There’s an oft-problematic sub-genre of superhero comics I’ve always had a particular affection for nonetheless. It’s a genre I have a difficult time even coming up with a name for; one where the nigh-incomprehensibly complex nature of a sci-fi/superhero setting and the gritty humanity inherent in “real life of superheroes” type content collide. Series like Transmetropolitan, Astro City, and Powers fall into that category, and those are some of the greatest comic series of all time. But there is one that I tend to forget about and, as a result, don’t often go back to: Alan Moore’s Top 10.
As a police drama set in a city where literally every resident is some sort of superhero, robot, mutant, monster, goddess, or alien, Top 10 hits a lot of zany-but-dark notes. But unlike the (truly brilliant) series Powers by Brian Michael Bendis, Top 10 is much more lighthearted in its take on “how do you do policework when suspects are superpowered beings,” and tends more towards “comics continuity gone wild”-type jokes and narratives.
Top 10 features a dazzlingly diverse cast in an almost unimaginably complex multiverse, but the stories that it tells are surprisingly relatable, due in no small part to the character-focused writing by Alan Moore. The art by Gene Ha crams nearly every page with enough Easter eggs and references that they sometimes come off as being from a Where’s Waldo book. But the comic also, like many of Alan Moore’s greatest works, tackles some very controversial issues in ways that can be (sometimes subversively) heavy-handed and trope-y. Though much of the more problematic content in these books does offer a nuanced and honest look at things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and police corruption, it also sometimes comes off as playing for pure shock value.
Note that this article is about the original 2000-2001 run of Top 10 (and to a lesser extent its prequel The Forty Niners) rather than the 2008-2009 run by Kevin and Zander Cannon (who also worked on the original).
According to both Top 10 and The Forty Niners (also by Alan Moore), the city of Neopolis was founded after WWII to contain all the “science heroes/villains” that remained after that conflict. Funded by and built in the United States but designed and built mostly by captured Nazi scientists, the city wasn’t actually a prison but most heroes and villains chose to live there as they were largely shunned elsewhere. Over the decades since the founding of Neopolis, it has come to be part of a multiverse, connected through “Grand Central” (an interdimensional multiverse equivalent to Grand Central Station), where not only the descendants of Earth’s heroes live but aliens and beings from parallel dimensions, even Norse gods, also do as well. Clearly, cops in a town like that have an interesting job. Which brings me to the first thing I noticed when revisiting Top 10: half the story is about police misconduct.
While the reality of police corruption in the U.S. (and elsewhere) and the racial animosity that often accompanies it is nothing new, the string of high profile killings and assaults over the last few years has changed the way we discuss the topic. Given the recent high profile protests by NFL players against that police corruption and the overt racism and authoritarianism driving much of the negative response, this is an aspect of Top 10 that remains particularly relevant. But though there was no Black Lives Matter movement when Top 10 was written, the conflict between police and minority communities which drives that movement is present on nearly every page. One of the officers who most demonstrates this is Officer Pete “Shockhead” Cheney, who, as the name implies, shoots electric bolts from his head and is blatantly racist and sexist on numerous occasions. We see Pete espouse negative stereotypes and even outright hatred towards groups like “Ferro Americans” (robots) who are derogatively referred to as “Clickers”. It is continually implied that this hatred of robotic people (they’re all presented as fully sentient and self-aware beings) is primarily meant to be a metaphorical stand-in for fear of immigrants taking American jobs. Though the few discussions we get about this are ostensibly about automation, they are entirely presented within the context of “they took our jobs” type xenophobia rather than resembling discussions of real-life automation. It is regularly implied that the real-life racism that Latinx immigrants face is not a problem in Neopolis, since immigration to Neopolis has no relation to national borders or ethnic groups within the “normal human” population and none of the Latinx officers in precinct 10 face any discriminatory sentiment or language. These fantastical representations of prejudice imply that when vastly diverse groups share the densely packed area of a city, there will always be some amount of tension and even bigotry. This cycle is, again implicitly, linked to the cycle of violence bred by bigotry in America where various groups, from the Irish and Italian immigrants at the turn of the century to Latinx and Asian immigrants today, internalize the bigotry against them by scapegoating another group that is seen as having a lower social status.
