The blurred line between dream/fantasy and reality (or madness and sanity) has great cachet as a story foundation, and can elicit a deep and sustained enjoyment on the part of the reader/viewer, but can just as easily lead to bitter disappointment. A lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller is often seen as the reason Hollywood deals poorly with this concept (and others), but imagination is only part of the equation for success here. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in telling a story that relies heavily on the nature of ideas too complex and weird to properly and specifically express is mechanical; how do you successfully communicate an idea that turns to mist when you try to put it into words?
Visual media have an advantage here as images have the ability to circumvent language in communicating their ideas to the viewer. But film has limitations of its own that may serve to partially offset this advantage when telling a story that deals with deep, dark ideas that sometime just need dialogue/monologue. This leaves comics ideally situated to tell this kind of story, blending the strengths of visual media with those of textual communication. And Sam Kieth’s mid ‘90s psychodrama The Maxx is an under-recognised triumph of both the genre and the medium.
To say that The Maxx is about the blurry distinction between dream and reality is to call a toilet-door stick figure an accurate representation of a human being. Ideas of dream vs reality feature strongly in the book, but there is a lot more to it. Accompanying this duality are its close siblings; the distinction between sanity and madness, subjectivity vs objectivity, our inability to experience the real world (stripped of the filter of our own senses and cognitive function), and the change of perception that accompanies aging.
In tandem with these mind-bending philosophical conundrums Mr Kieth examines the human response to abuse, feeling of powerlessness, and the nature of escapism. And all of this is bound together (by a story at once fantastical and utterly banal) in such a way as to make it feel quite real, despite the patently ludicrous nature of the whole thing.
The external and internal lives of four people are intertwined through two story arcs that don’t so much blur as erase the distinction between what happens in the real world and what happens in the mind(s) of one or more characters. Individuals inhabit each other’s personal universes, not just in one character’s mind, but in all of them; making them as real in the subjective world as they are in the objective world. And just like dream logic, none of it every quite makes enough sense. There are random excursions from the main plot that, even in retrospect, don’t really seem to belong, the truth about the characters and events is a malleable thing, and even the explanations require an explanation. It is a beautiful treatment of the bizarre and incomprehensible, as it doesn’t attempt to strip it of the hazy nature that makes it so.
Kieth’s art makes for the perfect accompaniment to / vehicle for the written story, varying from sketchy, almost scribbled, line work to lush, textured watercolour in an organic and story-driven fashion. Some of the pages are just breath-taking, the character design is original and refreshing while giving the subtle fan-boy nod to the entrenched conventions of the genre, and the use, or abandonment, of panels to fit the nature of the narrative is brilliantly done. As noted earlier the visual medium allows for a simplified treatment of some of the surreality of the story and themes, and it’s used to full-effect. All the staples of dream-space feature; real location made weird by the perversion of scale, Jungian metaphor landscapes, the shadowy, repressed memories of childhood. The land of the quilt-fort I find especially poignant.
And although the story doesn’t often really seem to be going anywhere and never the less feels cut short in its prime, the ending provides for both mystery and resolution, and, perhaps more importantly, a poetry of concept.
Verdict: May leave you, at times, scratching your head and wondering why you’re doing this to yourself, but ultimately this story is one of the more honest explorations of the concepts much belaboured above and is a really worthwhile read. 4.5 purple-clad spirit-guides out of 5.