Unless I’m Dreaming Now

…all the lonely misguided people in this dark city … experts at avoiding reality. And with good reason. I’m not sure any of us wants to know what goes on out there at 3 am in some stink-ridden alley. God knows who doing God knows what.

Best not to think about it. Just push it down and go on. .. But I have my fortress, warm and dry, far away from the twisted city below.”

Thus pondered Julie Winters before a haunting cityscape, launching the beloved MTV animated comic The Maxx, softly stirred to life from ink and paper by creator Sam Kieth.

As years fade from ‘95 we fan the glowing embers of this rarest burst of creative freedom to grace our silvery screens.

It was a small company that produced the cartoons for MTV … [they] gave us complete control. Something like this will NEVER happen again in my career, either in comics, animation, OR movies.

It was a once in a lifetime thing, and I still am stunned by it.
~ Creator Sam Kieth, year 2000 interview.

The Maxx is a timeless classic. Its fleeting motion debut clutched unwary souls, mesmerised minds mired in mystery, visceral visuals played to hearts pounding in assent.

Why, you might ask, is The Maxx different? Just another comic, another grimy tv cartoon?

I can’t make you like it.

Maxx doesn’t just ask you to suspend belief in reality, but to suspend a belief that cartoons have nothing to teach.

Only by giving the time, allowing the animated Maxx to captivate you, can a lost self rouse a spirit long suppressed.

Should Maxx evoke lost memories, stir forgotten fears or joys, you might resume that abandoned infant quest for truth, harmony, justice, and pleasure – and restore meaning to an emotional desert laying claim to your life.

I caught this ‘cartoon’ – well, it caught me – decades ago on some off-beat ethnic TV channel in a far-off country boasting Maxx’s outback. Ten minutes a week of poignant collage, enigmatic plot, and charming novelty held me to a weekly pilgrimage, returning with migratory adeptness to some elusive late night aperçu.

Not read a comic for eons. Never heard of Sam Kieth or Bill Loebs. MTV… who cares? Rusty unrefined viewing taste, inured to boobtube banality. The Maxx quickly overwrote that vapid space.

Then it was gone and the airwaves resumed their empty trite.

Decades years later a neuron fired, a memory flickered…

“Hey, remember late-night TV, some purple guy, superhero, running around a wilderness, then ‘Bam’ he’s in the city? What was that??”

“Who knows? Search Wikipedia.”

I did, and there he was. Comic, the eighties, TV series, the nineties. Ah, so much forgotten. Time, I think, to return and pay homage to Maxx, Sam, and Bill.

The Maxx is Sam Kieth’s dark epic about the struggles of a hurting young woman told in the brilliance of little creatures, alternate planes, and a purple clad alter-ego hero who she called Maxx.

Comix are difficult to transpose to an animated continuum while staying faithful to original. And the cartooned Maxx coalesces the first dozen or so paper comics into a self-contained sub-story. In doing so it makes a magnificent derivative that stands on its own.

First, understand, I come to praise Maxx, not dissect him – yet the story is most eminently dissectible.

Your slight acquaintance with psychology or mysticism will explain terms, references, concepts, or allusions binding Maxx’s story with vivid authenticity. Sam Kieth and Bill Messner-Loebs knew the precise quantity of inventive cement and clichéd aggregates to craft this intelligent dark tale into a disturbing yet endearing experience.

The Maxx is a Gordian knot of psychological motives, a carefully and intricately woven tangle indeed. And though a mere comic book, The Maxx has a great amount to teach in a delectable onion-peeling of minds that might as likely be ours.

Odd things may happen but Maxx will always remain a grim and gritty character. Maxx is going to be like an antihero, but kind of strange … not … a silly book at all, at most it will be sardonic.

My art deviates from the norm, so my stories will as well. But if something silly happens, it’s because I’m making fun of the idea, of [it] being cute.
~ Sam Kieth

Over-complicating plots is a compulsive pastime of viewers and reviewers.

But don’t go there.

Let Sam say, in his own words…

It’s two worlds, one story is set in the modern world, and Maxx is involved in these unsavory things.

He’s this seedy bum sort of character who sleeps in garbage bins, but he sees things in terms of this dream world. He’s this gritty regular guy who keeps having these hallucinations, slipping into another world.

There’s also this woman, a social worker who’s trying to help him out. She’s trying to convince him that the modern world is real, but he’s coming to this realization that this other world is the real world and the real world is a dream.

The Maxx unfolds its moral slowly, revealing via Kieth’s whimsically endearing comic style; here a nexus, there a misconception, and just to the side (by the dumpster) an assumed ambiguity or two.

Kieth keeps us in delighted confusion while either lapping up the imagery or provoking debate with friend or self long into the lonely city night.

We find Maxx a superhero in appearance and word, yet oddly ineffectual by deed, heroics confined to squishing Isz and wrestling Mr Gone - who we aren’t quite sure isn’t imagined, too.

