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Sam Kieth
Selected interviews.
You know what they say about a guy that draws big feet...
A chronological listing of Sam's comic, card, and film work.

Sam speaks about life, The Maxx, and his plans for the future.

Sam Stories available only on the Web.

"A Conversation with Sam Kieth"
by Michelle Klein-Häss
(Originally published online, October 1995)

It is amazing to think of just how popular Sam Kieth's comic book creation The Maxx has gotten. At the 1995 San Diego Comic Con, Sam made a rare appearance to sign his comics, and was besieged with fans each time he sat down at the signing table. And what was remarkable were the fans themselves...these were not just pimply fanboys, but men, women, boys, girls...a cross-section of humankind. The deep themes and strong characters of The Maxx seem to have struck a responsive chord with a wide range of people, including some who would not normally be caught dead in a comic book store.

The Maxx is not your ordinary comic book, it translated into an extraordinary animated TV series, and Sam Kieth is not your ordinary comic book creator. Curl up with a plateful of toast and a full dispenser of Pez and let us begin the conversation.

MKH: What first interested you in comic art?

SK: I guess I got interested in comics about the same period as most do...around 11 or 12....I remember being peripherally interested in comics and cartoons much earlier than that, but as far as actually collecting them and reading them avidly, I'd say around there...maybe even as early as 9 years old.

MKH: What brought forth the muse for actually creating the art...drawing, painting...?

SK: Well, I was an only child, but I was really close to my cousins and one of them in particular, Dave Feiss, was 4 years older than me and was making his own animated cartoons by the time he was 12 or 13. One of his sisters was also an artist too, so I felt almost like the odd man out for not drawing. It seemed very natural to me when I started taking my first steps into art. However, it took a little while longer than most for me to start doing this professionally...I was about 17 or 18 and nowadays that actually seems pretty old to be starting out. And at that point I was just drawing these small stories in black and white comics for $10 a page. But there's a first time for everything, right?

But the more I think about it, there's artists and there's people who tell stories, and I'd say I'm more a storyteller than anything else. When I actually started drawing back in childhood, I would draw stories...I'd take about 40 3" x 5" cards and draw stories sequentially...

MKH: Like a storyboard...

SK: Yeah, and like a comic book...long before I knew what a comic book or a storyboard was. Anyway, the first time I actually thought in terms of making an actual living off of my comic books was when I first went to New York to make a stab at getting some of my work sold at Marvel, DC...the big guys. But it really took up until The Maxx before I could do able to tell my own stories my way. Working with Bill Loeb taught me a lot about that. I'm still learning... there's still a lot I want to perfect.

MKH: How did you come up with The Maxx?

SK: Jim Lee, who at the time was at Marvel and about ready to leave to help form Image Comics, approached me and asked if I wanted to join him and Rob Liefeld and the rest of them. At the time I was working on Wolverine and doing covers. I didn't think I was fast enough to do my own do a whole book and keep on schedule. Everybody told me 'You've got to do your own book if you want people to remember you...they aren't going to know your name from just doing little 8 page stories. It was an intimidating step. So Jim told me, 'why not do a 6 or 8 page story with me and Rob at Image?' They were both well-known and ridiculously popular, so it was an irresistible offer. It was as if a couple of big box office movie stars asked a kid who was doing dinner theatre to be in their movie. I figured that whatever I did in these 8 pages would be popular...that people would buy it because of Jim and Rob.

So I decided to do something a little different than the average superhero story, something different than the kind of thing everyone would expect. I figured that I'd do two or three 8 page stories, see how it would go. And what happened was that I had so much fun doing them (the first Maxx stories) that I decided to continue.

MKH: So are you satisfied with how MTV Oddities: The Maxx came out?

SK: Well, um...yeah, considering that any problems I had with the show were problems I had with my own artwork. Rough Draft followed my comic books so closely...Gregg and Scott Vanzo, Claudia Katz, they all worked so hard following my work in the comics and bringing it to life, that my complaints all centered around my own stuff. The only things I felt frustrated about were what I perceive as limitations on my own end. Overall, I really didn't expect it to look as good as it did, especially considering the budget and scheduling constraints. I really have to take my hat off to Gregg...every time I hear people talk about how cool the cartoon was, I have to point to Gregg and say that he was the one responsible for everything. It could have gotten bungled in so many ways, but it wound up working out great.

