Maximortal, written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1992-93; this edition 2005): Rick Veitch may have the most underground comix-like mentality of any writer/artist to periodically create comics for the major mainstream publishers. His work can be scabrously vicious in its satire, but that’s often balanced by the sentiment his stories show for the true underdogs. Maximortal is, on its surface, Veitch’s wildly revisionist take on both Superman and the history of Superman as both a concept and a comic-book character. But it’s also a wild ride through history, and not just comic-book history. That one of its fundamental elements is a misreading of Nietzsche may irk the philosophically inclined. Or maybe not.
Maximortal is a nightmarish, exhilirating ride through the history of the Golden Age of the American comic-book industry, which began with the appearance of Superman in 1938. In the real world, Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — got royally screwed by their publisher, giving up rights to their character from the get-go because they were kids who wanted to get their creation into print after it had been rejected by every comic-strip syndicate for the past five years. The shameful treatment of Siegel, Shuster and their heirs continues to the present day — Google ‘Joanne Siegel last letter Time Warner.’
Veitch replaces Superman with True-man the Maximortal, and Siegel and Shuster with two similar creators whose travails echo not only those of Superman’s creators, but also those of Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman who, thanks to co-creator Bob Kane’s business acumen, cannot legally be referred to as such by DC/Time Warner to this day; Finger died an alcoholic in near-poverty in the early 1970’s; Kane died a rich man in the 1990’s) and a host of others. Running parallel to this story (or more accurately, interwoven with this story) is the tale of the ‘real’ Maximortal, discovered by a childless couple in 1918 and subsequently kept under wraps by the U.S. government.
And then there’s a seemingly timeless Maximortal, constantly thwarted in his/hers/its attempts to free itself from the chains of linear time by a magician called El Guano, who uses seemingly magical human feces (dubbed ‘Craptonite’) to harm the Maximortal. Analogues for various historical figures, including Einstein, Oppenheimer, comic-book legends Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, President Truman, and doomed TV Superman George Reeves appear. Maximortal’s creators are ground down by the comics industry. Will truth and justice prevail? That’s a good question.
Maximortal is supposed to be part of a five-volume series by Veitch collectively entitled the ‘King Hell Heroica,’ of which only this volume and the earlier Brat Pack have appeared. The story here doesn’t really end (indeed, the ‘climax’ only makes complete sense if one has already read Brat Pack…and vice versa). Actually, the story really begins at the ending.
In any case, this is a brilliant, brutal book. Its revisionist take on what superheroes might really be like will probably seem familar by now, with two decades of such takes — often in the mainstream — behind us, but its horrified, Juvenalian scream at the horrors of history, and of comic-book history, remains fresh and startling and bracing. Highly recommended.