Gimmick or Good? - Maxx #1

In 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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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