In March 1993, Image Comics published a radical new book called The Maxx from writer/artist Sam Kieth, co-written by William Messner-Loebs. This dark, psychedelic, psychological superhero dark fantasy was such a hit that it was almost immediately adapted into an MTV cartoon series that ended up being produced concurrently with the comic.
I remember watching The Maxx cartoon as a kid; it was fascinating, even though it mostly went over my ten-year-old head. I taped it off the TV, and kept re-watching it. It was so different from the X-Men and Spider-Man and Batman cartoons that I'd fallen in love with, but I couldn't exactly explain why. Sure, it ostensibly featured a super-powered vigilante in a colorful spandex suit. But there was a lot more going on than that.
I finally read The Maxx in its entirety a few years back, when IDW Comics finally collected and remastered the complete series. As an adult now, I can understand why it went so far over my head. But also why it was intriguing. It's because it was a damn good story that was impressively ahead of its time. To be fair, the cartoon also only adapted the first 11 issues of the comic, which itself ended up running for 35 issues total — and it's definitely one of those books that makes for a singular, complete story. The first third of that story might be the most viscerally exciting part, but it's also just the setup.
You may notice that I haven't exactly explained what The Maxx was about yet. That's because, well, it's hard to explain, especially without too many spoilers. But I'll try. Most of the story centers around Julie, a social worker and sexual assault survivor, who's been getting harassed by Mr. Gone, a creepy serial rapist who share an inexplicable telepathic connection, which they access through a sort-of parallel reality called the Outback that exists only in Julie's subconscious. But Julie's subconscious reality and telepathic connections also extend — for reasons initially unclear and unknown — to a random homeless man, who is transformed into The Maxx, and serves as her super-powered protector, whether she wants him to or not.
If that sounds a little trippy, well, it is. That's because Kieth and Messner-Loebs found a remarkable way to use grimdark 90s superhero action to create a complex yet thoughtful meditation on trauma and PTSD. Reading this book at the height of the #MeToo movement was accidentally a pretty powerful experience, as it explores the various ramifications of sexual assault, but also ways that people try, and fail, to heal from their trauma; and how, in turn, affects other people. And in the end, you're left with a surprisingly moving story about the seemingly endless cycles of pain and suffering, and the ways we try to break them, and learn to forgive, or at least move on.
No wonder that cartoon went so far over my 10-year-old head.