Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we’re taking a look at Mike W. Barr’s wonderful labor of mystery love! This post was originally published on 16 August 2010. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
The Maze Agency by Mike W. Barr (writer), Adam Hughes (penciler, issues #1-5, 8-9, 12, Annual – “Murder in Mint Condition”), Joe Staton (penciler, issues #6, Special – “What Goes Up”), Greg Shoemaker (penciler, issue #7), Rob Phipps (penciler, issues #10-11, 13-14), Mike Okamoto (penciler, issue #15), Mary Mitchell (penciler, issues #16, 21), Darick Robertson (artist, issues #17, Annual – “A Night at the Rose Petal”), Scott Clark (penciler, issue #18), Rob Davis (penciler, issue #19), John Calimee (penciler, issue #20), J. Trent (penciler, issue #22), Franchesco (penciler, issue #23), Alan Davis (artist, Special – “The Mile-High Corpse!”), Arnold and Jacob Pander (artists, Special – “The Dog that Bit Back …”), William Messner-Loebs (artist, Annual – “A Night at the Rose Petal”), Allen Curtis (penciler, Annual – “Moving Stiffs”), Rick Magyar (inker, issues #1-4, 8-12, 14-15, Special – “What Goes Up,” artist, Special – “Murder by a Hair,” Annual – “A Night at the Rose Petal,” “Murder in Mint Condition”), Al Vey (inker, issue #5), Rich Rankin (inker, issue #6), Bill Anderson (inker, issue #7), Randy Elliott (inker, issue #13), Mike Witherby (inker, issues #15, 21-22), Don Martinec (inker, issue #16), Paul Worley (inker, issue #16), Keith Aiken (inker, issues #17, Annual – “Moving Stiffs”), Jim Sinclair (inker, issues #17, Annual – “Moving Stiffs”), John Tighe (inker, issues #18-19), Michael Oeming (inker, issues #20, 23), Julia Lacquement (colorist, issues #1-7), Carol and Kevin VanHook (colorists, issue #8-9), Susan Glod (colorist, issues #10, 12-19), Michelle Williams (colorist, issues #11, 19), Scott Rockwell (colorist, issues #20, Special – “What Goes Up,” “Murder by a Hair”), Alicia Basil (colorist, Special – “The Dog that Bit Back …”), Michelle Basil (colorist, issues #19, 21-23, Annual – “A Night at the Rose Petal,” “Moving Stiffs”), Deborah Marks (letterer, issues #1-5, 8), Dan McKinnon (letterer, issue #6), Tom Addis (letterer, issue #7, 9, 12), Vickie Williams (letterer, issues #9-23, Special – “What Goes Up,” “Murder by a Hair,” “The Dog that Bit Back …”, Annual – “A Night at the Rose Petal,” “Moving Stiffs”), Todd Klein (letterer, Special – “The Mile-High Corpse!”), and Bob Pinaha (letterer, Annual – “Murder in Mint Condition”).
Published by Comico/Innovation, 25 issues (#1-7 from Comico, #8-23 from Innovation, plus a Special – which comes after issue #12 – and an Annual – which comes after issue #15), cover dated December 1988 – August 1991.
Interestingly enough for a post about murder mysteries, I can’t find one SPOILER in here! I make some references to the murders, but I don’t really get into them. Unless you don’t want to know that this is a romance, you’re good to go!
Obviously, if you look at the credits, the biggest problem of this series was consistency (or lack thereof) in the art. Adam Hughes got started on this title (and was the reason I first dug through the back issue boxes for it), and he managed to draw eight issues before he got snapped up by DC for JLA. When Adam Hughes is your most consistent penciler, you have a problem. In 25 issues, Barr used 16 pencilers and 12 inkers, and that’s not good when you’re trying to establish a book in the independent market, even during the Golden Age of indies. The quality varied greatly throughout, as well. Hughes, even this early in his career (he was 21 when he first started working on the book), is clearly head and shoulders above everyone else (with the exception of Davis, who drew only a “test” story for Barr to shop the comic around), but some of the other pencillers did solid work – Staton’s pencils under Rankin’s inks in issue #6 is not as sharp as some of Staton’s work (that’s a good thing); Rob Phipps channeled Hughes as much as he could and did a fairly good job of it, helped no doubt by Magyar’s inks; Darick Robertson isn’t as polished as he later became, but the talent is there; and Mary Mitchell (who later married John Ostrander), has a distinctive, cartoonishy look to her pencils. Many of the artists, like Phipps, tried to emulate Hughes’s look with some degree of success, but the lack of a consistent artist doesn’t do The Maze Agency any favors. The saving grace of the art is that Barr’s scripts don’t necessarily need it to be great. Barr gives us very down-to-earth stories where, as long as the storytelling is clear, the actual penciled work doesn’t have to be stellar. Hughes had some problems with layouts in his first few issues which was far worse, for this kind of series, than the ugliness of Franchesco’s pencil work in issue #23. People wrote in to raise holy hell about the almost-cubist work of Arnold and Jacob Pander in the Special, but they made sure that you could read the story and spot all the clues, which is good enough for Barr and the readers. Unlike many kinds of comics, The Maze Agency is far less reliant on art. That doesn’t excuse the sloppy work turned in by some of the artists, but it does mitigate it somewhat.