This racism is also demonstrated when Pete is similarly condescending and bigoted towards a reptilian criminal, Ernesto Gograh, and demonstrates that his opinion of the species impacts his official treatment of them. Ernesto is the son of Gograh (basically Godzilla/Gojira), who turns up drunk at the station to protest Ernesto’s treatment. While this scene is both visually amazing (Gograh, unlike his son, is the size of a skyscraper) and the dialogue is hilarious (“monsters are people too” is particularly great), the narrative also presents Gograh in a way that recalls the worst stereotypes about Black men as unemployed alcoholics who raise delinquent kids. That stereotype is one that leads to pain and tragedy in the real world, and this scene almost seems to be justifying it at times. Though most of the police we see express some form of “everyday bigotry”, they are generally good people; but the use of a stereotype in this scene to endear the reader to them almost feels cheap. The saving grace, perhaps, is that the sequence is presented as being so extremely absurd that it suggests those who truly believe in such stereotypes are as clueless and bigoted as Pete is presented to be.
There is also a subplot about Detective James “King Peacock” Corbeau traveling to “Precinct 1,” an alternate universe in which the Roman Empire never fell. Det. Corbeau, a Black man, is a Yazidi who’s powers stem from a direct connection to Melek Taus, a powerful archangel who is given a form of rule over the Earth. Both in real life and in Neopolis, the Yazidi are described as “devil worshippers” since many outside the Yazidi faith make connections between Melek Taus and the Islamic equivalent to Lucifer (Shaitan) in the Garden of Eden story. While the real life Yazidis usually find the connection to the Satan character in Christian and Islamic creation stories offensive, Det. Corbeau eventually self applies “devil worshipper”as a way to both frighten criminals and as a sort of personal joke about the ignorance most people have about his religion. This is a case where Alan Moore’s fascination with ancient religions (the Yazidi faith can be traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia) leads to a westernized misinterpretation of Corbeau’s religion that has been rightly described as problematic. He does, however, seem to suggest that Det. Corbeau’s faith is a driving force behind not only his powers but his generally solid morality.
King Peacock is not the only character with a religious storyline. In fact, the religious and spiritual diversity in Neopolis is presented as being as core of an identity component for many people as race, and one that can sometimes be equally divisive. The treatment of this topic in Top 10 is generally used to show that while religious extremism can motivate atrocity, a personal belief system is essential for the emotional well-being of many of its characters. One of the most emotionally intense moments in the series is centered around a highly religious moment. In this arc we see Lt. Cathy “Peregrine” Colby comforting the victims of a teleporter-based traffic accident as they lay dying. The victims in this case are a giant bull-human hybrid “Great Gamer,” implied to be a living piece in a literal cosmic game, and an old married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Nebula, who are intergalactic superheroes. Lt. Colby, a fairly devout Christian, is sitting with them as they slowly die from their physical trauma. While they initially argue and blame each other for their impending deaths, they eventually begin to bond (no pun intended) and the Gamer details his philosophy. He describes himself as a game piece, “Western Cavalry of the Great White,” and while this is initially implied to mean white as in chess pieces, we learn that it is much more. The “Great White” and “Great Black” are playing their game on the “Great Board of Lights.” This is revealed in their dying moments as the black which represents empty space and the white that stars and life represent, the “board” being the universe. He ultimately says that while there is much more black than white in the night skies, white is winning because there was once only black; life wins simply because it exists and “existing is enough.” Initially, the treatment of religion seems to mostly serve to add layers of complexity to the characters and to highlight the existence of religious identity as a component to diversity. But this is Alan Moore; you know there’s some super deep magical realism there as well. Ultimately, the point of all this is to highlight that most religions, from Christianity to Satanism to the belief systems of literal gods, see the value of life as the most sacred thing in the universe.
