OF PERIL is fantastic, and if you forgot to pick up the first issue, get on that now!