The Webcomic Overlook #162: Max Overacts
Once upon a time, Zuda Comics, DC Comics’ dalliance with a new digital paradigm, was shaping up to be an awards season powerhouse. It had built up a heck of a momentum in 2009. Bayou took home a few Glyph Awards, and High Moon took home a Harvey Award. Sadly, the imprint came to an end last year, which means that one of the awards that the Speech Bubble Loading Screen Brand will never be able to claim will be the Eisner Award.
Zuda, though, will be in the 2011 Eisner Awards in spirit. Caanan Grall — who, with such a colorful name, should probably consider taking up a career in adventure/archaeology — was once a Zuda writer. In fact, his 180 page comic Celadore was the last Zuda book published; it was the at the printers when the division came to an end.
Mr. Grall scores an Eisner nomination with his most recent effort: the gag-a-day comic strip called Max Overacts. It’s about a young boy named Max who — surprise, surprise! — overacts.
Comics about problem kids are nothing new. Child terrors have been around almost as long as the 19th century, when The Yellow Kid was causing consternation to the decent folk living in his ghetto. But when I mean “overact,” I mean that literally. As in the Merriam-Webster definition: “to act more than is necessary.”
… as in, theatrically.
Max is more of a young Frasier Crane than a little Vince Vaughn. He is a boy of culture and refinement, and his overacting carry with them an air of prestige. He is a thespian, an actor, a fashionista. A bon vivant.
At least, that’s the meticulously crafted image of himself he’s got running in his mind, anyway.
A brat like Calvin might show his affection for Susie Derkins by giving her a bunch of dead flowers. Such amateur tactics, while arguably effective, are beneath our boy Max. A true gentleman knows that the proper way of pitching woo is with candlelight and song.
An uncouth boor like Dennis the Menace farts in the bathtub. How low-brow! For Max, pranks are performance art. Imagination demands more descriptive settings, such as a lion stalking a herd of zebras. Or, if getting your hands soiled is necessary, is it not better if your efforts were for science?
The magic of Max Overacts is that Max is a menace because of his own self-inflated sense of superiority. He may just be a little kid going to class like everyone else, but that doesn’t stop him from being condescending toward his fellow students. The feeling is mutual, though. Max tends to bug the heck out his peers, his teacher, his sister, and even his parents. The only person who seems to feel completely at ease around Max his best friend, Klaus … and even he knows how trying being Max’s friend can sometimes be.
And yet, for all his arrogance, Max is also very easy to love. He’s ultimately a rather sweet kid. His blustery attempts to get his classmate, Janet, to notice him usually fall flat … but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t find it touching. (Janet, by the way, is just as arrogant as Max … but her career as a child actress probably means that she probably earned that right.) It’s heartbreaking for her when Max suddenly ignores her after he falls for a girl who actually … you know … appreciates him. As a gag-a-day comic, Max Overacts can typically be read at random. However, it was worth it to read in order just to see Max and Janet’s puppy love relationship develop.
Besides, you grow to respect Max. He’s delusional, yes… but who wouldn’t want this sort of delusion? It’s the sort of wild-eyed craziness where you’ve fooled yourself into fulling committing your life to pursuing a ridiculous dream. Max is so committed to becoming an actor … but, by God, he’s so deluded that when he grows up, he just might make his dream a reality! Max’s mom said it best when his sister asks why he didn’t get grounded after he skipped school: “Max didn’t run off to get drunk, chase boys, or get anything pierced! He ran off to chase his dream!” Max is trouble, alright, but it’s the kind of trouble that’s going places.
There’s only that comes to mind when I see Grall’s illustration, and that’s “delightful.” Every panel makes me want to smile. His characters are incredibly expressive, and they have to be. Their reactions to Max’s antics — which range from anger to bemusement — are priceless. But none are more expressive than Max himself. He’s alternates between manic and innocent at the drop of the hat. His eyes alternate between beady and extremely wide-eyed, and they totally sell his Don Quixote complex: mischevous, but also full of inquisitive wonder. He’s also got great body language. Max is incredibly animated, flailing about comically like a kid pretending to be an adult, yet, at the same time, earnestly giving his all.
The cast of Max Overacts is filled with lovable and believable characters. Max’s mother is blessed with saintly patience, and nothing that Max does seems to faze her. Max’s sister, Andi, is a rebellious type, and while she cynically tries to always get one over on both Max and her parents, there’s no doubt she also loves her family. Then there’s Max’s harried teacher, who almost always seems like she’s on the verge of having a Max-related mental breakdown.
And then there are elements that seem to have been borrowed from the legacies of other “problem child” strips, yet molded into something wholly original. Max’s neighbor, Sir Allan, is almost like an upper class Mr. Wilson. He’s a retired actor, and he’s cranky and snooty. Is it no wonder that Max looks up to him? Max even has his own Hobbes: a creepy wooden puppet named Curio who seems to have a mind of his own. Max also has a bear puppet who is slightly less creepy.
Overall, Max Overacts is a very strong contender for the Eisners. It’s funny and charming with fantastic art. It’s as if Caanan Grall knew the whole precocious kid genre needed a kick in the butt, and he delivered something both familiar yet wholly original.
Max Overacts also features a tangential comic called Squirrel & Pigeons, which Grall posted during one of his down times. It’s about a guy who picks up litter, gets harassed by woodland critters, and is ignored by the ladies. I think this is Grall’s excuse to draw cute squirrels (which Grall viewed for the first time when he came to North America and found hilarious) and hot dames. (Or is it “cute dames” and “hot” — … no, no, definitely the former.) Not that Max Overacts proper isn’t filled with attractive ladies but … well, since the comic’s main POV is a little kid, anything that might be remotely objectifying would get a little weird, dontcha think?
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)