Holy macaroni, what if all the superfolk got together to face an unimaginable threat and I liked it! What kind of crazy world would we be living in then? The world of TERRA OBSCURA that's where, old chum!
Don't turn your back on us, Bob Benton, we need you now more than ever before! Sockamagee, do we ever!
TERRA OBSCURA Vol.1 & Vol.2 Pencils by Yanick Paquette Inks by Karl Story (with Dell, Palmiotti, Friend, Snyder and La Pointe) Plot by Alan Moore & Peter Hogan Script by Peter Hogan Colours by Carrie Strachan Letters by Todd Klein (America’s Best Comics/DC Comics, $14.95 and $14.99)
These two books revisit the denizens of Terra Obscura featured in issues 11 and 12 of the TOM STRONG series created by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse. That wasn't the first time the heroes of S.M.A.S.H and their plucky pals had appeared. Some of these characters may look familiar to you if you are Alex Ross or one of the other three people who read Dynamite’s 2008 Project Superpowers books. That’s because all of the S.M.A.S.H. characters here are also revivals of characters from the Standard/Bettor/Nedor line of comics which ceased in 1959. There are other, fresh characters involved though because if you take something it's always nice to give something back, eh?
Alan Moore is credited with plots here and we all know that Moore’s not exactly overly concerned with plots in and of themselves so it shouldn't be surprising to learn that the plots are a little light and the endings are a little undercooked. And yet the plot in each of the two volumes nicely distract from the real plot that’s bubbling under them both and which only breaks the surface in time to have its conclusion intertwine with the ending of the second volume’s plot. While it’s hardy intricate to put one thing on top of another it does give the tales more structural integrity. Bricklayers might not take a break from drinking strong tea to admire the intricacy of their latest wall but they can be sure it isn't going to fall down. An architect might draw up a dreamlike structure rivaling the Taj Mahal in space for example but if you ask them to actually build it...well, ambition is a great thing but so is ability. I suppose I’m trying to say that TERRA OBSCURA is an example of ability being more important than ambition; solid execution trumping extravagant intentions. Both working together would be exceptional and indeed in genre comics both together are exceptional in at least two senses of the word.
That’s not really giving the series its due though as it isn't without ambition. Entertainment-wise there’s plenty to enjoy what with the characters, situations and events all being just as delightfully loopy as the series' ‘40s capes’n’fight genre origins suggest. There’s a chatty chimp, time travel, alternate realities, derring do, gung-ho and a ghostly dad dressed like Paul Revere to name but a few delights. Luckily the authors are aware it isn’t 1946 and that boat won’t float unaided anymore, Grandad! We’re all sophisticated now. Most of the self congratulatory sophistication of modern capes comics is, of course, the result of the prior work of Alan Moore (back before everyone decided to hunt and kill him because he stood up for himself) so that’s present to an extent. What is also present is an awareness, and thus a tacit acknowledgment, that the ultimate appeal of these characters is their charming daffiness. Post WATCHMEN/KILLING JOKE Moore’s capes genre work since has been busy trying to revitalise this original appeal and get it up on its feet again while most others are busy attempting to suffocate it with the pillow of mediocrity in an attempt to get their hands on their unearned inheritance. To that end the primary ambition here seems more concerned with finding a happy medium between silly and realistic; an attempt to find a place where the two superficially opposed qualities can happily co-habit.
A lot of time is spent giving the characters some dimensions numbering more than one. These folk have a lot of feelings, do a lot of connecting and talking and all that stuff. In Vol.1 this mainly concerns Ms. Masque eventually embracing both her own sexual orientation and Carol Carter’s body. It’s nicely, even sweetly, done and only a little undercut by the ridiculously pneumatic physiques of those involved. In Vol. 2 the focus shifts to Tom Strange and Pantha finding a way past the deaths of those they loved to find that love again in each other. Again, it’s nicely, even sweetly, done and only a little undercut by the ridiculously pneumatic physiques of those involved. Because Paquette sure likes gifting his lasses with large lungs and no mistake. He likes that almost as much as he likes Jennifer Connelly. So keen is he on giving Pantha said actor’s face that should the charming young lady in question disappear the police might first want to check with her neighbours to see if Mr. Paquette was spotted in the vicinity loading a sofa into a white van while wearing a cast on his arm.
