Super Blog Team-Up 5: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 5!  The theme this quarter is “Parallel Worlds and Alternate Realities.”  My fellow bloggers and I will be looking at stories that make use of the concept of the “Multiverse.”  You will find links to the other contributors at the end of this piece.

Before proceeding any further, I want to offer a big “thank you” to Karen Williams of Between the Pages.  Karen has been doing all the crucial heavy lifting involved in organizing this installment of Super Blog Team-Up.

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One of my favorite comic book tales of parallel universes is The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, published in 2003 by America’s Best Comics / Wildstorm, and starring characters created by Alan Moore & Chris Sprouse in the Tom Strong ongoing series.  Published between June 1999 and May 2006, Tom Strong featured really great work by Moore, Sprouse and various other talented creators.

I cannot help thinking that the ABC line was crafted by Moore in response to the runaway success of Watchmen, which he co-created with Dave Gibbons.  Yes, Watchmen was brilliant and thought-provoking and groundbreaking.  But it unfortunately inspired an avalanche of imitators, series that embraced the “grim & gritty” trappings and that tried to replicate the “superheroes in the real world” premise.  The majority of these were ultra-violent, humorless retreads which contained little of the genuine creative spark that was abundant in Moore & Gibbons’ work.

Moore’s writing on the ABC titles a decade later seemed to be a concerted effort by him to demonstrate that comic books could be intelligent and sophisticated without sacrificing fun.  Certainly that was the case with Tom Strong.  Moore very deftly blended the archetypes of pulp adventures magazines, Silver Age whimsy, and high concept scientific theories.  The characters of Tom, his wife Dhalua, their daughter Tesla, and their extended supporting cast were expertly crafted, and their adventures were exciting & thought-provoking.

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The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong grew out of the events of Tom Strong #10 (November 2000) by Moore, Sprouse & Al Gordon.  Tom invented the “Searchboard,” a surfboard-like device which would enable its user to travel into parallel worlds.  On his first journey Tom ended up in a “funny animal” alternate Earth.  There he met a counterpart, “the bunny of bravery” known as Warren Strong, who protected the woodland folk from “science predator” Basil Saveen, a fox analogue to Tom’s arch-foe Paul Saveen.

After Tom returned to his home Earth, Tesla snuck into her father’s lab and decided to give the Searchboard a go.  This resulted in numerous other-dimensional versions of herself materializing.  The various Teslas were soon at each other’s throats, until their accompanying alternate reality fathers showed up to haul them home.  Accordingly, “our” Tom grounded his daughter for her role in the cross-continuum shenanigans.

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That brings us to The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, written by Peter Hogan, with a plot assist by Moore.  Sprouse and inker Karl Story illustrated the prologue and epilogue, with an all-star line-up of artists contributing to the different chapters.

The story opens as Tesla, the talking intelligent ape King Solomon and the steam-powered robot Pneuman are cleaning up the Stronghold.  Solomon impulsively leaps onto the Searchboard and pretends he is surfing.  Unfortunately he accidentally activates the Board and vanishes into another dimension.

A moment later the Board returns without Solomon.  Its destination log has been wiped clean.  Tesla realizes that she must go searching for the super simian, who is like a brother to her.  Activating the board, Tesla glides out into the Multiverse.

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The first alternate Earth that Tesla arrives at is a post-apocalyptic radioactive nightmare where nearly all of humanity has been wiped out in World War III.  She is met by the gun-toting potty-mouthed Tekla Strong, a counterpart she previously encountered in Tom Strong #10.  Fighting off a horde of giant bugs, Tesla and Tekla duck into an immense underground shelter where most of humanity’s survivors have sought refuge.  Tesla tells her other self of her quest, and Tekla informs her that she has also lost her gorilla-friend, Archimedes the Atomic Ape, who likewise vanished into another dimension.  Tesla departs, continuing her search.

This segment is illustrated by Michael Golden, a talented artist who does extremely detailed work.  Golden is not super-fast, and so he mostly works illustrating covers.  But occasionally an anthology book such as this will come along and he will have the opportunity to contribute a few interior pages.  His style is definitely very well-suited to rendering Tekla’s hi-tech, bombed-out world.

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The next alternate Earth that Tesla arrives on is one where global warming occurred decades earlier, the polar ice caps melted, and most of the surface world was submerged.  Tesla encounters a mermaid version of herself named Tori, who explains that her father was able to transform humanity into mer-people via gene splicing, enabling them to survive the catastrophe.  Tesla is introduced to Tori’s father, a merman Tom Strong.  He hasn’t seen Solomon, but his own gorilla, Poseidon the Sea Monkey, vanished an hour earlier.  Tesla begins to see a pattern.  “I wonder if Solomon disappearing set off some kind of quantum monkey wave.”  Tesla hops on the Searchboard again and continues her journey.

