Viper Comics have made a name for themselves with the success of Josh Howard’s “Dead@17” mini-series and trade paperback collections and the company hopes to repeat that success with its next big launch this summer called “The Middleman.” Though the writer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (referred to as JGM later in this interview) may be an unknown name to most, he is a writer on ABC’s hit television show “Lost” and has worked on many of the most acclaimed episodes of the series. CBR News spoke with JGM about “The Middleman” and he explained the origins of the series.
“It’s an absolute and complete labor of love,” Grillo-Marxuach told CBR News. “I have done my time in the trenches of television and wanted desperately to do something with a very distinctive voice and a complete disregard for a lot of the sillier conventions of the genre… as well as a complete respect for things that often go neglected, like characters you can get to know and love and the intelligence of the audience.
“In a nutshell ‘The Middleman’ is the story of a jaded Gen-Y girl who gets recruited from a soul-destroying life of temporary employment into the employ of an operative working against threats extra- infra- and juxta- terrestrial, and how her relationship with her new employer – who is the guy with whom she would normally never have any contact – changes her life.
“Wendy Watson is the lead character in the series – in spite of our title, it’s her story. She’s a cynical twentysomething – in terms of a cynic being a fallen romantic. She grew up without a father and has pursued a career as an artist, but, as the story begins, finds herself in an endless stream of painter’s block, student debt and meaningless mcjobs. Ironically, the fact that she has a somewhat jaded approach to life is what makes her a great candidate to become a sidekick for The Middleman – a character who is essentially a superhero – she just isn’t rattled by things way out of the realm of the ordinary. Wendy is who I’d be if I were younger, slightly more confused and without direction, cuter and with breasts.
“The Middleman is a straight-arrow Dirk Squarejaw type – the bastard love child of Joe Friday and James T. Kirk. He is a courteous, well-mannered young man who never uses profanity (because it dulls the mind and cheapens the soul) but knows about six hundred ways to kill a man because of his past as a Navy S.E.A.L. And he loves country music, so that’s a plus. The central dynamic of the series is his too straight for words attitude vs. her sassy demeanor – but somehow, that winds up being far more exasperating for her than it is for him, because he is much too much of a square to ever lose it with anyone – and from that core relationship, my friend, we shall mine comedy gold! I like to think that The Middleman is who I’d be if I were completely moral, buff, devoid of guile and profanity and had a really cool car.
“Rounding out the cast are Lacey, Wendy’s nubile and delightful rommate, Ben, her insufferable boyfriend, Ida, The Middleman’s assistant – who just happens to be a combat android from another galaxy whose adaptive camouflage is stuck in the form of a crabby 75 year old mah-jongg-playing crone, and Noser – Wendy’s mysterious hippy neighbor who only communicates through song lyrics and may indeed hold the key to all existence.
“Needless to say, Noser is who I would be if I communicated only through song lyric and secretly held the keys to all existence.”
From “Men In Black” to the contemporary villains in “DC Countdown,” the idea of super-secret government groups trying to hide their agendas from the public has been used quite heavily- and not only in comic books. When asked about his own unique take on this familiar theme, JGM said, “[We’re] Mocking it savagely. The Middleman works for an organization so secret that he doesn’t know who they are or whether or not he is the only employee who works for them. He works out of an office with his android receptionist and all he knows is when the red phone rings he has to snap to. He is a man trapped in the perennial existential dilemma of ‘do I really know my boss?’
“Basically, I needed a framework from which to plunge two characters with a really interesting core dynamic – Wendy the sarcastic, jaded young woman, and the completely earnest Dirk Squarejaw that is The Middleman – into the most bizarre situations possible. The concept of the super-secret organization is the perfect take-off point for that, and, as I said, it allows me to savage one of the more hackneyed conventions of the genre.”
Having worked on a lot of acclaimed television series, from “Boomtown” to “Lost,” JGM has been able to learn a lot about the art of storytelling and explains, “Television doesn’t have the budget to blow up everything that appears on the screen – so we have to woo the audience with character and invention, hopefully, that is what I am communicating with this series – yes it’s about characters stuck in absurd situations, but hopefully you will like the characters so much that you will go along with them on their adventures.”
The first issue of “The Middleman” boasts a strong comedic tone but may leave some readers wondering if JGM will play it straight or parody the book. “I think when we bust out the talking monkeys, you’ll know exactly where we stand on this!” he laughs.
“One of the lessons I have learned in my television career – this one from an amazing little Sci-Fi Channel show I worked on a few years ago called ‘The Chronicle’ – is that the best way to create comedy in genre is to make dead-solid sure that you are building the hilarity on a marble foundation of character. If you refuse to take anything seriously, the audience will quickly realize that the world has no ‘rules’ and tune out – because what are the stakes in that kind of a narrative?
