A Smax Upside
Alan Moore and Zander Cannon’s mini-series Smax (originally titled Smax the Barbarian) has finally been collected in book form. For readers sighing at encountering the umpteenth iteration of a fantasy cliché in their reading, this tale provides the perfect revenge.
Smax is a spin-off of the Alan Moore-penned comic book series Top 10. Jeff Smax and Robyn Slinger (a.k.a. Toybox) are super-powered police officers in the city of Neopolis. At the end of the previous issue, Smax had asked his partner to accompany him to his home dimension to attend his beloved Uncle Mack’s funeral. Toybox accepted, despite Smax’s vague warning of complications.
Up to this point in the series, the blue-skinned misanthropic giant never talked much about himself or his past. Readers knew Smax kept someone or something in his closet that talked to him in gothic script, but not much else about him.
Smax fills in the titular hero’s background. Jeff Smax hails from parallel Earth-137, one where magic readily exists and technology is roughly stuck at the medieval level. The voice in Smax’s closet comes from an artifact of this Earth, a literally singing sword. Compared to the more scientifically advanced and lower-numbered parallel Earths, Smax’s home Earth is the equivalent of the sticks. Hostility and perpetual surliness are Smax’s means of covering his embarrassment at hailing from a backworld.
Despite some similarities to her home Earth, Toybox is entranced by much of what she encounters in Earth-137. She’s also flattered that her partner trusts her enough to talk about his past. Smax’s goodwill account quickly gets emptied after Toybox meets Smax’s twin sister Rexa. The policewoman had thought of her partner as a "big, irritating dog that I didn’t really want." Supposedly, the feeling was mutual. Yet now, Smax passes his partner off to Rexa as his wife. Toybox is openly furious at being tricked and used, especially after her partner refuses to offer any explanation.
It takes Toybox’s threat to go home alone before Smax confesses the embarrassing truth. His lie about his marital status would allow him to evade marrying Rexa. Even though Smax has deeply loved Rexa since childhood, marrying his sister would confirm the stereotypes about his backworld roots.
But a far bigger source of shame prompted Smax’s departure from Earth-137. Smax used to be a famous dragonslayer named Jaafs Macksun. His last job was to rescue Princess Naruli from the clutches of the dragon Morningbright by slaying the creature. But Smax underestimated the wiliness of his opponent, and the job ended in a disastrous fashion. Guilt-ridden and deeply ashamed, Smax gave up the dragonslaying businesses and moved to Neopolis.
It soon becomes clear that Smax was fated to return to his home dimension to remedy this bit of unfinished business. Accompanied by Toybox, Rexa, and the inevitable dwarves and elf, the former dragonslayer unwillingly embarks on a quest to slay Morningbright. But the dragon is not a creature that can be defeated through strength or force of arms, which is all Smax can offer. Despite her unfamiliarity with Earth-137, Toybox is determined to find a way to help her hard-headed partner.
Dwarf: "Uh…but, with respect, Miss, Morningbright’s a dragon."
Toybox: "Yeah. And a murderer, and a child abductor, and an industrial strength polluter…and I’m a police."
Alan Moore has previously used Top 10 to quietly ridicule pop culture. One of the series’ more memorable images was that of a drunken Godzilla with a pronounced beer belly.
Smax allows Moore an opportunity to mock the mindless escapism underlying the typical fantasy quest series. Such series may ostensibly deal with the primal conflict between good and evil. Yet the worlds and characters engaged in that conflict appear to him as simplistic facades that remain emotionally unattached to our world. So Moore decided to bring the real world to the lands of fantasy. Earth-137 is a fantastic land where a Health Department regulates the price of rooms in a cursed tavern, gold eggs must fight off currency devaluation from magic beans, and land speculation makes finding affordable housing difficult.
Smax: "See, what it is, all the wizards and heroes buy second homes, places like here in the Dell. Property prices rocket. Castles, even a decent cave, down payment’s gonna be one, two gold eggs. Minimum."
Moore also strips away romanticism and even the cookie cutter nature of many heroic fantasy quests. Smax prefers to leave Earth-137 and let Morningbright rampage freely. Only when enough omens arrive to choke half a dozen horses does he feel impelled to change his mind. The assemblage of the heroic band is treated like applying for a driver’s license. Smax must stand in long lines for hours. He must also satisfy a bureaucrat that his party has the requisite number of dwarves and wizards before he can be issued a questing license.
The quest journey is rendered as a realistic task and not an imaginary vacation. It’s a miserable process not far removed from marching to war, and Moore and Cannon make sure the reader realizes it. There’s the sight of forests reduced to burning twigs and refugees literally fleeing with just the clothes on their back. The most disconcerting moment, though, is one that Toybox likens to encountering the massacre sites in Bosnia and Cambodia.
In Moore’s eyes, sentimentality has undercut the potency of fantasy. He shows his disdain for such fantastic sentimental clichés as a unicorn, a mermaid, and a pair of cherubs. Those creatures appear only as courses on a dinner meal. Even the music of ABBA becomes little more than a soundtrack to Smax’s confrontation with possible death.
Finally, despite his being the titular hero of the story, Smax’s machismo receives justifiable criticism. He doesn’t understand why his lie about being married to Toybox came across like a betrayal of her trust. Nor does he admit that Morningbright’s defeat requires more than punching the dragon until he stops moving. In the end, it is Toybox’s ingenuity that solves both of Smax’s problems.
In the end, Moore’s criticisms of standard heroic fantasy stand revealed as an act of literary refurbishing. Fantasy and myth are fictional ways to illustrate the lighter and darker aspects of human behavior. Smax’s account of his childhood would fit into this tradition, as it’s filled with rape, incest, and a nasty fratricide. Subscribing to romanticism and sentimentality means subscribing to self-denial of the existence of the weaknesses of human behavior. Morningbright saw the emotional weakness that Smax carried since childhood, and exploited it. It was only after Smax acted despite that weakness that he became a true hero.
Zander Cannon’s lighter artwork may disconcert Top 10 fans who adored Gene Ha’s gritty artwork on that series. Yet given that Earth 137 is beautiful and simple compared to the urban freneticism of Neopolis, Cannon’s artwork is entirely apropos. This is not to say that Cannon’s art fails during the grimmer parts of Smax. The death of one of Morningbright’s victims and the aftermath is told in an effective series of silent panels.
Fans of Top 10’s throwaway references to other fantasy works will be pleased by the visual jokes offered in Smax. The book offers everything from a brief reference to the old animated series Wacky Races to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and its parody The Dove.
For those who wanted more skewering of fantasy clichés after finishing Diane Wynne Jones’ wonderful tome The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, Alan Moore and Zander Cannon’s Smax will be guaranteed to provide a new round of giggles and tears.