I wrote about TOP TEN in this column a couple of weeks ago. It's one of my favorite comics from recent memory, told with style in both the writing and the art. It's difficult to find both together in a single comic these days. TOP TEN had it in spades.
That's why I looked at SMAX with some trepidation. It's a spin-off book. It's five issues in Jeff Smax's world, not Neopolis. Bringing his partner, Robyn Slinger, along with him sweetened the deal a little, but I couldn't help but get a feeling that we were about to see a rehash of an old favorite or a take so completely different that it wouldn't feel like the same universe.
This is Alan Moore we're dealing with, however, and once again he impresses with this "spin-off." The now concluded mini-series retains many of the same elements that made TOP TEN successful while creating a whole new world and a new feel for the storytelling. SMAX is played more often for laughs, but never at the expense of character. Moore surprises his readers around every corner, often with serious plot points that would be uncomfortable in any comic, let alone one that feels so much like a humor book.
The general plot is that Jeff Smax -- the moody big blue guy -- is headed back to his own world to attend his uncle's funeral. For reasons unknown at the beginning of the story, he brings his partner with him. He's deeply ashamed of his home world, but Robyn will have none of it. It's a fairy tale paradise, mixing parts of fantasies from all across the storytelling landscape. You'll see everyone in this book from Groo to Casper to The Smurfs and The Knights Who Say 'Nee.' That's just for starters. The Street of Eerie Children sequence, alone, is worth the price of the series. Picture FABLES with far more cameos and a few more laughs, and you'll have a very rough idea of where this book is coming from.
That fantasy, though, is a facade. The practices of Smax's people would seem foreign and troublesome to the residents of Neopolis. Smax's past is laid out over the course of the series, answering most every question you've ever had about the guy: Where did that hand on his chest come from? Why is he blue? Why is he such a grump? What is he running from?
Moore's romp through the world of fantasy is a pleasant one, with cute parts, slyly mean parts, and satirical takes on old favorites. If you're a LORD OF THE RINGS fan, you'll especially appreciate Moore's take on the Fellowship of the Ring, which he re-envisions as being a creation of a bureaucracy created to manage the art of "Questing." The seven members are dictated by a form of affirmative action imposed from on high.
There is an interesting duality in the series. Moore spends a lot of time lovingly poking fun at fantasy tales and popular mythology. But then he'll catch the reader off guard to create a jarring and scary sequence where we learn that all is not well in this otherwise quaint little world. In a way, the whole thing reminds me of the classic fairy tales. Many of them are grim. (No pun intended.) They weren't meant for children and they don't flinch at anything. It's only been in the relatively recent past that those stories have been cleaned up and "Disneyfied" into soothing bedtime stories to tell children at bedtime. Moore walks that same line in this series, and pulls it off brilliantly. The serious parts will draw you into the story, and the humorous parts will keep you coming back for more. This is humor with character, not just a series of silly gags.
Zander Cannon handles art duties with Andrew (ULTIMATES) Currie handling inks after the first issue. Compared to TOP TEN, the artwork is much more cartoony, in line with what you might remember from Cannon's THE REPLACEMENT GOD. Gene Ha's detail and fine line is missing, but the tone of the art suits this book just fine.
The book is laid out in six- and nine-panel grids, as Moore maintains pacing in a book filled with plenty of talking heads scenes. I didn't realize it until I finished reading the series, but the vast majority of this book takes place with two or three people in a room talking. Jeff's hot temper jump-starts the action here and there, but it's not a crutch to kick start the book. Moore's dialogue keeps your throughout. Even the conversation with Death is a humdinger.
"I'm a Death, obviously, but I'm only the one who handles chess games with wily peasants," says the pale-skinned man in black robes. "Awesome, terrible death, for example, we leave to Dennis. Boy, Dennis! I tell you, he even scares the $h*t out of us."
There are times that the book reminds me of the Giffen/DeMatteis era JUSTICE LEAGUE stories: pages packed with panels, lots of characters talking amongst themselves, and a smattering of repeated panels for comedic timing. The dialogue doesn't continue the forced television patter of TOP TEN. This is back to a more traditional style of dramatic dialogue. It feels natural, but it's not structured to sweep you from scene to scene or imitate the pacing of today's television dramas.
SMAX is a worthy successor to TOP TEN, a surprisingly entertaining book that carries on the legacy of Neopolis' police department series without being slavish to it. I hope this one is collected in a matching hardcover/trade paperback with all the rest of the ABC titles. It's just as deserving as the rest of them.
THAT OTHER CLARK KENT CHARACTER
SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY is the recently concluded four-part prestige format mini-series from Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen. It is a smaller and more personal story than you might expect. It plays out across decades of time, each a glimpse into a time where a life lesson is learned and a person grows for it. It sounds so very basic, but Busiek and Immonen apply their deft touches to make it more personal and more spectacular, all at the same time. SECRET IDENTITY is a beautiful volume with smooth writing that deserves some recall when it comes time to hand out awards next year for the Best of 2004.