Julie Winter’s role seems uncomplicated, if professionally offbeat. But as Leopard Queen she and the Outback are obviously (surely?) in Maxx’s imagination.

Maxx the hero is not only ineffectual but disconcertingly unconvincing – especially when declaring “I am The Maxx!”

Only Gone’s supra-perceptive intrusion on our characters’ city lives remains a disturbing inconsistency. We take the Isz’ leakage into this realm as Maxx’s problem, not our misunderstanding of the script. Not yet.

After Julie is kidnapped by Gone’s Isz, we double-take when a darker tougher Julie cuts her way to freedom.

Hmm, methinks this little tale has menace and is no mere toon.

The foil, Sarah, is deployed as commentary glue and minor catalyst. Her role is key, but vaguely superfluous, except… why, of course! She’s a loser, big time. If you couldn’t identify with Maxx or Julie, you’re certainly going to love/hate/dig/or-see-yourself-as Sarah. And she, too, is born of the dry foggy greyness your mind is yet to unravel.

We could go on about spirit animals, a cornerstone of The Maxx, but their native piety is trivialized by constraints of The Maxx as an illustrated comic. Had Kieth the clout of Von Trier or animator Miyazaki, Maxx would, and should, have been a 170-minute classic, dwelling on elaborations of subtle detail and fleshed-out, err, unreal people.

Poignancy peaks and the story’s depth is revealed when Julie meets her eight-year-old self in their ‘holy place’ drawn unrendered in memory’s sepia tones.

“We shouldn’t be here” she cautions her older self.

A symbolic skull invokes Julie to ask if Maxx is dead in this reverie.  Little Julie explains Maxx cannot exist here.

Julie: “I won’t remember this, will I?”

Julie’s sublimated childhood trauma originated in a telling event: “Mommy always fixes everything… or makes it disappear.”

It surfaces in Julie’s toughness saying goodbye to Maxx. The scene is a superbly-written parting interplay. Bigger movie shops mar this moment despite their high stakes and higher pays.

Sam and Bill craft here a masterful portrayal of games we play, hurting ones we love, from buried and forgotten immaturity.

Maxx: “I think if you look deep inside, you already now the right thing to do”

Julie: “You’re right Maxx, I do. But I’m the only … one strong enough to do it.”

Mr. Gone: “Julie learned something from her Mom. The ability to suppress, to submerge, and to bury. Passed down from mother to daughter. And that’s how our little story ends… not with a bang, or a whimper, but with a thwakk”

Now you know – you have to see the video to find out what exactly was “thwakked.”

Julie’s encapsulated childhood is an incisive, conceptual tour de force that the entire production crew may savor as their finest career effort.

I have rarely enjoyed a sager unfolding of fractured childhood, or more stunning display of comix-anime power to render an inner milieu.

Comic, Manga, Cartoon, Anime…

Cartoons and comics are the sweet lifeblood of our culture, a preferred and readily digested literary nutrient, and youth’s gentle doorway to the stinging hate of the world.

God’s deafening silence, the forlorn augury of his messiah, fractured lives, lying parents – all rend the hearts of tender-aged who wilt before injustice’s fetid breath.

Lonely youths smother in angst and ache, failing a union with their soul. They thus embark on demeaning, barren lives, spurning empathy and humanity, and engage life on the only terms allowed.

The world is, after all, a cold machine.

Play its game or be crushed.

Disenfranchised. Lonely. Imaginative. Dreamers. Outsiders.

The girl who slits her wrists or the guy who hates himself  ’cause he wears glasses and was too fat, or skinny, you name it. Kids who were too smart to be nerds, but didn’t fit (or want to fit) in with the hip & trendy kids.

All these people just came to me and created their OWN community.. I mock myself, and the book, but the fans were the only real part of it, and talking to them was a truly humbling experience.
~ Sam Kieth

The beauty of colored cinema brought us an era of visual wonderment directly from the minds of artists – an army of willing genius that toiled with ink upon paper, stylus on tablet.

Readers or viewers ingest this purified experience directly into the mindstream to instantly arrive “where it’s at.” Cartoonists wield immense leverage in audience comprehension – more so in those enthusiast niche dwellers, the kids.

Stylized comix transform worldly dross to iconized imagery – an agency of undying popularity in a seemingly improbable cultural slot – for both youth and young at heart.

Too readily dismissed, this superb art form not only refuses to yield, but relentlessly grows from tireless and driven pencilers, inkers, letterers and colorists. Kids who can draw – oldies who won’t stop – digging and drawing from personal depths they barely know or understand.

Comics (and manga) and cartoons (and anime) illustrators seek the essence of what we mere mortals are commonly blind to, removing inessential detail, cluttering for effect, tempering or vivifying color and ambiance to dreamlike effect.

Coarse reality, softly veiled.

