Image Comics exploded onto the scene when its founding members all quit Marvel (and, symbolically since none of them worked there at the time, DC) to form their own publishing company. Image was made up of smaller publishers that sort of worked together, but for the most part each creator was on his own. Though initially superhero oriented, as befitted the work the founders were doing when they quit Marvel, Image Comics today publishes a wide range of titles and isn’t above doing some experimental work outside the superhero genre.
One of the characters that may have bridged that gap was the Maxx.
If we’re being honest, and we are as I use the royal we, the Maxx wasn’t much of a superhero. He wore a bright purple suit with yellow gloves, each of which ended with a long pointy claw. His mask looked like something from an old, racist movie depicted a witch doctor, also in purple. He had huge feet too. Walking with a perennial hunch, the Maxx was a homeless guy as likely to get arrested for fighting crime as to actually fight crime. He had one enemy.
Basically, he was a homeless guy with severe memory problems.
The Maxx began his series in a comical tone that fit the artistic style of artist/creator Sam Keith. Two crooks are looking to cause trouble in an alleyway. A large cardboard box sits nearby. The smaller crook wanders too close to the box and gets grabbed by something. All the while, narration boxes depict what the reader is led to believe are the Maxx’s thoughts. After his pal gets pulled inside the box and presumably beaten up, the larger fellow goes over to investigate. The Maxx then emerges from his box, with the narration saying, “Sometimes there’s just ME!”
At which point, two cops show up, one saying, “And sometimes it’s just us!” Maxx realizes, embarrassed, that he was thinking out loud again, and everything in his narration boxes could have been heard by anyone standing nearby.
Then he gets arrested. Maxx passes out on the way to the police station, and then he starts dreaming of another land, The Outback.
Maxx gets bailed out, and not for the first time, by a private social worker named Julie Winters, who despite her job isn’t overly compassionate for anybody. Maxx at some point decided that his purpose in life was to protect Julie. Julie appears in Maxx’s Outback as the Jungle Queen. Maxx himself runs around with a wild mane added to his look and seems more at home in the Outback than the real world.
There’s a reason for that. We learn this when Maxx’s one enemy, Mr. Gone, a smalltime sorcerer who’s also a serial rapist, lets the reader, Maxx, and Julie in on what’s going on.
Essentially, Maxx doesn’t belong in the real world. Not entirely. Everyone, it seems, has a Maxx. The Maxx is Julie’s spirit animal. In fact, in the Outback, the Maxx is a giant rabbit underneath his mask. The Outback is Julie’s subconscious, a place where she retreated after a vicious sexual assault. She was so much into that other realm that the barriers between were weakened. After accidentally hitting a homeless guy named Dave with her car, Julie pushed him into an alleyway where a portal to the Outback opened, and a purple lampshade morphed into the Maxx’s costume. That was why Maxx was constantly flipping back and forth between two worlds, why his memory was patchy depending on which realm he was in, and why he really wasn’t a superhero. Maxx wasn’t a superhero. He was a homeless guy merged with a spirit animal.
That’s some heavy duty stuff right there. Maxx didn’t fight crime, because it wasn’t his actual purpose. Most of the criminal thugs he did fight were these creatures called Isz that Mr. Gone summoned from the Outback, such that they were corrupted by being in the real world and could disguise themselves as human beings by simply wearing some clothes. Heck, Maxx got mugged in one issue where, as he was walking past an alley, he got clubbed in the head with a crowbar and dragged away. Maxx spent more time trying to keep from speaking his thoughts out loud for all to hear rather than trying to stop the forces of evil. In fact, over time, Mr. Gone became less evil and more the guy who could explain how to fix things.
And for me, therein lies the problem.
I recently finished the book Asking for It: The Rise of Rape Culture and What To Do About It by Kate Harding. I likewise have feminist friends who tend to bristle at the misuse of sexual assault as a plot device. It’s been a number of years since I read The Maxx, but looking over the plot summary on Wikipedia tells me that if I were to read it today, I’d probably be a lot more disturbed by it.
To Keith’s credit, rape is depicted as a traumatic event. Julie only sets the plot in motion as a result of her own. It was obviously something that hurt Julie on a primal level, and she opted not to get any help afterwards. That’s something that sadly happens in the real world, too. Furthermore, to Keith’s credit, he never suggests Julie or Gone’s victims deserve what happens to them due to a mode of dress or some sort of behavior of their own. I can see what Keith is trying to do, and he isn’t limited his damaged characters to Julie. Maxx himself has problems, as does Gone and various supporting characters.
Gone, though, tries to blame his evil on his search for magic. And while other characters, like his daughter Sara, all go along with this, for me I doubt I could anymore. Gone committed some truly evil acts against people who were powerless to stop him, and while originally depicted as an ultimate evil, the fact that the series seems to forget what he did, let others characters (including one of his victims!) befriend him, and then where he finds the path for everyone’s redemption…well, I think that may be some really messed up ways of thinking.
The series ended with time rebooting itself. Gone became a harmless professor while Dave was a janitor at the same school. Again, I can see where Sam Keith was going with this, but I think it wouldn’t fly today. We’re, as a culture, more aware of the problems of sexual assault than we were in the 90s.
The Maxx was an oddity in his own time. He did do the occasional cameo in other Image books, but his biggest moment may have been when his first storyarc was adapted into an animated TV series for MTV. There’s probably a lot of room for a character like The Maxx, but some of his plot elements just don’t fly anymore.