Comics You Should Own – The Middleman
Fighting evil … so you don’t have to!
The Middleman by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer), Les McClaine (artist), and Jon Siruno (letterer, tones, background assistant, The Third Volume Inescapability). (The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse is co-written by Hans Beimler and illustrated by Armando M. Zanker over layouts by McClaine, but I’ll discuss why that’s not necessarily a Comic You Should Own below.)
Viper Comics, 8 issues + 1 original graphic novel (Volume 1, #1-4; volume 2, #1-4; The Third Volume Inescapability), cover dated July 2005 – November 2005 (volume 1); January 2006 – April 2006 (volume 2); September 2007 (volume 3).
Some minor SPOILERS, I guess? I give away one villain but not another, so we’re jake, right? Anyway, I try to keep things vague, for the most part.
There’s a good reason why The Middleman shouldn’t work: It’s one of those comics with so much “kewl” stuff that you might think that Grillo-Marxuach is just putting it in the book because he thinks the presence of ninjas in a comic is automatically funny. The Middleman is full of pop culture references and gorillas and genetically-altered sharks (with functional arms!) and Mexican wrestlers and, yes, ninjas. It’s the kind of comic that creators ramble about while they’re throwing back pints of Belhaven Scottish Ale at ye olde locall publick house, when they’re just coming up with the goofiest things to top the person who went before them. If the actual comic gets made, it’s usually terrible. “Kewl” stuff isn’t enough to make a good comic, much less a Comic You Should Own.
So what makes The Middleman so good? We can’t dismiss Les McClaine’s contribution, to which I will get in time. But the fact is that both creators have very good comic timing, so the comedy works very well. And Grillo-Marxuach is just a good writer – yes, he makes pop culture references, but when the characters make them, they don’t feel forced, and when they exist in the context of the comic, Grillo-Marxuach drops them in more subtly than you might imagine and makes sure they’re in the service of the story. The story isn’t just a comedy, either – as it goes along, Grillo-Marxuach is able to add depth to his two main characters and even the ancillary characters. Yes, it remains a light and breezy read (until the third volume, when things get a bit darker). But Grillo-Marxuach does a fine job making the characters real, relatable, and interesting. As we’re laughing along with the jokes, we begin to care more about the characters, especially Wendy Watson, the main protagonist.
Grillo-Marxuach doesn’t break any new ground by using Wendy as a protagonist. Fiction is full of audience stand-ins who enter a secret world where a more experienced protagonist takes them under his or her wing. So it is with Wendy, the reader’s stand-in, who works temp jobs to support herself while she paints on the side. At one temp job, a secretary position at A.N.D. Laboratories (“rescrambling your DNA”), she is surprised by a giant monster that crashes from the lab into the reception area. Wendy keeps her head and tries to kill the thing, which impresses the Middleman, who shows up and blasts it. She kept her head in an emergency and wasn’t freaked out by the presence of something so strange most people can’t process it. So the Middleman recruits her. Let the madcappery begin!
