The Middleman - From TV to Comics and Back Again, p1
Natalie Morales and Matt Kesslar from ABC Family's The Middleman, based on the Viper comic book series
Javier Grillo-Marxuach has enjoyed a lot of success as a writer in Hollywood, working on such shows as Lost, Medium and many other sci-fi and fantasy shows (seriously. It’s a lot.). Now, he’s getting to do his own show…and he owes it in part to comic books.
For several years, readers have been familiar with The Middleman, the action-packed and wickedly funny series about Wendy Watson, a directionless twentysomething who gets sucked into the wonderful world of mysterious conspiracies and science gone mad when she takes a job with a mysterious figure hired to clean these messes up…a milk-drinking hero known only as the Middleman. Published by Viper Comics and illustrated by Les McClaine, the book enjoyed a considerable amount of critical acclaim, and led to Grillo-Marxuach doing several projects for Marvel Comic and other publishers.
But The Middleman had its origins as a TV pilot script…and now it’s returned to its roots as a new one-hour series premiering on ABC Family June 16th. Starring veteran actor Matt Keeslar and new name Natalie Morales as Wendy, it’s one of the most faithful adaptations from a comic to screen (big or small) ever, with a pilot that features everything from an “ass monster” to a gangster ape. And if you missed the comic, don’t worry – Viper is reprinting the entire series as a 336-page omnibus entitled The Collected Series Indispensability this July.
With all this going on, we called up Grillo-Marxuach for a casual conversation about his film and TV work – and, in the process, got an advance look at the pilot. As energetic as the comics he writes, Grillo-Marxuach was eager to tell us about The Middleman’s journey from TV to comics and back again.
Newsarama: Javi, the pilot’s tone really reminded me of some late-1990s shows, such as the live-action version of The Tick.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach: That’s interesting. The Middleman has a very convoluted history – it was originally written around 1999 as a spec pilot, and then it became the Viper comic book, and now it’s a TV show again! So it is very much a product of that time.
NRAMA: So it does pay to recycle…
JG-M: Exactly! (laughs)
NRAMA: But it is interesting – you’ve had a lot of success in television, obviously, but it seems like the Middleman concept really took off once you did it as a comic book.
JG-M: Well, I’ve been a comic book fan forever. The genesis of The Middleman as a comic book in its second life was when I got to work with Paul Dini on Lost. And Paul is someone I’ve really admired, because along with his Batman work in both animation and comics, and his work in prime time, he has several creator-owned characters that are his, such as Jingle Belle and Madame Mirage. And hearing Paul talk about these characters so near and dear to his heart really inspired me to go out and rework this pilot for another medium.
It’s funny, because The Middleman is really suited for the comic book medium as well in its own way….
NRAMA: There’s the unlimited budget, for one…
JG-M: There’s definitely that! But it’s more than that, because the comic book and the pilot are very similar. It’s probably the most faithful adaptation of a comic book…which makes sense, because the comic book was based on the pilot…but you can pick up the comic book and watch the pilot, and we haven’t really changed the names of the characters, or the costumes, or the genders….it really is the comic book!
And a great deal of it also comes from the fact that I’m a comic fan, and I wrote this with a comic-book aesthetic in mind. I think the big issue with a lot of comic books these days is that they’re just glorified pitches for movies and TV shows. I had literally already written a story with a beginning, middle and an end for these characters that became the comic book.
So there was a lot of development in the comic book....it was done in a way that you could get an idea of how it would look as a live-action series, but it would also work as a unified comic book as well.
NRAMA: When you were trying to translate that comic aesthetic into a live-action medium, what are some of the challenges?
JG-M: Well, I believe that the most important thing is that the comedy and the tone of The Middleman only work if people try and play this straight. You know, if people try and play it for laughs, or for anything other than the idea of, “this is real, and these characters really exist in this world,” then the whole thing kind of falls down.
