Maxwell Strangewell original graphic novel
Writers/Artists: Matthew Fillbach & Shawn Fillbach
Editor: Dave Land
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $19.95 US
According to Dark Horse’s website, the Fillbach Brothers’ previous claim to fame is some popular work on the Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures digests. Now, while Maxwell Strangewell is a science-fiction story, it’s a radically different sort of story than some Lucasfilm spinoff. There’s a distinctly philosophical and surreal quality to this book that’s quite appealing. Now, the ultimate granola message of the story is rather obvious (and spelled out far too plainly by the book’s end), but it never fails to amuse. Furthermore, the cast of characters is expansive, and early on in the book, the reader can never be sure if each new character or alien contingent is a protagonist or villain. There’s a complexity to the structure of the dramatis personae that’s appealing. Maxwell Strangewell isn’t quite as deep as it seems at first, but it’s solidly entertaining from start to finish. As I read through the first couple of chapters, it reminded me of other samples of pop culture I’ve enjoyed in the past. Have you ever seen the movie Starman, John Carpenter’s sci-fi love story featuring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen? Maxwell Strangewell is like that movie, had it been written and directed by Tim Burton.
Photographer Anna Gilmour spies a shooting star, crashing to earth near her hometown of Dee. When she investigates, she discovers a 10-foot-tall mute stranger who psychically links with her. Little does Anna know that her new friend’s arrival heralds either a spiritual cosmic beginning or disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Anna names her new friend Max, but others are aware of his presence on Earth as well. As a galactic pilgrimage toward Earth begins, undercover agents of other alien races make their move to advance their own plans regarding “Max,” while an FBI agent finds himself unknowingly drawn into the cosmic drama.
Despite their connection with Clone Wars Adventures, the Fillbach Brothers’ visual style didn’t put me in mind of animation artwork. Instead, I was reminded of the styles of such comics artists as Marc (Sandman) Hempel and Phil (The Irredeemable Ant-Man) Hester. Later in the book, when the main villain undergoes his first metamorphosis, the artists employed an organic look that’s highly reminiscent of the work of Troy (Jenny Finn) Nixey and Guy (B.P.R.D.) Davis. The villain’s second transformation then grants him a look that’s clearly evocative of anime baddies. There’s a simpler tone at play in the Fillbachs’ artwork that helps to maintain a lighter tone even when the story takes a dark turn. They use negative space incredibly well to convey the dreamscapes and psychic vistas that are integral to the story. The alien designs are basic but sharp in appearance, and the artists know when to use more exaggerated expressions in those alien characters to enhance the humor in the script.
The creators hit the audience with a barrage of weird characters in the earlier stages of the book, and the deluge of peculiar players in the drama is surprisingly entertaining. For a moment, I felt as though the Fillbachs’ were including new characters gratuitously, but the multiple factions all end up contributing to the adventure and building suspense quite well. At times, it seems like the Fillbachs have filled the book with every stereotypical or archetypical sci-fi character, from the Han Solo-esque Ringo to Lobscrum, a typically foul-mouthed alien sidekick character. Looking back on it, I’m struck by the notion the creators are satirizing the science-fiction genre while at the same time telling a compelling story.
The unifying theme throughout the book is obvious from the start: everything and everyone is connected, that love is the natural order of things rather than destruction and chaos. It’s a pleasant message; it’s just a shame that the Fillbachs felt they had to state it so overtly in the latter part of the book. I was on board with the message early on. The storytellers did their job effectively, and they really ought to have trusted in their craft and the audience. Despite that misstep, Maxwell Strangewell never fails to amuse and entertain. 8/10