Perhaps ironically when discussing a book whose sole remit it is to reinvigorate color, I first want to be abundantly clear about the forthcoming review. I fucking love The Maxx. There are very few books I can look back on and recount how they fundamentally shaped my formative years as a comic book reader, but amongst these, The Maxx holds particular standing. I was but a young, dewey 12 years of age when my old buddy Scott introduced me to the (then) Image series. Long were the nights I would spend pouring over his collection, discussing at length what the actual fuck was going on in this book, rife as it was with toothy little inklings, deranged urban sorcerers and reality-hopping, muscle-bound, perma-bird-popping homeless heroes.
Reading The Maxx was, for us, a tentative experimentation with graphic existentialism, our first foray into drugless hallucinogenics, and we quickly fell addicted. We would draw The Maxx - in all his swarthy, first issue front-cover crouch - anywhere we could, whether as defacing doodles in our history text books or as plotted geometrical graphs in our math homework (true story). We collected all the books and watched faithfully (and repeatedly) the short-lived, yet amazing proto-motion comic series on MTV.
This story consumed our young minds with all the grunge-swollen atmosphere the 90s could muster; it was a new kind of dark, gristly, graphic sort of wetness, one that came with its own clumsy yet cool sense of poetry, and to Scott, me and all our friends at least, it was fucking beautiful. Needless to say, when I found out that, under the auspices of its creator Sam Kieth and IDW Publishing, The Maxx would once again see print in a new home and with a colorfully remastered treatment, my nostalgia kicked into overdrive.
Now, I still own the first arc in single issues (as well as the entire TV series run), at least some of which are probably Scott’s (sorry buddy), but this time I get to approach it as a reasonably seasoned comic book reviewer, rather than just an excitable pre-teen with blotchy skin and a permanent erection. However, would my old friend The Maxx stand the test of time under a more critical eye, or would it be relegated to the Outback of those things that should have simply remained a memory?
In case you aren’t familiar with the inaugural story of this series, issue one (which came out 20 years ago, and goddamn that makes me feel old) introduces the ceaselessly soliloquizing amnesiac superhero, The Maxx, who wears a bright purple onesie and lives in a cardboard box at the end of a dark alley. Behind the Cheshire grimace of his bitey mask, Maxx grapples with extra-dimensional adventures in a parallel version of Australia he calls The Outback, while trying in vain to remember who the hell he is, and how any of this is possible without copious amounts of alcohol.
Meanwhile, Maxx’s ironically-unsympathetic social worker, Julie Winters (who seemingly also exists within Maxx’s “other world” as The Leopard Queen), is being hunted by a terrifying, shadow-wielding serial rapist/necromancer with the coolest, creepiest villain name of all time: the devilish Mr. Gone!
Unlike Gone, the reader is still left in the dark after issue one, not knowing much other than that Maxx is compelled to protect Julie/the Leopard Queen, much to the vexation of Mr. Gone, who is obsessed with her to a stomach-churning degree. Greater world hints are dexterously folded into the quieter notes of the story, though, with Gone clearly holding many of its secrets hostage as he and The Maxx get ready at the end of this issue for their first big super-powered ruckus.
The Maxx is one of those rare books where the writing, lettering and colors converge to make something truly special, almost because each element belies or even undermines the last. Even the oft-looked-over speech bubbles are integral to the presentation of this book, bleeding as they seem to do in the afterbirth of something new.
As a whole, the page furniture is completely, gorgeously fucking bonkers. Thanks to things like amorphous panels and the incessant undercurrent of text CHUNG CHUNG CHUNGing away, its flow is so disjointed and dizzying, so palpitatingly-tense, it’s hard to keep up ... but damn is it fun to try. Similarly, the writing (as co-authored by Kieth and Loebs) is choppy, jumpy, all over the goddamn place, but it feeds the story’s wholly endearing cast of characters with unique, quasi-philosophical quirks, allowing each his or her (or its) own unique voice in a way that I still haven’t seen replicated.
The art is, well, it’s Sam Kieth in his prime. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s wildly inconsistent, but that’s because it needs to be. The Maxx was a unique achievement, one distinctly bred for and by Kieth’s style. It matched the undulation of Kieth’s visual cadence flawlessly, preying on its own varying perspectives, hiccuping quickly between a childlike sense of wonder and grizzly, grimy, stubbly realism. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope having a seizure, and it’s pretty rad.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the whole point of this exercise by IDW, which is ostensibly for colorist Ronda Pattison to breathe new life into the book. Now, I’m not saying Pattison doesn’t do a great job here. In fact, the colors pop like hell, especially in that first appearance of The Maxx, whose boisterous, bright purple arrival immediately punctures an otherwise solemn tone. Meanwhile, even the most muted scenes take on a robust depth, and you can tell Pattison was meticulous in her execution.
Of course, in his afterword, Kieth himself says that this is really just a re-release of The Maxx “on slightly better paper,” since everything else will be unchanged; “warts and all,” he says. So even though Pattison does a bang-up job, this is really IDW showcasing their continued impressive title-grabbing coup; a kind of “check out what we have the rights to do now” willy wave. And hey, good on ‘em, I say! I honestly don’t care why they decided to do it, I’m just glad they did. Sure, throw on a new lick of paint or two, why not? Personally, I’m just looking forward to enjoying this kooky, intense and completely arresting series on the monthly again, and if it lets me get my hands on a collected artist’s edition that much sooner, so be it!
If you’re like me and are an old fan of The Maxx, or simply want to see what all the fuss has been about for the past two decades, it’s time to bite down, because you’re in for one hell of a wild (and now better-colored) ride.
Writer: Sam Kieth & William Messner-Loebs Artist: Sam Kieth Colorist: Ronda Pattison Publisher: IDW Publishing Price: $3.99 Release Date: 11/27/13