COMICS: John Reviews “The Middleman” by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine

Fighting evil, so you don't have to.

Fighting evil, so you don't have to.

Much like its title character, The Middleman is an under-appreciated hero, standing between the good people of the world and the things they’d rather not deal with  (be it comic book-style villainy within the story, or soul-crushing boredom in the real world.) Series creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach and artist Les McClaine created The Middleman to bring the world a series of action-adventure-comedy tales about two highly quirky and slighly dysfunctional independent contractors who are dedicated to fighting evil, “so you don’t have to.”  The result is a blend of sci-fi, crime, western and espionage action that never takes itself too seriously and reminds us that comics can still be fun and clever at the same time!

Where the MiB, Special Unit 2 and the BPRD are fully-funded government agencies, The Middleman and his trusty agent-in-training Wendy Watson act as independent contractors, fighting evil on a smaller (though no less deadly) scale.  In this way they have more in common with the Ghostbusters or wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden, where the lack of red tape helps keep things briskly paced and free of unnecessary corridor drama.  Rather than stepping on the toes of their genre’s forebears, the Middleman and Wendy take on all manner of non-supernatural forces:  gene-spliced tentacle monsters, super-intelligent gangster chimpanzees, evil Mexican wrestlers, genetically-enhanced killer sharks, and even motorcycle-riding communist bears !  And that’s just the ones that made it to the front cover!

The Collected Series Indispensability

Front cover to The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability

Javier Grillo-Marxuach (henceforth referred to as Javi, because that name’s a mouthful) manages to balance the absurd over-the-top conventions of comic books with some very realistic dialogue and characterization.  Wendy Watson is an aspiring artist specializing in abstract expressionist painting, a pacifist, and generally as far from the “Lara Croft” model of adventuring superheroine as can be.  When she’s not fighting comic book evil, she’s enjoying the life of a bohemian in her illegal sublet alongside her friends and roommates, Lacey Thornfield (a confrontational spoken-word performance artist) and Noser (a musician, puppeteer and fully accredited entomologist.)  What little drama there is acts primarily as a setup for humor, such as the video-documented break-up between Wendy and her film student boyfriend, Ben. The moments in Wendy and Lacey’s apartment provide a brief respite from the madcap action that makes up the bulk of the series, and striking a balance between action beats and character development is not always an easy task (For proof, just pick up any Marvel title written by Brian Michael Bendis.  Ba-Zing!)

For those of you who are unabashed pop-counterculture geeks, The Middleman throws a barrage of nods to the greatest works of sci-fi, pulp action, westerns, espionage and gangster stories throughout its comparatively short run.   Chimpanzees quote Scarface, false identities are name-checks to other established properties, Wendy is forced to wear mission attire worthy of the term “Honey Ryder nightmare,” and the Middleman’s arch-nemesis has a name that’s nearly as much fun to yell as that wrathful Khan guy.  Javi knows his roots well, and puts them proudly on display throughout the pages of The Middleman.

Theyre just talkin bout Shaft...

They're just talkin' 'bout Shaft...

It’s worth mentioning that Javi’s characters have gone on to even greater success on the telvised adaptation of The Middleman (available on iTunes and Xbox Live.  Go download it now!) where they exemplify the “Bechdel Rule” of involving multiple female characters who discuss things other than men, the “Deggans Rule” of including multiple non-white principal cast members who do discuss things other than race, and even coined the “Morales Rule” of including hispanic characters who do not dance salsa, speak gratuitous Spanish, or call anyone “Papi.”

Sure, the story leaves a few important questions unanswered (like who pays for all their weapons and gadgets and things,) but enough hints are tantalizingly placed throughout the series that we can be sure comic writer/series producer Javi Grillo-Marxuach knows all the important secrets.  As the series’ hero so eloquently states, “I don’t know.  I’m just the Middleman.”

Let’s run this one down my checklist:

Clever premise!  Check.

Over-the-top comic book action!  Check.

Snappy, witty, rapid-fire dialogue!  Check.

Original takes on character archetypes!  Check.

Surprisingly deep characterization!  Check.

Tongue-in-cheek humor!  Check.

Tons of geek culture references! Check.

Fantastic coloring!  Nope, it’s strictly B&W for this series.

Monkeys!  Check.

Yup, looks like a win for The Middleman!  If only it were in color…

(NOTE: interspersed with this review are promotional clips from the Middleman television series.  Normally I wouldn’t include them in the entry for the comic, but The Middleman is one of those rare cases where the adaptation almost perfectly mirrors the source material.  Actually,  it was originally conceived as a series, then moved to comic form when the script was rejected by studios, then brought back to television after the comic’s success!  Based on that, I think it’s safe to say that the two are sufficiently intertwined to warrant cross-promotion.  If you like what you see, go buy the episodes on iTunes or Xbox!  Help The Middleman get a second season, or at least a DVD!)


One Response

  1. Too bad it got canceled. I loved it a ton!

    The Uniblogger

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