To The Maxx & Beyond
Sam Kieth apologises too much. Maybe it comes from having a typo for a surname. From his formative influences of Bernie Wrightson and Arthur Suydam, Kieth co-created The Sandman with Neil Gaiman and drew Bill Messner-Loebs’ humorous take on Greek philosopher Epicurus, before rocketing to ‘hot’ artist status on Wolverine. Then in 1993, he helped boost Image by drawing and co-writing his purple masked monster, The Maxx.
From biceps, big feet and jungle queens, Kieth with Messner-Loebs on dialogue soon took The Maxx and his equally unstable, bell-bottomed analyst Julie into uncharted psychological territory to uncover their suppressed memories. The cartoon symbolism was rarely subtle (eyeless pink fairies and banana slugs, anyone?), but the humanity was always there and when writing solo, in later issues and especially in the superb Friends of Maxx character studies, Kieth dealt with his cast’s frailties in a low-key, affecting way.
Then in 1998 Kieth disappeared. He signed off from The Maxx #35, stating, "...it’s my sad fate (and my fans’) to no longer be the person who created The Maxx. Everyone has to move on - even me. Sorry." The one-off oddity Legs was his only comic in some three years.
Kieth has always shown a real empathy for troubled loners, females in particular. Zero Girl, his comeback at Wildstorm in 2001, profiles misfit Amy Smootster, with no family, bullied in high school, infatuated, maybe in love, with her much older, if not wiser, counsellor. Their age-gap romance interested me far more than the surreal/horror elements like Amy’s body fluids and her friendly circles battling sinister squares. Kieth seems to agree, admitting in his afterword that this is his "most open and personal story" based partly on his own relationship with a woman 17 years his senior, and yet "it fails to capture who we really are".
In 2003 Four Women continued some of Kieth’s core themes - traumatising memories, fixations on significant objects, sounds or moments, self-delusion giving way to self-discovery. But here he locates them in the ‘real-world’ stripped of all his otherworldly trappings.
As if expecting rejection, Kieth apologises in advance in his intro that "...it fails, because I’m not a woman in her twenties, thirties, or fifties. I haven’t been through what they’ve been through, so it’s bound to ring false." I don’t buy that argument, otherwise the only possible convincing fiction would be first person autobiography. Like Kieth, I’m not a woman, I’ve never experienced this, but I believe in his characters, their predicament and its effects on their relationships.
His four very different women, four friends, are driving to a wedding, when their car breaks down, at midnight in the middle of nowhere. Two dumb, horny guys arrive in a 4x4 pick-up truck and proceed to besiege and terrorise the foursome, who are safe but also trapped inside their car, their only security the power locks on the doors.
In twist after twist, I was gripped, as Kieth jacks up the claustrophobic, pressure-cooker tension in this cat-and-mouse struggle, as the men get meaner and each woman faces her fears in her own way. One prays, another freezes up, while the youngest, 19, is the first to hit back, only to wind up facing rape at knifepoint. So what would you do? Risk your life to rescue her, or look out for number one? What’s stronger, friendship or self-preservation?
To help us to piece together what really happened, we eavesdrop on the questions and answers, in the book’s two-toned captions, between one of the women, the deeply troubled Donna, and her therapist (who must be Julie from The Maxx). What she can’t bring herself to say, we sometimes get to see; and there are clues when what we see doesn’t fit the version she’s telling us. There’s a transcendent moment when we stare through Donna’s eyes into the eyes of one of the women before she is seized from behind.
What could have been a clever but mechanical frightener, Kieth turns into a much darker exploration of the survival instinct. Through the bubbly opening ‘girl talk’ in the car he characterises his women as individuals, not ciphers, while foreshadowing what they are about to face. In the last chapter, he follows through the aftermath on Donna and in a charged silent coda conveys her need for forgiveness, from the others and from herself.
Few graphic novels have gripped me and provoked me as fiercely as Four Women. There’s no going back now, Sam. And no more apologies either.
Posted: December 4, 2005
The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics.