Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.
By Arpad Lep. IDW has resurrected and remastered The Maxx to warp and enlighten a new generation. Sam Keith and Bill Messner-Loebs plumb the psyche of a troubled spirit, one where childhood trauma has created an adult need for a superhero. The Maxx might seem familiar at first with its two worlds: our horrible real one and a high fantasy Arcadia that lives in the imagination. But the limitless world inside the mind belongs to someone in specific — Julie Winters. Which makes the heroes and villains found in her dreams interlopers both. Or, as Julie puts it, “This is supposed to be, like, my chance to work through a bunch of cathartic crap! I didn’t come here to have you guys screw it up by acting like a couple of poster children for testosterone poisoning!”
Maxx, the hero, is a psychotic derelict obsessed with his social worker. Mr. Gone plays the villain, a wizard maybe but most definitely a serial rapist. That dark, messy real world brings them all together to create even greater echoes in Julie’s dreamlands. As the story advances, the layers are peeled away and the reader is allowed to examine the bare truth hidden from almost everyone involved. And the raw form hidden beneath the mask is epic and haunting.
Epic, at least, in the Attic drama sense. Every heart in The Maxx is wracked with hopelessness and depression. Bleak, well-enunciated acts of misery that are interrupted by regular bouts of intense violence. Julie and Sarah and Maxx don’t sit around in the tub complaining of their unhappiness the way Mr. Gone does, they follow their emotions and do catastrophic things. They act the way messed up people act, and so the pathos rings true. Only then some of them also put on zany costumes or have to face actual monsters.
The Maxx masters being simultaneously impossible and true.
The reality of the story, the honesty of the characters, is expressed through the constant shifting of their roles. Julie uses her acquired strength to blind herself. Sarah rises and falls following in Julie’s footsteps. Gone remains unforgivable, but his intentions slide away from the darkness he’s supposed to embody with each consecutive issue. Maxx loses his grip. The Hero recedes. The Damsel in Distress becomes hero and villain. The Villain eclipses hero. Darkness. Innocence and deviance are bound together in The Maxx. It’s a superhero book about mental illness and sexual assault. Reading it can feel like watching Gummo. Poor bunnies.
Comics are the ideal medium to tell a story about cohesive existence inside a fractured mind. In Julie’s imaginary Outback, she and Li’l Julie and the Jungle Queen can occupy the same page (or panel), despite one of them being rendered realistically, one looking like a member of the Peanuts gang and the other like a pulp magazine pin-up girl or something from the pen of Will Elder. The Maxx allows for many different narrators and their unique perspectives to tell the story together. Sometimes we get to see the reflections in both of Julie’s worlds as they unfold, and sometimes the images are limited to what a single character is allowed to see.
The reader’s view is also frequently obstructed. The abstract arrangement of the panels can visually crowd the narrative. The lettering can affect the spin on the story. Everything is highly controlled, every nuance added for a reason. It is a Lynchian exploration of emotional abuse. The mysteries of The Maxx may be answered, but the real world story behind the jungle dreams becomes so seamlessly interwoven with the monsters of Julie’s imagination that knowing the truth still doesn’t sort everything out.
It is heartbreaking. Harrowing. It has realistic characters despite its surrealist tendencies, ones who change and are changed. It has totally unencumbered flights of fantasy. It presents grand ideas about the self. The Maxx is a tragic chorus, tackling hard subjects with truth and imagination, leaving the reader wrecked and thoughtful and more alive than before they read it. This new edition gives its stunning first act the veneration it has long deserved.
Written by Sam Kieth and William Messner-Loebs.
Artwork by Sam Kieth, Jim Sinclair, and Dave Feiss.
Colors by Ronda Pattison.
Letters by Mike Heisler.
Edits by Scott Dunbier, Justin Eisinger, and Alonzo Simon.