Friday, January 16, 2015

Lost Legends: The Maze Agency

Mysteries are hard to write. Well at least whodunnits are; stories that play fair, that allow the reader to follow along with the detective and figure out the perpetrator are a challenge, especially since a second reading can easily espose all the holes. And good mysteries in comics are even harder to find. But in the late 80s and early 90s, there was one series that made its mark by being a legitimate mystery series: Mike W. Barr's The Maze Agency.

I've written about Barr before, specifically his run on Detective Comics. If all you've read by him is that, you can tell he loves detectives, not just because he writes a solid detective Batman, but from the wonderful issue #572, which teams many of DC Comics' greatest detectives with the granddaddy of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Barr is a vastly under-rated writer, and the height of his work for me is Maze Agency. A series that would be an anomaly today, every issue is a done in one murder mystery, a play fair story that you play along with the leads, P.I. Jennifer Mays and her boyfriend, true crime writer Gabriel Webb.

The charm of the series is really captured in the relationship between Jen and Gabe. Jen is a tough, savvy, former CIA agent who has opened up her own detective agency after leaving the Company, the titular Maze Agency. Gabe is an always-right-at-the-edge-of-being-broke writer who refuses to work for Jen, because he believes you shouldn't mix business and personal matters, and thus won't take any money for his consulting. He lives in a dingy apartment with Ralph, his cat, and continues writing true crime stories that his publisher insists on him making more lurid despite him wanting to write higher quality stories. Gabe is also a deductive savant, someone whose mind works in that Sherlock Holmes way that just slides clues into place as he investigates

That's the status quo of the characters we meet them at the beginning of the series. Their relationship deepens greatly over the course of the initial Maze Agency run, to the point that they are living together and engaged before the series unceremonious ending. There is a distinct lack of will they/won't they Moonlighting-type shenanigans, which allows Barr to really explore the depth of the characters and their feelings for each other. They have a wonderful dynamic, mixing in the banter of Nick and Nora Charles; they banter and toss non-malicious barbs, but there are more serious moments that really give depth to characters who could easily be cardboard cutouts used to forward the mysteries that Barr is writing.

Barr does a good job of fleshing out Jen and Gabe as characters who had lives before they met. We get bits about Jen's past with the CIA that have little bearing on cases and an ill-fated love affair with a married man. We find out the Gabe was a divinity student before turning to writing and that he has a very difficult relationship with his parents. These are great details because, while they might lay the ground for future stories, or allow our intrepid detectives to have some esoteric bit of knowledge, it more feels like it makes them realer, fuller characters.

Barr builds a cast of minor characters around his leads that are as well realized as Jen and Gabe. Roberta Bliss is the homicide lieutenant that works regularly with the Maze Agency. She is a hard as nails, classic cop, constantly popping bubble gum, who likes Jen and Gabe, despite the fact that they tend to make a simple case into something far more complex; if you know your classic detective radio and pulp fiction, the cop who gruffly works with the P.I. is a classic trope, but Bliss gets a lot of backstory than you get about her radio forebears like Inspector Farraday of Boston Blackie, Lieutenant Riley of Let George Do It, Lieutenant Levinson of Richard Diamond, or Lieutenant Kling of Box Thirteen ( I know I didn't have to list all those radio cops, but it's rare I get to talk about classic detective radio, so indulge me). Bliss works with Sergeant Simons, a Harvey Bullock-esque slob cop, another classic detective trope. There are a few more minor recurring characters who work with or for Jen, like her secretary Sandy, her old mentor turned employee Max Harmon, or her friend Lacey, who each have an issue where they are central to the mystery and thus we get to learn more about them.

