Overview: For the Maxx, the Outback is a wild, untamed habitat where nature rules unbound and childhood traumas and regret can manifest as physical demons. Things can get pretty weird. But to get to the bottom of this mystery, Maxx may need to take Batman to an Outback of his own. For Bruce, the personification of trauma and demons is sure to mean something dark and unhinged. Even working together, this will be a difficult trip and neither hero may like what they find.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): While this issue has many of the same missteps that have plagued this book since, well quite frankly since the start in the early ’90s, there’s a little too much “Maxx is bouncing around his own subconscious and that looks pretty fun if you’re Maxx. Being anyone else, however, including the reader out there, would get pretty confusing pretty quickly, drawing weird “Outback” animals is probably a blast when you’re getting paid to come up with whacky concepts but the bottom line is there are no story beats associated with Maxx’s introspective wanderings- despite traffic/motion problems like these. This issue does bear the promise of something more, and a big step forward at that. We’ve been waiting for three issues now to see if we’d ever make the jump and this issue leaves some pretty good hints that we’re finally headed towards a tangible conclusion with a tantalizing climax.
While on any given page of The Maxx, we might be observing deep inner turmoil in the form of a stormy landscape or fantastic creatures with difficult dispositions, we’ve not yet seen what happens if Batman turns his own gaze inward. Maxx has gotten so used to traversing those inner mountain ranges and muttering to himself he can no longer tell if he’s fighting a metaphor in his mind, or if he’s actually fighting a monster in the streets near his water-damaged, cardboard boxed-roofed home or worse yet, if he’s just arguing with social worker trying to help him find food (Maxx’s abject poverty is one of the silent villains of his story and his deteriorating mental health makes for a fun romp through his subconscious but leaves one wondering if the hero’s energy fighting “bad guys” is maybe sadly misplaced). For Maxx it all sort of blends into one crazy battlefield where the real world doesn’t always look as real as the creatures that constantly plague his psyche. He has developed his own system for keeping track of “real” and “Outback” by establishing a totem. The occasional appearance of his social worker Julie seems to give him some sense of who/where/when he is on a map that you or I could evaluate, but even interacting with Julie doesn’t always seem to firm up his status on the ground. The deeper, possibly darker truth, is that Maxx’s strategies for negotiating is current surroundings don’t necessarily change based on his current indicators of “real” or “mind” world. For him, there are repercussions derived from actions in each one and they both have meaning and value. Determining what world he is walking in is more often a courtesy he tries to extend to those around him so he can try to appear somewhat less insane based on a given situation.
Meanwhile, Batman has been looking on, occasionally asking Maxx for clarification to help solidify his own frame of reference, but he doesn’t correct or try to counter, he just adds a notation to his own inner navigational charts. For the World’s Greatest Detective, a man for whom empirical evidence is paramount to truth, his casual acceptance of their apparent “unstickiness” to reality is strangely out of character. Batman is also aware that there is a part of them still on an examination table in Arkham so perhaps he’s just resigned himself to go with the flow and The Maxx just happens to be the most knowledgeable local guide. For what it’s worth Batman seems to have his own agenda in determining which side of the mirror he’s on at any given moment.
Trying to delve into the motivations of each hero, Maxx’s “Outback,” is a destination, a place to escape to. And because Maxx’s physiological needs are pretty closely in line with his psychological needs (he’s homeless so food and shelter are some of the things most important to his immediate survival and his immediate desires) for him the Outback works as an allusion to the subconscious. While Maxx seems to grasp the rules of this reality quite naturally he also seems to enjoy being there more than being in the real world. His carefree whimsical adventuresome spirit can wander aimlessly without too much risk back in the real world. Especially as his worlds intersect more often than not. Yet even Maxx knows that the Outback can be dangerous especially if you take it for granted.
If Maxx doesn’t much acknowledge differences between the Outback and the city, that’s also partly because Maxx can’t fully distinguish between the two at this point. Often he finds himself simply waiting for cues from Julie his friend and social worker (not the Jungle Queen though they look alike) to confirm he’s in the real, while comments from Batman oddly seem to suggest another crossover into the Outback. At this point, a proxy system is about the best he’s got.
So why does the appearance of Batman mean for the Outback? Oh right, in the previous issue, Batman and the Maxx chose to undergo psychological treatment that would allow them to travel to the Outback plane together. This decision does seem to have helped them navigate the Outback in tandem. But while until now we’ve really only observed this arrangement with Maxx “in the lead” and Batman just going with what Maxx says, now (with a little urging from Maxx) Batman has come to the conclusion that he’s got an Outback of his own. If the heroes are ever going to get to the bottom of this case, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Batman will have to attempt to traverse his own Outback. What Batman has to realize most importantly is that while his own Outback may be dark and dangerous, our greatest resource in times of difficulty is one we almost always forget to employ: once in a while everyone needs a little help. Of course, getting Bruce Wayne to ask for help, especially from a homeless purple hippy who lives in a box? This might be the most difficult task of the story.
And then there’s this tiny problem of Maxx’s where he just can’t be sure that Julie, the Jungle Queen, and Batman aren’t just all the same silly voice in the back of his mind. These guys have their work cut out for them!
The entrance to Bruce’s Outback doesn’t disappoint. It’s dark, grey, and cold. Nothing like the Outback we’ve seen of Maxx’s. He immediately encounters several different figures, each one with a tale of regret.