Ah, Alan Moore and sex. I guess I should at least pretend to engage on this one although that never ends well for me. While I don’t think Moore is accidentally dropping this stuff on the page unawares, revealing his true inner sexpest and should thus be kept in cage on the moon neither would I hope to be mistaken for an apologist who accepts all his faults without question. Although, I probably am. Self awareness is hard work, people. While there is some creepiness evident here it's probably worth noting in the work’s defence that the creepiness largely results from the romantic attentions of the severely repressed villain. It is not as though the creepiness is presented as the correct way to woo a lady or that she deserves it or anything. Unfortunately the villain is quite forceful in his attentions and while it never goes so far as to present actual sexual violence the young lady in question does end up trussed and vulnerable for an uncomfortable length of time. Uncomfortable for both her and the reader.
Since Hogan was working from Moore’s plots it might have been advisable to dial this bit back a touch. Presumably Moore was off being magnificent and random elsewhere and not crouched behind Hogan alternately pulling flags of all Nations from the author’s ear and looking for ways to take undying umbrage should his work be messed about. So, yes, that bit could probably have done with a lighter touch. Having said that…having said all that, ultimately scenes of erotic peril are characteristic of pulp and if you’re paddling in those waters you’re at least going to get your ankles wet. At least it doesn't dive in and splash about like a happy dog. It’s easy to get distracted by that one scene (like I just did) and to forget the other scenes in both volumes of healthy people having healthy relationships. It would be nice if people remembered the scene between Tom and Pantha where they just straight up talk about it (y’know, it) and Tom gets all vulnerable and shy, the big silly lump!
Throughout the whole series Peter Hogan does a really good job of channeling Moore. He’s particularly good at the trademark Moore finishing move of bringing in a strong shot of pathos in at the kill. And, yes, I do actually mean pathos. I looked it up and everything. Hogan and Moore together with Paquette and Klein et al. do a better job of using the comics form than most more ballyhoo-ed capes series. In both volumes there are flashbacks presented in the stilted art and primitively coloured style of the Golden Age originals, people burst through one page onto the next and exposition is sometimes supported by actually interesting visuals. It isn't a concerted effort to innovate or anything it’s just playful stuff but it demonstrates at least some thought went into it. Todd Klein does some neat stuff with his lettering, particularly in his use of distinctive fonts for selected characters while managing to avoid clutter and confusion on the page. But then Todd Klein is as much of an artist as any comic book artist he just does it with letters. Hats off for Todd Klein! I’m not a massive fan of Paquette’s art but he keeps it all clear, clean and attractive throughout. Thanks to the efforts of all parties TERRA OBSCURA is a thoroughly well done thing indeed. A bit of a team effort, if you will.
In case you were wondering how ABC and Dynamite could use the same characters (and how could you not wonder such a thing?!?), well, 28 years following the creation of these properties Capitalism slept in and no one renewed the copyright. People who become sexually aroused at the term “downsizing” may have just experienced reflux as they will recognise that said properties were now sucked out into the vile environs of the public domain. Some people don’t like the fact that things enter the public domain. Some people spend a lot of time, influence and money ensuring the Law is changed to prevent this, allegedly. And by people I mean Corporations, which aren't people (ask one for a piggyback. See?) Did you know that the English Language (The language of Shakespeare! The language of Dan Brown!)is in the public domain? Imagine if things never entered the public domain! We’d all have to communicate through mime and bird-like chirrups unless we paid a premium-rate fee to EngLangCorp™©. Mind you, if Disney et al. have their way we‘ll probably end up doing just that eventually. And if we all carry on like we are we’ll probably be only too glad to do so, Heck, we may even thank them for it. Hey, TERRA OBSCURA even has a bit about just that kind of thing:
Nope, TERRA OBSCURA ain't as dumb as it looks. It is, however, straight up super-heroics done with a measure of maturity and a great deal of style. Unlike the last 12 issue series Moore was involved in which involved re-imaginings of defunct superheroes who found heir greatest enemy in the last place they expected TERRA OBSCURA won’t change the world of comics. It will, however, entertain a reader of comics and that is always GOOD!
And like The Terror’s virginity I’m gone!
Have a good weekend everyone and make it better by spending it with COMICS!!!