The other problem with this series, ironically enough, is the mystery aspect of it. Barr writes in the first issue that he wanted to do a “fair-play” mystery series, and he mostly succeeds. When you read these issues more than once, you see how well Barr fits them all together, using both the writing and the art to drop clues throughout the issue (and he admitted in one letters column that he tended to write them backward, coming up with the murderer and then working to the beginning to make sure the clues fit the conclusion). Each issue is one-and-done, so there’s no need to remember a clue from six issues earlier that reveals the murderer. Barr and his artists do a very nice job not being too obvious about the clues, either – whether it’s Gabe Webb noticing a room number in the background of one scene or a suspect subtly pulling his suspenders, the clues are often something we wouldn’t necessarily notice the first time around but become obvious when we go back and look for them. If you read the issues slowly and carefully, you can notice some of the clues, but Barr and the artists do a nice job making them difficult but not impossible to suss out. However, reading the issues all at once becomes a chore, because of the nature of the series. As I wrote, each issue is one-and-done, so they often feel a bit rushed. In the grand tradition of detective stories, there are no random killings – every murder presents Jennifer and Gabe with three or four suspects, and the guilty one often – but not always – breaks down and confesses. Every crime is very neat and tidy, and the motives are usually money or love. Barr doesn’t deviate too much from this formula, and while reading them when they were first published and had gaps in the publishing schedule might have eased the readers’ weariness with that formula, when reading them one after another, it becomes more obvious.
Barr does plenty of interesting things with mysteries, to be sure. He is constantly coming up with new ways to commit murder and new milieux in which to set them. Barr gives us an unusual art theft in which only the frames are stolen (issue #1), a Jack the Ripper homage (issue #4), a crime involving cryogenics (issue #5), a “solve the murder” game gone horribly wrong (issue #6), a new Ellery Queen mystery (issue #9), a murder of a condemned criminal minutes before his execution (issue #14), a Spirit homage (the Annual, which was released exactly 50 years after Eisner’s creation debuted), a murder at an Apocalyptic religious cult (issue #17), a murder involving a (possible) reincarnated murder victim (issue #20), and a serial killer whose victims are gay men (issue #21), among others. Yes, someone dies and the murderer is revealed, but Barr does manage to keep it somewhat fresh and also give his principal characters – Jennifer Mays and Gabriel Webb – ways to interact and build their relationships through the crimes. So while the murders get a bit exhausting, it’s not like they’re identical, and that helps keep the plots fresh, even with their formulaic nature.
So the art isn’t a reason to own these comics. The plots aren’t necessarily the reason, even though not too many writers are willing to write good mysteries with plenty of clues for the readers to pick up on. So why on earth are these Comics You Should Own? Well, I alluded to it in the previous paragraph – Jennifer Mays and Gabe Webb. The two main characters make this one of the most refreshing takes on mature romance in comics history. Romance in comics, like romance in many media, is hard to pull off, because most writers are perfectly fine with the initial attraction but flounder when it comes to actual consummation and the aftermath. In another superb love story in comics, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, the fact that the lovers – Cliff Steele and Kay Challis – can’t actually consummate their relationship is part of what makes it such a good romance. But that’s not the case with Barr’s story. In the very first Maze Agency story, “The Mile-High Corpse!” (which Barr wrote in 1986, although it wasn’t reprinted until the Special in 1990), Gabe flirts relentlessly with Jen and tells her that he can’t work for her detective agency because “love and work just don’t mix.” We don’t get the sense that they’re a couple (mainly because the story is so short), but in issue #1, it’s obvious they’re dating, if not exclusively (Jen has a date in issue #2, while Gabe goes out with a woman in issue #5). Barr leaves the actual courtship a mystery, however. In issue #1, Gabe wants to have a nightcap with Jen, and she regretfully declines. He says, “Jen, have I done something wrong? After last week, I thought we –” and she cuts him off by reminding him of a recent traumatic event (I’ll get back to it) and says they’re moving too fast. She still gives him a passionate kiss, though. It’s not long before they move forward with their relationship, as in issue #6 Gabe spends the night and they move in with each other at the end of issue #15. This isn’t a case of the pursuit being all there is to the relationship, which is why the comparisons to, say, Moonlighting (which were made when the book was coming out) make no sense. There’s almost no “will-they-or-won’t-they” period, if any. This is a story about the romance, not the flirtation.