Penciling this chapter is Adam Hughes, with inks by Story.  Hughes is another one of those incredibly talented but not especially fast artists who mostly works on covers.  This special gives him a chance to pencil some interior art, and to show off his storytelling abilities.

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As Tesla’s trans-dimensional journey proceeds, the story briefly checks in on Solomon.  He awakens to find himself imprisoned with numerous other-dimensional analogues.  Of the gathering Solomon astutely observes, “There’s more than a barrelful of us.”

Arthur Adams illustrated this two page interlude.  He is definitely the go-to guy in the comic book biz when it comes to illustrating monkey-related mayhem.  Adams’ hyper-detailed rendering of Solomon and his numerous alternate selves is an amazing, imaginative, and humorous grouping.

Tesla continues her tour of the Multiverse, encountering different variations of herself and her family along the way, all of them very odd indeed.  And on each alternate Earth, the story is the same: that world’s version of Solomon has also gone missing.

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I was definitely thrilled that one of the segments was illustrated by legendary DC artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  I’ve mentioned on a few occasions in the past that I am a huge fan of his work.  He depicts Tesla’s reunion with her super-powered counterpart Tesla Terrific.  Garcia-Lopez is definitely the ideal choice to depict such an “old school” vignette.  He possesses a style that is both traditional and extremely dynamic.  His layouts on this seven page chapter are very effective, and he puts a great deal of detail into his finished art.  Really, I am in awe of Garcia-Lopez’s work.  It’s just so fun and brilliant.

The Searchboard eventually brings Tesla to one of the 2,057 alternate Earths that comprise the pan-dimensional “Aztech Empire” introduced in Tom Strong #3.  On this particular Earth, everything is scaled to giant-sized, and Tesla meets towering duplicates of herself and her father.  She is brought before the Empire’s ruler, the computer program / deity Quetzalcoatl-9, a literal deus ex machina.  The serpent god recognizes Tesla to be the daughter of Tom Strong, who previously assisted him.  Tesla explains what has been going on.  Examining the Searchboard, Quetzalcoatl-9 is able to restore its destination log, allowing Tesla to finally learn which reality Solomon ended up in.  Thanking god, so to speak, Tesla heads out to find her gorilla friend.

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In an extended chapter illustrated by Jason Pearson, Tesla arrives on “Earth-B.”  She is immediately knocked out in a gas attack by her malevolent counterpart Twyla Strong, Twyla’s equally diabolical father Tiberius Strong, and their cigarette-smoking gorilla Nero.  Taken prisoner by the sadistic Twyla, Tesla is informed that after learning of his numerous counterparts back in Tom Strong #10, Tiberius plotted to murder them all by sending bombs to their various realities.  Unfortunately the plan has backfired, and instead they ended up capturing Solomon and several dozen of his equivalents.

Incidentally, despite the fact that he is an evil other-dimensional counterpart, Tiberius Strong does not have a beard or an eye patch.  However he does dress in black.

Left chained in Twyla’s dungeon, with the imminent threat of torture hanging over her, Tesla is close to despair.  Then surprisingly, who should sneak in to rescue her but “gentleman adventurer and occasional science hero” Peter Saveen, a heroic counterpart to Tom Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen.  As if that isn’t weird enough, Peter Saveen takes Tesla to meet his ally Ilsa Weiss, an alternate version of another of Tom’s old foes, the psycho Nazi dominatrix Ingrid Weiss…

Saveen: May I introduce my associate, Fraulein…

Tesla: Ingrid Weis?! But she’s a Nazi.

Ilsa Weiss: Ilsa Weiss, actually. And I do not know how things transpired on your world, but here National Socialism saved the lives of millions. It is a tragedy we were defeated.

Yes, that is how completely upside-down this version of Earth is; the Nazis were actually the good guys!

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Saveen and Weiss reveal that Solomon and the other gorillas have been imprisoned in an abandoned typewriter factory, obviously a nod by Hogan to the idea of an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters.  And, appropriately enough, the sign of the factory reads “Sprang Typewriters,” an affectionate homage to Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, who often populated his stories with all matter of oversized props, including giant typewriters.

