Some heroes like to dress in black and use high-tech expensive technology, living extravagant lifestyles when not fighting crime, using their issues to fuel their passion to combat criminals… other heroes dress in purple, live in a box, with their only weapon being their fists, they want a good meal and a bath and try to work through their issues with a social worker. The latter would definitely describe The Maxx. This isn’t the every day super hero story, as it is more of a cerebral, satirical look at the world of a costumed crime fighter.
The Maxx was part of MTV’s liquid television (aired under MTV oddities) back in the mid 1990’s. The show was based on the comic of the same name, which was created, illustrated and written by Sam Keith, who previously worked on many Marvel comic projects. It was a fantasy style super hero story set in a universe where the human world is for the most part grounded in normality (with a few exceptions) and a parallel world with spirit animals and strange creatures roaming the lands. The comic had a fairly short print run of 35 issues and eventually was compiled into a number of trade paperbacks. Matching the short life span and consisting only of 13 episodes, the animated form of The Maxx remains faithful to the comics story line, focusing on the original plot of the comic. Although the comic has higher amounts of depth and character development, the series maintains the well written dialogue and structure, translating into a slightly more condensed version of the comic. There are some aspects of the comic that are fleshed out for the show, which provide great insight into the characters.
Similar to my experience of Aeon Flux, The Maxx was something I initially dismissed. After watching a couple of episodes, it never engaged my interest and was banished to the back of my mind. The younger version of myself didn’t understand the pacing, theme or appeal of the show. It is very character driven, and when compared to what I used to watch around the same time period, it was definitely not what I was expecting. I was used to big explosions of action, usually with a positive climax at the conclusion of the story, ready for another adventure the following week. The Maxx was a continuous tale from start to finish, designed to be watched in sequence, as if each episode was an issue from the comic. Having re-watched the entire series, I found myself totally engrossed and enjoying every minute.
There is an element of escapism to Maxx’s universe. He periodically looses consciousness and is transported to the outback of Pangea (or as Maxx thinks, Australia), filled with strange creatures. In Pangea, Maxx takes on a more primal, animalistic persona, growing a long flowing mane of hair. His strength is hugely increased as he strives to protect his Jungle Queen, which also happens to be an alter-ego of his social worker from the real world, Julie Winters. In reality, Maxx is homeless and struggles to get by, plagued by the memories of the alternate world in which he manifests himself as the hero. Carrying this into the real world, his crime fighting exploits are largely unappreciated and often result in a predicament for Maxx (sometimes due to his failure to inner monologue, which is always very funny), usually culminating in being locked up by the authorities and requiring Julie to bail him out.
The world of Pangea has been created in the subconscious mind of Julie, as she suppresses terrible experiences in her past, trying to forget the events that lead to the birth of her own “safe” outback, a place in which she has control. Unfortunately, it is a world she doesn’t recall and doesn’t want to, writing it off as the delusions of Maxx. The beautiful warrior, the golden haired vixen that is the Jungle Queen, is an incarnation of how Julie would ideally like to portray herself. In the real world she has flaws, which make her character feel refreshingly real. She dresses in strange clothes, is attractive in a very average way, acknowledges that she eats terrible food, has a slight ponch of a belly and doesn’t get enough exercise. Perhaps her biggest flaw is the failure to deal with her own issues, instead burying them deep down and surrounding herself in other peoples troubles by operating as a freelance social worker from her apartment.
Then there is Mr Gone… this guy is pure evil. Although he does not look physically threatening, he is very cunning, gloating and finding delight in causing terror and pain. He has a history of being a serial rapist, using his mind bending powers to render his victims beyond traumatized. His telepathic connection with Julie makes her an object for his obsessions. Strangely, he doesn’t come across as an unlikable character in the animated series, and I think this comes down to how tactical he is in his execution of evil, coupled with his intelligence. Mr Gone stalks Julie with obscene phone calls, confessing to his crimes and admitting doing them for her. The calls are largely ignored as it has become something she is used to receiving. Only Mr Gone seems to understand how complexly intertwined and dependent on each other the three of them have become, delighting at playing games with Julie and Maxx.
When Maxx protects Julie in the real world however, it angers Mr Gone, who proceeds to use all his available powers to fight Maxx across both worlds. He summons strange creatures that originate from Pangea called Isz’s, who upon entering the real world become tainted and cannibalistic in addition to changing colour from white to black, sprouting razor sharp teeth and gaining strength. These minions can look normal to humans when dressed in costume, making them perfect to carry out most of his evil bidding largely unnoticed.
The complexity doesn’t stop there, as even the secondary characters that are slowly introduced end up finely cross threaded into the dynamics of the main characters in later episodes. To go any further would risk spoiling the entire plot.
The show is intermixed with funny moments that will make you laugh out loud and awesome action scenes which jump out at you. In my opinion, what really makes The Maxx stand out is it’s ability to take a breather from the comedy and action, approaching some of the darker and sometimes horrible subject matters surrounding each character in a subtle, realistic and adult manner — something that was not common in most cartoons of the era and is still a rarity today, often leaving the viewer with something to ponder.
The animation style is an interesting mix of different media types, combining multiple techniques to give The Maxx a rather stunning visual quality. For example, one scene may be very static as if taken directly from the source comic pages, using live action silhouettes in the background to add movement. The following scene may use computer generated establishing shots and fluid hand drawn character animation. It is never jarring to watch, as change in style is always suited to the situation in the story. Gluing all these elements together is the consistently excellent direction of each episode, making use of beautiful angles and bright and contrasting colours. Clearly, a lot of thought and creativity went into the design of each scene.
When it comes to buying The Maxx, looking around at various sources, it appears that it is currently quite difficult to purchase on DVD (at least in the UK) and fetches some very inflated prices online. It is worth a purchase if you can get your hands on a copy at a reasonable price, the alternative being to watch it online through various streaming sites. In addition, there are always the comics/trade paperbacks which can be picked up at fairly decent prices.
So is it worth checking out for the first time or re-watching? I think if you want something different than almost every other comic book superhero story, something that will make you laugh and will make you think as well, then the answer is yes.