Like many humorous comics, the plots of The Middleman are secondary to the jokes, but that doesn’t mean that Grillo-Marxuach skimps on them, just that they’re, well, secondary. The first series, interestingly, has the worst plot – chimpanzees attempt to take over the criminal underworld, all at the behest of their scientist overlord. It’s a thin plot, but Grillo-Marxuach does a lot to set up the series and get all his characters in place – Lacey, Wendy’s roommate; Noser, the hippie guitarist from across the hall; Ida, the robot who assists the Middleman on his missions; and Ben, Wendy’s boyfriend. The character work on the series is why it works so well, as Wendy and Lacey act like old friends who riff off of each other, the Middleman acts like Wendy’s big brother, and Ida is the cranky old aunt who really cares about everyone … except she doesn’t, really. Some of the best parts of the series are when Wendy and Lacey are talking, because you get such a strong sense of their friendship, and it’s like the friendships the world over – most of us, I would reckon, have friends like Lacey is to Wendy, and it makes their interplay very believable. They switch topics at lightning speed with great wit (Wendy wants the joystick of her video game, and Lacey says, “Speaking of joysticks, Ben’s here”) and they recall strange things that have happened in the past (Wendy says, “When we graduated from art school, we swore two things: No more autoerotic asphyxiation boyfriends –” and Lacey interjects, “What was with those guys? We were like magnets”), and they go to great lengths to help each other out (when Wendy has to go on a mission in volume 3, Lacey pretends to be her so she can get a gallery show for her art). Grillo-Marxuach’s dialogue is rapier-keen and keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, which helps greatly when he actually wants to slow down, because we slow down with it and pay more attention. When Ben dumps Wendy as part of a film project (he has no pain in his life, so he breaks up with her so he can experience some), it’s very funny but also horribly tragic, because Ben is such a tool about it. Grillo-Marxuach doesn’t play Ben as a one-note character, however – Wendy is still attracted to him, and he still is to her, which becomes an issue later in the series when he wanders into one of her missions. Because of the strong character work, when Grillo-Marxuach wants to get more serious, he’s able to pull it off.
The plots get stronger, as well. Volume 1’s ape-centric story isn’t great, but it’s certainly a fun ride. In volume 2, Grillo-Marxuach brings in Sensei Ping, who’s going to teach Wendy all kinds of martial arts. He ends up getting captured by a group of Mexican wrestlers, which means his brotherhood of martial artists will show up and kill Wendy and the Middleman for allowing it. They have 24 hours to save him, so they head for the jungles of Mexico to fight the entire horde of wrestlers. Mayhem, perhaps not surprisingly, ensues. This is by far the funniest volume of the series, as it seems Grillo-Marxuach spent the first volume feeling things out with regard to the characters and to the plot, while the third volume is a tad more serious, as it deals with a tragedy from the Middleman’s past coming back to haunt him. Volume 2, however, which does have serious parts (Ben is endangered, for instance), is wildly funny. Wendy needs to pick Sensei Ping up at the airport alone (due to an unusual theft that the Middleman has to investigate), and of course there are certain things she must and mustn’t do, which she, of course, violates almost immediately. Here’s the sequence (with the Middleman’s investigation at the museum excised):
And, of course, you just know the Wu-Han Thumb of Death will be utilized later – Grillo-Marxuach has read his Chekhov, apparently. It’s impressive that Grillo-Marxuach steadily makes the series darker and darker (in additon to Ben getting shot, there’s a glorious double-page spread of Sensei Ping fighting the wrestlers that’s fairly gory) while keeping the jokes lively. By the time he’s ready to deal with some deeper themes in volume 3, the balance between the goofy and the dark doesn’t jar us quite as bit as it might earlier in the series. Volume 3 has its share of laughs, to be sure – it feels like the characters are becoming increasingly more self-aware about the clichés of the genre and are poking fun at them throughout (they do this in the first two volumes, to be sure, but it seems like Grillo-Marxuach ratchets it up a bit in this volume, although I haven’t counted up the instances using SCIENCE!, so I may be wrong), so we get the Middleman explaining to Wendy all about their archnemesis, a dude named Kanimang Kang, and how they’re walking into an ambush when they find Kang’s ship, and how it’s probably guarded by ninjas “wearing something incongruous but visually interesting, like kendo armor or sixguns.” Of course, it’s both. (Given the name of their archnemesis, the Middleman also goes Shatner at one point, but that’s to be expected.) Later, the Middleman explains exactly how he’s going to get in good with a bad guy in Kang’s organization, and it’s just like every James Bond movie you can think of – and even later, Wendy wonders aloud why the Middleman gets full scuba gear while she has to swim around in a tiny bikini. But while the