Tesla finds the Searchboards used by Solomon’s counterparts to bring them to Earth-B.  She takes one, and Saveen uses a stolen time machine to transport them back several hours, to before Tiberius dispatched a bomb through the dimensional gate.  Hiding behind a stack of crates, Tesla sees her past unconscious self being hauled off by Tiberius, Twyla and Nero.  This leads to a humorous exchange between her and Saveen…

Tesla: That’s impossible, isn’t it? For two of me to be in the same place at the same time?

Saveen: Well, you’re not, are you? She’s way over there.

Tesla hops on the Searchboard and arrives back home to find Tom and Dhalua constructing a replacement two-seater Board to go in search of their daughter.  Before Tom can give his daughter one of his patented stern lectures, she alerts him to the incoming bomb.  He is able to divert it to the skies above the already-radioactive world of Tekla who witnessing the explosion lets off her usual stream of expletives.

Tesla and her parents quickly return to Earth-B, where Saveen and Weiss have freed all of the imprisoned gorillas.  Tiberius, Twyla and Nero are in a free-for-all with the escaped prisoners, and Tom takes the opportunity to engage his counterpart.  Asking his evil duplicate why he wants him dead, Tiberius snarls “Because I am a genius… I deserve to be unique. And because… because…”  At which point the villain’s rant is abruptly interrupted by a titanic paw slamming down on him.  As Tesla comments, “You know, I was kind of wondering if a giant Aztec gorilla was going to show up.”

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I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I’ve got to say that any comic book featuring a giant Aztec gorilla is pretty darn cool!

In the epilogue we see Quetzalcoatl-9, at Tesla’s request, has located an empty, radiation-free Earth in his empire to which Tekla and her people can relocate.  In exchange, they are given custody of the defeated Tiberius and Twyla.  Despite the fact that Tiberius is psychotic, Tom promises to see he is treated humanely and to try to rehabilitate him.  Tiberius and Twyla both scoff at this, vowing revenge, to which Tesla resignedly states “I guess some people, you just can’t help.”

Tesla and Tom are due back on their own Earth for a read-through of Solomon’s new play, “The State of Denmark.”  Obviously those gorillas made use of those typewriters, after all!  Tom, however, suggests that he and Tesla “go for a spin around the Multiverse instead,” something to which she readily agrees.

Hogan’s scripting on this epilogue was nice.  One of the ongoing themes of the Tom Strong series was that, due to the cold, analytical manner in which Tom was raised by his father, he occasionally has difficulty expressing emotions or socializing in a normal manner.  However, we see through scenes such as this that underneath it all Tom is a much warmer, caring figure than his father.  He has a genuine relationship with his daughter.  He also wants to try to provide his adversaries with an opportunity to reform.

Tesla herself is a wonderfully fun character.  She was fantastic in the regular Tom Strong series and I very much enjoyed seeing her get the spotlight in this special.

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Some comic book editors and writers have argued that readers cannot relate to characters that are married and have children.  I definitely do not agree with this.  Neither apparently does Alan Moore.  He crafted an interesting, engaging family unit between Tom, Dhalua, Tesla, Solomon and Pheuman, gifting the characters with real chemistry, writing interesting stories about them.  Peter Hogan, both in The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong and in later issues of the regular Tom Strong series, effectively continued with this.

I really wish that there were more comics such as The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.  It is a enjoyable book, full of appealing characters, an exciting plot, and imaginative ideas.

If you have not read any of the Tom Strong stories, I encourage you to pick up the trade paperback collections.  The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong itself is collected in the volume titled Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics.

Super Blog Team-Up 5 banner

I hope that everyone enjoyed this one.  Here are links to the other great entries in Super Blog Team-Up 5:

  1. Between The Pages:  A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
  2. Bronze Age Babies:  Things Are a Little Different Around Here…
  3. Firestorm Fan:  Firestorm in Countdown Arena
  4. Flodo’s Page:  The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
  5. The Idol-Head of Diabolu Podcast:  Martian Manhunter Multiversity
  6. The Legion of Super-Bloggers:  Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
  7. Longbox Graveyard:  X-Men #141 & 142: Days of Future Past
  8. The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast (part of Rolled Spine Podcast):  Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
  9. Mystery Vlog:  Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover: Avengers #85–86 (1st Squadron Supreme)
  10. Superior Spider-Talk:  Spider-Man: Reign and Chasing Amazing:  The Case Against Spider-Man: Reign
  11. Superhero Satellite:  Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line: “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties”
  12. Ultraverse Network:  Parallel Worlds: The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
  13. The Unspoken Decade:  5 Batmen, 1 Superman, Zero Hour and The Ghost in the Machine: Robocop Versus Terminator
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Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

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The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

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Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.