Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Chicago Comic Books: "The Maze Agency, vol. 1"

Writer Mike W. Barr and artist Adam Hughes are fairly big names in the comic book business and in 1988, when Barr first launched The Maze Agency from one of the smaller comic book companies of the era it generated quite a bit of attention and acclaim.

Unfortunately, the comic book market of the late 1980's and early 1990's was a bit... odd. Personally, I would even dare to call it unstable. As a result, The Maze Agency published several issues under it's first publisher, then moved to another publisher and then moved to still another publisher with gaps of years in between.

I really wasn't much of a comic book reader in those days -- my childhood comic book reading phase had passed and my adult comic book reading phase wouldn't get started until the late 1990's so I had never heard of The Maze Agency.

Then along came IDW Publishing; one of the smaller but growing comic book publishers. In 2005 IDW lured Barr back to The Maze Agency to write a three-issue miniseries (which I still need to track down). IDW also announced that they would be re-publishing the whole series in trade paperback volumes. The first volume came out in 2006 but there have been no subsequent volumes. Since I haven't heard anything about there being any legal troubles or general fall-out I presume that low sales have prevented IDW from reprinting the rest of the series.

Having read interviews with Barr at the time of the 2005 mini-series I became intrigued by The Maze Agency -- this sounded like something that would be right up my alley so I put the first TPB volume on my list and have always looked for it on the discount racks at Chicago. This year I finally found it -- a pristine copy in a 50% off bin. SCORE!!!

What It's All About: Jennifer Mays is a smart, savvy, successful and tough private investigator. Gabriel "Gabe" Webb is a true crime reporter working for a sensationalistic true crime magazine. Mays and Webb put their heads together to solve the unsolvable crimes. Partners in crime and lovers in their off hours, Mays and Webb are an unstoppable duo.

Why I Like It: As can be witnessed by my series of Nero Wolfe reviews, one of my favorite literary genres is the mystery story. So of course I love The Maze Agency for that reason. It isn't the only reason, though.

For one thing, Barr always "played fair" with his readers. Granted, some of the plots might take a genius to put them together but at the very least Barr always gave the readers all the same clues he gave his main characters -- never holding anything back as some mystery writers have done in the past.

For another thing, with the comic book world populated with superheroes and sci-fi even comic books which fit in the mystery genre usually have some sci-fi or fantasy elements. There's nothing wrong with that at all but it makes it different and refreshing when one runs into a comic book that is so firmly rooted in the "real world". There are no holograms here or laser weapons or people who can fly. Gabe and Jennifer utilize their minds, the weapons of the time period, and the technology of the time as well. All of this really helps the comic feel more like a regular mystery novel... only with sequential art.

The third thing I love about The Maze Agency is that, at least in these first stories, Barr wrote them all as "done-in-one" -- each issue was a complete story. Again, with modern comic books usually focused on the story arc -- with stories that play out over four, six, eight, and even twelve issues, it seems like a lost art for writers to write complete stories in one issue that don't feel rushed or short. Barr managed that beautifully here and in some ways you end up feeling like you get more instead of less because you get six different mysteries instead of just six chapters of one mystery.

Finally, I love Barr's characters. Jennifer and Gabe are the typical "opposites" and the series has been compared to the old TV series Moonlighting with Jennifer being beautiful and polished and Gabe being a bit slapdash and a sloppy dresser. But that is where the comparisons end. Jennifer is a highly trained private investigator and a shrewd investor, making her independently wealthy. Gabe dreams of hitting the big time by one day writing his own true crime novel and having it hit the best seller list but in the meantime he turns his keen insight into helping Jennifer solve crimes.. The two are lovers but without possessiveness and Jennifer, admiring Gabe's intelligence and genuine detective skills, is always trying to get him to join her agency formally. It is Gabe who holds back, insisting that love and work are a bad combination and he'd rather have Jennifer as a lover than work with her and have to give up their relationship. This doesn't mean that the path of their love runs smooth but it does mean that they handle the bumps as adults. Again, a refreshing change from the oft-times juvenile depiction of relationships in most comic books.

and, of course, any discussion of this book should not fail to mention the art of Adam Hughes. Hughes has, particularly in recent years, been noted for his somewhat "cheesecake" style of art when it comes to the female form. To be sure, he can and does vary his style but his women are usually known for being lush. For The Maze Agency though, while Jennifer is, no question, beautiful, Hughes keeps her proportions within the bounds of most normal women and he never draws her in inappropriate clothes. Hughes understood that Barr was going for more realism here and presented just that -- men and women who look like real men and women and who dress like the professionals (or not) that they are.

Cracking open a copy of The Maze Agency, vol. 1 is like sitting down to watch a great mystery TV show. The characters are mature, the dialogue contains the spark and fizz of wittiness, the artwork sets the stages perfectly and the mysteries themselves are quirky, tough, and sometimes filled with danger. And so I say... Go! Seek out The Maze Agency, vol. 1. Maybe if IDW sells more of these we'll finally get the other volumes... I want to see what happens next!

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