Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 53rd installment.
Two thoughts spring to mind when I flip back through the five issues of Smax, the Top 10 spin-off comic by Alan Moore and Zander Cannon: (1) This comic is the most deserving of the “Hey, Tor.com readers, this an overlooked series that you should definitely check out because you would probably love it” award, and (2) I’m not sure how well this series works on its own, without the history of Top 10 powering its character moments.
Smax is tonally a completely different beast than Top 10. The twelve issue main Top 10 series had its moments of humor, but it was also a melodramatic police procedural first, and the humor often had a savage tragedy to it. Smax is a comedy romp first, a parody of fantasy quest stories, and an intimate character piece, well, barely at all. It’s not a Mad Magazine goofball explosion of annoyingly in-your-face hilarity, but it’s closer to that than it is to the first Top 10 series. Actually, what it reads like is some amazingly well-produced independent comic from the late 1990s that took the spirit of Bone and mashed it with a superhero backstory and was written by a guy who played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in college and had tons of fun mocking it.
That sounds like the guts of a mid-range webcomic with a loyal fanbase, and maybe, in the hands of another creative team, the kernel of the idea that became Smax would have been a webcomic that you binge-read for an hour and then totally forgot to check in on, but Alan Moore and Zander Cannon turn these five issues into something definitely worth reading. I don’t know that I considered Smax to be one of Alan Moore’s best comics when I originally read it eight or nine years ago—I remember finding Zander Cannon’s soft and straightforward artwork kind of disappointing after the hyper-detail of Gene Ha’s Top 10— but this year, after rereading almost all of the Alan Moore comics ever produced, I’d say Smax is not only a later-career gem, but it’s also one of his best overall.
Smax has charm and substance and a man who is forced to confront the demons of his past and an intelligent deconstruction of the quest narrative and a rich fantasy world and grand action sequences and moments of horror and a jaunty pace and…did I mention that it’s really funny?
But I can’t help but wonder if some of the essential humor of the miniseries comes from us knowing that “Jaafs the Dragonslayer” is the same Jeff Smax who was the hard-ass veteran cop from Top 10. I mean, this five-issue series doesn’t keep that information a secret, but the contrast between how Smax was portrayed in Top 10 and the indignities he’s forced to face in Smax provides the underlying humor for many of the scenes in the comic. Smax is the dignified straight man from Top 10, but he can’t play it cool in Smax, when he goes back home and hunches into the candy house that was once his home and tells his singing sword to shut up and pushes away the sexual advances of his fur-bikini-clad barbarian sister.
Jeff Smax, no-nonsense officer of the law in Neopolis, sees himself as a hillbilly who has escaped his embarrassing past. But his past isn’t one riddled with banjo playing in the hills of West Virginia. No, he’s from a fantasy land filled with gnomes and magic and rainbows and sprites and gumdrop architecture and one multi-eyed sarcastic cat-dragon that he could never defeat.
I’m sure it’s entertaining even without having read Top 10. But the juxtaposition between the two makes Smax even better.
Smax #1-5 (Wildstorm/America’s Best Comics, Oct. 2003-May. 2004)
Zander Cannon, who provided the layouts for Gene Ha on Top 10, is a completely different kind of artist than his former collaborator. While Ha’s work is all meticulous texture and tiny crosshatchings or tonal variations, Cannon’s work is clean lines and thick black shadows and smooth figures with round faces. Ha’s comic book pages look drafted by an engineer with a wicked sense of humor and a tiny nib on his pen. Cannon’s pages look like they sprout from the ground, like a weird variety of mushroom, inked with whatever tool is handy.
In my younger days, I would have said that Gene Ha was a “better” artist by any standard. Today, I prefer the way Cannon tells a story. I’d rather read a hundred pages of Smax than a dozen pages of Top 10. Cannon’s work goes down smooth.
And though now he mostly does commercial illustration work and educational comics, there was a time when he was known as Zander “The Replacement God” Cannon. His small-press Replacement God series (which I’m not sure was ever completed) was a pseudo-medieval adventure quest story, and I don’t know if that factored into the decision to have him draw Smax. I don’t know if it was “here’s the idea for Smax and our Top 10 layout artist Zander has a background in that kind of thing” or “wouldn’t it be funny if Jeff Smax came from a world like the kind Zander used to draw?” No idea. But either way, we have Zander Cannon drawing a “Zander Cannon” story, and we have Alan Moore having fun with the clichés of fantasy fiction.
