01 May 2016

"The Middleman": The Complete Pan-Universal Blog Post

I was first introduced to The Middleman when I found "The Pilot Episode Sanction" free on iTunes in 2008. I downloaded it 10 June that year, but I shamefully admit I never got around to actually watching it until 30 May 2011, when I squeezed it into my comic book/superhero-themed Make-Your-Own Challenge for DVD Talk. I got a kick out of it, and made a mental note to explore the comic book source material and to watch the rest of the show. As with so many interests of mine, it took me a while. Finally, I requested both The Middleman: The Complete Series Indispensability! collected edition and The Middleman: The Complete Series DVD box set through the inter-library loan system. In the span of about a week, I gorged on The Middleman.

The Middleman: The Complete Series Indispensability!
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Pencils & Inks by Les McClaine (Vol. 1 & 2)
Pencils by Les McClaine & Chad Thomas (Vol. 3)
Inks by Les McClaine, Jon Siruno & Chad Thomas (Vol. 3)
Letters by Jim Resnowski & Jon Siruno
Cover Price: $19.95 | 336 pages | 25 July 2008

The comic book material consists of two four-issue mini-series, and a third volume published as a graphic novel equivalent in size and structure to its predecessors. In the first volume (collected as The Trade Paperback Imperative), struggling artist Wendy Watson is recruited into a Men in Black-type organization to assist The Middleman in solving "exotic" problems (such as a computer controlled gorilla mobster). Of all Wendy's personality traits, it's her calm acceptance of such things that best suits her for the work. It's a nice touch, because generally in stories like this, the newcomer has to be convinced that such fantastic things really do exist. Yet after decades of comic books, movies, TV shows and video games, it really does seem increasingly unlikely that in the event of that reality that there wouldn't be a moment of, "Okay, I've read/seen/played stuff like that so why not?"

Throughout the three volumes, Wendy and The Middleman confront a gorilla bumping off mob bosses, become ensnared in a blood feud between martial artist Sensei Ping and a cult of Mexican wrestlers, and a final confrontation with The Middleman's arch-nemesis: Kanimang Kang, leader of the Federated Agents of Tyranny, Betrayal and Oppression's Yoke.

Tone-wise, The Middleman is clearly a kindred spirit of Danger Girl and The Tick. In fact, artist Les McClaine followed his work on this book by moving onto working on The Tick: New Series. His artistic style seems very easily suitable for Ben Edlund's big blue hero and The City in which he operates. Facial expressions are a particularly strong point of McClaine's. Much of the humor from Javier Grillo-Marxuach's tongue-in-cheek dialog is sold by McClaine's artwork. If he goes much lighter, then the serious moments seem too dark. If the art is more detailed and more realistic, then it becomes too stuffy to support the playful script. In short, this is the perfect marriage of text and imagery.

The second volume was supplemented by three different "Legends of the Middleman" short stories, showcasing Middlemen of different eras. It very much reminded me of my beloved Legends of the Dark Knight, particularly "Destiny." Those three stories were each illustrated by a different artist: Josh Howard, Tom Kurzanski and Ryan Cody (with tones by Russ Lowery and Cody), respectively. Of the three, I preferred the first tale, featuring a medieval Middleman tasked with slaying a dragon that keeps killing off warriors from two different kingdoms who wish to go to war with one another. Josh Howard's art is cleaner and easier to follow than is Kurzanski's, and has a lighter feeling to it than Cody's. "Legends of the Middleman" appears in The Complete Series Indispensability! not after the volume 2 content it originally accompanied, but after the third volume.

The Middleman #1 is available free on Comixology.

The Middleman The Complete Series
List Price: $29.98 | 360 minutes | DVD Released 28 July 2009
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Official Shout! Factory Page
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Despite only lasting twelve episodes on ABC Family, The Middleman television series actually consists of far more content than its source material. "The Pilot Episode Sanction" is a straight adaptation of the original four-issue mini-series, introducing us as viewers to this milieu. The second series was adapted as the third episode ("The Sino-Mexican Revelation"). Plot points from the third volume appear in different episodes, but it was never outright adapted.

Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales portray The Middleman and Wendy. Keeslar nailed the "aw, shucks" persona of The Middleman, creating a heroic throwback to the kinds of characters we often like to think we've outgrown but later discover we really, secretly take comfort in knowing are still out there somewhere. Morales alternates easily from being a snarky art hipster to the girl next door. Her Wendy is noticeably different from her counterpart on the printed page, but endearing and likable all the same. The chemistry among the main cast is solid, particularly Keeslar and Morales with one another. Both are also terrific to watch with Brit Morgan (whose Lacey Thornfield is significantly more relevant and interesting than the character of the comics).

As a TV series, The Middleman feels at times like the 1966 Batman but mostly it feels a lot like a modern-era USA Network series. In particular, I felt a solid resemblance to Psych (my personal USA fave). Indeed, I have to wonder whether it would have found its proper audience had it been developed for that network instead of the oft-overlooked ABC Family. It's a standard monster-of-the-week show, and some jaded viewers may dismiss it as too familiar. It's a fair criticism, but at times the show was genuinely clever.

The two strongest episodes are probably "The Cursed Tuba Contingency" and the finale, "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome." In the former, The Middleman and Wendy have to find and stop someone from playing a tuba cursed to drown everyone who hears it in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. As it turns out, the villain of the week was born a century ago and actually played the tuba aboard the Titanic. He's cursed with immortality, and hopes to kill everyone with a noted interest in the legend of the tuba all at once so as to stop being the focus of their interest.

In the finale, Wendy is mistakenly sent to an alternate universe straight out of Escape from New York. The connections couldn't be clearer. The alternate Middleman sports shaggy hair, scruff and an eye patch, and one location is twice identified as being on 1997 Plissken Circle (1997 was the year in which the sequel, Escape from L.A., was released). Such allusions and nods are a part of seemingly all geek-centric entertainment, and The Middleman did them as well as any other show on TV.

In one of the final scenes of the episode, The Middleman ponders to Wendy how close he must be to his alternate self. It's a commonly asked question in alternate universe stories, but what I appreciated was Wendy's response. She concedes the point, but argues that it goes both ways; that his alternate self is just as close to being him. It's an optimistic perspective to have, and one that I found resonated with me.

As for the DVD release, there are commentary tracks on four of the twelve episodes (including both the pilot and finale) and the fourth disc contains numerous bonus features from deleted and alternate scenes to a table read of the finale. Shout! Factory did a solid job with this release. My only complaint is that the package art shows Morales in a cat suit. ABC Family apparently insisted on making that the basis of her appearance in the marketing campaign for the show, despite the fact she only appears like that in part of one episode. I can't fault Shout! for using what they were given, but it's definitely another example of how ABC Family failed to really understand what they had or what to do with it.

I think my favorite moment is in the Week 7 episode of the "Javi-cast" in which Javier Grillo-Marxuach asks Hans Beimler to mention some of his other work. Beimler mentions Star Trek: The Next Generation and then Grillo-Marxuach adds, "And of course, one of my favorite shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Apparently, my friend Chad and I aren't the only ones who actually favor DS9 over TNG. That brings the known total to three people!

Also amusing was Brit Morgan's audition footage, and I got a kick out of "The Palindrome Reversal Palindrome" table read.

Note: Because I checked out the DVD box set through inter-library loan, I did not have access to the booklet. The promotional image shown below features the episode guide, "Getting to know your...TRUTH BOMB." I cannot comment on the contents of that booklet.
The Long-Delayed Continuation

What you've seen above, I wrote four years ago, because there was one last piece to The Middleman that I wanted to get hold of before concluding this catch-all post. The Middleman show was canceled after a dozen episodes, but was "concluded" with a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed teleplay written by series co-creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach and series co-executive producer, Hans Beimler. Unfortunately, it was already out of print by time I went looking for it. Thankfully, after a successful Kickstarter, the entire Middleman print adventures were put back into print, and thanks to my dedicated and delightful librarian @bookrarian, I was finally able to read it!