One of the things I had a lot to do with on the show was music...I had very specific ideas for what musical pieces I wanted in the show. It turned out to be a real nightmare, though...securing the rights to all the songs in the show. They kept waving this huge book in my face of all the songs they had rights if I wanted some John Cougar-Mellencamp song in the show that everyone's heard a million times it wouldn't be a problem. But that was the whole point...I wanted to have music in the program that wasn't so familiar...stuff that was sorta offbeat. So it was a real pain to get that all sorted out. And now that they're dubbing The Maxx into other languages, they're asking me "now, we don't need that 'Lighthouse Keeper' song in here...nobody would get it anyway..."

But I can't really complain about MTV. They really stuck by me, and gave us the freedom to do this show our way. Gregg, Scott, Claudia...they were great in making sure that the look of the show was straight out of the comic book. In fact, sometimes Gregg and I would have conflicts over Gregg's insistence on following the book faithfully, where I would say 'But Gregg...I made a mistake when I did that in the comic book.' I'd be the one looking to tamper with things, and Gregg would be the one making sure that nothing would get changed.

MKH: One thing that interests me about the animated series is that you were able to keep your rights to your character, where other creators in similar situations have had to sell their characters in order to get them produced. How were you able to preserve your creators' rights?

SK: Since I was already doing the book, I had a certain amount of leverage that perhaps someone without an established comic book would not. And when I was first approached, it was during a period where there was an extreme demand to license comics for movies and TV. At the time when The Maxx first came out, the readership was something like a million-plus copies. Unbelievably high. That got MTV's attention quick. But recently the speculators have moved away from investing in comics and now prices for mine and others' comics have come down to Earth. I'm not sure what would happen if I was pitching The Maxx today.

That really doesn't matter to me as much as this...the show got produced and we did it as well as possible. I mean, there have been so many movies, animated series and so on that have been produced from comics that wind up being so far off the mark...from Howard The Duck on down, that you are left saying "you should have read the original." I look forward to seeing what will be done with Spawn, for example.

MKH: If people are really serious about creator-driven animation, though, they are going to have to acknowledge the creator's rights vis a vis their characters.

SK:'s definitely an upward battle, though.

MKH: So in the upcoming comics, from what I understand, Sarah becomes the focal point for everything...Julie and The Maxx are no longer in the picture...

SK: Well for a couple of issues, that's all. Julie and The Maxx are a big part of the story, of course, it's really a four-way story between Sarah, Mr. Gone, Julie and The Maxx. What I'm excited about seeing is what happens to all of them 10 years after the action in the original plotline. What happens to Maxx, Julie...I mean, she had a baby and now that kid's 10 years old at this point. Maxx had a whole life before the action in the comic book happened...would he resume that old life? Would Julie and her kid be in as bad of straits as Maxx was in the original plotline?

But this new plotline is personally interesting to me. It parallels a lot of stuff in my life as well. Sarah goes back and visits Mr. Gone after 10 years of being apart from him, and I recently went and saw my Dad after several years of being separated. As I'm talking to and dealing with my own Dad after all this time, I find myself subconsciously drawing on the experience.

It's like...I was talking to Alan Moore, who was helping me set up the next two issues...#20 and #21. I mean, it was kind of awkward, because Bill and I were going to go right back to working on the book together after issue #21, but I needed Alan to help me jumpstart this new plotline. I asked him, "tell me...what do you think would happen to Sarah when she confronts her father again?" We came up with these concepts: on one hand, Mr. Gone's a kind of person who could do terrible, ugly things to people. Then again...he's still her dad. And then there's the frustration she feels finding out that he was alive when he supposedly died when she was real young, and that her mom had hidden the truth...that he was alive and being Mr. Gone, the killer and rapist. And then there's the thought that well, Mr. Gone did all these evil things, and he's my Dad...I must be capable of such evil myself. So there's a lot of psychological stuff that comes out in this story arc. It's not going to be a total soap where everyone just sits around and talks about their feelings...there's going to be some surreal physical stuff there too.

And Mr. Gone has changed...he's gone from being this villain to just being Sarah's older and more humble guy who's trying to make amends. So we needed another villain. This banana slug escaped from Sarah's outback in a recent issue, so we took him forward in time ten years, and the slug's grown to be this huge, 300 pound banana slug with a bad attitude. He had been squished into the tapes that Mr. Gone had left Sarah with, and the tapes became part of the creature, so now she's forced by this new yellow slug character to deal with these messages that her father had left her.

MKH: Now, looking at the little mini-comic that appeared in Wizard last month, (Issue #51) it says that Mr. Gone is now Sarah's ally. How do you make that transition from this clever, witty, Hannibal Lecter-esque villain to someone who, if not good, is at least not a threat to Sarah but an ally?

