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Gimmick or Good? – Maxx #1

maxxglowinthedarkIn this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with the glow-in-the-dark cover of Maxx #1…

The Maxx #1 (published March 1993) – plot, pencils and inks by Sam Kieth, script by William Messner-Loebs

Part of a second wave of new Image titles released in 1993, Sam Kieth’s Maxx series garnered mainstream attention when it was adapted into an animated series on MTV in 1995. While the direct edition of The Maxx #1 features a plain Jane cover, there is a glow-in-the-dark variant that is fairly easy to track down.

But what about inside the comic?

This is definitely a comic that grew on me with every subsequent read, as the first issue is very heavy on exposition (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the storylines and narrative devices Kieth and William Messner-Loebs are setting up are so uniquely intelligent, I’m honestly left very curious to see what the creative team has in store for me in future issues.

In an era that is chock full of shallow punch and kick battles and major “turning points” and reveals done purely for sales and shock value, The Maxx #1 is quietly assertive in how it addresses themes that involve duality, rape, murder, homelessness and other social issues. Kieth illustrates the titular character as an over-sized muscle head, but it’s done so with tongue firmly in cheek. There is graphic violence and cavalier attitudes from characters talking about these heinous acts, but it’s portrayed in such surrealistic fashion, it’s more thought provoking than shocking.

Maxx_01

For the unfamiliar, Maxx is a homeless man who, in his mind, thinks he’s a superhero. He slips in and out of an alternate reality, referred to as the Outback, where he is the protector of the Jungle Queen. Back in the real world, the Jungle Queen shares a likeness with freelance social worker Julie Winters, who frequently bails Maxx out of prison. The main story arc of the series focuses on Maxx fighting Mr. Gone, a serial rapist who exists in both the real world and the Outback. Gone shares a telepathic link with Julie and is seen in multiple scenes in the first issue making cryptic phone calls to her that she dismisses as obscene pranks.

Julie may be the most interesting character in the first issue. Her borderline “blame the victim” attitude towards women who are raped hints that there’s a lot more to this character than initially presented (and this turns out to be true as it’s later revealed that Julie herself is a rape victim). And, of course, the fact that she is such a critical character in the Outback begs the question of whether or not she actually exists in some fashion in this alternative world, or if the Jungle Queen is just a creation straight out of Maxx’s unconscious.

Maxx_02

That’s not to take anything away from Maxx’s characterization. Part of the reason why I needed to give this issue multiple reads before my opinions become more fully formed is because there’s a scatological nature to Maxx’s narration – by design, of course. What we have here is an instance of an “unreliable” narrator driving the story. That means that, as a reader, I need to parse through nearly everything being derived from his mouth/brain. As a result, it leads me with a lot of questions about the reality of the events that transpire in this issue. If the character is regarded as a “derelict” by the rest of “society,” do we just blindly accept his story? Did Maxx actually save a woman from rape and/or murder at the beginning of the issue or was it just a delusion? And what are to make of Mr. Gone? Maxx can engage this character, and obviously there’s something that links Gone with Julie, but is he a tangible part of the “real world” or just a symbolic representation of something else?

Maxx_04

Raising this many questions is a good thing, but considering this is an early-90s Image book, I was initially caught unawares by how thought-provoking The Maxx #1 proved to be after a first read.
With that in mind, Kieth’s illustrations definitely come across like he’s mocking the over-stylistic pencils of some of his predecessors/contemporaries at Image. And yet, even when giving Maxx layers of muscles about muscle, and a ridiculous-looking mask, there’s a consistency in style and form from Kieth that we don’t get with many of the other Image “stars.” I also appreciate the visual contrasts between Maxx’s “real” world and the Outback. Both worlds are equally bloody and violent, but the real world exudes a dark dystopian quality, while there’s a brightness and hopefulness to Kieth’s Outback depiction. Given Kieth’s background as the original artist on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, this visual nuance doesn’t surprise me.

Maxx_03

Readers who missed out on The Maxx in the 1990s, or who love the series but never got it in collected form, should note that IDW just released the first issue of The Maxx: Maxximized #1 last week, reprinting the original first issue. I’m intrigued to see how today’s digital coloring technology might enhance a book that already looks pretty good.

Verdict: Good

13 Comments

I remember watching the MTV series and enjoying it a lot. I never read the comic, though.

One of my favorite comics. When people talk about how bad ’90s comics were, particularly Image comics, I can point to The Maxx and say it wasn’t all bad.

the maxx was wonderful

This is one of those things like Alan Moore’s Violator comics where it still sucks, but in comparison to the rest of 90s Image it doesn’t seem that awful.

One of my favorite comics. I watched the series first and I loved it. Too bad it never got a real ending. I got the last 6 issues of the original print, so now I’m into buying the new edition. It was a big surprise, for me, when Image announced it.

I enjoyed the TV series and the comics (though I’ve only read the first eight issues).

Also really like Kieth’s Oni books. The guy’s brilliant.

Did this series have any resolution or answers? I’ve encountered many old books and series that I caught up with only to find out they end unresolved or worse on a cliffhanger. Don’t want to go through that again.

Let me rephrase, I’ll still READ it, but I just want to be prepared for a lack of resolution if that’s the case rather than be surprised by it when I reach the end.

IIRC, the first 20 or so issues were a complete arc so you could read that just fine. Through the rest of the series it seems like Sam Keith eventually became interested in telling other types of stories. Not that they’re bad, just probably more at home in another series. I’m not sure why The Maxx abruptly ended but if the explanation was ‘I just wanted to do something else, so I just wrapped it up in one last issue’ I wouldn’t be shocked.

The resolutions were a bit fuzzy. I felt a sense of finality with issues 20 (end of the present day Dave stories) and the final issue (end of everything) but a lot of questions were not expressly answered. Unlike a lot of other non-closure endings, I actually didn’t mind.

Loved this book, and when I recently reread some of the first issues it was still captivating…and indeed from what I have seen of other early Image books, this one was something completely different.

The first arc, first twenty issues, indeed wrapped up nicely, providing some answers (though the story functions partially on dream logic so of course a lot never gets particularly concrete).
After that it did become obvious at some point that Kieth was losing interest in this and the better issues were the Friends of Maxx one-offs.

[...] a brief hiatus, my Gimmick or Good? column at Comics Should Be Good is back with a look back at 1993′s The Maxx #1, with pencils, inks and plot by Sam Kieth and script by William Messner-Loebs. For the uninitiated, [...]

You should do War Machine #1. That had an AWESOME looking cover, but the writing was… well…

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