In addition to the racial and religious themes that the violence of life in Neopolis often intersects with, we also see sexual issues similarly addressed in Top 10. As is often the case with Moore’s work, this demonstrates perspectives that range from explicitly feminist to bordering on rape culture apologism. One of the recurring themes of Top 10 that demonstrates that often conflicting perspective is that superheroes, mostly women, are often seen to be working as prostitutes or porn stars. The first major story arc involves the Libra Killer, a serial killer who preys on sex workers. As the police of Top 10 round up prostitutes to keep them safe from the killer, we see some genuine and compelling examples of women forced into prostitution due to economic hardship and a lack of opportunity. Eventually the killer is caught and it turns out to be a former big name superhero, M’rrgla Qualtz. M’rrgla was part of a well-known super team (implied to be essentially the JLA) and was also later a famous porn star. It is eventually discovered that the super team was actually a pedophille ring and that she was both a victim and an active abuser in that ring. She is then killed by her former teammates to cover it up. This whole arc often seems to fall prey to stereotypes about women, as sex objects and “the weaker sex” trope is invoked, but simultaneously seems to hint that the juvenile fetishization of anything with breasts, including a totally alien being, which permeates comics is both toxic and dangerous; a point underscored by the true form of M’rrgla looking more like a Lovecraftian entity and less like an Orion slave girl. She’s an incomprehensibly alien being who needs to eat pinearine from human brains to survive, but most people know her as “the famous alien porn star.” While the connection between the hypersexualization of women and horrific violence is explored, these moments also often suffer from the same male fantasy trope that they seem to subvert.
There’s also a running plot of Sgt. Jackie “Jack Phantom” Kowalski being treated as a fetishized and stereotyped lesbian. She tries to move on the new girl, series protagonist and all around good person Robyn “Toybox” Slinger, immediately, and triggers a lot of derogatory comments about her sexuality. While these comments usually imply that homophobia is bigotry and the directness of it (as opposed to the somewhat metaphorical way race is handed) mostly serves that purpose well, Sgt. Kowalski is also presented as in a way that suggests the “butch lesbian on the prowl” trope. We also learn at the end of the series that the universally beloved and respected Captain, Steve “Jetman” Traynor, is a semi-closeted (he’s not out to almost anyone at work) gay man in a decades-long committed relationship, and his situation is explicitly used as a nod to the occasional use of “superhero secret identity as metaphor for being in the closet” in pop culture. As is the case with the racial and religious issues, the sexuality issues in Top 10 are seemingly both highly progressive and simultaneously fall prey to tropes albeit in an often subversive manner (like the surprisingly sweet plotline with a sentient talking Doberman falling in love with a kind but fragile prostitute who controls pain and pleasure with her brain).
As I reread Top 10 nearly 20 years after its initial release, I find it both holds up well at times and at other times also falls prey to the tropiness of early 90’s (and sadly many other) comics. Alan Moore, while unquestionably the creator of some of the greatest comics ever written, has a problematic history, particularly, as I’ve written about before, in terms of how he treats violence against women.The comics industry has systemic issues in how they address identity, particularly racial and gender identity. And while, unfortunately, I can clearly see places in which Top 10 does fall prey to that same toxicity, it also seems to be incredibly self-aware and occasionally even holds itself up as an example of what not to do when addressing these issues. I’d say Top 10 is definitely worth a reread, since, as is often the case with Alan Moore, the brilliance and complexity of the stories mostly outweighs the problematic stuff. But, as is also always the case, this is a title that’s worth looking back at with a critical, if open, mind.
(EDIT: This post has been updated to accurately reflect Detective Corbeau as a member of the Yazidi faith and to highlight the real life consequences of the way that faith is often viewed by outsiders. Special thanks to reader aediculaantinoi for bringing this to my attention.)