We meet Alice first who is clearly lost. Her purpose it seems is to establish with Bruce that yes if you’re down here, you’re probably lost also. Facing up to an inadequacy, even one so simple, is his first step forward. She mentions that Bruce, “looks as lost as she is, maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a little boy?” To which Bruce replies, “Maybe it’s better not to remember…?”
The next figure is a boy. He begins, “I remember a boy named Bruce who got so lost he found a spirit animal to protect himself and the ones he loved.”
“A Bat by chance?” Bruce fairly smirks. “How did you know?”
Further recalling the story, the boy vowed that his loved ones would never feel the loss that he felt. Unfortunately, in order to protect the ones he loved, he built a cave around his heart and held those same loved ones within it. This was to protect not only his charges but also himself. “Maybe that was the only way, maybe there was no choice,” Bruce responds. The boy insists that there is always a choice.
The next one is a woman who also built a wall. This woman was named Sabine and though she didn’t know Bruce directly, she worked at a place called “Arkham” doing a job no one else wanted. She thought she did this job for the right reasons, to help those no one else could or would help, but somewhere along the way she lost sight of the original reason. Motives that had been pure distilled down until they were hardly anything more than thoughts of a “salary paying the bills.” She lost faith in herself and more importantly for her reason for doing what she did.
The last one is Callie, a young woman who once helped Batman solve a case. Callie was blind, but she tried to hide her affliction and the connection she felt with Batman because she was, of course, afraid he would not return the sentiment. Sadly, Bruce remembers Callie, and remembers too that he sensed her desire for a deeper connection and, whether it was right or not, remembers he intentionally kept his distance so as not to give “the wrong impression.”
Each of these characters shares something with Bruce which he quickly identifies; they’ve all pushed their deepest fears down, deep below their public faces and the surfaces of their psyche… only to now be exhumed and brought to horrifying life on the flowing planes of the Outback. Yet as the oppressive darkness seems to take hold of Bruce and he braces himself for what’s next, he gets another fleeting notion. There is something else connecting Batman to these characters and their struggle.
Batman’s Outback is pitch black, cold, eternally night. Without the insight from the various spirit guides, Bruce knows he’s on uneven footing. But while they share one thing in common, a deep unresolved fear that will soon materialize as a physical monstrosity on this place, there is something else Batman has to try to understand before any confrontation can go forward- a piece of the puzzle Bruce has struggled to properly equip to his arsenal for years- that despite the dark and cold, despite the feelings of loneliness born of a deep-seeded trauma, the weapon they don’t even realize they possess is the simple fact of their numbers. As each despairs in loneliness, they don’t yet realize that because they’re now together, they are no longer alone. To win this battle, Bruce is going to have to face a weakness that has stopped many men in their tracks: The simple act of asking for help.
Analysis: I really got more than I expected from this. And even if it isn’t exactly original, the payoff sequence at the end of this issue promises to deliver what we’ve been waiting for since the first issue: a deep-dive into Batman’s traumatized subconscious. Throughout the series, the narrative has mostly come from the perspective of the Maxx and to be frank it’s been a meandering seemingly objectiveless jaunt down a perfectly fine memory lane (those who enjoyed the original Maxx series or later the cartoon will be the first to admit that they weren’t drawn to the exceptionally linear storytelling of the thing.) The Maxx has always been a pretty cerebral, artistic meditation. That’s exactly the reason why I was so intrigued to see that a Batman/The Maxx series had been solicited; for the Odd Couple aspect, but after two issues I was concerned. It wasn’t really funny at all and worse than that, the experimental feel that characterized much of the first run seemed to be back in all the worst ways. Strangely enough, Batman seemed to willingly go along with Maxx into the weirdness of the Outback almost as if he were gathering data while the Maxx frolicked with the Air Whales.
Now finally we see that Batman maybe had motivations of his own, allowing the Maxx to blaze a trail through the Outback and both show Bruce the ropes as far as how things work here and also to get him as close to whatever door it is he needs to pass through, even if we’re still not exactly sure why he’s there.
If there is anything to gain by pushing the two universes of these respective Dark Knights together it’s heavily weighted by finding out what happens when Bruce Wayne has to traverse the wasted battlefield of his own subconscious “Outback.” Whether that moment is epic, messy or just sort of…dark, anything less than that would constitute a failure on the part of the series. Now, Bruce seems to understand that he has something to gain by following this strange character down his own rabbit hole and that he may need to approach this mission with a different pair of gloves than the empirical evidence, World’s Greatest gauntlets he’s accustomed to. Watching how Maxx navigates the Outback and the real world by taking cues from both, Batman appears to absorb an entire methodology, fully understanding that he can use all the help he can get. Maxx succeeds by doing something Batman rarely does- he trusts in the help of a few, sometimes even only of another human to help get him where he needs to be.
There are also still issues with this book. The actual pacing and narration leaves a lot to be desired. The constant flipping between worlds, while likely intentional, meant to induce a kind of vertigo, really just doesn’t work the telling of the story. And there are a lot of unanswered questions about what Maxx is doing, the creatures he deals with, the way he drifts in and out of reality. In any other book, it would be distracting. With the Maxx, these pit stops and creature interludes are just par for the course.
Final Thoughts: With Bruce now having engaged the “guardians” of his subconscious and poised to move deeper into his Outback, I have no doubt that the next issue will at the very least be something different something we hopefully haven’t seen before. The pressure is on at this point but I have high hopes that Batman’s Outback will be worth waiting for. (and the rating includes an extra half batarang for referring to cellphone users as “the Thumb people!”)