This essay was commissioned by Wendy Cannan. You can find out more about commissions here.
The joke goes that MTV once played music videos, but for my money their more interesting achievement was the two decades long attempt to carve out a niche in American animation that would target an older audience. The two big success stories of this venture are Beavis and Butthead and its far superior spinoff Daria, along with cult darlings Aeon Flux and Clone High. And then there’s The Maxx, a series of 13 ten minute episodes quite fittingly aired during a programming block called “Oddities.” For it is a strange little show, a mixed media conglomeration of early CGI, traditional animation, and direct translation of comic panels akin to the modern motion comic. It’s also a dense time capsule of 90s psychology and feminism, always intriguing even when it bites off more than it can chew.
The story, recapped at the beginning of every episode, goes something like this: there’s a “freelance social worker” named Julie Winters, who was once a university student before a traumatic assault moved her to change life directions; there’s a homeless man in a mask called “The Maxx,” who has visions of a primal land called the Outback where he’s a hunter and Julie is the Jungle Queen he serves; and there’s a shadowy mastermind called Mr. Gone, a serial rapist who seems to know about Maxx’s “Outback” and Julie’s past, and likes calling her up after he’s murdered somebody.
The first half of the series is largely framed as Maxx observing Julia and working through his confusion as he tries to square his phasing into the Outback, especially since it’s often unclear where hallucinations end and bleeding between realities begins. These early episodes (covers two standalone comics and then the first 11 issues of The Maxx comic’s 35 issue run) are less interested in their characters than they are in tackling Big Ideas and the landscape of comic books they fit into.
At first the stories seem to be an invocation of the popular 90s comic book monomyth: a world of complex social decay and misery that can ultimately be solved by one guy with ham fists and thighs the size of trashcans beating the crap out of a personified foe. Spawn and Punisher both get veiled nods, and there’s a sniffy sort of knock on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics (which may be just for the hell of it, since series co-writer Bill Messner-Loebs penciled the first five issues of said series – y’know, the ones that feel so at odds with what the series became). And Maxx himself carries more than a whiff of Rorschach, a discarded and mentally unstable transient who has become the bearer of the identified “truth” of the story.
In fact, there’s a general feel of Alan Moore to the proceedings (he did guest write an issue of the comics, but that’s well beyond what the series covers). Early on, Julie has a monologue (because this is the 90s, so of course there are gloomy monologues across rain covered streets) where she, quoting an adage, claims that individuals are responsible for whatever happens to them. “A liberal is a conservative who’s never been mugged.” And from then on the question lurks as to how much the series believes this semi-objectivist viewpoint, and how much Julie is a character being observed.
Because that idea of a monomyth, seeming to focus around Maxx and his early representation of glorious masculine violence, ultimately revolves around Julie. Or is it even a monomyth? Is it only the unconscious of a single person, a small group tied together by a shared chain of traumatic events? Does this Outback-Pangea-Dreamscape represent anything but one person’s struggle with the junk inside their head? The writing keeps shattering and shrinking its parameters, trying to craft an explicitly personal story from thematic elements that other writers might simply assume as universal viewpoints.
It doesn’t entirely escape the problem of centering the universe around its small cast – there’s some weight, given all that happens, that the world will cease to be once Julie turns her gaze away. But the fact that it examines the roots of its own viewpoints deserves applause – even if it sometimes comes at the expense of terrifically 90s moments where the writers pat themselves on the back for pointing out that we’ve become desensitized to violence while insinuating that we really want to see Maxx pop a shark man’s head off (and if I rolled my eyes any harder at the Calvin & Hobbes pastiche, they would roll right out of my head).
The issue of the series’ gender politics becomes a somewhat thornier issue: Julie is labelled as a “sex-positive feminist” and deals with a fair number of male authority figures telling her she won’t be taken seriously for her revealing wardrobe. Which works as a comment on how women are policed by male voices if you’re feeling generous, and a buzzword excuse to look progressive while having the then-only female character showing a lot of skin if you’re a touch more cynical. And as I mentioned, Julie herself toes the line of the “asking for it” excuse in response to victimhood as part of her extreme self-sufficiency mindset, and because she begins as the only woman (thus a representation of not “Julie” but “Women” generally, whether intended or not), it can make the early episodes downright uncomfortable. It’s not a new trick, after all, to put conservative viewpoints in the mouths of a marginalized character in order to make them sound more justifiable (South Park’s been guilty of this before). Certainly its conception of feminism is set quite squarely in the Second Wave (though in the 90s 3rd wave and intersectional feminism were barely a nascent dream), up to and including a Gloria Steinem reference, and there’s never as much of an interest in really digging into these things as showing off that the writers are aware of them.
But then, as with so many things, the writing does its best to begin unpacking its own broad strokes. Most notably, Maxx, the ultra-masculine presence up to this point, is quite pointedly given a speech about how rape isn’t the victim’s fault, but rather something that happens to them (and if that seems like it should be dully obvious, let me point out that this is a 1995 adaptation of a 1993 comic, and that in 1993 marital rape had only just become illegal in all 50 states). The script plays a razor wire game with the concept of rape in general – while the show doesn’t shy away from the term it also uses it equitably with words like “attack” and “assault,” which work as a subtle reminder that rape is purely an act of violence on the level with a mugging. Not something that one “had coming” but merely what one suffers.
Of course, even when treated seriously rape is too often the go-to method of character development for female characters in comic books. And while it wasn’t yet the disturbingly existent cliché in the early 90s that it has unfortunately become, it was certainly on the upswing in tandem with comics’ desperate urge to be Serious and Edgy. In that vein, it can be easy to categorize it as being trotted out again, nothing more than a tired plot device. But there’s room for argument as well that sexual assault is a deeply scarring event that affects its victims in often far-reaching ways, and that those stories deserve to be told if they are done with tact and grace. Which is arguably done here – the rape is mentioned as an impacting event but never shown as a means of shocking or titillating the audience, and the further the plot goes on the more it begins to stress how Maxx can’t solve this problem for Julie, as much as he wants to swoop in and be the hero.
Instead, Maxx becomes a well-meaning soul whose own identity has been sucked into wanting to play a role for someone else, someone who wants anything but to examine their inner life. And when she does, the inciting incident for this event becomes less important than childhood conceptions of loss and lessons taken from adults. And it further distances itself from identifying Julie as the universal female experience by way of Sarah, an angrier, not quite proto-Daria dealing with parental abandonment, body image, mental illness, and a gen-X flavored sense of disillusionment with the world. Because of how the comic was plotted her arc contains the most loose threads, but her eventual begrudging bond with Julie and quest for self-identity still manages to feel fresh in how ugly it allows Sarah’s struggle to get, how unpleasant Sarah herself is allowed to be in comparison to most young women in media, before letting her re-emerge.
It’s not perfect – there’s something discomfiting about the fact that within the scope of the series it’s Mr. Gone, the rapist and murderer, who possesses the narrative position of speaking truths for a large portion of the story; and after those broad strokes early episodes, the writers don’t so much resolve the questions they’ve poked at as they run away hoping we won’t notice the shifting gears – but it’s a surprising little gem in what is now known, not wholly complimentarily, as the Dark Age of comics. It’s the kind of balancing act that could easily (and probably would, honestly) tip into gross, reductive mishandling from any new adaptor looking to capitalize on the stylized, gritty surface elements. But existing as it does, it’s a fascinating time capsule of ideas with a strong personal narrative once it gets going, and completely gorgeous, inventive visuals that are almost worth watching for in themselves.