It turns out that, at the end of the Top 10 series, when Jeff Smax asks the recovering Toybox (aka Officer Robyn Slinger) to join him on a trip back home, it’s not just that he’s reaching out to make a connection with the partner to whom he had acted overly gruff. Smax needed Slinger’s help because he needed a woman to accompany him. In the tradition of hilarious romantic comedies and/or sitcoms everywhere, Smax needed Slinger to pose as his wife, to get his family off his back.
Only, he didn’t tell Slinger about that plan until he introduces her as his wife. And “his family” is really his giant-sized, muscle-bound sister, who he expected to couple with. And his sister things Slinger is actually a small boy, since she is petite and wears human clothes instead of fur bikinis.
It is actually funny, though my description probably makes it sound horrific. But it’s also melancholy, as we see the desperation of Smax to abandon his past and the vulnerability of Robyn Slinger who is stuck in this world not her own.
Before that moment of “she’s-actually-my-wife-no-really,” Moore and Cannon throw in plenty of other gags, like the three hags who welcome Smax and Slinger to the fairy world and have to play up the fantasy vernacular for the tourists. “Don’t give me a hard time,” says one of the witches. “People expect this stuff.” Then there’s the anthropomorphic bunnies mugging a rabbit with a waistcoat and pocketwatch near the stream, and the “Olde Accursed Tavern (and Inn)” where one of the beds is stacked with mattresses, and a pea, and another bed features a rack for short visitors and an axe to cut down on the too-tall visitors, and the dinner buffet is stuffed cherub, unicorn heads, and golden eggs—complete with goose.
Smax is used to all this stuff, and suffers it because it’s his hometown, and Slinger reluctantly accepts that this is how things are. But it’s the deadpan reactions of everyone that adds to the humor of every scene. It isn’t until later in the series that characters start freaking out a bit more, and that’s when faced with a battle against the gigantic unbeatable/immortal cat-dragon thing that also symbolizes Smax’s unfinished business back home. So freak-outs are understandable.
The Smax series also provides more history about Jeff Smax’s “origin,” and we learn that his adventurer mom was captured and raped by an ogre—this stuff is brutally unfunny, and it’s not played for laughs in the comic—and he and his twin sister were born from that hideous pairing. The two youngsters had to fight to survive and gather any scraps of food they could find almost from infancy. The candyland houses and pixies of the world become a sugary-sweet decoration atop this grim background material. Moore and Cannon balance the brutality with the comedy and it’s a difficult balance to maintain, but they successfully manage it in such a way that it doesn’t feel to grotesque in either direction. It just feels like a layered world, even if it is one adorned with gingerbread men and candy canes.
The final two issues of Smax feature the extended confrontation between Smax and his friends and the monstrous cat-dragon thing called Morningbright. Smax’s singing sword is not much help against such an overwhelming beast, even if the sword did pick up some new tunes while hanging out in Smax’s Neopolis closet. Like “Dancing Queen.” Yes, Abba does not solve the problem.
But science does, as Slinger figures out the physics of this world, and how Morningbright operates: through fusion. A giant iron nail helps to polish off Morningbright and Smax’s unfinished business is put to rest. So what if it’s true that he is in love with his sister and she loves him back, and his ruse with Robyn Singer was just his way of avoiding the creepiness of his feelings? As Slinger points out, they could return to Neopolis and no one would know Smax and his sister were related. They would just look like to creatures of the same, tall, blue-skinned, white-haired race.
And with that, Smax comes out resoundingly in favor of incest, but that’s not really the point of the story, just a point in the story. No, Smax is more than just an extended hillbilly joke set in a Tolkienesque world. It’s also a walloping good adventure yarn and a story about the people who struggle against the shadows of their own pasts while striving to do what needs to be done today.
And it’s funny, but you can’t appreciate the humor from a summary of it. Reading a description of a joke is nothing like hearing it for yourself. So read some Smax, and see its subtle and not-so-subtle pleasures. Enjoy Alan Moore’s last great comedic work. It hasn’t been all grim and gritty despair since, but nothing in the past 10 years has matched the level of humor he unleashes in this Top 10 spin-off.
It also looks like the collected edition is currently out of print. Hunt for it, or track down the single issues. It’s worth it.
NEXT TIME: Gene Ha rejoins Alan Moore to draw a Top 10 original graphic novel detailing the early days of modern Neopolis in The Forty-Niners.