Since the 1980s, comic artist and Maxx creator Sam Kieth has been one of medium's finest spinners of tripped-out phantasmagoria. Here, Anna Breslaw looks back, forward, and directly at Kieth and discusses why his works have resonated with her over the years.
Kids would write in and say things like: ‘Wolverine's okay, but his back is too round.' ‘What's up with Wolverine's feet? Why are they growing?' And, "Wolverine is really out of proportion, I think your artist is losing his mind or something." And it was funny, because the letters I would get would be kids who really loved it, or kids who were saying ‘Why are you ruining my universe?' They had a very specific view of the world. "I'm going through latency," they wouldn't say it in those words, but, ‘I'm going through this world view phase where I'm trying to categorize and order things, and you're causing chaos by giving me a version of things that are drastically different from everything else. So please, please, please go away and not do that anymore.' So, in that way it was almost a relief when I went off and did my own book, because then I could screw around and introduce my proportions." - Sam Kieth
At fifteen, I wasn't ballsy enough to be a badass person, but I was friends with a bunch of them. And, in retrospect, it's totally appropriate that a girl with pink hair and negligible respect for authority would introduce me to Sam Kieth. So we spent a summer in her bedroom reading The Maxx and listening to The Residents, which went on until one of us got a boyfriend (her) and the other one saw Ghost World (me), which:
A.) Informed me that my friend and I were completely derivative and
B.) Hypothesized that without a massive lifestyle change, I would end up having sex with Steve Buscemi and then leaving town on a bus that doesn't exist.
And so, with newly flat-ironed hair, a Coach wristlet, and the other necessary suburban accoutrements, I pimped away into the horizon and attempted to assimilate socially. Later on, drunk at a party in college, I namedropped Sam Kieth like a douchebag to impress a boy (who went on to work at this very website). I went on to be drunk at more parties. But I never really forgot about Sam Kieth, partly because he was prominent at such an impressionable period in my life, but also because, Christ on a cracker, Sam Kieth's comics are strange.
Kieth's career's been diverse – he's drawn and written canon comics for DC and Dark Horse, has done Marvel covers for years, worked with Neil Gaiman on Sandman (eventually quitting because he "felt like Jimi Hendrix in The Beatles") and even saw The Maxx developed and produced for MTV. But I'm addressing Zero Girl, Four Women, and My Inner Bimbo here because they always seemed the most Kiethian to me.
And obviously The Maxx, but that's so expansive it really deserves its own essay. Thanks to his big publishing house background, there are plenty of conventional comic tropes to be found here: final battles, superpowers, alternate universes. But the emotional horrors in Kieth's work hold equal, if not more, weight in these stories. They're not quite action-adventure comics that serves as cogs in the mainstream comic machine (what Kieth terms "the adolescent male-dominated dream factory") nor are they twee Gen-Y graphic novels like Adrian Tomine's. They're Sam Kieth screwing around and introducing his proportions, and it's awesome.
Kieth's subject matter, like his drawing style, varies from the absurd to the harrowingly realistic (often in concurrent panels) but almost always lies directly over some kind of massive gendered fault line. The most literal example is My Inner Bimbo, in which a grown man's repressed femininity –- a blonde clad in pink, chewing bubblegum — is brought into existence and wreaks havoc on his life. It's the second installation in what Kieth calls the "Trout-O-Verse," which explores faith, sexuality, couples with age differences, mother-daughter differentiation, and feminism.
And in his other stories, the traditional roles are reversed in unexpected ways. The villain Mr. Gone in The Maxx is a victim of his aunt's sexual abuse, Zero Girl protagonist Amy Smootster is in such intense sexual pursuit of her guidance counselor that it kind of feels predatorial. Maybe this inversion is colored by Kieth's own life -– he met his wife when he was 15 and she was 35. Or maybe they're just his own "inner bimbo" (though his is more like "inner crazy lady in the public park who wears tinfoil on her head and screams about the Bay Of Pigs"). But whatever, because I'm into it!
Though there are conventional battles of good vs. evil, the final terrors in Kieth's comics are emotional. In his most realistic piece, Four Women, we double back on a horrible sexual assault on four women during a car ride –- while the event itself was the catalyst, it's the tensions and moral dilemmas the women now face with each other and themselves for throwing each other under the bus, basically, that drives the narrative. Rape also figures prominently into Julie's alternate-universe reign as the Jungle Queen in her Outback in The Maxx, which I'm aware sounds totally insane if you haven't read these comics. So read them, (and also this interview on Sequential Tart.)
Throughout Zero Girl, Amy has a specific vision of blood on circles that fills her with fear and dread, though she has no idea of the context. It turns out not to foreshadow physical harm, but emotional devastation: at a polite diner lunch date two years in the future with the object of her affection, he reveals casually that he's married someone else.
The bloody circles themselves are harmless, just ketchup on coasters. The final wallop of a Kieth comic isn't final battle-sad or tragic death-sad. It's that quiet, believable, "everyone's being a grown-up and eating their tuna melts even though their hearts are breaking" sad. And isn't that the worst kind?