Life’s slap, velvet-gloved.

Sam Kieth’s Blog

Sam is alive and well at this link and still humbled in awe at the effect his Maxx has had on so many people. He also seems bemused at the enduring life of Maxx – the comic, and the cartoon.

Promise to make the Maxx sketches worth it – I’ll throw them up online as I work my way through them

But this (my worrying) is just me psyching-myself-out. . . because you couldn’t ask for a more appreciative buncha fans than you guys n’ gals out there..  ‘course with friends there’s should be even less pressure, right?

Yeah. Maxx lasted. Weird. Kinda pretentious sounding, but I don’t mean it in an ego way either. For some odd reason, it HAS left an imprint.

I know for a fact it’s changed some people. . . because of the TONS of letters I’ve received over the years.

And even at SDCC, various strangers, who in an instant touched my arm, leaned into me, locked eyes with mine, and this weren’t strangers at all… people who assured me yes, they *were* deeply moved by something in Maxx. Or that something happened in their life, *while* they were reading it.

Key moments, teen angst, someone they loved, lost, or discovered. Personal hardship. Trauma. Abuse. Broken heart. Healing. Recover. In the middle of a whole world or crap, they found . . . some glimmer of hope in the stories. words. ideas.

I know, because you’ve been kind enough to share it with me. This humbles me.  Drawing him is second nature to me.  All this, reminds me that, in a way, ” I “, really have nothing to do with the Maxx.

It’s something that travels far beyond me...

And The Maxx is still talking out loud.

Now I get to draw really big feet
~  Sam Kieth

Maxx: “Because I’m the Maxx!”

Well, aren’t we all?

Readers at IMDB offer eloquent praise:

” .. a beautifully disturbing piece of art. Even as animation, much more a reality then half the [live] rubbish being churned out ..”

” .. darker, more complicated, and better written than any of the live-action movies in the new release shelves ..”

” .. as bizarre as the Maxx’s psyche and will leave you wondering what you just watched. The amazing cinematography amidst the complexity of storyline ..”

” .. after its two hours have passed: scary, very funny, thoughtful, intelligent, profound, disturbing, highly imaginative, and ultimately quite moving.”

” .. is far more imaginative than live-action stuff, because it’s loose of the bounds of physics .. It makes .. films based on comic books .. seem clunky and artificial by comparison.”

” .. the most intelligently written story every to hit the genre of animation .. a psychological thriller .. haunting, other-worldly style of animation.”

” ..the best adaptation of a comic book into animation. .. deep, well written and with superb voice performances. .. the wonderful art .. looks exactly as the comic book.”

” ..a deep psychological introspective lightly camouflaged as a weird-out superhero story. .. not to be missed for the artwork, the story itself, or the excellent voice work – particularly the late Barry Stigler’s deliciously urbane, drippingly evil voicing of the main villain, Mr. Gone.”

” ..deep and involving.. every line spoken can be taken in two ways and have two possible meanings just as the city and outback each have their duality.”

” .. brilliant and looks like a comic book come to life. The voice acting is top notch and the dialogue is unlike any other I have experienced in a comic to screen adaptation.”

” Fantastic all-around .. and unsettling. Deep characters with their own sets of problems and circumstances set up around superb animation.”

Rant on the VHS tape video release, by Michelle Klein-Hauss

The Maxx released as a single videocassette has several cuts, some of which render some parts of the video sheer nonsense.

Mr. Gone’s recap is not on this tape, and neither is the song “I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper” from the soundtrack of “A Clockwork Orange,” which figured so strongly in the original.

From what I can gather, the cuts were made to squeeze the entire series on a T-120…ludicrous when you consider that VHS duplicator tape stock comes in longer lengths without resorting to the thin tape stock you see with T-180s.

Save your money and find a friend who’s taped the entire series and copy their tapes. The official MTV release is not worth the tape it’s recorded on.

Circa 2009 Amazon released a DVD that restored the missing episode but the song “I Wanna Marry a Lighthouse Keeper” is either missing or replaced with “I’m in Love with a School Bus Driver.”  But to the great relief of us all, the missing episode/s Michelle raged about above are restored. This release is almost exactly as the original airing on MTV.

According to Amazon’s 18 pages (and counting as of 2017) of reviews, this is the re-release you have been waiting for. You should search Amazon for “The Maxx: The Complete Series”

The characters in “The Maxx” are ©Sam Kieth.
The original animation © MTV 1995
All rights reserved by the respective copyright owners.
Images in this article captured from the MTV release.

Capture utility was SnapShot component of VLC Media Player of VideoLan team. Montage & collage by SheepOverboard’s illustrator from Sam Kieth originals ~ in awe and admiration of, and in tribute to, his work.

It is believed that the use of low-resolution images extracted from the video to illustrate the copyrighted comic book characters where no free alternative exists, hosted on servers in the United States, qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of these images might be copyright infringement.

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