Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Smax #4

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Smax #4

Part comedy and part adventure, Smax delivers Moore

"4: Trip, Trip, to a Dream Dragon…”
Writer – Alan Moore
Penciler – Zander Cannon
Inker – Andrew Carrie
Colors – Wildstorm FX
Letters – Todd Klein
Assistant Editor – Kristy Quinn
Editor – Scott Donner
February 2004

Smax comes to us by way of the Top 10 series of books. I have a few of that title wandering around the Crapbox and understand a little of that world but was surprised to find a full-blown spin off series that was as fantasy as fantasy can get.

The reason for that skepticism is that Top 10 is a story about a police station set in a world of superpowered beings. Before you give me that stink-eye look, I’ll remind you that the entire mess of Top 10 and this spinoff are written by the one guy known for smartly turning everything on its ear and deconstructing it. That guy would be Alan Moore of Watchmen fame.

Moore took his work out of the majors with these little companies that granted him control of his narratives for a bit, although the imprint here, called as America’s Best Comics, is actually part of DC comics through its Wildstorm division. Moore swore off working for the big two again, but DC snuck in via a back door when Image sold Wildstorm and, by virtue of that sale, ABC as well.

Moore’s reaction when he heard the news during an interview with George Khoury in the book The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore was to state that it was better to go back against a principle for the greater good, than to have no principles in life at all. He wrapped up the universe as he wanted to with the 32 issue of the book Promethea.

But I’ve digressed into the background of the book before really discussing what it is. Top 10 is a book about superhero policemen who police a planet of superheroes. The main character in a cast of characters in that book is either Robyn “Toybox” Slinger, whose abilities revolve around her control of a box of electric toys, or her partner Jeff Smax, a blue half-ogre. This book takes up after the pair have worked together for a bit and developed a relationship that might blossom into romance. The book subverts the police and buddy cop stories by using clichés of both that genre and the superhero genre in tandem. Moore’s smarts at pulling off something so audacious brings a smile to my face.

Smax takes place after the first twelve issues of Top 10, with the pair heading back to Smax’s home dimension to ostensibly attend Smax’s Uncle’s funeral. Smax’s world is one where technology doesn’t work, only magic and it is filled with every fantasy cliché that Moore could pack in, twisted in clever and hilarious ways.

Once back home Smax’s past catches up with him, a past that includes him being a failed dragon hunter. Seems his last bounty, an extremely powerful beast named Morningbright, killed a little girl in front of Smax and escaped. The girl’s handprint was burned into his blue skinned chest. Smax decides to finish the dragon off for good this time, with the help of Robyn, his twin sister, three dwarves who are either Smax adopted family or adopted kin (sorry, know he was adopted by dwarves but unsure who this trio is. And dwarven women can wear beards so…*shrugs shoulders), and Aldric, an elf whose relationship to the others I haven’t figured out.

We open this fourth issue with strains of the Syd Barrett song Octopus as the title and the seven adventurers following in the wake of Morningbright’s destruction. Their quips and banter show all the hallmarks of Moore’s intelligent writing allowing humor tinged with underlying unease at facing such a powerful opponent.

Nothing says you’re in denial like “I totally refuse to accept I’m in denial.” These clever little bon mots litter this thing which juxtaposed with the next page’s two page spread of an entire town that has been wiped clean from the map due to Morningbright create an oddly surreal but powerful story.

Note here we have Robyn commenting on the devastation and then the dwarves chime in almost metatextual way with how traditional fantasy stories accelerate past boring bits such as this. Moore’s books always have a way of taking you out of the moment with stray thoughts such as this, like visiting an undiscovered county of ideas in tiny minute-long trips.

And right about here, Moore drops in a popular character cameo, giving him the ability to throw shade in Mr. Potter’s…er, TROTTER’s (wouldn’t want to get in law suit trouble) direction.

There’s also a bit of Dragonheart tarnishing in that bit too. Clever, clever, clever…Moore always entertains.

While the gang makes their way for the cave system that Jeff Smax is certain will contain Morningbright, Robyn notices something odd with the road…

…and with noticing they’ve been riding over the skulls of dead people comes the knowledge that they have reached the cave containing Morningbright.

It’s here that the dwarves mention playing a game called “Malls & Muggers” which is a Moore throwaway gag that leads me again down the path of “what would fantasy characters role play as if they had RPGs?”, then the two women characters decide to take point in going into the caves. Smax hurriedly unwraps his sword which starts singing. Smax tells it to shut up and that he’s not in the mood for that nonsense. Not ever. With that, the guys enter the caves to face the dragon.

While our four heroes stalk slowly into the cave, we get a second to do some character work. Robyn and Smax’s sister have a chat where Robyn apologizes for Smax saying they were married. It appears Smax had an incestuous relationship with his twin sister when they were growing up owing to her treatment at the hands of their full ogre Father, who sexually abused her. Smax would protect her and they developed feelings for each other. Smax as a character is cold and cut off from emotions stemming from this as well as growing up without a Mother (she died birthing the pair after being raped by their Father). Meanwhile Smax warns the Elf to leave Robyn alone. 

Then there’s a neat little setup bit where their light is waning because the “fairy battery” is almost dead. And by that, I mean the Fairy that they are using as a light source has almost expired. Aldric stops to change it and the panel goes black.

And then we are thrust back into the light of a much more horrifying scene as dragons (who have the faces of cats in this dimension, which I totally buy) appear to make up every surface of the cave. This is Moore’s deconstruction of what a dragon would be: something vast and immaterial that could be a million things at once, with the faces of our cute little household pet but so dangerous that it has littered the countryside with the skulls of millions of its kills.

Also, it talks in a million whispered voices and will taunt you before it makes its move. Moore makes a typical dragon appear a trite and uncomplicated thing.

While our group does what it can to cover each other’s escape, Robyn (having not read the clear indicators of where they are) takes out her toybox to help defend the group as their “wizard”…

…only to discover that with no electricity all her superpowered toys cease to function. Robyn is beside herself as the group retreats out of the cave of flying kitty dragons.

Meanwhile our three dwarves have setup a gaming table and are playing Malls & Muggers when the group tears through. This one minor exchange is worth the price of the book alone.

The group makes it outside followed by a stream of flying, rams-horned, cat-faced dragons and yet they are unmolested by any of them. Smax is perplexed that they are still alive. Especially when they look up to find the smaller cat-dragons have coalesced into…

…some kind of giant vaporous dragon cloud.

Well, they can’t rightly fight that and win. Jeff Smax tells everyone to not listen but just run. Unfortunately, even if they don’t, we the reader have no choice but to listen. The words coming from this thing are chilling.

And once the group stop running they are all in shock. Robyn can’t believe she was defenseless this entire time, Smax is ready to march right back into the jaws of death to face down the demon that caused him to abandon this dimension, and his sister Rexa is ready to throw her life away with him. This feels real. It feels like how a group would act when their entire life was falling apart and they were doomed. 

As Smax stomps off, Robyn finally snaps out of it a bit and starts trying to regroup her thoughts. She does this by attempting to figure out the logic of the dimension they are in and how far down the line engineering and science fizzle out here. And why does she do all this in the face of the ultimate evil force?

Good answer.

Meanwhile Smax is tromping back across the waste alone, when his sword speaks up.

Like the dwarven conversation earlier, this bit is ALSO worth the price of the book and here we are getting two of these in one issue.

Moore is damn funny, is all I’ve got to say. And talented and amazing and a treasure. Certainly he can write fiction like Watchmen that is heavy drama and meticulous world building. Or scary, creep your shit out stuff that is so bizarre that it breaks things inside you like Neonomicon. But he can also write comedy with the best of them and I kick myself whenever I see his name on something and don’t immediately buy it, no matter the genre. He is just that good, and I’m not saying that as a “fan boy” but as a person who respects a craftsman that creates art at a consistently high level.

Turning back to Robyn, she is attempting to find raw materials to make weapons and while things look to be going good at first…

…that kind of backfires when she stands a little too close to Rexa blasting a hole in the ground where the metal might be with her “strong lightning.”

Which leads her to wander off for a bit alone to recover from the strength of the blast. 

And as she sits alone in the blasted wasteland, a visitor comes to her…

… and this sequence, from the lighting to the humor to the stark emotion of it all make for wonderful reading. 

Not to mention this final joke that I don’t seem to get, but fans of the series probably do.

And that’s where we end this bit, one issue before Smax finishes his quest. I didn’t think from the odd cover art that I would enjoy this and once I started I didn’t think I would fall in love with it as much as I did. I don’t have any more of these, but I have tons of the 12 issues of Top 10 and I’m now wanting to go dig them out for “right now” reading. That’s the effect Moore has on me.

He’s that good.

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