SK: I don't think that Sarah's ever going to really like Mr. Gone, but she'll grow to accept him, or at least come to some sort of truce. I mean, it's an interesting theme. If you haven't seen someone for a long time...10 years...suddenly he's almost a stranger. She has this image of a Dad who left here when she really needed him the most. She has this clashing image of this guy who did horrible things to women...completely at odds with the first image. And then there's Mr. Gone as he manifests in these new books...he's completely harmless, helpless, and has lost his fire. And so she has these three emotional drives: the desire to be held and comforted by the original Dad, the desire to lash out at Mr. Gone, the evil killer-rapist, and to care for this helpless old man.

MKH: This is something that John Kricfalusi once said to me...he felt that, as a man, he could not create strong, dimensional female characters because he couldn't get any sort of feel for what it was to be female, and that it's best that women create female characters. But then again, you have successfully created two very strong, multifaceted female characters and you're a guy. Why do you think that is?

SK: Hmmm...there was recently a card set put out featuring The Maxx and there were several artists interpreting my characters. I really felt I could tell between the artists who saw Julie, for example, as a person, and the ones who saw Julie as more of an projection of their cheesecakey ideal. I mean, I kind of set things up for have this attractive woman, then in #3 you think she's going to have one of these classic abduction/lady in peril situations, and she goes and turns it entirely around...I just pull out the plugs on it. It's a reversal of everyone's expectations. I wanted to focus in on her as a person.

The extravagant clothing Julie wears is not so she can be some sort of sex's part of her personality, this independent streak. Then later on she might wear those tight bellbottoms and maybe a flannel shirt. I'm too old to think of the opposite sex as anything less than fellow human beings. They aren't enemies, they aren't something to be put on a pedestal...they're human beings. I can't look at my female characters in any lesser way. They're human.

MKH: Do you think you will ever come up with a concept specifically for animation?

SK: That's an interesting question now because that option wasn't really open to me until The Maxx. At this point my cousin Dave Feiss is doing some shorts for the Hanna-Barbera shorts project. Unfortunately, like what we were discussing earlier, he has had to sell the characters he developed for this to H-B. But since he has been doing all this work on other people's projects, this was what had to be done...just like what John K. had to do to get Ren & Stimpy produced. His attitude is "I'll take what I can get because it sure beats drawing 'All Dogs Go To Heaven II'." So he's working on that. I'm helping him write these cartoons...they're all centered around these two characters, a cow and a chicken.

But as far as coming up with something entirely new...I've been approached by a few animation studios, but it's a strange seems like comics are the blueprint I normally follow. If it goes to another level, great, but at some point when you are trying to get an animated series going you have to go into a room with all these suits and say "what do you think about this? How about, say, a series featuring some flying watermelons?" Instead, if you can put together a Flying Watermelons comic book, and you have the readership and you can say, "here's how the comic book's doing," the suits can say "Great! We're jumping onto something proven." It's easier to start things off as a comic book.

It's interesting you said this, because there's another story I might do after The Maxx runs its's about a teenage girl who discovers this automobile engine with legs....she has this connection with it. It's another "girl and her creature" story! (laughs) This would probably lend itself well to animation, but the logical thing to do would be to do a 4 to 8 issue comic and then take it from there. But you have to remember...I'm not an animator. I'm a comic book artist. I have so much respect for animators and directors that I would never presume to step in their shoes.

MKH: One last thing...I think a great team-up for The Maxx would be The Maxx and The Tick. That would be a funny comic book. Both The Maxx and The Tick love Pez. They both are a few bricks shy of a load. They're both built like refrigerators...The Tick is a little more like an upright, and The Maxx is more like a chest freezer, but there you go.

SK: You've summed 'em up right there. (laughs)

MKH: It would be cool if The Maxx wandered into The City and Die Fleidermaus, American Maid and the Civic Minded Five had to deal with Mr. Gone and all those Iszes. And then there's the less obvious stuff...The Maxx having to deal with The Tick's endlessly cheerful demeanor...

SK: That would be a lot of fun...perhaps I should give Ben Edlund a call.

MKH: At least that might finally convince Pez to put out a Tick and a Maxx Pez dispenser...

SK: It would take no less than something like that, I think.

Visit Animation Nerd's Paradise, which has an episode log of the MTV Maxx series, as well as an article about MTV Animation.
Contact Michelle.

The Maxxis ™ and © Sam Kieth.
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