The Middleman - Volume Four - The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse
Second edition
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Hans Beimler
Art by Les McClaine & Armando M. Zanker
Cover Price: $25.00 | 72 pages | Reprint published 23 July 2014
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This was the planned season finale of the TV show. Not only does the story at hand tap into the continuity of the show, rather than the original book, but even the visual aesthetic is clearly different. Likenesses aren't necessarily spot-on (perhaps rights issues?), but even if Wendy Watson doesn't quite look like Natalie Morales, she certainly doesn't look like the original Dub Dub, either.

Four years having passed between my last visit to The Middleman universe left me in need of some refreshers, and thankfully Javier Grillo-Marxuach seems to have anticipated that, peppering in expository dialog and editor's notes along the way. Some readers find that kind of thing a bit off-putting, juvenile or pandering. I appreciate it, at least when it's done right, and Grillo-Marxuach does it right.

Most of the elements that I enjoyed in the comics and the show were here, and I was surprised how easily I slipped back into them after all this time. In particular, I had forgotten about Noser, the guitarist who hangs out on the stoop of Wendy's apartment. Jake Smollett played the bit part affably, and I forgot until the character reappeared here how much I dug him.

What did not feel right, though, was the character of The Middleman himself. Not only does he swear here ("dammit!", no less than twice!), but he even slips away at one point to sleep with Wendy's roommate, young photogenic artist Lacey Thornfield! It sets up what is supposed to be a tragic downer of unrequited love never to be realized, but the break in characterization is simply too startling for this reader.

The Middleman - Volume 5 - The Pan-Universal Parental Paradox
Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Layouts, Creator-Owned Reality Pencils, and Letters by Les McClaine
Corporate-Owned Reality Pencils and Inks by Armando M. Zanker
Creator-Owned Reality Inks by Terry Blas
Colors by Ryan Hill
Cover Price $25.00 | 106 pages | 30 September 2014
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For one last adventure, Javier Grillo-Marxuach brought both incarnations of his universe together in this crowd-funded graphic novel, in which Comic Book Wendy and TV Show Wendy collide. Unlike the edgier tone of its predecessor, The Pan-Universal Parental Paradox is a natural continuation of both iterations. The story picks up after the last we saw of both universes, with Comic Book Clarence dead and Comic Book Wendy's dad having returned after years of being mysteriously gone.

The relationship dynamics between Comic Book Wendy and Comic Book Wendy's Dad are interesting enough, but even more interesting is the relationship between Comic Book Wendy's Dad and TV Wendy, who aren't technically one another's family. She has questions that he honestly cannot answer. It's a surprisingly touching realization, and I think anyone who has ever tried to help someone make sense of things said or done by another person can identify with that helplessness.

Also, the banter between the two Wendies is terrific, especially when they acknowledge that Comic Book Wendy is a redheaded caucasian and TV Wendy is based on the Hispanic Natalie Morales. And, of course, there aren't just Star Trek jokes; there's even a Deep Space Nine joke! The villain's plot isn't all that interesting, but it's a serviceable enough device for bringing together the two universes and it's fun to watch everyone together. At the very least, I can say it's a more satisfying finale than was The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse.

All in all, I dug The Middleman in both incarnations. Yes, it's shamelessly derivative, which is unfortunately all too common in the Family Guy era of meta-humor, but what makes this universe stand out is that it isn't mean-spirited. It's sarcastic, certainly, but Javier Grillo-Marxuach never tries to make us feel smarter than the people who aren't reading the book. He trusts us to simply enjoy it, and I did.