The Middleman 1-3 by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine: B

When the TV adaptation of The Middleman was airing on ABC Family in 2008, I watched a few episodes but eventually gave up because the campy plots exceeded my threshold for silliness. I have since wondered whether I ought to have given it another chance—after all, I liked the actors and a good deal of the dialogue—and when I noticed that my local library had in its collection the comics upon which the show was based, I decided to start by checking out the original source material.

The original run of The Middleman comprised eight comic issues (included in the first two collected volumes, which bear the respective subtitles The Trade Paperback Imperative and The Second Volume Inevitability) and the straight-to-graphic-novel release of The Third Volume Inescapability. A fourth book, The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse, was produced after the demise of the TV show and is essentially its unaired final episode. While written by series creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, this work does not feature art by Les McClaine.

The origins of The Middleman, our clean-cut hero who “solves exotic problems,” are murky. His orders are filtered through Ida, a sophisticated robot trapped in the guise of a cranky schoolmarm, and neither of them knows from whom they originate. Just as he was recruited by the previous Middleman, when he encounters aspiring painter Wendy Watson slumming in a temp job and is impressed by her ability to keep cool and think quickly under pressure, he begins training her to be his eventual replacement. The unflappable Wendy is a very quick study and proves invaluable more than once while they’re on the job, though she can’t entirely abandon her artistic ambitions. In the first volume they contend with a super-intelligent ape obsessed with the mafia, in the second they defeat a gang of jewel-thieving Mexican wrestlers, and in the third (which is awesomely full of references to The Rutles) they foil the city-trampling, world-dominating plans of a madman in possession of alien technology.

While the plots are undeniably goofy and teeming with snerk-worthy dialogue, the tone does gradually shift into darker territory. In volume two, Wendy must leave behind her injured ex-boyfriend, witnesses a scene of mass carnage, and is later basically called a horrible person by said ex. (Alas, the promise of these developments is squandered immediately afterwards when she paints a ridiculous self-portrait with a tear rolling down its cheek that elicits more derision than sympathy.) In the third volume, we learn that the Middleman has withheld a crucial piece of information from Wendy: no Middleman has ever retired; instead, every one has been required to make “the ultimate sacrifice.” It’s rather like being the Slayer, actually. By the end of the series, Wendy must decide whether to fully embrace her new career, even if it means completely giving up all of her old dreams.

Unfortunately, because of its brevity, The Middleman reads more like an outline of a story arc than a fully realized and satisfying tale. I’m hopeful that the televised version will have more time to provide some of the fleshing out that the comic could’ve used. Too, now that I know the comic goes dark places, I’m quite eager to see whether the TV series does the same. Perhaps I’ve been inaccurately labelling it as fluff when it could turn out to be something much more interesting. Here’s hoping!

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