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The Maxx:

We're All Children Of Shame

First off, don’t buy the video. If my friend Guy Lawley’s response is anything to go by, the animated adaptation is definitely not the best way to get your first taste of Sam Kieth’s singular comic book. The Maxx cartoon series was made for MTV, sanitised for a 12 Rating (no "Gawd"s, rape, wrist burns or "I hurt"), and partially de-mystified with some extra explanatory voice-overs to help MTV viewers. You know what you’re in for when the crass labeling on the sleeve reduces it to the concept "Play Superhero as Dumpster Dweller". Guy told me he had forced himself to sit through nearly two hours of it to the bitter end. He found it so frustrating that he gave it to me as a Christmas present. Thanks, Guy.

I found the video version pretty annoying too and I already liked the comics. If anything, it is too faithful to the original words and pictures. The low, low budget means the animation is largely limited or un-animated, relying instead on pans and zooms and stills of Kieth’s original panels, offset by a couple of jarring bits of sleek computer imaging. The numerous long, mainly internal monologues just don’t lend themselves to the pacing and quickchange visuals that conventional TV and TV cartoons demand.

Then, in the closing minutes, when Julie leaves, when those "revelations" have finally arrived, the Man behind the Maxx Mask just slips off his costume and returns to being a burly gardener in a greenhouse. Erm…did I miss something? That flat, totally unsatisfying "conclusion" never appeared in the comics. Like Guy, I felt cheated.

The cartoons cut off at issue 11, a handy stopping-off point, but leaving more threads dangling than on The Maxx’s tattered early costumes. A more satisfying conclusion followed in issue 20. At least now Julie and Dave, alias ‘The Maxx’, were starting to come to terms with their suppressed memories and we understood more of the picture. Over two years later (and ten years later into the future of the characters’ lives), Sam Kieth has now daringly ended this storyline again in issue 35. As reformed Artemis Pender, ex-baddie Mr Gone, puts it to his fellow cast members, "We need emotional resolution". Kieth provides "proper closure" by having his characters vanish one-by-one from this "bubble" of reality, moving on, forgetting their "shame", to start afresh. Somehow, hokey as it sounds, he pulls it off. The only clues to their former lives are Dave’s granny’s nailclippers and a snow globe. It’s a radical rewrite, but it’s entirely necessary. After "Endings and Beginnings", Kieth interviews himself: "...it’s my sad fate (and my fans’) to no longer be the person who created The Maxx. Everyone has to move on - even me. Sorry."

Kieth (surely his surname must be a spelling mistake on his birth certificate?) started The Maxx in 1993 as one of the first wave of new Image books. He brought with him his Marvelite fan following and served up for them a Hulk-like monster-hero, rescuing liberated damsel in distress in bell-bottoms and Sheena bikini from a despicable rapist, the Doctor Strange-ish Mr Gone. Like so many Image heroes, The Maxx started as a blank canvas, plagued with memory loss or lapses (always a way for creators to cover up their own lack of ideas for an origin or rationale). After a few less-inspired guest star issues (The Pitt and Savage Dragon), no doubt many ex-Marvel fans dropped the book as it became more weird and melancholy and more interested in ordinary, unheroic character pieces (like Sarah’s betrayal in issue 5, or Julie’s childhood in issue 10). This only made readers like me become more intrigued by it. Kieth was lucky: almost exactly two years after the comic started, The Maxx cartoon hit MTV, giving serious exposure to hook a new ‘cool’ readership.

What has lifted The Maxx for me has been its humanity, its insights into the contradictions that make us human, the messed-up lives and relationships that still have value, the effects and aftereffects of abuse, insecurity, denial, repression. At times, Kieth’s galumphing psychosymbolism (eyeless pink fairies and banana slugs, anyone?) signposts meaning with sledgehammer subtlety, but at least by 1995 Kieth knew he had to be more concerned "...about being too specific in The Maxx, about how I wanted to let people read what they wanted into it, instead of getting caught up in dogma".

1996 brought Friends of Maxx, a three-book series of "typical emotional jeopardy crap", linked only by name to the main title. These are remarkable, rich stories by a solo Kieth, sans Messner-Loebs or Moore. His first 48-page complete issue follows Dude Japan and his girlfriend Mickey through their rocky relationship and unfulfilled dreams. In the last two issues, young ex-con loser Ira finds "self-absolution" in the 96-page comedy of macho manners, "Broadminded".

Kieth dropped the title after this. How could he ever go back to the bulging biceps and jungle queens of 1993? Instead, Kieth has attempted a density of ideas, and his sheer nerve for tackling difficult subject-matter has resulted in some landmark issues: in issues 26 and 27, Mr Gone’s harrowing ‘origin’ rooted in child abuse (the climax of issue 26 is one of the most genuinely affecting spreads in recent comics); in 31 and 34 the secrets of frightened lesbian schoolgirl Megan; in 33 bizarre twists in the lives of Dude and Mickey yet to unfold. The Maxx comic has now become Friends of Maxx, and is all the better for it.

Equally important to the comic, indeed essential reading, is ‘Maxx Traxx’, the lengthy letters section. Readers, or ‘Maxxheads’, offer their personal interpretations of the stories, disclose how the stories relate to their own lives, fill columns of free classifieds and send in their own artwork. In these pages, Kieth is quite candid about his own creative worries and he also participates in an internet newsgroup that vigorously debates what he has told and what he should be telling next. The Maxx, perhaps more than any other comic book, has turned into a sort of expanding, shared, interactive storytelling therapy, supporting creator and readers alike. Don’t let the video put you off.

Posted: December 7, 2008

This article originally appeared in Comics Forum in 1998.

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