How THE MAXX Changed My Concept Of What A Comic Book Could Be

Sam Kieth’s The Maxx delivered best on Image Comics’ mission statement. It gave an artist his own book and helped him discover his voice in the process.

To a teenager, The Maxx makes one hell of a first impression. A proud display of Kieth’s influences, it combines Frazetta-Esque grassy landscapes and musclemen, Vaughn Bode’s style of simple, squishy critters, and Frank Miller’s hard-boiled noir dialogue. From the beginning, there are signs that the use of these influences isn’t going to continue to be quite as straightforward.

An old hand at the industry, William Messner-Loebs was brought on by Kieth to be the writer on The Maxx, and has openly talked about how much of his job was trying to piece together narratives from what Kieth wanted to draw. But Messner-Loebs’  experience gave him the perspective to push back against some of Kieth’s impulses and add his own touches. The Maxx sets the tone on the opening page by mumbling to himself in noir-ish prose. Except it’s about how he misses watching the show Cheers. When given Carte Blanche to write whatever he wanted on the back of The Maxx‘s official trading cards, Messner-Loebs decided to reveal that the story took place in a filthy, dilapidated city because the citizens had all stopped paying taxes. Touches like these showed that Messner-Loebs wasn’t taking the noir stuff all too seriously.

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But sometimes, his input could be on the more serious sides of the story. For example, when Kieth wanted to shock audiences by introducing a character and having her commit suicide in the same issue, Messner-Loebs flatly refused. This refusal greatly benefitted the comic in the long run, as Sara would go on to inherit the comic’s starring role. It also pushed Kieth away from big, shock-value twists and more towards the small-scale drama that would come to define his later work.

After the conclusion of the comic’s first long-running story arc, Messner-Loebs decided to step back so that Kieth could control the direction of the comic himself. The comic then began to shift from superhero noir towards relationship drama between middle-aged couples with a magical-realist twist.

By the end of its run, The Maxx had begun to collapse under its own weight. Storylines would start and stop almost at random, Kieth admitting in the letter pages to loss of interest in certain stories, and fear of rejection for others. But even deprived of clear beginnings or endings, the small-scale human interactions he was showing offered a template for what his career would become moving forward. Despite his frustration with the narrative, Kieth’s influences had started to blend together into a stronger artistic voice, his fascination with human drama and surreal fantasy feeding more directly into one another, rather than literally occupying separate worlds.

Before reading The Maxx, I was a bit more strict about stories having to follow more traditional structures, showing clear follow-through and intent. But for all the different directions The Maxx pulls itself, something beautiful and human manages to shine through. The growth of its artist became a story in itself. And that was always enough to keep me reading.

Hank Essman
Hank Essman
Hailing from Southwest Missouri, Hank has co-hosted a local radio show on comics, written a thesis on graphic literature, penned a few articles on comic books, attended several comic conventions, and played a little tennis.