The book starts out threatening to be another story of a problematic teenager whose date with puberty gives him powers he needs to hide for fear that the government wants to control him. Yeah, I groaned at the thought, too. However, about halfway through the first book I could tell that this story would be different. It was about more than just the irony of a kid named Clark Kent developing powers not unlike Superman's. It was a very personal story about one young man accepting the gifts fate bestowed upon him and how he handles it. It isn't perfect, but it gets the job done and it's a series of decisions that he can live with.
Busiek then tells Clark's life story over the course of four books, jumping ahead to a new point in time for each story. It starts with Clark as a teenager, then jumps to his early days in the workaday world, the start of a new family, and finally ending in his twilight years. It feels more like a character study with some X-FILES elements in it than your typical mutant coming of age story that it could have very easily descended into.
Immonen's art is the perfect match to this story. He handles both art and colors for this book, and experiments with a new style. The art looks heavily photo referenced, as the human beings in it look more natural and more realistic than what most comic book artists put across today. It goes beyond just tracing over a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover. Immonen adds his own artistic touches to everything, including charcoal shading, pencil lines showing through the art, and a large amount of color modeling. The art for this book is made largely in the coloring, which is an impressively detailed series of cuts and gradients by blocks. It took me a few pages to get into it, but once I did, the rest of the series flowed smoothly. It also allowed for some breathtaking panoramic vistas to be show in scenes where Clark flies over the Arctic or a horse ranch or the earth as a whole. Those shots reminded me of Tim Sale's double page spreads in SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS.
This shouldn't really be a surprise from Immonen, though. If you remember his hardcover graphic novel, SUPERMAN: END OF THE CENTURY, you'll remember some of the experimentation he did with his story there, too. It included painting scenes set in the past and superimposing photos of real objects (touched up) over the art. It looks like he's back to his "classic" art mode for the upcoming ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR run. I'm sure he'll be back to experimenting with media in another project someday soon. Either way, I like it all and I admire his drive to challenge himself with new styles.
The important thing is the level of realism presented in this book. Obviously, this isn't fumetti and it's not a home movie. What it does show, however, is a very natural form of storytelling. It's not filled with broken panels, forced perspective, and the kinds of tricks you'd expect to see Jack Kirby throw in to heighten the tension and the mood. Immonen keeps things low key, so that the big action moments seem not just larger, but also more impressive and awe-inspiring. His characters look human, which is also important. This is an attempt to visually ground the book in a reality to help carry the story across of a normal human granted powers for what he believes is the first time in humanity's existence.
The storytelling is not decompressed. Busiek packs a lot of panels into each 48 page issue. Even so, the story has to move along to keep up with the page limitations. Immonen handles this well, but still has the chance to throw in some money shots.
When it comes down to it, this book wins on the smallest details. It's a man's love for his children, for his wife, and even for his country that carry the day in this book. You can hear Busiek's voice leaking through just a little bit when Clark talks about his parental feelings for his children. You can't help but think that if this book were written by a bachelor, it wouldn't have the same level of resonance or the same heart to it. Busiek puts his heart into this book.
There are other things, too. For example, Clark Kent marries an Indian woman (named Lois, naturally), but there's never any notice paid to her race. Busiek doesn't try to score politically correct points by making it an issue in the series. He doesn't go in with a heavy hand to point out that as the fictional Clark Kent is technically of another race than Lois Lane, this Clark Kent is also dating and marrying a woman of a different race. It's there if you want to look for it, but it's not a big thing. As an issue, it is left to the brain patterns of the reader.
SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY is a charming book, a low key and personal story with a setup that would seem to call for anything but. Busiek does a great job in maintaining focus on Clark Kent's thoughts throughout this life, and restricting himself to key turning points in the man's life. It's a book with heart. I hope there is a hardcover coming for this one, as well as SMAX. It's one mini-series that deserves such treatment.
LINKS OF THE WEEK
* This week, we look at comparisons between classic comic book artists and noted thief Roy Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein destroyed these panels of comic book art as he went along, changing line weights, flattening images, removing any soul from them. He put big giant color dots in them, so he became an "artiste." Bleh
You can see the difference between a true artist and a hack in the side-by-side images on the web site. Just look at the way "the artiste" destroyed several of the images in attempt to make them his own.
(Credit to Mark Evanier for the link.)
* All you Todd McFarlane "fans" will flip for this Penny Arcade strip.
Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday with more news and more reviews. I have a few ideas of what I'd like to talk about next week, but I long ago learned my lesson not to jinx it ahead of time. Sorry.
Over at Various and Sundry this week, you'll get thoughts on the FRASIER finale, the SURVIVOR ALL STARS finale, and voting on AMERICAN IDOL. Plus, a BIG BROTHER castmate shows up in the oddest place, and a Linux t-shirt appears on a home improvement show. It's been a very busy week at VandS, with something for everyone.
More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.