Sometimes a great idea starts out magically but over the course of decade loses its beauty. In fact, it seems like that happens all the time in comics. Take Marvel Comics’ MAX line, the idea behind it was strong and innovative but 12 years later I feel like they are aren’t even trying anymore.
MAX was first introduced in 2001 with Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias which happens to be a personal favorite series of mine. Just a few years earlier Bendis was killing it over at Image with his gripping noir style and superhero-crime fusion, he managed to write very enjoyable comics that didn’t tone itself down for a broader, younger audience. After Bendis started shaking things up at Marvel with his refreshing take on Ultimate Spider-Man and monumental run on Daredevil it seems like editor-in-chief and all around fanboy joy-killer Joe Quesada wanted the edge of Bendis’ creator-owed works but in a way that Marvel would get most of the money instead.
And thus, Alias was born. It follows D-list superhero Jessica Jones as she stubbornly quits the cape life to start a career in private investigating. It was raw and violent and felt so much more like an HBO adaptation of a comic book than anything else. She was so flawed and made terrible decisions but at no point do you question her integrity as a hero. One of the original rules of the MAX line was Marvel’s most famous characters were not to appear in any of the issues, which makes sense. In a book where Luke Cage cheats on his girlfriend by knocking at the protagonist’s poop chute it would send a mixed message having the Avengers hang around shrugging their shoulders mouthing “at least she won’t get pregnant this way” to each other outside the bedroom.
I really did love this book though. It was funny and sad and so much more than just a failed superhero-turned-detective story. I’ve reread it many times since then and it always gets to me. It’s one of those series that makes you forget it’s set in a world where the Fantastic Four exist.
The next big winner for the MAX line was Punisher MAX. This was the turning point because he was a much more well-known character but at the same time this line it finally felt like they were doing Frank Castle justice. Punisher’s story is not one of romanticized intrigue, it’s a tragedy. His family was wrong-fully murdered and he never really copes. He takes the opposite approach to Bruce Wayne’s also stunted mental health and decides that guns and killing people are the best way to deal with his suffocating emotions. This book was perfect for this line. Garth Ennis was able to take a character he already had success with and expand on it. It was like watching an “edited for appropriate audiences” movie on TNT and then watching the original format with all the cursing and bloody shoot-outs and explicit sex. I’ll admit after awhile Ennis’ run started to, well, sort of suck but that’s only because he became repetitive and the violence went from captivating to annoyingly immature.
Then in 2010 during Marvel’s big push for everything Deadpool they released his own MAX title. He also seemed like a prime candidate for this line because basically Deadpool is Spider-Man without the moral compass. I wanted this book to be good, as a fan of Wade Wilson’s complete insanity and unpredictable nonsense I expected a lot. I was wrong. David Lapham made this book almost unreadable. While his characterization of Deadpool wasn’t entirely inaccurate but everything else was more cringe-worthy then “edgy”. The first issue sets Deadpool on a mission to kill Hammerhead but the pages were so filled with racial slurs and homophobic jabs I immediately felt dirty for reading it. I forced myself to finish the first arc and let me tell you I did not enjoy it. One thing I love about Deadpool is that underneath all the murder and psychosis he is fun to read. There was nothing fun about this particular MAX title. It felt like a poor attempt at a Chuck Palahniuk story. All shock value and no depth.
Luckily two years later Marvel released another MAX title, one that I was very interested in: Fury MAX. This version of Nick Fury was spawned from Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run and thankfully Ennis would be penning this book as well. Here Nick Fury is not the no-nonsense head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and former leader of the Howling Commandos that most remember. He’s a cigar-smoking, hooker-banging, war-hardened bad ass. I was in love with him. Fury MAX delivered a very Band of Brothers like retelling his military past. No Commandos here, just the grittier missions that still haunt him to this day. It was incredible. If you’re a fan of history and watching one man tear through war criminals like they’re rape-y piñatas then you would also enjoy this book. I was elated. Finally another good MAX book.
Later that year however they started publishing Wolverine MAX. Oh how quickly disappointment set in. Wolverine was also a perfect character for this line because of his notably violent history. How could they possibly fail again? I’ll tell you how, by giving a horribly mundane story. It wasn’t nauseatingly unreadable like Deadpool MAX but it felt so mediocre. Everything about it was sub-par. In fact it felt like something two amateur creators handed in to the Marvel booth while they walked the floor of SDCC. Calling it a glorified fanfic would be an insult to fan fiction as a genre. Everything from Wolverine’s inability to remember his past to Sabertooth’s drinking blood from the decapitated head of a monk was unsatisfying. In fact the only thing I found even remotely interesting was the overt obsession Victor Creed had with Wolverine. But even that felt empty and forgettable.
A couple weeks ago Agent Patrick wrote about Fantomex MAX in his weekly UNvincible column and since I agree with him wholeheartedly I won’t go into much detail on why it didn’t work for me. I will only say that ONCE AGAIN they took a character that was practically custom-made for this line and somehow made him a nondescript farce. I already loved Fantomex, why would you change him instead of just showing more of his scandalous adventures?!
I’m curious why the MAX line hasn’t worked for any X-Men characters. Is it just a coincidence? Or is it that Bendis and Ennis are better writers? For a line of books that are meant to explore the R-rated side of comics why is that three of the most merciless killers in the X-Men roster are written as if a 12-year-old took a break from tea-bagging fallen foes in Halo to jot down a list of things he thinks “would be so cool and totally not gay like the dumb cartoons”? Where’s the brutal eloquence of Ennis’ storytelling? Where’s the seamless finesse of realism like in Alias? I feel like when it comes to the MAX line, the X-Men are getting raw dogged into a bad deal and that is just so disappointing.