Saturday, 25 April 2015

Obscure Comic of the Month - Maxwell Strangewell

This is the first of a monthly feature which takes a detailed look at an obscure entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.

Maxwell Strangewell by The Fillbach Brothers – Dark Horse Books 2007

Contains minor spoilers for the first third of the book.

Photographer Anna Gilmour discovers a ten-foot-tall alien immediately after his fall to earth. He can't speak, but communicates through telepathic empathy, and Anna introduces him to her father as “Max.” Their home is soon beset by a sea of beatific Tibetan monks, alien assassins in disguise, and heavy weapons fire! Max might not know who he is, but a lot of others sure seem to. Before the final act, Anna and Max encounter a prophecy, the man in the moon, an entire race of alien accountants, and the Revolver - an innocuous-looking jogger responsible for keeping the world spinning.

I first picked up Maxwell Strangewell during my final year of university. It was around this time that I had finally decided to take my interest in comics seriously. To really explore the medium I'd fallen in love with. Up to this point I'd only really experienced Cape Comics, 2000ad and a few Vertigo titles.

I really wanted to explore further afield, didn't really have a starting point. Instead, exploring further afield mostly meant digging through the indy section of Worlds Apart Liverpool and going with my gut. Maxwell Strangewell was a promising prospect; a standalone story by creators I'd never heard of. Even better, it was about the size of the Alien vs Predator anthology I was buying at the same time, but twice as cheap.

It was a joy to read, and once I finished it all I could think was “Why does nobody ever talk about this? Why does nobody know about Maxwell Strangewell?”

It's been years now, and I never found my answer. But my repertoire of graphic storytelling has grown exponentially since then. It's hard to look back at something like Maxwell Strangewell without wondering if it's all rose tinted glasses now. That's what made me pick for the first of this series of columns.

So what of the book itself? Well, our first page starts with a quote by Robert Frost. Yes, it is that one about the road not travelled. So far, so predicable. Softening the blow is another quote, this time by Douglas Adams. It's fitting that the book should start with an Adams quote, considering how reminiscent the story is of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The book owes a great deal to Adams, being a spiritual successor of sorts. It's not the only influence though. The story opens immediately with an homage to the light tunnel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's interesting how quickly the story hits the ground running with it's fantastical elements. Anna finds Max, (A character that seems to be one part Morpheus from Gaiman's Sandman and one part David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth.) and she and her father immediately accept that he is an extra-terrestrial. It's refreshing, and a good thing too, since the story has a lot of diverging plot lines to get through. Doing the whole ET thing would have stifled the story's momentum.

Before long the plot follows Anna and a pair of monks on their way to find out what Max really is as a bunch of evil alien factions fight to obtain his power. Anna's dad is separated from her and instead teams up with rogue FBI agent Jerkins and a moon man. There's a lot of plot going on at any given time, but each is following it's own thread, so never feels overcomplicated. It also gives you more bang for your buck. You can never get bored since it'll jump from one thing to the next before you get the chance.

Let's talk characters. Max's design is a little uninspired to be honest, but he's more of a mobile MacGuffin than anything else. Ironically this makes him the least interesting part of the cast. During an early part of the story, he's flipping through TV channels, reacting to different visuals. He reacts badly to Adolf Hitler, and fondly to Charlie Chaplin. The duality is notable, but decidedly non-committal.

It's hardly interesting to see a character react unfavourably to Adolf Hitler of all people. What would Max have thought of George Bush I wonder? (He would have been in office at the time remember?). Indeed, the whole story lacks any kind of strong moral or allegorical statement, instead leaving us with a generic 'love everyone message'. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with a story that owes so much to writers like Douglas Adams, it certainly takes the bite out of it.

Anna too is pretty much white bread. She's the nicest character in the cast, and her arc mainly consists of getting over her mother's death. Pretty much all the characters are archetypes, but that's okay, it serves the humour and the visuals. There are a few weak links as a result though.

Two characters, Jerkins and Ringo, are cut from the same cloth. They're both 'no nonsense badasses who need to get over themselves'. I think it's worth noting that there's a bit of gay subtext between Ringo and his partner Phelp. They're represented as nothing more than 'buds' in the story, and I don't think they were supposed to be read as gay, but it's a massive oversight that could have helped differentiate Ringo from Jerkins more. There are a lot of moments like this. Missed opportunities that could have added a more interesting dynamic to the characters.

Easily the best character is Lobscrum, the tiny, one eyed, foul mouthed alien pilgrim. He's mostly there for comic relief, but damn it if the comic isn't worth reading for Lobscrum alone.

The plot has a lot of high concept stuff going on. It's about coming to terms with death, mostly, but also about the nature of love, greed, pettiness and war. It's no massive philosophical text, but it wants to speak about higher truths in, once again, the same way Douglas Adams did.

It's mostly successful at it too, having an almost filmic quality to the work. (The Fillbach brothers are credited as 'directors' at the end.) The art is clean, functional, and expressive. It's perfect for the story being told and it reminds me a lot of Paul Grist and a lot of 2000ad Future Shocks. The artwork alone gives you a whole cavalcade of wild and interesting aliens. Not a single page is wasted, each giving you something a new and mind boggling spectacle of alien ships and weird dimensions.

I'm happy to say it is still a joy to read. And it's ending hit me in exactly the same way it did all those years ago.

Why then, is Maxwell Strangewell not regarded as a modern classic?

Maxwell Strangewell was published under Dark Horse Books, not Dark Horse Comics, which probably meant it didn't get the promotion you'd otherwise expect. The Fillbach Brothers have a fairly small back catalogue and haven't produced anything since 2009. It sucks, because Maxwell Strangewell feels like a great foundation to build from. Maybe they'll surface again with something that does, who knows.

The answer is simple in hindsight. Maxwell Strangewell is a great comic, but there's just nothing that interesting about it. It lacks a central conceit with which to make it noteworthy. It owes too much to Douglas Adams, and it doesn't do anything to build on that inspiration.

Maxwell Stangewell is a book I love. I'd never sell it, and I'll likely revisit it again in years to come. But it's a book that truly struggles to find an identity and stand out. Why talk about Maxwell Strangewell, when there are so many wilder, greater, weirder comics out there?

It's an obscure classic. No more, no less.

Jack Harvey 2015. Maxwell Strangewell (c) 2007 Matthew Fillbach and Sean Fillbach. Images used under Fair Use.