We had a long audition process for Wendy, for example. With the Middleman, I think I always knew it was going to be Matt Keeslar, because I loved him from The Last Days of Disco…
NRAMA: Whit Stillman, yeah!
JG-M: He has that monologue about Lady and the Tramp, and I told him repeatedly that that was kind of his audition for the part…
NRAMA: My memory’s failing me. Was he the character in that film that collected Uncle Scrooge comics?
JG-M: No, that was the Robert Sean Leonard character. Matt’s character has this long speech about Lady and the Tramp and how it’s a booby-trap set by animators to get women to like undesirable men…
NRAMA: I remember that! Man, it’s been a long time since I saw that movie…
JG-M: Yeah, Matt was someone I had looked at long time ago and thought, “Oh my God, it’s him!” And with everyone else, it was a long audition process, with a lot of actors who didn’t understand that the way to do this part wasn’t to do it broad, wasn’t to play it for laughs, wasn’t to play it for irony, it was to play it like these were real people in the real world.
And I think that’s one of the things Les McClaine brought to the comic book – he has a very facile style with a very fine line, and it conveys the emotionality of the comic book without stepping outside of it. And that was the process with the TV show – it was about finding actors, finding artists, finding a director, finding people to execute this who could create the tone of The Middleman without giving it a “comic book” tone.
It doesn’t mean it’s a documentary, obviously (laughs), it’s a very stylized thing, but it doesn’t call attention to its own comic book-ness without earning the right to call itself that, you know?
NRAMA: Has Les been involved with the TV version?
JG-M: Les is a partner in this, and his visualization of it is visible throughout the series, because he had such a strong hand in the comic. So you’ll see his hand in this, but he’s a comic book artist and is doing Jonny Crossbones and other comic projects. And we continue to work together, obviously.
NRAMA: Getting back to the casting, there’s the girl who plays Wendy, Natalie Morales…
JG-M: Yes! Not the newscaster…Natalie, “Not-the-Newscaster” Morales…
NRAMA: I confess I was crushing on her a bit after the pilot.
JG-M: You and me both, my friend! (laughs) You and me both.
NRAMA: With the glasses, she kind of looks like a butt-kicking Tina Fey.
JG-M: (laughs) I will not turn down that comparison. I’m happy to hear that. It was a very complicated process to find the right person who could depict Wendy’s attitude. And frankly, from a technical level, The Middleman has a tremendous amount of very complicated dialogue that the characters have to speak very quickly…
NRAMA: It has the quality of an old screwball quality.
JG-M: Yes. And Natalie, we were very lucky to find her, because she was able to understand the rhythm and the tone of the dialogue very well, and look like who she is, and understand that character.
What Natalie brings to the party is this – she brings Wendy! She has that ability to play Wendy and say those words and not sound like those words were written. And, obviously, she’s a gorgeous ass-kicking Tina Fey. (laughs) And she is a tremendously gifted actor, and has the ability to deliver this immensely complicated staccato dialogue like it’s her own. That’s worth its weight in gold.
NRAMA: I noticed you managed to sneak a few comic book references into the pilot…
JG-M: Yeah. (laughs) Quite a few. That’s actually my pull list, dude.
NRAMA: It’s a good pull list!
JG-M: That was literally…just a few months ago, when I was doing the rewrites of the script, I was updating it. That pull list has changed a lot, because I wrote the script in 1998, so a lot of titles have been added – and a few have rolled off since we shot the script! (laughs) I think Powers was there from early on, Astro City was always there…I think Mouse Guard was a fairly recent addition.
NRAMA: I was pretty shocked to hear a Mouse Guard reference on TV.
JG-M: Not that it needs my help, it’s a beautiful book. It makes my character cool to like that book.
End of Part One. Look for Part Two of our conversation Thursday, June 5th
The Middleman premieres on ABC Family on June 16 at 8 p.m. EST. For more information on its making, visit the official web site, Javier Grilo-Marxuach’s LiveJournal, The Middleblog or the fan site Middlefan.