But there’s more than one Tom in Tom Strong and The Planet of Peril…Does that complicate things? A little but not so much. Tom in any parallel universe has a hard time concealing a few innate qualities, particularly when under pressure trying to save his daughter Tesla from a life-endangering pregnancy prompted by the volcano-nature of her husband’s DNA. And then there’s that whole cataclysmic world-ending combination of events going on for Terra Obscura where Tom might need a little help from his friends and things might not go quite as he hopes to avert all tragedy.
Tom Strong is a little bit of a Schrodinger’s Box. The cat in question is his psychological make-up. As long as we don’t open the box, we don’t know if he’s a pulp hero grounded in nostalgic heroic simplicity through and through or if he’s got a 21st century heart beating in there with all its post-modern angst and confusion. And there’s a distinct possibility that Tom himself is aware of this conundrum. He’s not the man out of time in the same way that Cap is, he’s endured the longevity gifted by the Goloka root and has not been immune to the slow but steady change clocked in the burgeoning of his family including Tesla’s marriage, and now pregnancy. He’s watched society and science develop, regimes rise and fall, and drawn his own conclusions about what changes and what stays the same. There may be a veneer of simplicity in his worldview that’s been a lynchpin of his heroic choices, but surely that can’t be all that helps him stay in motion and effective as an active force in his universe.
In fact, the events of the six-part story arc The Planet of Peril seem to apply the necessary pressure to pry that lid loose and give him more than a glimpse of the things that he can control, and those he can’t. And that’s a particularly 21st century condition post 9/11 in the wake of increasing globalization. Even more pointedly, the final issue of the arc, #6, seems to encapsulate Tom’s position as a relatable hero to us, right now, and explains why Tom Strong’s survival, as a character in comics, has been far more than a nostalgic resuscitation of an ABC property into the Vertigo line-up.
[*This discussion is written to avoid spoilers, but if you really don’t want to know anything about The Planet of Peril 1-6, you probably want to stop reading now]
Here are five aspects of Tom Strong’s personality visible in Issue #6 that illustrate his 21st century relevance:
1.When pressed by uncontrollable circumstances, this science-hero is forced to acknowledge that being heroic is “Not what we do but what we are”
Tom Strong, seemingly the pulp hero extraordinaire, concedes the relativity of right and wrong action and no longer wastes his energies standing in judgment based on an illusion of objectivity. His governing principles of action have to come from within, he agrees, rather than being imposed by social agreement. In doing so, he pretty much sums up the state of hero stories in comics right now in a far more honest way than many characters and books are currently acknowledging. Comics are full of stoic figures right now who continue to “do the right thing” regardless of their own inner inclinations, and if we judge that to be heroic, isn’t that dishonest? Tom is a hero with good intentions, and he relies on that even when no particular action can save the day.
2. Tom doesn’t “want a statue” made to commemorate any laudable activities he gets up to trying to save Terra Obscura
And here the box begins to open just a little, because this isn’t a sign of Tom’s humility, which he sometimes does display. His response is grounded in a fear of posterity. He isn’t quite sure how the future will view him, and distrusts the mythologizing that might render him one-dimensional and an unhelpful focus of hero-worship. He’s seen too much on Terra Obscura, become too aware of his own limitations, and has also become certain that the role of a hero is not the most important thing to him. He’s been on a mission to save his daughter the whole time, after all. And that reality doesn’t fit into the life of a statue.
3. Tom remains curious
“I’m curious to see how things develop”, Tom says at the end of a harrowing six-issue series. Is he serious? This might be the most shocking line in the story arc. And yet, if you’ve been following the development of the character, you shouldn’t be entirely surprised. This is where the veneer of the pulp character blends into a more substantive reality. This is one of his essential personality traits. He just can’t help himself. And someone who is perpetually curious also perpetually changes provided they pay attention to the subjects of their investigation. This is much more the stuff of Tom’s posterity than a statue. If there’s anything we are in 2013, it’s curious. We can’t get enough of glimpsing the possibilities of a technologically-advanced future, or a more sustainable future. Uncertainty about the future means we also accept vast possibilities, good and bad. Like Tom.
4. Tom’s personal crises lead to bigger solutions
The impetus for Tom’s mission to Terra Obscura is Tesla’s suffering and likely impending death. It’s an incredibly personal mission based on his first-hand attachment to his family. But once underway, equally personal friendships prompt further action on behalf of a much bigger group of people. And the solutions he tries to develop for their suffering are linked to his own immediate solution. Tom seems to come off here as a hands-on guy. How many people are willing to retweet a cause on social media versus the number who are willing to turn up in person? The attrition rate there is, honestly, massive. The bigger the world gets the more essential it is to us to make decisions based on the things that affect us directly, however, recognizing those connections are the essential thing. Tom doesn’t have too much choice in the matter, but he really is an everyman in this situation. So, he has to help an entire planet in order to help his daughter? That may be an overwhelming reality, but put in those terms, he can accept it and make some headway in his mission.
5. Tom uses the tools at his disposal
If Tom really were a purely pulp hero in traditional terms, he’d likely be resourceful (they usually are, these adventurers), but he might not be so damn practical or flexible about achieving his goals. In search of Alosun, the elixir that could save Tesla, he has no certainty that it will work without serious consequences, and is reminded of that in Issue #6. His reaction? Oh, well. It’s at least a step in the right direction, and the only one he can take. I actually suspect that the Tom Strong of the original ABC series might not be so flexible under the same conditions. He’s always been known to take risks when faced with desperation, and have a certain good-natured faith in the outcome, but there’s something a little different in his attitude here in Planet of Peril that suggests the character has evolved. He is so firmly committed to the future generation now—in Tesla—that he can accept the consequences of his decisions in a measured way. That affects the reader pretty strongly, too. We are no longer certain that Tom’s flexibility is going to produce the happy ending outcomes we might have expected previously. But, of course, we are fully behind his use of the tools at hand.
Looking back over the Planet of Peril series, we see Tom Strong moving further away from a more absolutist past, a hero unwilling to make pronouncements about the future, once who is still susceptible to wonder and curiosity, but one, who given little choice, is capable of grasping at straws. Because he knows it’s not what you do but who you are. If hero stories can continue to have depth and meaning for us in the 21st century, these are the features that can speak to our experience of life. We don’t want statues, either, these days. Like Tom, we’re willing to invest in good intentions and a little more self-awareness about our own very personal motivations in trying to change the world.
Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril is written by Peter Hogan, pencilled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Karl Story, colored by Jordie Bellaire, and lettered by Todd Klein. It’s published by Vertigo Comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter