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.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sword of Sorcery #4

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Sword of Sorcery #4

A blind buy nets a Crapbox favorite

In my own defense, the wording is so small that I didn’t see it.

There, in the bottom right. See it? Above the words “The Cloud of Hate!”, a story title that should have given it away. It didn’t because great titles are overused. I still should have noticed. Or looked closer at the words above it.

“Fafhrd & The Mouser battle..”

Oh, yes! This is a comic tale torn from the world of Nehwon, set in the great city of Lankhmar, a place its author Fritz Leiber describes as... crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants—Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga.

A city of vile villains and larger than life heroes, none more notable than the massive red-haired Northern barbarian Fafhrd and his companion the failed hedge-wizard but nimble rogue Mouser. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the rogue’s clothing color of choice) were created by Leiber in 1939 and shared adventures in seven books that were published over the next fifty years, culminating in the book The Knight and the Knave of Swords in 1988.

Lieber’s goal was to create heroes who were more human than their contemporaries Tarzan and Conan. From personal knowledge I can say their adventures bear this out. Typically motivated by desire to get paid or idleness, the mis-matched pair of thieves are one of my favorite fantasy series. I first encountered them in the same place I encountered Cthulhu and Elric, and that was in the wild and wooly pages of TSR’s Deities and Demigods tome for Dungeons and Dragons at a time before trademark attorneys paid close attention to those kinds of things.

Good thing they didn’t too, as that would have robbed not only me, but the estates of each with my hard-won cash dollars that I would shell out over the years on all three properties.

To find that a random pick-up at Half Price from the $5.00 bin, nabbed because it was “old”, fantasy, and might lend an air of respectability about the Crapbox, was in fact an adaptation of one of my favorite book series! It was almost too much.

And then I cracked the cover open and my jaw almost dropped. Take a look at the writers and artists of the two stories below to see why…

"The Cloud of Hate”
Adapted from a story by – Fritz Leiber
Writer – Denny O’Neil
Art – Chaykin, Inc (Howard Chaykin)
Editor – Dennis O’Neil
September – October 1973

Denny O’Neil adapting Leiber and all the artistic chores falling on Howard Chaykin, who is just masterful. Be still my leaping heart!

We start with Fafhrd and Mouser sitting in a cold Lankhmar alleyway thinking thoughts of things they would rather be doing, when ruffians appear at the head of the street. Mouser notices right away that the appear to be up to no good…

…and is able to dodge and dispatch the knife thrower with little effort (but amazing style as Chaykin uses the panel positions to maximum effect. Fafhrd squares off against Gnarlag, who has mastered two-handed combat.

Despite Mouser’s jests, the large barbarian doesn’t need a second sword to best his opponent, just the distraction a thrown brazier provides. Love the banter, much of it the flavor of Leiber’s actual tales.

With both of their enemies dispatched, the pair notice something strange: a patch of fog that appears to steal the very knife from out of the chest of one of the ruffians. (love Fafhrd’s “can’t even be cold and miserable in peace” line)

And with that, the pair is following fog over the rooftops in hopes that a klepto cloud might also have snagged gold or jewels in its nightly wanderings. They are content to let it lead unmolested until…

…the cloud does some molesting itself, killing a young girl before the pair can figure out its intent.

Then things become deadly serious, as the duo are out to do harm to the fog cloud in kind. They happen upon a guard blocking their way, but Fafhrd puts him to sleep the hard way.

As they find something horrifying in the cave, I’m forced to admit that Chaykin let me down in panel three by drawing Fafhrd’s lower body like that of a girl in a swimsuit from Millie the Model. What’s going on there? I can’t unsee that. Luckily this is the only bit in the book to complain about and the next page makes up for much of it.

For the cloud is some kind of evil Hate God that has sucked the life from most all of it’s worshippers. 

I wonder how you kill a Cloud of Hate.

Oh, that’s how. Okay.

Mouser and Fafhrd consider leaving given that they don’t have my first edition Deities and Demigods volume in their hand for careful consulting. However, they are just a tad bit too long in making that decision, so it appears fighting it out is their only option. Lucky for them the worshippers are unarmed…

…unlucky for them, the cloud of hate isn’t. Not only that, but it appears solid enough to do them both harm. A fight ensues…

…and Fafhrd thinks he detects a weakness in the cloud’s center eye, however that part is thirty feet over their heads. 

Just as suddenly, a lucky swipe of the cloud disarms them both. The pair is not out of tricks yet. Using his dagger and Fafhrd as a trampoline, Mouser vaults into the air…

… and pierces the eye in one blow. As the cloud dissipates the pair leave, none the richer and quite a bit more in need of a warm tavern.

Love this so very much. Makes me want to re-read the books, which it captures much of the tone of. As an added bonus there is a second story here too. And guess who’s doing the artwork?

"The Prophecy”
Writer – Denny O’Neil
Art – Walt Simonson

Whoa! O’Neil is adding to the mythos here but I’m game if he can match the flavor of Leiber’s writing and look who is putting pencil to page for this: Walt Simonson. It’s like Christmas came way early this year. 

After our splash we are presented with a young, beardless Fafhrd, a comely ice maiden for him to desire, a old man with the appearance of a wizard…and a prophecy in the form of a riddle.

As they leave the old man, Fafhrd attempts to woo the young lady’s heart, but the aforementioned ice worm is seeking it as well. (LOOK at that bottom panel! LOOK AT IT! Man, Simonson can draw!)

Also as the prophecy states, Fafhrd’s sword does no good against the beast. The steel ends up shattered by one of the worm’s bites. Yet Fafhrd battles on…

…but he can do nothing save watch the beast escape with his love and then sing a song of mourning. 

And his singing causes a giant icicle to fall from the cavern roof and kill the beast. As the lovers walk off, the wise man appears enshrouded in fog, repeating his prophecy…

…That was kind of neat. Great art with a fair to good story. Enjoyable even if it doesn’t add much to the Nehwon mythos.

Noteable: if you like these stories or the Leiber originals, you should check out Tales ofthe Weird on Youtube. They feature readings of some of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories and are highly enjoyable!

Sadly, this book was one issue away from the title’s cancellation due to poor sales. We never got to see the Issek the Jug story Lean Times in Lankhmar that was so magically, ironically set up in prose. Never got to witness The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars as it drives our principle characters to deadly distractions. Completely missed the Bazaar of the Bizarre with the notable characters Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face…(oh, and those are the GOOD guys in this tale.)

Most of all we missed seeing Chaykin and Simonson on pencils with Wrightson, Kaluta, and Simonson on inks doing that special kind of magic that only they can do…and doing it to two special and magical characters.