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Top 10: The Forty-Niners is a 2005 graphic novel by Alan Moore with art by Gene Ha. This is a prequel to Moore's acclaimed and enjoyable Top 10 series - which was sort of Hill Street Blues meets superheroes. That series took place in Neopolis, a huge futuristic but dangerous and grubby city (Fritz Lang meets Batman's Gotham City meets The Jetsons meets Blade Runner) created by Nazi scientists as a place where science heroes (those with super powers) could all live together and be held in check by a special police force that all had super powers themselves. It was set in the present day but this story is set in the aftermath of World War 2. The year is 1949 and Neopolis has just been founded as a place for super heroes, androids, robots, monsters, vampires etc, to live. Why was it created in the first place? Because ordinary citizens do not want to live next door to robots and super powered people! This fantastical premise is used of course to explore themes of prejudice and bigotry and of course just give us a big fun comic with plenty of invention and wonderful art. The central character here is Steve "Jetlad" Traynor. In the original series he was the veteran bespectacled Captain of the Top 10 Precinct but in this prequel he is sixteen and has just arrived in the city after his famed exploits as a teenage fighter pilot during the war. He is with Leni Muller, a former Luftwaffe pilot but now defector and friend. She was famed too during the war for her industrial flying broomstick and exploits as Skywitch. They get some lodgings and eventually find work. Traynor joins the Skysharks (private air force for Neopolis) while Leni applies for the police. As ever, Neopolis has a most unusual police force to keep the peace and Leni finds herself introduced to some remarkable characters.
Zaran "Doctor Omega" Orval, the Captain, an alien based on Superman. Rocket Ryan, a rocket powered Buck Rogers type character from the 25th Century. Joanna "The Maid" Dark - based on Joan or Arc with mystical powers. Her globus cruciger acts as a transporter. SteelGauntlet, a disfigured scientist in a robotic suit a la Robotman or Iron Man. Sam "Major Lilliput" Slinger. Commands an army of toys like General Jumbo in The Beano. He is the father of Robyn "Toybox" Slinger from the original Top 10. Leni's partner is Ramon "Black Rider" Morales, a Mexican sword carrying biker. Meanwhile, Traynor settles in with the Skysharks but must come to terms with his sexuality after falling for the German Skyshark pilot Wulf. Intrigue and danger soon abounds for young heroes in their extraordinary new home. Something strange is going on at the Institute - the scientific research facility where German scientists now work - and the Cosa Nosferatu (vampire mafia) are beginning to make their presence felt in Neopolis. Don't call them vampires to their face though. They don't like it all and find it offensive. They prefer to think they just have a medical condition. Although the Top 10 series was not quite top table Alan Moore it was a very enjoyable and creative comic series full of humour and great characters. I put off reading this one for some reason but it's every bit as good - possibly even better - and the wonderful art by Gene Ha looks as if it took years to draw and colour and is packed with background detail and invention.
This being an Alan Moore book, Top 10: The Forty-Niners is awash with in-jokes and cultural references. If you look fast you will see everyone from Caspar the Friendly Ghost to Captain Haddock from Tintin make cameo appearances. The story is about acceptance, identity and finding a place in the world that you belong. Everyone in Neopolis has been discriminated against to a certain degree just by their very location but some get it worse than others. Prejudice against robots in particular is rife (it forms the basis for a major plot strand) and they are none too keen on vampires either. There is an obvious metaphor here for the struggles of immigrants in a new land but also plenty of retro anachronistic steampunk fun. Time travel. Nazis. Aerial dogfights. The art deco designs illustrated by Ha are always superb and - as you would expect from Alan Moore - the characters are colourful, distinctive and memorable. The city has a golden age silver glow that makes it feel extra special as you flip through the pages and enjoy the detail. I think it's important to say too that you could probably enjoy this without reading the original series as it is a rather stand alone story. You would though definitely get a bit more out of it if you read the other Top 10 books first because we get to see a couple of characters from the original run in their younger incarnations. Moore's story isn't always terribly original (corruption and nefarious plots etc) but there are some wonderful flourishes.
A sky filled with vampires and bats, battles in the air, Leni's high tech broomstick. If you can't enjoy a beautifully illustrated Alan Moore comic with vampires and robots then you really are in trouble. Moore's wit doesn't desert him either and he gives the characters (and the vampires) some good lines throughout the course of the story. You know this is going to be a good comic early on during some panels set on a train. The wheels of the train are drawn with incredible detail and care. One other thing I like about the comic is that the way that the police characters are more theatrical in appearance than the ones in the original series. Here they are very vintage Justice League and look like genuine superheroes. I like too the way that the arc of Traynor ties in with what we saw of him in the first Top 10 books set in the future. We'll see how he set himself on the path to becoming Captain and how he met the most important person in his life. Apart from a separate spin-off book featuring a couple of characters from Top 10 (where Moore was riffing on Lord of the Rings), I believe this is the last of the Top 10 books that Alan Moore scripted himself so it's extra special for that reason and well worth getting hold of if you are a fan or liked the other books in this series. I think this easily holds its own against the two Top 10 graphic novels I already have and is worth buying for the enjoyable art alone. My only complaint would be that at just over a hundred pages I wish this had been longer.
At the time of writing you can buy Top 10: The Forty-Niners for about £18. Graphic novels are often ludicrously overpriced when you go to buy one and I'd wait for a much better deal than that to surface.