Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The Middleman, as you ought to know, is one of the few contenders for “funniest comic book of the decade.” It was also a tragically underrated television series on ABC Family last year, in one of the odder pairings of show with network you’ll ever see (to be fair to ABC Family, they showed it when no one else would). And now, there’s a slim graphic novel that wraps up the loose ends of said television show!
So, The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse. It is written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, naturally, and some dude named Hans Beimler. It was laid out by Les McClaine (the artist on every other Middleman comic), but apparently he had time constraints (he’s working on the new Tick, I know that much), so it was finished by Armando M. Zanker. Unlike other Middleman comics, it’s colored, this time by Digikore Studios, and it’s lettered by Gary Beatty. Viper Comics published it, and it costs $7.95 (for a 68-page book). Don’t you love boilerplate?
This is, in many ways, a typical Middleman comic, and as the previous ones were ridiculously hilarious, this one is too – for the most part. But it’s not quite as good as the previous comics either, and that’s too bad. It’s still worth a look, because it gives you a good idea of what the Middleman comics are like – and if you like this, you’ll love the original comics, which are shots of pure joy.
Here’s the problem with this comic: It’s written like one of the episodes of the television show. I should explain for those of you who foolishly missed the TV show or, worse yet, don’t have ABC Family (how are you going to watch The Secret Life of the American Teenager?!?!?!????!?!?): It got cancelled. So sad! But Grillo-Marxauch had set up a bunch of subplots that had yet to be resolved, and I don’t know if he was planning on continuing them in a theoretical second season or not. Whatever his plan, he wraps them all up in this comic, which is kind of neat. So if you watched the series (and considering that you can get it on DVD, you have no excuse not to), this is a charming summation of what was going on. It’s strange that the Middleman now has two separate continuities (one from the comics, one from the show), but this is part of the latter one. So if you didn’t watch the show, you might be a tiny bit lost, but luckily, Grillo-Marxauch catches us up pretty easily, with a one-page recap in the front and with some of the dialogue. But it is a warning about the book. The other problem with the fact that it’s written as if it’s an episode of the television show is that the dialogue reads oddly, because it seems like it ought to be spoken. It’s not a revelation to say that words that are meant to be read are often written differently than words that are meant to be spoken, and this often feels like it should have been spoken, not read. I hope that’s clear. For instance, Ida constantly insults Wendy about smoking weed, using various slang terms for it. She did this in the original series, but now, I can’t read them without hearing Mary Pat Gleason spitting the words at Natalie Morales, and the jokes don’t work as well. The rhythm of the dialogue is off a bit, in other words, because the actors aren’t saying the words. This isn’t too huge of a problem, as Grillo-Marxuach still does a fine job blending the pop-culture jokes that make the series so funny with the bigger plot and he also, as usual, does a good job with the characters, but in spots, the dialogue feels like it would be better if Matt Keeslar, Morales, Brit Morgan, and Brendan Hines were saying it. Once you get past that (if it’s even a problem for you, and it’s only a minor one for me), the dialogue is fine. And funny.
Grillo-Marxuach’s story is a standard Bad Guy Takes Over The World kind of thing, and some of it is funnier if you’ve watched the show, but it’s still a simple plot on which Grillo-Marxuach can hang jokes, and most of them work. It’s an obvious plot until the end, when Grillo-Marxuach adds some unexpected poignancy, which is part of what makes the other comics so good, too. Again, it works better if we consider this a final episode, because we have seen the way the characters relate to each other over several episodes. If you haven’t seen the show, the ending is still nicely done, but it might – just might – have a little bit less of an impact. Again, I liked it and thought it wrapped up the series very well, but I suspect it will mean more to those who have seen the show.
Zanker has a good, cartoony style to his art, which fits the style of the narrative well. He’s quite good with the big, expansive, end-of-the-world scenes, as Grillo-Marxuach gives him robot kangaroos and other goofy things to draw, and he does a nice job with it. He’s not quite as good as McClaine is, as he’s not great with the characters, making them a bit too cartoony. It’s certainly not bad art, but McClaine gave the characters a bit more depth, and it makes the times when Grillo-Marxuach does make things a bit more serious work a bit better. I don’t have a lot of problems with Zanker’s art … except he’s not McClaine. And although Morales was great in the role and Zanker’s Wendy is cute as a button, I prefer the original. But that’s just a preference of mine.
I was a tiny bit disappointed with this comic, but it doesn’t really have a lot to do with what’s actually on the page. It’s mainly because it’s not quite as good as the previous installments. But if this is your first exposure to the world of the Middleman, I think you’ll be overjoyed by what a fun, funny, exciting, and nice-looking comic it is. It tells a solid story that relies a little bit on your knowledge of other texts, but not overly so, and it tells a done-in-one story, so there’s no need to commit beyond this. And it does a good job showing you how great the other comics are. If you have already read The Middleman, this won’t change your mind one bit – if you didn’t like them (shocking!), you probably won’t like this, and if you did like them (understandable), you’ll like this. I’m really glad that Grillo-Marxuach got to “finish” the television show, so to speak, and I hope he has some other stories of the Middleman in him. The character has limitless possibilities!
Tomorrow: Another tiny press book! How neat-o!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.