Monday, August 04, 2008

The Maxx: Darker Image #1

This is the first post in what I hope will be a successful issue by issue look at Sam Kieth's The Maxx. I reserve the right to abandon it at any time. I considered doing an introduction answering the key questions of Why? and Why Now? but I thought it might be better to just dive right in and see what comes up when.

The first appearance of Sam Kieth's The Maxx was in an 8 page short in 1993's Darker Image #1, alongside Rob Liefeld's Bloodwulf and Brandon Choi and Jim Lee's Deathblow. Bill Messner-Loebs did Kieths dialogue, which strikes me as odd considering that the art and the story are Kieth's but I don't know much about the Maxx beyond the comics I have. The Maxx stands out in this trio: the purple and yellow, along with the very odd shape of his jaw, make him much more like a traditional cartoon than Deathblow or Bloodwulf. "The Maxx" sounds like something that would match those ridiculous names, and the whole early 90s X-Treme comics trend, but it would be revealed to be something ironic down the line; Bloodwulf and Deathblow, as far as I know, do not have much of a sense of irony, which was their downfall, and the downfall of many a self-serious post Miller-Moore comic book.

The story: In the outback, on the run from a big cartoon creature with a hammer, The Maxx heads for a hut for safety, but it holds a sexy jungle babe in a leopard bikini who straddles him and stabs at him. A violent scene shift reveals a sexy woman is using a needle on him, but she is trying to help him after he broke into her apartment disoriented; she sees the crazy costume, but treats him like a homeless person she feels sorry for.

The fantasy action sequence may be a hallucination: the first line of the comic is the Maxx's "Huh. The sounds inside my head have started again." The sound-effects make is importantly unclear if the repeated "CHUNG!" sound is a pounding in his head, or the pounding of the feet of his giant antagonist: the creature may just be in his head. So the first part of the story may be metaphor for things going on in the real world. This is of course one of the big claims of comics: that they are not just escapist fiction, but capable of questioning the things we take for granted in the real world. What makes the Maxx stand out is that rather than make the implicit claim that this comic has real world relevance, the comic makes connecting those two worlds part of the narrative. This would be a bit like Enchanted, if it, you know, didn't suck.

Kieth plays with the grim and gritty narration, but disrupts its self-seriousness with a lot of weird irony. The Maxx says "The sounds in my head have started again. Good, It helps me think ... Focus" and then he goes on to talk about his claws. It could be Wolverine, except the first word of the comic is the dumb "huh," and he says of his claws not that they are made of razor sharp unbreakable adamantium, but that they "still feel wet. Interesting." The deadpan reaction throws the whole scene askew. And the comic runs from there: the creature smells like "sweating leather and peppermint." The creature has a weird Tolkin-esque faux-arab name with two apostrophes and a q with no u (Ret'qark'n), but the Maxx describes him as "God Clan. Really mean." The Maxx is right of the bat, not that bright or reliable: he is like Wolverine if Wolverine had been invented by Whedon -- his tough guy posturing keeps getting undercut. "Being near death makes my senses sharper" he says, just before the creature happens to pick up his hiding place out of dumb luck, leaving him to just run away rather than fight.

Kieth's layouts are energetic and strange -- panels have weird shapes and are often dominated by playfully stylized sound-effects. The woman is beautiful and sexy and hits all the standard comic book buttons -- big breasts, revealing clothing, straddling the male protagonist with a needle just like in Casanova. But she is also more hips than boobs and turns out to neither victim nor aggressor. When the Maxx looks out over the city at night from a broken window along side stone carvings of creepy bird heads he should look like Batman -- except we are too far away to find it stirring, and it is placed on the far right of the page in a way that makes the interior of the woman's apartment where he was unconscious far more important. (Notice also the little hands pointing to where we should look -- if you know the technical name for that hand, and it has one, let me know in the comments). The final page is the glamour pose we expect, similar to the one on the first page, but the story emphasizes its own disorientations now: We end with the woman's narration: "I cant help wondering what he used to be. What kind of uniform those rags were?" She thinks it would be cool if he turned out to be one of those "Youngbloods" but concludes with a worry that if she cant get his head straight he is going to get her evicted.

All the 90s superhero stuff is here, sort of, but everything is really off kilter: the perspective is wrong, the gender politics are wrong, the fight-scene was a washout, and the whole adventure part of the story -- which is sort of why people you know buy these things, may just have been a dream. Many issues later it will turn out that Kieth is working on a plan to sneak a whole different kind of story to us under the trappings of a superhero comic, pretty much the only kind of comic book that was going to get any attention in 1993.

Next Time: Maxx #1

Retro ad watch: Valiant's DeathMate (Their Love Will End all Time) is apparently "The Biggest Crossover Event in the History of Comics."


James said...

I don't have this, but I'll join in with #1 since I just won the first 5 issues on ebay. (Apparently I unintentionally sniped occasional-commenter coligo to get them. Sorry buddy.)

Retro ad watch is hilarious, I've been reading a lot of early/mid-nineties DC stuff lately, and it's crazy seeing that stuff.

Marc Caputo said...

Geoff: I'll second that on 'Retro Ad Watch'. I'm finding that the story inside the comic is only one part of its charm, especially when they are older (5 years plus) - the ads help to put the book in a historical context and give the experience a sense of place.

Funny, in a time when I'm considering going to trades (as are you) on current comics, I avoid trades when I go back to collect older comics. The ads and other in-house stuff are as much an attraction as the story itself.

Marc Caputo said...

(Forgot to click the e-mail update button.)