Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Batman/The Maxx: Arkham Dreams

I pick on crossovers a lot here. And on superheroes, too. Usually because they're obvious and tired and dull.

But they don't have to be any of those things. They can be random and quirky and utterly weird.

That's better, I suppose. And if there's an auteur theory of superhero comics, Sam Kieth should be high in the pantheon: he seems to do pretty much what he wants, chasing his own muse or id wherever it leads.

But boy howdy is Batman/The Maxx: Arkham Dreams an oddball thing.

It is entirely written and drawn by Kieth, with colors by Ronda Pattison and letters by Shawn Lee. His editor was Scott Dunbier of IDW, which implies there was no one from DC Comics closely connected to ensure tormented billionaire Boo Swain stayed on-model, but I'm sure there was serious kibitzing from multiple DC functionaries, the kind of people we used to call "suits" but now probably live in Southern California loungewear.

The Maxx is Kieth's creation, a big hulking guy in a purple suit with a massive overbite who is both a borderline-crazy homeless man and the protector of an otherworldly Outback belonging to a young female social worker who intermittently tries to help him. (The theory of mental illness and the homeless embodied here was formed when the series started in the very early '90s; it is at least very, very stylized and romanticized.) I don't remember if the original series made it clear that everyone has a different Outback - my sense was that it was a Jungian collective unconscious in those days, but it was twenty-five-plus years ago - but that is very much the case now.

Anyway, as the title implies, The Maxx ends up in Arkham after being a clearly crazy person in public in front of Batman. This is the kind of crossover where suddenly everyone is in the same world, and suddenly they won't be as soon as the crossover is over. There is a doctor at Arkham who at first we think may only be mildly crazy, and he Does Experiments, and everything spins out from that. Batman's dialogue is mostly along the "is that really wise, doctor?" line early on, but he eventually gets more to do.

Because of said mad doctor and because this is a Maxx book, Bats and Maxxy drop in and out of what are probably multiple different Outbacks, and the assumption here is that each one of them belongs to someone. And the first one is particularly damaged and unhealthy, which they - well, Maxxy, but maybe Bats, too, what the hell - want to fix. In fact, the plot of this series - inasmuch as it has a plot, which it only does intermittently - is all about "who's Outback is this, and how do we heal it?" Well, The Maxx wants to heal it. Batman mostly wants to hit something with a bat-branded violence device and then Detect it all into neat little boxes, since that's how he deals with everything.

Other Arkham inmates do get dragged into the story - yes, especially the thin chap with the green hair, can't forget him - but it's all shaggy-doggier than you would expect, with scenes blinking back and forth between the two worlds following no obvious narrative cadence or story triggers.

(Also, Kieth draws Bats almost like a parody of Bernie Wrightson, which I found distracting.)

The Maxx's main villain Mr. Gone is in this, and is basically the main villain here. But he mostly lurks around the edges of the narrative, making speeches that don't quite bring anything into focus.

This all goes on for five issues and over a hundred pages, with a lot of gorgeous double-page spreads that are really annoying to try to read on a tablet, as I was. There is a lot of quirky dialogue. Batman has a logo on his shirt that looks like parentheses with dots widely spaced in the middle, for no reason I understand.

Kieth is still wierd. This is what I'm saying. Batman is in this, but it's nothing like a normal Batman story. I suppose it's more-or-less normal for the Maxx, since he was always this nutty. But it feels looser and more random than the classic Maxx stories. I found it pleasant, but I both didn't quite get it and didn't quite see the reason it existed. I do like having really weird things like this in the world, though. That's a massive positive.

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