It’s not only that it’s a mature romance, but also that these are mature people engaging in it. Gabe’s birthday is 30 May 1956, and in issue #6 he celebrates his 33rd birthday. Jen, meanwhile, celebrates her 35th birthday in issue #9 (she even turns 36 later in the series, as well). We don’t know much about their pasts, but they have them. Barr actually doesn’t give us much about Gabe at all, but we learn some things about Jen through the course of the series. She grew up wealthy, and after college she joined the Central Intelligence Agency. After leaving the agency, she worked for a woman named Ashley Swift at Swift Investigations before leaving to start her own detective service. We also find out that she was recently involved with a married man named Arthur Drogan, who died in unpleasant circumstances and whose wife blames Jen for his death. Barr never gets into Jen’s relationship with Drogan, which is a bit disappointing. But the very fact that we know of it makes her romance with Gabe a bit more poignant – she doesn’t know, early on in the series, if she really wants to get involved with him. As they take tentative steps toward a physical relationship, we see her slowly opening up to him. It’s interesting that the first time they have sex could even be considered “pity sex” – at Gabe’s birthday party that turns deadly, a bowl of acid falls on his arm, and it’s only because he’s wearing a jacket that he’s not killed. Jen feels terrible about it (she set up the faux-murder party), and she realizes how much Gabe means to her. Even after this, she’s not ready to move forward – Gabe loves her, but it takes her a long time before she can say she loves him (issue #11, to be exact). It’s a view of a relationship that we just don’t see that often in comics, but when it’s done right, it’s wonderful.
Barr twists the relationship well, too, to keep it fresh. Gabe writes for a true-crime magazine, so he’s always scrambling for funds. As I wrote above, he refuses to work for Jen because he doesn’t want his professional life and his private life to mix. So he’s always a bit put out by the fact that Jen is far richer than he is. In issue #16, Gabe gets a book deal, but it’s only for a paperback original and his royalties aren’t that big. At the same time, Jen sells the book she’s been (secretly) working on, getting a hardcover deal and a huge advance. Later, she chides him for not wearing a tuxedo to a fancy publishing party, and they have one of the only fights during the run, as Gabe can’t quite bring himself to tell her that he’s envious of her book deal and how he doesn’t have the money to throw around on a tuxedo. They make up at the end, and Gabe manages to explain how his macho ego is bruised. Barr does a nice job not allowing the spat to turn ugly (because they really do love each other) while still showing that it’s a sore point for Gabe. Barr always ties in the crime with some aspect of Gabe and Jen’s relationship, which is nice. Issue #17 features the daughter of a close friend of Jen’s who wants to follow her heart even though it could lead to danger, and that allows Jen and Gabe to discuss children of their own. Gabe and Jen get engaged in issue #19, and in issue #21, this event allows Barr to show how estranged Gabe is from his parents and how estranged one of the gay characters is from his parents, for entirely different reasons. Issue #23 takes the two to Eden II (which is modeled on Biosphere 2 out in the Arizona desert), where Jen wishes they could stay because it’s far away from the pressures of modern life (even though a murder has taken place there). Finally, Barr shows the two have a healthy sex life. They can’t keep their hands off each other, and are often playful about sex, which is fun to read. In this, as in every aspect of their relationship, Barr shows us two people who love each other deeply and enjoy the time they spend with each other. It’s refreshing and somewhat amazing how easily he does it, too, as he rarely devotes more than a few pages in each issue to their love life. He throws in a line of dialogue here and there, usually one brief scene, and then it’s off to the crime. But those few panels in each issue create a beautiful, loving relationship between two people.
Barr doesn’t stop with just the romantic relationship, either. Gabe and Jen are quite well matched professionally. Barr makes sure that neither one dominates in the case-solving. Usually one or the other actually solves the case, but occasionally, one solves part of it and the other another part of it. They have a bit of a rivalry going that spices things up. As an ex-CIA agent, Jen is a better fighter than Gabe, as we see more than once, including this wonderful sequence from issue #12:
Gabe can hold his own, but Jen never really needs rescuing, except in one crucial sequence in issue #14, when Gabe actually kills someone who’s about to shoot Jen. In another nice piece of writing, Barr shows us that Jen might be okay with killing (what with being in the CIA and all), but it bothers Gabe quite a bit. Of course, his love for Jen helps him get through it.
