Maxwell Lord IV first appeared in Justice League #1 (May 1987) which was written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis with art by Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin. The new Justice League that had emerged from the Legends crossover was a new and unusual mix of heroes who hadn’t been together in the same universe for very long and it was missing other, more traditional heroes who were off limits due to revamping. Keith Giffen described the function of Max in the stories:
And we’d toss in a few curve balls, too – one of which would mirror our own confusion over the iffy status of the team. We decided to call him Maxwell Lord. […] Mystery Max is the driving force behind the group – somehow, he enlists and assortment of heroes to form a new Justice League. How he does it, no one is quite certain. Characters themselves don’t know what they’re doing in the group. Connections are crossed, mistakes are made, characters enter and leave – and only one thing is certain: Max did it.
Keith Giffen, foreword to JL: A New Beginning trade paperback
And that is pretty much how Max remained for most of the series. He is a walking plot device that shaped and managed the team, but never really became one of them. A few scraps of information about his background are included and he’s even given a girl friend at one point. However, his main function is either as a generic authority figure or, more often, he’s there to show what happens when he is absent. If you ever re-read those old stories you’ll notice that he spends a surprising amount of time in hospital or recovering at his Cape Cod Beach House.
Giffen/DeMatteis’s successors took Max in seemingly random directions. This reached it zenith when Gerard Jones killed Max and then resurrected him as a cybernetic avatar of the computer that he had originally worked with to create the JLI. Jones’ storyline was clearly going somewhere, but his run was cancelled in favour of Grant Morrison’s Big-7 JLA relaunch. The trouble is that not even Jones can remember what his plans for the character were:
I’m embarrassed to admit it–but I don’t remember! For some reason, which I also don’t remember, we had to let that story lie fallow for a while. Was someone else going to do something with the character? I’ve lost it. Anyway, he was supposed to be a running nemesis. I remember Brian and I talking about having him take over the headquarters, or the team in some way, and there’d be more revelations about how much of him was Max deep inside. But I didn’t expect to be there long enough to play it out, so I let it go.
Gerard Jones, Fanzing interview.
Max was killed off in Justice League America #94 (December 1994). It would be almost ten-years until the he reappeared in Formerly Known as the Justice League – a six-issue mini-series that reunited the original JLI team (creators and characters) for a rollicking nostalgia trip. The Jones era story were acknowledged by Max being referred to as a cybernetic lifeform, but it was otherwise business as usual. Formerly was followed up in 2005 by a six-issue arc in JLA Classified called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League.” But, events elsewhere in the DC Universe were conspiring to undermine those stories. Sue Dibny was raped and murdered in Identity Crisis, Guy Gardner was restored as a full Green Lantern, Captain Atom was sent to the Wildstorm Universe, and in Countdown to Infinite Crisis the Blue Beetle – Ted Kord – was brutally murdered by somebody who looked very much like Maxwell Lord!
This wasn’t the same Max as shown in Formerly and “Can’t Believe”. This was a bigoted, flesh and blood Max who had seized control of the Checkmate intelligence organization. Many of the elements of his early appearances were reprised (control of international organisation, partnership with an artificial intelligence), but this was a darker more ruthless Max. However, the inclusion of Max in the Checkmate story almost didn’t happen. At a Wizard World convention Dan Didio – now DC co-publisher – discussed how they needed a leader for Checkmate and were casting around for ideas before Max’s name was suggested. Somebody remembered that he’d become a cyborg so they tried an alternative character, but that was unsuccessful. Eventually they turned back to Max …
“We thought about that [cyborg] aspect of the story some more and then asked, ‘Did anyone read it?’ No. ‘Did anyone like the idea?’ No. So we moved ahead with Max as being a human, and having been a human, and not letting that small part of the past stand in the way of this story. We wanted what was best for Countdown, and for us, that meant that Max had to be a human.”
Dan Didio, Wizard World Chicago, quoted by Newsarama
Keith Giffen has continued to work for DC Comics and in his own words “I have lunch with Dan Didio! We get along fine!” so people expecting an outcry from him over these development were left disappointed. On Max’s murder of Beetle, Giffen commented that
Maxwell Lord started off as kind of a bastard, but not pure evil. If you remember correctly, Maxwell Lord murdered someone in his origin. Lord was always sort of a nebulous, self-serving hard ass. I don’t know that he’d pick up a gun and shoot somebody in my world, but it’s not my world.
Keith Giffen to CBR
The evil-Max was killed by Wonder Woman, but he has recently been resurrected as part of the Blackest Night/Brightest Day events. He is also back under Giffen’s control in Justice League: Generation Lost and Booster Gold. How, of even if, Giffen will square the circle of Max’s character change remains to be seen.