“MY MOTHER WAS TERRIFIELD I would turn out strange,” says Marian Henley as she flips a frizzy halo of thick red curls off her shoulders.
As the creator of Maxine!, a comic strip whose heroine grapples with life’s complexities in the post-feminist era, Henley didn’t exactly turn out strange. She just turned out a little different from what Mom had in mind.
And, as far as her creation Maxine is concerned, she’s definitely not what Mom had in mind.
Maxine, a shopping junkie who once married her credit card, has no job to speak of. She parties non-stop and stops at nothing to get what she wants. And what Maxine usually wants is a man.
“Maxine acts the way women expect men to act,” Henley says.
The strip is often witty, but Henley says it’s not really a cartoon. “I think of it more as a column with pictures. My work isn’t for people looking for gags.” She says that because the strip has cartoon-like drawings, people expect a joke rather than a thought. “People say, ’That’s not funny,’” and I say, “You’re right. It’s not,”
Henley, 36, wearing no makeup, a T-shirt, loose slacks and gold sandals, drapes her legs over a chair in the living room of her Oak Lawn condo. The room is punctuated with whimsical items: a man-size cactus wearing Groucho Marx nose and glasses; a pink couch; circus sculptures by a Deep Ellum artist. She insists she is not the personification of her cartoon alter ego, but Henley is, in many ways, very Maxine.
Like her cartoon counterpart, Henley has remained blissfully single. “I’ve never had wedding fantasies like other women,” she confesses. “I could never picture my father giving me away to a man like a sack of potatoes.” But, like Maxine, Henley has her share of men. “I’ve never been without a cat-or a boyfriend,” she says, cackling.
Her previous cats, Agatha and Glad, were the inspiration for the cats in the strip who intercept Maxine’s telephone calls. “Glad was conspiratorial. If she had been a person, she would have embezzled from me.” When Agatha and Glad died recently, she brought home Teddy, a young gray cat who was born without eyeballs, and Erik, an orange kitten.
Henley scoops the purring orange ball of fur into the palm of her hand. “You’ve been getting into the catnip while I was away, haven’t you?” The cat with no eyes maneuvers around Henley’s living room-catwalks the back of the pink couch, launches himself on a coffee table and cleans his paws, seated atop an old edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. “These two cats get along so well I hope the strip doesn’t lose its bitchy streak,” she says.
Henley’s pale skin flushes as she launches into another subject. “An ongoing theme in my work is to try and expose how women define themselves by men. I find it very discouraging to look through women’s magazines and see all the articles that basically say how to please men-how to look better, how to get a better body.”
She says that men have criticized the strip for illustrating masculine foibles.
“They think I hate men because I point out a few flaws.” But Henley says her strip is controversial with feminists as well. “Max-ine is not sterling,” she says. “Some feminists want that. She is vulnerable and flawed. To try and make her perfect wouldn’t be fair.”
But however vulnerable Maxine may be- she is always breaking or mending relationships-she is never a victim. “I had made a pact with myself never to make Maxine a victim,” she says. “In some cases Maxine is the victimizer.”
If you follow Maxine’s adventures you understand what Henley’s talking about. In one strip, Maxine lined up her former boyfriends like trophies and mounted their heads on a game room wall. In another, Maxine is working construction with other women on a high-rise. Below, two men are lunching at an outdoor cafe. The men reach into their wallets and pull out their money. “Look at the size of that wallet!” the women yell, making catcalls and whistling as the men slink off.
The strip, which Henley created in 1981, was a success locally. The Dallas Observer ran it first, and ten years later. Maxine! appears in more than a dozen newspapers and magazines around the country, including the Today section of The Dallas Morning News on Saturdays.
The strip’s thought-provoking style has kept Henley out of many mainstream publications, she says. “It’s important for me to say what I want. If you have a mass audience. you’re probably not saying anything.”
Last year she almost canceled the strip. “I felt like I had said all there was to say.” She began to think nobody was listening. “I saw an increasingly narrow-minded and conservative society. I looked at what was happening with the Supreme Court and how it will eventually affect women. I wanted to flee,”
HENLEY HAS BEEN DRAWING FROM THE TIME she could hold a pencil. “When I was 2, I drew on walls so much that my mom had to stretch butcher paper along the stairs.”
Creativity runs in the family. Her mother was a New York actress who abandoned the stage to marry. Her maternal grandmother was a painter and sculptor, and her paternal grandmother gave up singing to marry.
Despite her intensely well-mannered upbringing in Highland Park, Henley’s imagination ran wild. She conversed with “tiny fairies made of light” that danced by her bed. She spent hours in the attic pretending to be a mad scientist, dressed in her father’s white shirts, stirring a potion of baking soda and peanut butter. First grade quashed her imagination, however. “The party was over. I wasn’t allowed to have imaginary friends.”
In the second grade, Henley developed an ulcer and tried to drop out of school. “My mother wanted me to be a social butterfly. But nature made it plain from the very beginning that I would be an artist.”
Henley’s mother and her oldest sister had been Idlewild debutantes, but Henley preferred to stay home and read. “The social pressure was enormous. I was constantly writing thank-you notes.”
She was also a voracious reader who devoured piles of Archie comic books. “In junior high I started to notice the way female characters were presented, not just in comics, but on TV and movies. It made it very difficult for a young girl to want to identify with that. Women were presented for the most part as ninnies who couldn’t take care of themselves. Men were there to save them, to fix things. I naturally identified with the male roles because they were the ones who were competent.”
In the ninth grade. Henley asked to go to an all-girls boarding school in Virginia. “It was such a relief to not be judged by Cowboy Cheerleader standards any more.” After boarding school, Henley headed to the West Coast and studied art at Scripps College in California. She moved back to Dallas after college and began selling her paintings. But when she wasn’t painting, she was partying.
“Parties became a sort of performance art.” Henley says. It was after “a particularly apocalyptic party” in 1980 that the character of Maxine was born. Poured into tight pants and wearing rhinestone glasses, Henley and her pals Julie Oliver and Kay Huckabee literally became Maxine and her cohorts Cece and Simone.
“I came home and the ideas started flowing faster than I could paint them.” The first few Maxine creations were on canvas and were developed later into a comic strip format. “I just fell into doing the strip. It wasn’t anything I had planned.”
Since then. Henley and local video producer Bart Weiss have made three video shorts of Maxine! starring singer Sara Hickman as Simone, and Henley as Maxine.
Despite Henley’s continuing success with the strip, she felt she wasn’t making a dent in the world’s social problems. Which is why. last year, she’d decided to let Maxine! die. A single event snapped her out of it. Henley said she went to see Wild at Heart, a movie by David Lynch. “It was one image of pointless violence against women after another. There was no heart, no soul. I was in such a rage. I started kicking the back of the seat. I stormed out of the theater and said. ’I’m not going to quit.’ People need to know…a woman would never have made a movie like that.”
Henley says she realizes that change is slow in coming, but she promises the strip won’t become political or try to deal specifically with current social issues a la Doones-bury. “I try to go for underlying principles that will always have relevance.”
What Maxine! will have is a lot of heart. Romance and the conflict between men and women, Henley says, are here to stay. “It’s what the universe is all about-the resolution of opposites. If you want to make progress in life, that’s the basic lesson.”