As for recurring nemeses, well since each issue is a done in one murder mystery that ends with the bad guy being carted off by Bliss or a similar agent of the law, it is hard to have someone keep coming back. However, Ashley Swift, head of the Swift Detective Agency, where Jen worked in between her time with the CIA and opening her own agency, might be Jen's chief rival. She is sort of Jen's opposite number: richer, more successful, but not quite as talented in deduction as Jen. This doesn't stop her from driving Jen crazy by flaunting her success in her face or flirting with Gabe. If there was an actual arch-nemesis, it would be Dr. Antony Rune, a self-help guru who claimed supernatural talents that were simply training and trickery. Rune was introduced in issue nine, where his wife was killed and Gabe, Jen, and Ellery Queen (guest starring in celebration of the legendary pulp detective's diamond anniversary) are on his case. Despite not escaping then, he proves to be a formidable foe, eventually escaping prison. The series ended before Rune could make good his attempts on Jen, but it felt like he was being developed to be the Moriarty to Jen and Gabe's Holmes and... well other Holmes.

When it comes to plot, Maze Agency fits nicely into classic detective short fiction tropes. Jen is called in as a P.I. to investigate a case/ Gabe is looking into a crime for a story/ Jen and Gabe are out on a date and some crime happens. They investigate it, and find the killer through some deduction. It's not a unique formula, but it wasn't when Conan Doyle did it with Sherlock Holmes, Rex Stout did it with Nero Wolfe, or Dannay and Lee did it with Ellery Queen. It's a classic, and when you have people who investigate crime, you can avoid some of what I call Jessica Fletcher syndrome, where the detective stumbles randomly onto dead bodies (although that does happen a couple times). All the Maze stories are great, and I can't really talk about details without giving away whodunnit, but if you like what you're hearing about, here are some issues I would check out:

Issue 4: "The Return of Jack the Ripper?"- murder stalks Ripperologists, people who research Jack the Ripper, including Gabe

Issue 9: "The English Channeler Mystery"- where we first meet Dr. Rune.

Issue 13: "The Adventure of the Bleeding Venus" - where we learn about Justice Girl, Jen's favorite superhero

Issue 15: "Too Much Bliss" -we learn more about Lieutenant Bliss as she is suspected of killing her ex-husband

Issue 19: The "Adventure of the Mystery League"- Jen, Gabe, and Ashley Swift are each hired by different members of the detective's society, the Mystery League, to find out who killed a member, with the prize being membership into the illustrious society. This is probably my favorite issue of the series.

Annual 1 features a story that is an homage to Will Eisner's classic detective hero The Spirit

Special 1 features a few stories, one of which is "The Mile High Corpse" a reprint of a Maze Agency short that was written to sell the series, the only story drawn by co-creator Alan Davis, who Barr worked with on Batman and the Outsiders.

Alan Davis might have been the original artist intended to draw Maze Agency, but other commitments kept him from drawing the series. If you look at the artists who did, though, you will see early work from names that went on to become superstars in the industry. The first artist, who did quite a few issues, was Adam Hughes, who added his trademark sultry lines to Jen. Darick Robertson, best known for Transmetropolitan with Warren Ellis, worked on a couple issues. And the covers are even more impressive. Not only are there plenty by Hughes, but creators like Mike Ploog, Brian Bolland, Norm Breyfogle, and Tom Mandrake all contributed over the course of the series.

The publication history of Maze Agency is as convoluted as one of the cases in the comic. Initially published by Comico, the series ended there with issue 7 when the company folded. Innovation picked up the series, and published issues 8-23, not renumbering, as well as the annual and the special. Although there was a next issue mentioned at the end of 23, no such issue appeared. A few years later in the late 90s, Caliber published a three issue mini-series (which are the only issues I'm still trying to track down. Any help would be appreciated). In 2005, IDW announced they would reprint the original issues as well as publish new ones. A three issue mini-series was released, as was a trade of the original issues 1-6, but that seemed to be the end of IDW's time with the series.

As with all Lost Legends pieces, The Maze Agency is currently out of print in both singles and trades. However, with a little industrious digging at cons and shops, it isn't hard to put together a complete run (except those Caliber issues). And it's worth the time, believe me. If you're a fan of classic detective stories, or more recent TV shows like Castle, Maze Agency is a series that you'll find engaging, amusing, and a brainteaser that is hard to beat.

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