Friday, November 16, 2012

Recommended Reading and Viewing for 11/16: The Middleman

I had been prepared to do a post about Captain Britain and MI13 today, to celebrate the return of Pete Wisdom's band of British heroes, but various things that have gone on in the world of comic book fandom this week made me think, and while I plan a post about that this weekend, I wanted to touch on a series that resonates with me in a different way.

Most of you probably haven't heard of The Middleman, and if you have, it's probably because you've heard me sing its praises. Both as a comic and as a TV show, The Middleman burned bright and short, but what there is out there is some of the most enjoyable, hilarious, and savvy comics you will ever find. Seriously, if you like pretty much anything I have ever recommended, and you like a good laugh, run to find some Middleman.

Created by writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and with art by Les McClaine, The Middleman started life as a TV pilot, but eventually found its home at Viper Comics as, well a comic. It was published as two mini-series and a graphic novel, and was eventually picked up by ABC Family and lasted for one glorious, twelve episode season, which is where I discovered it. For those fleeting summer weeks, it was Amber and my favorite thing on television, and we've since rewatched the whole series more than once. The two mini-series were faithfully adapted into episodes of the TV show. The graphic novel, which was a sort of last Middleman story was not, but the final episode of the show, which went unproduced, was eventually adapted as a comic, meaning you have two options of how you want the story to end. As the two works are so tightly linked, I won't be necessarily talking about them separately, except when it comes to art and acting.

The Middleman is the story of Wendy Watson, a young, aspiring artist who, after something really weird goes down at a temp job she's taking during the day, gets recruited by a secret organization to serve as the apprentice to the Middleman, a sort of superhero/problem solver in an Eisenhower jacket. The Middleman solves all problems "para-, extra-, and juxta-terrestrial," and so Wendy is now up to her neck in luchadore martial artists, sorority ghosts, and aliens with a jones for plastic surgery.

The characters in The Middleman are complete joys to see. Wendy is smart, funny, sassy, and more than a bit geeky, but no label does her justice, as she is a person, not a caricature. The Middleman himself comes off as a gosh-and-golly-gee good guy, with a soft heart and a tough arm, but there are layers that make him more than that. The dialogue is so quick and loaded with pop culture references that it would make Joss Whedon go cross-eyed, and while it doesn't sound any more like the way people really talk than the dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, the emotional underpinnings are so real it doesn't matter.

Aside from Wendy and the Middleman, the series has a whole cast of colorful characters. Wendy's roommate, Lacey Thornfield, is just as smart and tough as Wendy, and is a confrontational performance artist, so Lacey has a bad habit of getting into trouble that Wendy has to help get her out of. Noser lives down the hall from them, and sits in the hall, plays his guitar, and is a sort of hipster sage. And Ida, the Middleman's receptionist, happens to be your typical caustic middle aged secretary, except for the fact that she happens to be a robot as well. It's a strange little group, but they all play off each other so well.

The plots of The Middleman are a treasure trove of pop culture wackiness, as are the episode titles. The stakes are always high, and there is real peril and action, but the show keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, accepting the tropes of the genres it lovingly homages; its never parody, because it takes things seriously, but it knows that we the viewer know where they;'e getting their source material. What other series could you learn, in the episode "The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation," that Vlad Tepes, Dracula, had two loves, sucking the blood of his enemies and puppetry? Or in the second miniseries, adapted as the episode, "The Sino-Mexican Revelation," would you learn about the Order of the Pointy Stick? Not to mention gangster gorillas in the pilot. Gangster gorillas! That's really appealing to every bit of my fanishness.

What made me think about The Middleman this week, is that Wendy is a geek. She knows the difference between Wally West and Barry Allen, she reads Powers, she plays video games, and she loves zombie movies. But that's not the whole of her. Wendy is more than the sum of her parts. More than just a geek girl, or an artist, or a superheroine. She's all these things rolled into one. The Middleman is a hugely inclusive work, featuring characters of different genders and races, and they interact in ways that have nothing to do with that. They're just people. In reviews of The Middleman, I heard my first reference to the Bechdel Test, which it passes with flying colors (if you don't know what that is, look it up. It's really interesting). I think if more comics (and TV shows for that matter) were written like this, then we'd all be better off. Now, granted, they might also only last twelve episodes, but hey, at least we have twelve great episodes.

The art on The Middleman comic is by Les McClaine, who does a great job haveing a style that is cartoonish without being cartoony; by that I mean his style is larger than life, and completely embracing all the craziness, without taking away from any of the characterization. The art is crisp, clean, and fits the fun feeling of the stories that he is provided. McClaine is an artist I would love to see more work from at any time.

The cast for the TV series does something similar with their performances to what McClaine does with his art: they take the completely off kilter plots and dialogue, and play them with such heart and gravity that it makes the show work. The Middleman could have easily come off as awkward or snarky without the amazing cast. Character actor Matt Keesler is brilliant as the titular Middleman mixes his wholesome, all American good looks and gung ho attitude with a the right amount of world weariness when he needs it. Natalie Morales (The Newsroom) is equally wonderful as Wendy, who is never without a quip for her boss, but so clearly cares for him and pretty much everyone around her, that you just love her. Brit Morgan (True Blood) plays Lacey, and matches Wendy line for line with her own quick comebacks. Ida, as played by Mary Pat Gleason, who is one of the great, "Oh, I know her from ______" actresses, is curmudgeonly and hilarious in her sheer disdain for, well, pretty much everyone. Jake Smollett's Noser is the perfect low key and too hip to be real slacker. There are some wonderful guest stars as well, including Brendan Hines (Lie to Me) as Tyler Ford, the man of Wendy's dreams, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) as the Middleman of the 60s, and geek god Mark A. Sheppard (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Doctor Who, Leverage, you name the franchise) as mysterious Steve Jobs-esque billionaire, Manservant Neville.

I think the thing about The Middleman that makes it so appealing to me is that it is clearly a labor of love. The writers love these genres, and they do their best to translate that love right into the screen. The thing that I've talked about here that I can compare it to most is Atomic Robo; there's the same sense of guileless joy and action throughout. In another week that seemed steeped in fandom attacking itself, this is the kind of comic and show that reaffirms my love of the genre; fun, inclusive, and smart, its got something for everyone. And hey, you're everyone, so go check it out.

All three Middleman comic stories are available in once great trade, The Collected Series Indispensability, from Viper Comics. All twelve episodes of the TV series are available in a complete series collection from Shout! Factory. And the lost final episode is available as a graphic novel called The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse, also from Viper.

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