With The Maxx: Maxximized #2, IDW continues its series of recolored and “remastered” reprints of each issue of Sam Kieth’s original series. With a script from William Messner-Loebs based on Kieth’s plots, it’s a surreal, violent, and often disturbing comic. But is it good?
The Maxx: Maxximized #2 (IDW Publishing)
Prior to reading last month’s Maxx: Maxximized #1, I knew almost nothing about The Maxx beyond a vague awareness of its existence, so it was a bit of a surprise to learn that it was once popular enough to be adapted for an animated series in 1995 (short-lived as it was), on MTV, no less. It’s hard to imagine how a show like that could fit between Jersey Shore reruns and the latest variation of 16 and Exploited, but I suppose that that’s more representative of MTV’s current status quo (or, perish the thought, this generation’s youth) than anything. [Editor’s Note: The Maxx was featured on a programming block called “MTV’s Oddities” that featured some unique and intriguing shows. Think of it as a semi-predecessor to Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. You can check out episodes of The Maxx on MTV’s website].
Regardless, The Maxx has precious few “Pop” sensibilities, even by the standards of 90’s mainstream superhero comics, or the first wave of Image Comics of which The Maxx was a part. On the surface, The Maxx seems to run on plots and premises that would fit right into every bad by creators that learned all the wrong lessons from Alan Moore and Frank Miller: a grotesque costumed anti-hero with questionable sanity roams the dark alleys protecting scantily-clad young women from a serial rapist. Sound familiar?
Yet it quickly becomes apparent in the first issue, and continuing into the second, that while Kieth and company were playing with tropes that had already become well-worn by 1993, this couldn’t have been a comic for thirteen-year-old Spawn fans. It was more for their Sandman-reading older brothers.
After all, back in 1993, it’s likely that most readers were most familiar with Sam Kieth through his excellent work on the earliest issues of The Sandman, and given the continued popularity of that series, it still may be the most common introduction to Kieth’s work. Association with one of the most beloved comic books of all time is certainly nothing to complain about, but as exceptional as Sandman’s rotating cast of artists is, it was always clear that writer Neil Gaiman was calling shots.
In contrast, The Maxx is sprung directly from the mind of its sole creator Sam Kieth, credited as both the primary artist and for “story,” while William Messner-Loebs” is merely credited for “scripts.” It’s especially true these days that comic book artists are often viewed as subservient to writers, so it’s interesting to see that dynamic reversed. Messner-Loebs sometimes tries too hard to make his presence known, indulging in overwritten, heavy-handed dialogue and narration, but in spite of this (or perhaps because of an active attempt by Messner-Loebs to reign himself in), Kieth’s contributions never feel overshadowed.
Inker Jim Sinclair and letterer Mike Heisler also do admirable jobs contributing to The Maxx’s distinct tone and style. I can’t speak to how Ronda Pattison’s reworked coloring compares to that of the original run, but veteran fans should know that Sam Kieth oversaw the reproduction process, so the new colors all look tasteful and appropriate.
As I’ve stated, Sam Kieth is the star of this show, and what a show it is. No two pages are laid out the same way, and while it’s not always clear why Kieth chooses to break down his panels the way he does, the aesthetics of each layout are mesmerizing enough to render logic unnecessary—though certainly not irrelevant. There’s a sense of controlled chaos throughout the book, from Kieth’s dynamic lines to his exaggerated figures.
The plot feels similarly deliberate, even as Kieth and Messner-Loebs disorient readers, though readers that found the debut issue too confusing may be disappointed to find that the second installment raises more questions than answers. One of the most compelling aspects of this comic so far is the way that Kieth and Messner-Loebs manage to maintain this pervasive sense of ambiguity in a way that tantalizes the reader more than it frustrates them.
In the first issue, we were introduced to the titular Maxx, who’s either a schizophrenic homeless man with delusions of heroism, or the frightening creature that we see on the page. In the second issue, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred even further, as the supernatural rapist Mr. Gone kidnaps social worker Julie Winters.
The Maxx’s treatment and depiction of women may be its most divisive aspect among readers. The few female characters that we have seen so far are almost impossibly sexy, with skimpy outfits that wouldn’t look out of place in a Zenescope comic. They all have brushes with sexual assault, including Julie Winters, who earlier displays a “blame-the-victim” attitude towards rape victims before being kidnapped by Mr.Gone herself, at which point she engages him in a lengthy argument about feminism.
There has been much discussion in the past several years about the prominence of rape in comic books, and it’s true that too many of the books that feature such plot elements seem only interested in achieving shock value and titillation. The Maxx doesn’t necessarily seem more sensitive in that regard, but Kieth isn’t careless about this subject either. He seems to be going somewhere with this theme, and whatever it is, it probably comes back down to one of the central conceits of this story: when we look at these pages, are we seeing events as they actually are, or are they representative of The Maxx’s twisted view of the world?
- Fantastic, fittingly bizarre artwork and layouts.
- Smart twists on familiar tropes.
- Promises substantial theme and plot developments.
- William Messner-Loebs gets a little wordy.
- Questionable depictions of women.
- Somewhat confusing.
Is It Good?
Like its debut issue, The Maxx: Maxximized #2 is rough around the edges, but there’s no denying its sheer visceral thrills. It’s an odd, unsettling piece of psychosexual horror that actually seems to have something to say. If you missed this gem during its first run, here’s your second chance to experience the beautiful madness of Sam Kieth.
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