[Outside the Frame] Re-reading An Old Favorite: Sam Kieth’s THE MAXX

We’re going to slip, just a little, into mainstream territory, and talk about one of my favorite comics from the early 1990s: The Maxx, created by Sam Kieth. In 1993, I was living in the Bay Area and shopping at Comic Relief—now closed, but once the greatest comic book store in the area. I found Love and Rockets there, discovered the new Vertigo titles that were just coming on the scene, and fell in love with a bizarro comic about a homeless man, a scantily-dressed social worker, and a nightmare-Outback full of predators and prey.

A few weeks ago, a friend who works in a bookstore (and often pulls trades of indie comics for me) handed me a stack to look through. Along with a lot of spandex superhero stuff I didn’t need, and the first two trades of Tank Girl, which I bought, was a single, scuffed, graphic novel with a purple and black cover. Volume 1 of The Maxx.

I may have made unintelligible happy noises. I definitely didn’t let it out of my hands until I knew it was mine. Reading through the collected first six issues reminded me that Kieth’s strange story and mesmerizingly uneven art, along with “Swell Dialogue by Bill Messner-Loebs”, offered something different. New, weird, problematic… where we do we start?

The Maxx was inspired by the gritty, violent, comics of the 80s, when superheroes got dark and dangerous, but it turns the genre on its side with the introduction of Dave, a homeless man who doesn’t want to be a hero. He just can’t help himself. The mask, a gift from the evil Mr. Gone, might also be a curse, since it gives him power but pulls him in and out of reality. Some days, Dave is a guy in a cardboard box, trying to stay dry, and some days he’s The Maxx, running through the Outback to save his Leopard Queen. Which version of his self is the true one?

Julie is, on the surface, another pin-up princess, half-dressed and needing to be rescued. Hiding from the effects of having been raped and assaulted, she pretends it never happened, and spends her energy trying to save others with a make-shift “social work” program she runs out of her apartment. Consciously, she makes herself feel powerful by dressing provocatively, and finding people who need her help, so she can tell them what to do. Unconsciously, she has more power than she realizes, as the creator of her own splinter-reality, the beautiful but deadly Outback. Only it isn’t the real Australia, one where a blonde, white girl in a bikini top and bell-bottom jeans wouldn’t survive without liberal doses of SPF 100. This is the dream, formed by childhood stories, memories, and fears.

Mr. Gone, the violent rapist and murderer who somehow knows more about Julie and Dave than they know about themselves, is remarkably self-aware and snarkily self-referential. At turns weak, middle-aged man, and all-powerful villain, he’s as much as part of the solution as he is the problem, which makes him a lot more interesting, even if he is still prone to monologuing.

And Julie, who didn’t start what happened to her, gets to be the one who finishes it, by recognizing her delusions without becoming a vigilante or another victim. How’s that for different?

But for all of it’s uniqueness, The Maxx has a few… other problems. The art is all over the place. A mix of airbrushing, doodles, sketches—there are detailed backgrounds, and other pages with only a hint, a ghost of scenery. Sometimes the lines are crisp and bold, and other times they’re fuzzy like a bad photocopy.

While some readers adored the psychedelic storyline, others didn’t quite get it. Alan Moore said Kieth had, “a direct line connecting him with the forgotten, newly sunken world of childhood and otherness and peculiar reality.” Great praise from a master comics writer, and I tend to agree. But Kieth himself, a bit tired of Maxx’s popularity after all of these years, says:

Maxx made sense, sorta… at 2am, if you weren’t stoned. Truth: Maxx didn’t even make sense to ME… so it’s doubtful anyone else could make sense of it. – December 13, 2012

Who got it right? The guy who made it all up, or the fans who fell in love? Read it, and decide for yourself.

Oh, and! In 1995, MTV made an animated series from the first eleven issues. The art’s good, the voices are right for the parts, and it’s fun to see the Iz tearing after Maxx like a herd of angry kodami with razor-sharp teeth. You can get it on DVD, including commentaries from the creators, here.

Watch the full episodes on MTV.com: watch them here.

Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at carriecuinn@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “[Outside the Frame] Re-reading An Old Favorite: Sam Kieth’s THE MAXX”

  1. The Maxx is also one of my favorite comics. Yeah, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but the trippy journey was awesome and I’m a huge fan of Keith’s art. The cartoon, also, was great.

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