The Maxx

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, or, in this case, an A.V. Club theme week. This week: In honor of Comics Week, we look at comics-to-TV adaptations from beyond the current surplus of superhero shows.

The Maxx, “Episode 5” (originally aired 4/24/1995)

For a brief period in 1995, there was a decent chance of coming home from school and running into MTV’s Oddities. (Along with Liquid Television, the network has now made archives of the series available online.) A half-hour animation showcase, the program essentially existed to give a home to two strange little series: The Head, about a guy with an alien taking up residence in his oversized noggin, and the real artistic triumph: The Maxx.

Based on an Image Comics series by Sam Kieth, The Maxx told the tale of a purple-clad being who alternated between two worlds. In the real world, he’s a homeless guy living in a cardboard box; in the fantastical land called the Outback, he’s a mighty warrior tasked with protecting the Jungle Queen. The Jungle Queen’s alter ego is Julie, a self-employed social worker who has taken Maxx under her wing, bailing him out of jail and often letting him crash in her apartment. But both are being haunted by a serial rapist and killer named Mr. Gone, who taunts Julie and The Maxx with mysterious inklings of a psychic bond they share, one that could destroy them both. And in his missions, Mr. Gone is helped by the Isz, small creatures who exist in both the Outback and reality, though in the real world they take on the human appearance of however they are dressed.

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Confused yet?

So were many impressionable young MTV viewers, no doubt. And with good reason: The show is deliberately surreal and abstract, filling in even less plot and backstory than Kieth’s original comic book series. But watching it today, it’s striking just how dark and unsettling the subject matter comes across. The primary concept behind the show is the difficulty of processing trauma and grief. Specifically, sexual trauma, and the ways young women deal with such violence. It’s seriously heavy subject matter, and a testament to the show that it never feels downplayed or treated with anything less than the gravity it deserves, even when characters make light of it. The Maxx gradually becomes about the nature of reality, and the mental walls that people put up around tragedy. None of which ignores that it’s also about a goofy guy who talks to himself and wears a purple costume.

One of the most impressive and affecting episodes sidelines both main characters for much of its running time. The fifth installment tells the story of Sarah, a brooding and lonely girl who wants to be a writer, but hates the world she wants to write about. With gorgeous art and animation, this mini-movie walks through the life of a depressed girl, trying to stave off her despair by keeping the world at a distance. It stands on its own as a narrative, an impressive feat for a seriously complicated and interwoven show that has to get to the conclusion in only 13 episodes. The entire series can be watched in the time it takes to view a single Hollywood blockbuster, and is exponentially more rewarding than most. It may leave you mystified, impressed, or better yet, moved (the ending is the definition of bittersweet)—but one thing it’s not? Forgettable.

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Availability: The Maxx can be streamed in its entirety at MTV. It can also be purchased on DVD and Instant Streaming through various sites.

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