Don’t let its harsh exterior fool you; despite its “extreme” title and the ostensibly brutish, walking thud of a main character, The Maxx is, without question or argument, one of the most finespun stories to have come out in the last 20 years. That’s a big claim, I know, but it’s not one I write lightly, nor should it be mistaken for hyperbole. The Maxx is a book of enduring exception, and reading it again in its intended monthly(ish) release schedule, this time via IDW, officially confirms it as something more than just misconstrued nostalgia. In fact, if there is any issue that proves just how diverse, complex and flat-out fucking great this title is, it’s the series’ fourth, because despite its facade, this is a book that does something different.
Do you know the only thing that really makes The Maxx a “superhero” comic book? Purple spandex. That’s it! Oh sure, there’s a hero, villain and a damsel in distress, though none of those characters would welcome his or her respective definition, and this is far from the regular cape fare. In fact, every time we get to a superheroical scene, we are reminded of how ridiculous it is in the context of this world. Exciting, sure, but 100% ri-cock-ulous.
Unlike its contemporaries at the time, what I hold to be Sam Kieth’s masterpiece stood out by not relying on (and forgive my pun here) its image, directly contrasting the prevailing pomp and circumstance of that particular era with a uniquely excavated depth and breadth of storytelling. Girded though its cover may be in 1990s Image Comics finery, replete with impossibly bulging muscles and curling fist-claws, The Maxx #4 is, for the most part, a quieter tale existing alongside the main drag of the story, but one that leads directly back into it. It’s one of those issues that sticks with you, just like it has done to me for the past two decades.
In it, we follow Sarah James: high school outcast, aspiring writer and semi-orphaned daughter whose self-fulfilling fate is to exist at society’s periphery while quietly judging it from its sidelines. So yeah, she’s a teenager. Now, that’s not meant to be dismissive; during that age, we’re all hopelessly complex beasts, but the characterization here is done so brilliantly, so unpretentiously and respectfully that it’s never played off as a “check out the moaning teen” joke.
Neither Kieth nor Messner-Loebs allows Sarah’s voice to devolve into the tedium or saccharine farce usually lampooned as a byproduct of her age; she is self-absorbed, yes, and unflinchingly tragic, but also organic and fierce. Plus, as weird as this sounds, it feels very much like Sarah has earned her slice of discontent, and they justify her reactions and insecurities as such. If nothing else, this would be a great character study to flesh-out The Maxx’s already rich world. Luckily, this is indeed The Maxx, so there is always something else going on.
What this issue does for the overall story is positively affect its community-building, and in so doing, better thickens and defines the book’s unique mood. Through the character of Sarah’s monologue and interactions, we are given hints of how her past is inexorably linked with Julie, Maxx and even Mr. Gone, but with a well-measured ambiguity that, at least for me, entices further reading.
Just like the story, Kieth’s scraggily, amorphous art stands the test of time. Once again, it’s clear to see why his aggressively fragmented command of page layouts, while perhaps more prosaic than in issues previous, helped inform a generation of artists. Many of them even blow away contemporary examples and remain revolutionary in their own right.
Obviously, the reason this series now carries the “Maxximized” subtitle is thanks to Ronda Pattison, whose colors continue to be a real treat, especially when set within Kieth’s often bold use of lettering and, of course, whenever we get Big Purple in the shot. You might not see it without a direct comparison, but Pattison has definitely breathed new life into this series, and it’s great to be back aboard when she’s in the crew of this reliable old ship.
Even when The Maxx catches its breath, it does so running, and this issue shows just how diverse and rich this world is, and is going to be. It is one of the best things on the shelves today. Same as it ever was.
Writers: Sam Kieth & William Messner-Loebs Artist: Sam Kieth Colorist: Ronda Pattison Publisher: IDW Publishing Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/12/14