The Maxx

I have long seen animation as an underutilized and undervalued medium for telling stories. I suspect part of this comes from early encounters with animation that didn’t talk down to kids. One early example was Star Trek: The Animated Series. Even though it appeared in the Saturday morning kid’s cartoon slot, it was produced by the live action show’s staff with writing of a similar caliber. The show’s only real writing shortfall was that stories were constrained to 30-minutes instead of a full hour. I also encountered anime, like Space Battleship Yamato at a fairly young age. Another real eye-opener was the French science fiction film, Fantastic Planet based on the novel Oms in Series.

So, in the 1990s when cable station MTV came along and introduced an animation block called “Oddities,” I was rather interested to see what stories they told. This block was introduced while I lived in Tucson, Arizona, when I first worked for Kitt Peak National Observatory. TV watching was somewhat intermittent and I don’t remember details from many of the shows that aired during the Oddities segment. One did grab my attention and held me enough that I still remember it fairly well some 25 years later. That show was The Maxx.

The animated adaptation of The Maxx was based on Sam Kieth’s comic book of the same name. The title character is a large, purple-clad homeless superhero who lives in a box in a large city. A young woman named Julie Winters is a social worker who looks out for the Maxx. Meanwhile, a serial rapist called Mr. Gone is on the loose and he’s stalking Julie. As the series progresses, we meet a teenage girl named Sarah, whose mom is friends with Julie. Besides Maxx being homeless, what made this different from the normal superhero fare is that Maxx popped back and forth between two separate realities. One was the “real world” city where he’s a superhero and Julie is a social worker. The other reality was a place called “the outback” inhabited by surreal, Dr. Seuss-inspired creatures. In that reality, Julie is the Leopard Queen, in charge of the realm.

As the series progressed, it became clear that the outback was a manifestation of the subconscious shared by Julie and Maxx. Something about their past bound their subconscious realities together. Each individual episode only ran for about 12 minutes, but they contained enough character development to engage me and make me want to see where the story led. Not only were the characters interesting, but the series explored the intersection of dream reality and the real world, plus had some serious discussions of feminism, missing from more mainstream entertainment. I especially appreciated that the series didn’t try to sell me on a viewpoint, but just gave me some issues to think about. I recently discovered that the series is available on home video. It only takes about two hours to watch all thirteen episodes, but it was worthwhile to rediscover this animated gem.

What was perhaps even more fun was that I discovered the original comic run is all available digitally at Comixology. It turns out the thirteen episodes of the animated series are almost a frame-by-frame retelling of the first twelve issues of the comic, which was remarkable. I only noticed minor variations in the story. I have continued on to read more of the story. The tale of Julie, Maxx and Sarah in the 1990s wraps up in issue 20. In issue 21, the story leaps ahead to the (then) near-future of 2005 where Sarah takes center stage as the comic’s protagonist. During this time, we continue to learn more about how the characters are interrelated and Kieth continued to explore interesting ideas and sometimes uncomfortable topics in comic form.

Given my recent experiences dabbling in the comic book form, it’s been fascinating to revisit Sam Kieth’s creation from the 1990s. The comic is available at: https://www.comixology.com/The-Maxx-Maxximized/comics-series/12331

Star Wars and Battle of the Planets

By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.

Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.

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As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.

Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.

Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.

Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.

Gatchaman-Crowds

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.



Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.