Throughout the series, Barr creates excellent supporting characters, as well. Roberta Bliss, the cop who often turns to our heroes for help, is the most developed one, but there are others, as well. Jen and Gabe have a good relationship with Bliss and Simons, the crotchety older cop who works with Bliss, so they’re often allowed to bend some rules that others might not. Bliss even gets a spotlight in issue #15, where she’s accused of murder. What’s interesting about all the supporting characters is that Barr uses them to make interesting points about society without being obnoxious about it. Jen dresses Bliss up (she usually dresses very casually) because she wants Bliss to make a good impression, as “professional women have to look twice as sharp as professional men.” A page later, Bliss says that she downplays her Puerto Rican heritage because she doesn’t want to be accused of getting special handling. It’s interesting how Barr makes those two points rather quickly and just moves on – neither woman is particularly bitter about the situation, just realistic. In issue #18, Jen cautions one of her friends, Lacey Carruthers, against having an affair with a married man. What’s nice about their conversation is that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Barr has already introduced the fact that Jen had an affair with Arthur Drogan, and Lacey was introduced in issue #6, even though issue #18 is only the third time she appears. Sandy, Jen’s assistant, shows up every so often, but we learn nothing much about him until issue #21, when we find out he’s gay. Barr does this quite well – Sandy’s personal life, like Bliss’s, isn’t relevant until a crime is committed that involves them, and then we find out a great deal about them, and because they’ve been around the entire series, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Sandy always had issues with his father, and Bliss always had issues with her ex-husband, but they didn’t have any impact on the cases. It’s clever how Barr manages to make these characters real during the run, so that when we finally learn more about them, we feel like it’s something we’ve known all along.
The character work on The Maze Agency is what makes it such a great comic. Barr writes good mysteries, but the way Gabe and Jen work together to solve them – flirting most of the time, arguing occasionally – makes the book shine. These are two very intelligent people doing something they enjoy and figuring out how to love each other in the process. They’re real people – Jen gets angry when Ashley Swift, her ex-boss, shows up and acts superior to Jen even though Jen solves more cases; both Gabe and Jen fret about what to give as presents to each other; Jen gets a haircut and refuses to chop off her forelock; Jen isn’t shy about admitting with whom she first had sex; both of them have familial issues that inform how they deal with each other; Jen cares a great deal about her employees, while Gabe goes the extra mile for his friends; Jen is a hard-nosed negotiator when it comes to unpleasant businessmen; though she’s tough, Jen is worried when a murderer she helped put away escapes, although she can still deal with him by herself. Barr doesn’t drench the book in angst, but he shows that these people have problems, even though they work through them. They struggle with some things but take joy in others, and it’s refreshing that the book never becomes too gloomy, even though Barr introduces some dark elements. He walks a fine line very well, and it’s a major reason why the comic is so good.
The Maze Agency, as a creator-owned work, has had a checkered publication history. The switch from Comico to Innovation was not accompanied with a new #1, even though there was a six-month gap between issues #7 and 8. I wasn’t buying it when it first came out, but it appears to have disappeared rather suddenly after issue #23 (at the end of that issue, there’s a cover and a brief blurb about issue #24, so they did plan on it coming out). Innovation didn’t shut down for another three years, so it’s not like the company went anywhere. Barr and Paul Pelletier did a short story for an anthology in 1993, and another story appeared in another anthology in 1994. Caliber Comics put out a three-issue mini-series in 1997-98 which I’d really like to get ahold of, and IDW put out another three issues in 2005-06. Those I do own, but they’re not terribly essential. The mysteries are okay, but Barr doesn’t do as much with the romance, which makes them less interesting. IDW has that series in trade, and they also have the only other Maze Agency collection, which has issues #1-4 of the original series plus “Murder in Mint Condition,” the first Hughes story from the 1988 San Diego convention. It’s in black and white, if I recall correctly, and it’s probably just as easy to track down the issues. IDW has been collecting older series in big omnibuses with slightly smaller dimensions (they’ve done it with Jon Sable: Freelance and Desperadoes, at least) and it would be keen if they could somehow cram every Maze Agency story (even the ones after this series ended) into one of those suckers. That would be fun. Until that glorious day, get thee to the back issue boxes! Gold lies in that thar cardboard! How can you resist Jennifer Mays, fanboys?
[I’m pretty okay with how much I wrote about the art with this one, because it really isn’t about the art that much – most of the artists Barr employed were capable storytellers, so even though the art in the final issue, for instance, isn’t very good, you’re still able to follow the story, which is the most basic thing you want from art. It’s a shame that Hughes couldn’t draw more, but such is life, and it’s too bad that Phipps – who died a few years ago, fairly young – didn’t stay on the book longer, because his art is quite good even if he’s aping Hughes. Oh well.
I still haven’t found the stories from the 1990s, which sucks, but who knows what the future holds! The first collection is still available, as I’ve linked to below, so if you’re interested, I recommend snagging that. It really is a wonderful series. Of course, getting the back issues is still probably the best way to go. Boy, an omnibus from Image or Dark Horse or IDW would look groovy, wouldn’t it? ComicMix does some older, indie stuff from the 1980s – they would do a good job with this, I reckon. Barr needs some love! The dude knows how to write a great comic!]