Review: Smax by Alan Moore hardcover/paperback (Wildstorm/America's Best Comics)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

[Review by Doug Glassman.]

I reviewed Top 10 a long time ago, so here’s a refresher. It’s a police procedural made of up an original series and a subsequent mini-series, set in a world where every sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book trope is quite real and everyone has superpowers. Like many of Alan Moore’s books, it’s filled with shout-outs to other works. Smax was the giant, blue, terse partner of Robyn “Toybox” Slinger, and is most famous for taking out one of the original series’s big bads; essentially, he’s the series’s Wolverine, and while he’s not my favorite character (that honor belongs to walking Japanese robot homage Joe Pi), I can understand why he received his own mini-series, the five-issue Smax.

We didn’t learn a lot about Jeff Smax in the original series, and it turns out that it’s by design. His real name Jaafs Macksun, and we meet him here shortly after the events of the original series (Robyn’s leg is still broken from the ending of Top 10), as he heads home for his Uncle Mack’s funeral. Smax is from a world of fantasy tropes, and he’s very ashamed of it, considering the residents of his homeworld to be the rednecks of a universe based in science (and comics). His father was an ogre who raped his Red Sonja-esque mother, and one of the strongest scenes in the book is the retelling of how he and his twin sister, Rexa, killed their father. It reminds me of the scene in the Odyssey of the blinding of Polyphemus; knowing Moore’s love of literature, I’m guessing this was intentional.

For a long time, Smax was a dragon-slayer, which on his world requires dwarf quotas and permits from Death itself. He received a white mark on his chest from a young girl he was unable to save from a powerful creature called Morningbright. When signs force him to take on a quest, he relents in his attempts to leave. Meanwhile, Robyn has taken on the role of a wizard, and when she finds that her weaponized toys don’t work in a non-electric world, she decides to bring some science into this fantasy. One advantage Alan Moore has over some writers, like Grant Morrison, is that he writes excellent endings, and the trick that Robyn pulls off in the end is one of my favorites.

While the plot is simple, the meat of the story lies in the details. We learn an important fact about Smax: he isn’t that smart. He’s intelligent enough to lead his own life, but his terse nature comes from not knowing what to say in tough situations. This helped him during his time as a dragon-slayer, when life was easy, but living in Neopolis has changed his way of thinking. He has a tough time relating to his sister, Rexa, with whom he has a sexual relationship. On Parallel Earth 137, this is nothing major, but it drives the “redneck” analogy that both Smax and Moore use. It’s a world so backwards that it’s not reachable by spacecraft -- only by a vomit-inducing spell.

Robyn and Smax are accompanied by his adopted dwarf brother and two of his friends, who sort of hang in the back and make jokes about The Hobbit. They were essential for exactly one joke, and I think Moore could have used them for much more humor. A better character is Aldric the elf, who sweet-talks Robyn into loving him while trying to get his green card to go to Neopolis.

Morningbright is a classic "unknowable" eldritch horror character; he wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft story. Zander Cannon’s design is immediately memorable: a cat-like, flat face with six eyes and curved horns. Morningbright is essentially omnipotent and omniscient and he feeds on the souls of virgin children. I’m not entirely sure how highly he ranks on my Crazy Awesome Index; he’s certainly powerful and cruel enough to be there, but I don’t think he can top Carnage, Mac Gargan, or General Spears. He is, however, amazingly creepy, communicating the future in acrostic form and constantly changing size around our heroes. Another creepy character is Dennis, the reaper responsible for some truly epic deaths. The Death seen earlier during the quest paperwork is a minor one who constantly loses at badminton, similar to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey or Discworld.

Zander Cannon was one of Top 10’s original artists, so there’s no jarring transitions from the original book. The only weird detail is Smax’s beard, which grows rapidly and gets miscolored as blue instead of white at various points. His beard length, along with the limited use of the dwarfs, makes me wonder if an issue was cut; a five-issue mini-series is strange, and an extra issue would have given Moore and Cannon room to flesh things out. Cannon puts tons of details into the backgrounds, with shout-outs to obvious and non-obvious sources.

To catch all of the hidden details, check out the Smax annotations by Jess Nevins and Foo Sek Han. Make sure to e-mail them if you’ve caught something that they haven’t. One of the most blatant, yet funniest, jokes is a Dumbledore analogue dragging along a shell-shocked “Trotter” through the wreckage of one of Morningbright’s rampages. This is actually a better origin for Harry Potter than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2009 was. There’s also some background number-to-letter codes for hidden messages.

If you enjoyed Top 10, then Smax is an enjoyable revisiting of the setting. If you haven’t read Top 10, then this won’t make a lot of sense and will fall flat. It doesn’t cover as much ground as its predecessor, but it goes into a far different world with its own jokes and potential. It’s also quite expensive on Amazon, so hopefully your LCS has a copy on-hand.

Thanks, Doug! For more Moore, see our review of Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones from earlier this week (comparing Snyder's book to the Alan Moore run), and tune in Friday for the first of a new Collected Editions series, reading Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing. Tomorrow, it's the Collected Editions review of Justice League Vol. 2: The Villain's Journey. Don't miss it!
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2 comments:

  1. I miss top 10! - steve

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  2. As do I. Season 2 (which was excellent) got lost in the absorption of Wildstorm into DC. If it doesn't get a trade to coincide with the upcoming Absolute edition, I may just do an Uncollected Editions review of it. Depending on my finances, I might get the Absolute edition as well.

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