“It is crucial that the characters be believable and loveable, that the danger be real and the villains present a true threat: once you have that, it doesn’t matter whether the danger is some dead serious thing like ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ or a giant, tentacled ass monster (the highlight of issue one, I might add).
“If we can make you believe that the threat poses a mortal danger, and that the heroes take it seriously within a logical and consistent story framework, you would be surprised at how much fun you can poke at the genre.”
“The Middleman” isn’t the normal series you’d expect from Viper Comics, who are known for more drama-laden comic books, but JGM explained that Viper was the choice for him when it came to sell the book. “I looked through my weekly comic book stash and asked myself ‘who is putting out books that I like?’ I love ‘Dead@17’ and the fact that Viper Comics has a unified design philosophy that runs through all their books – their production is top notch, and I am the kind of person who reacts to that kind of care an attention.
“The Vipers – as I fondly like to call them – are anything but. They have, in fact, been dream collaborators. Jessie Garza is the kind of solid citizen for whom a handshake actually means something, and whose word you can take to the bank. Also, in my first conversation with him, Jessie told me about how he once got into a fistfight with an artist for not delivering at the necessary level of quality – how can you not be in business with a guy who has that kind of passion?
“From the get-go, the Vipers recognized that the book is a quirky entity with its own sense of humor and they have let that flourish. Plus – Jessie and Jim have worked with us with nothing but enthusiasm and energy. They love comic books and it shows in their product: because they are in the business of putting out comic books – and if I may shamelessly editorialize here, a lot of books I read nowadays feel like glorified pitches for movies as opposed to fully rendered sequential narratives. That’s not the mentality at Viper and, as a comic book reader – especially one who works in the entertainment industry and goes to comics to read a good yarn and get some much needed respite from having stuff pitched at me all the time – I respect the living cheese-and-crackers out of that!”
The visuals of the book are provided by Les McClaine and if you thought JGM was enthusiastic about the Vipers, well… he likes McClaine even more. “There is the simple fact that Les is, indeed, perfect… and I mean that in the full, ecumenical and secular/scientific sense of the word – he is Vishnu and Shiva, the Fifth Element and Tony The Tiger rolled up into a consolidated fun package. In fact, when I first spoke to Les on the phone, I was immediately compelled to drop to my knees and worship him – kind of like an advanced D&D character with an 18 charisma character roll
“Les was the first and only person I approached about drawing this book – and after I saw his first few sketches, I offered him co-ownership of the property. He is a full partner in this and the art is an integral part of the ‘voice’ of ‘The Middleman.’ Art is a very personal thing, and his work said to me – ‘this guy gets it.’
“You can’t buy, beg, borrow or steal that kind of creative synergy.
“I first saw Les’s work on ‘Highway 13,’ his series for SLG a few years ago – and what can I tell you – the guy is a stinkin’ make-me-so-envious-that-I’d-kill-him-if-I-wasn’t-in-business-with-him genius. He has a distinct visual style that harkens back to some very old-school influences – from Herge to Little Lulu (and how often can you say ‘hey, I got me here some sci-fi action-adventure drawn by a guy who prefers Little Lulu to Lara Croft’) to Roy Lichtenstein (Les’s use of grayscale dots is a major aesthetic gesture in ‘The Middleman’) – and that’s just something you don’t see a lot of in today’s comic book landscape.
“What I love about Les’s style is that it reminds me of The Middleman character himself. It’s straight-forward, honest and clean. It doesn’t lie, it doesn’t judge you – it’s not like the others… and that honesty is perfect for what we are trying to do, because it lets the natural humor of the series flow from a place that says: ‘Gosh-darnit, here’s the giant, tentacled ass monster. Sorry we couldn’t put something nice on the page, like a bunch of puppies frolicking in a pumpkin patch, but boy-howdy, this is a tentacled ass monster kind of world. Have a nice day.'”
While it is solicited as a four-issue mini-series, JGM hints that positive reaction- along the lines of that seen by “Dead@17”- could bring “The Middleman” back for more adventures. “The first four issues are literally the ‘pilot’ episode of ‘The Middleman.’ They tell a self-contained story that sets up a series that could last as long as readers want to read it. I personally love these characters and write them because they amuse and give me pleasure. If the audience feels the same way, I imagine an army of Middleman fanatics, dressed in their trademark crimson robes and shaved heads, going across the world like the Johnny Appleseeds of sequential storytelling, handing out copies of the book and evangelizing for the adventures of Wendy Watson, making converts wherever they go.
“Alternately, people could just buy the book at their local comic book store, and – if they like it – tell their friends.”