laughs are coming, Grillo-Marxuach also uses the foundation he’s laid throughout the first two volumes to add emotional heft to the third – the beginning is a pastiche of Bucky Barnes’ death, but it still helps show why the Middleman is acting so weirdly toward Wendy when she gets in danger – he’s afraid of losing another partner. This volume also deals with Wendy’s “regular” life more – after Lacey pretends to be her, she gets a gallery showing and must decide if she wants to be an artist or a secret agent. Grillo-Marxuach has done a nice job over the course of the series showing that Wendy is at her best as an artist when she’s emotionally ravaged over events in her other job, so it’s a much harder choice than we might expect. Is she a good artist without the roller coaster ride of emotions that she gets from her job as Middleman-in-training? Grillo-Marxuach never answers that, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
We should not discount Les McClaine’s contribution to the success of The Middleman. McClaine has a loose, cartoony style that works well with the jokey nature of the comic, but he’s extremely versatile as well. He draws Wendy as a sexy nerd, so while she’s a fantasy, she’s not a usual kind of fantasy. While Wendy is a cutie and the Middleman is a square-jawed ex-Navy Seal, they’re perfectly plausible human beings, and McClaine does this with every character. When he becomes more detailed, his art becomes much more realistic, adding a good touch of solidity to the fantastical elements of the comic. McClaine gets more and more confident as the book goes along, with stronger details and more intricate page layouts, including the gory one alluded to above when Sensei Ping takes on the entire wrestling cabal (which features a very funny cameo), as well as a double-page spread of Sensei Ping learning from the wrestler he’s accused of killing (he was taught all forms of combat, including biplane fighting). As McClaine got more confident with his pencilling, he used less Zip-A-Tone and relied on Siruno to provide tones, and the “coloring” in the third volume is much less intrusive than it was in the first, allowing the reader to get a much better look at McClaine’s lines. McClaine gets less cartoony as the series goes on, retaining enough to keep the crazy looking crazy (like the giant shark with tiny arms in volume 3), but adding more realism to go along with Grillo-Marxuach’s slightly darker stories. Of course, with any humor comic, facial expressions are very important, and McClaine is very good at showing Wendy’s cynicism, the Middleman’s jauntiness, and Ida’s disdain for all humans. Grillo-Marxuach relies on him to show the reader how well these characters get along (or don’t get along) and how much respect and/or love they have for each other. McClaine is certainly up to the task.
There is, of course, a fourth volume of The Middleman, which came out in the summer of 2009. It’s not a bad comic at all, but I don’t consider it a Comic You Should Own because it’s, well, more of the final episode of the short-lived television series than a comic book. For instance, Wendy looks more like Natalie Morales, who played her in the show, than she does like the Wendy from the first three volumes. That’s a minor cosmetic change, but the fourth volume (“The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse”) follows the continuity of the television show, so it’s at odds with what has come before in the printed series, which isn’t that big of a deal, but it does reference quite a bit that happened in the series, so someone picking it up without having seen the television show might be a bit lost. Finally, it’s not quite as good as the first three volumes. McClaine only does layouts, and Zanker isn’t quite as good as he is, and there’s some spark missing from it that I can’t quite quantify. It’s a fun book, to be sure, but it seems like it would work better with live actors (before you mention it, I’m aware that the actors read the script at Comic-Con a few years ago, but I also mean as an episode of the series, with all the ancillary trappings, and not just a read-through). So I don’t really include it here, even though you wouldn’t be terribly disappointed if you bought it (especially because you should own the DVD of the television series – still available on Amazon! – because it’s a cool show that deserves to be seen and, you know, yours truly gets name-checked obliquely in it).
Grillo-Marxuach ended the third volume on a pretty significant cliff-hanger, promising a return, but it’s been three years and I have my doubts that we’ll ever get another volume. Grillo-Marxuach has drifted out of comics after writing some “Annihilation” cosmic stuff for Marvel, and McClaine is kicking ass on the new Tick series, but I suppose a new volume could, conceivably, get done. The entire series is collected in The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability, which appears to be in print (also available on Amazon!) and which features a bunch of fun extra short stories. This is a wonderfully fun and funny comic, full of cool action, sharp dialogue, and beautifully detailed art. Do yourself a favor and hunt it down! And while you’re at it, check out the fully-restored Comics You Should Own Archives! How will spend all your money if you don’t know what to spend it on????