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The Maxx creator Sam Kieth returns to comics with a new, psuedo-autobiographical series.

By Trent D. McNeeley     December 06, 2000

Sam Kieth knows some people find him odd. He doesn't mind. When you're best known for creating the avant garde comic The Maxx and the hit MTV animated series it spawned, it probably goes with the territory. And readers shouldn't expect anything different with his latest offering, Zero Girl, which is chock full of weird happenings that're based, however loosely, on actual events.

Kieth's theory is that, if you write about the things that happen in your own life and cleverly disguise them, people will think you're a fabulous writer. The key at times, he says, is to pick up on whatever's happening in reality, whether mundane or absurd, and write from there. And so long as he's sticking to that, who are we to argue?

'This is a chance for me to tell a story that's a little more personal,' says Kieth in a telephone interview from his California home. 'This is my scratching that itch, my first draft at trying to tell stories a little more honest in terms of the difficulties experienced in some of the things I have been through in my life.'

Zero Girl #1 hits stands today, the first issue of a five-part mini-series from DC Comic's Homage Comics imprint. Edited by Kieth's friend and colleague Scott Dunbier, Kieth handles most other duties himself, including scripting, interior art and painted covers.

Ground Zero

The book tells the story of a high-school misfit coming of age. Seeming to attract weirdness like a flame attracts a moth, Amy Snooster has never truly fit in with the popular crowd. Heck, she's never fit in with any crowd. Maybe it's because she can speak to insects and believes that circles are good and squares are evil. Maybe it's because puddles of water seem to materialize under her feet. But while Amy is okay with the oddities of her existence, others are not, making her the target of bullies. Her only friend is a sympathetic guidance counselor who helps Amy explore the meaning of her seemingly absurd abilities, and her place in the 'normal' world.

'It was originally about a young boy and a female counselor, but that was a little too close to my own life. Still, the story has to do with age differences and stuff going on between me and my wife,' says Kieth, who quickly notes that he takes liberties with the story that keep it from being entirely autobiographical. First off, Kieth's persona in the comic is Amy's. His wife Julie, some 20-odd years older than the 37-year-old Kieth, is more akin to the male counselor. 'But she [Kieth's wife] wasn't any kind of authority figure in my life,' continues Kieth. 'At least not in any official way. I mean, she was older, so she had some air of authority. She had money, for one thing, and could balance a checkbook. I was lucky to have 20 cents in my pocket.'

And the gender change cannot be overlooked, as Kieth says it's a staple of his writing. 'I turn all my lead characters into females,' says Kieth. 'It's really hard for me to write male characters. If I turn them into women, they seem easier to write. I can pretend they have the characteristics I want women to have. I have an automatic knee-jerk, oblivious projection of what I want women to be: Here's this warm, cuddly female character. Some day I'll have to be a man and write a man. But now, well, you can either see people the way they really are or you can project onto them. I'm in favor of projecting rather than dealing with the ugly truth.'

Alienation also plays a critical role in the story, according to Kieth. 'A story image keeps occurring to Amy,' explains Kieth. 'She can pull on painful or embarrassing events that happened to her to get power, and then use that power to get out of jams. But she keeps discovering a certain visual of this coaster that a cup would be on and some red blood or something on it. That image is the most powerful that happened in the past or future. At one point, the image allows her to be able to lay out all these guys that pile on top of her.'

Kieth says Amy will examine the power that comes from this image, trying to discern where it comes from. 'That's the plot device,' says Kieth. 'But the emotional scene is the older counselor involved with the younger student: Can they make it work? Is this morally right? I don't know. It's a comic, you know. And I'm not terribly deep to begin with.'

That teacher/student relationship could have caused some trouble with a major publisher, but Kieth says the only rules Dunbier enforced was that the two could not have a physical relationship. 'So it's this psychological game I play to see how close I can get,' says Kieth. 'Is she whispering in his ear or is she nibbling on it? That's my pathetic, cheesy way of dealing with that small taboo.'

In a way, Kieth believes the censorship helped the story. 'I'm a friggin cliché, dude,' says Kieth. 'But the story should go beyond the novelty of the age difference. The bulk of it is about how to grow up in a relationship. That's a lot more interesting in the long run than some lurid 'teen who scored with an older woman' story.'

Creative Energies

Kieth is as adept at illustrating his story as he is at scripting it. Amy's often-cruel world takes on a quirky life of its own thanks to Kieth's odd linework style, which he's continued to refine over the years. Kieth admits he's never been considered mainstream, so adjectives such as 'odd' don't bother him. In fact, it was exactly that odd style that gained Kieth fame in the 1990s with The Maxx and its MTV cartoon spinoff.

After 35 issues of The Maxx, however, Kieth says he was so burned out he couldn't write another Maxx story if his life depended on it. But following some low-profile gigs on other comics and in filmmaking, Kieth is back in a big way.

'The reason I came back to comics right now is that this is a very specific story, a definite tale I want to tell,' says Kieth. He wants to tell even more of it, but in a film, not a comic. And he doesn't know if he's quite ready for that to be made. Until then, there could be more comics work in the future.

'One of the worst things I've done lately is discover the limitations of myself as a writer,' says Kieth. 'But I am really excited about trying to write books I wouldn't draw myself. I have talked in the past with [editor] Karen Berger at DC about that. I don't want to become one of those annoying guys like Sean Penn who wants to direct but everyone else wants him to act. Or Bernie Wrightson, who only wants to ink when people are dying to see his pencils. I'll also try to make sure I have a story to tell, not a feeling that 'I simply must write JLA' or anything like that.'

Ultimately, the self-deprecating Kieth says he doesn't want to become a hack and have no one tell him. 'But I suppose you know when no one buys your work anymore,' says Kieth. 'Perhaps I'm already there. That's okay with me. I'm just looking for a comfortable niche. I was never a big guy [in comics]. I want to be the quirky guy in the corner who has a small following thanks to good characterization. You pay the price to do those stories, in comics or movies. Most people don't want to see emotions. Most want to see things blow up. I understand. I love explosions, too. But I also love a good story.'


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