Gabe (left) and Jen surrounded by objects connected with their trade. Artist: Alan Davis.


Medium: Comic books
Originally published by: Comico
First Appeared: 1986
Creators: Mike W. Barr (writer) and Alan Davis (artist) Wagner
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Superheroes may be the dominant genre in American comic books, but it's been pointed out that the form is ideally suited for detective stories — not so much the hard-boiled style, like Johnny Dynamite or Mike Danger, but the Ellery Queen style that "play fair" with the reader, making all the clues available so he has a chance to solve the mystery before the detective sums up the case for him. It's much easier for the author to hide a clue in the background of a visual medium, than in the one-dimensional string of words of …

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… prose fiction; and of the two major forms of visual storytelling, video doesn't offer the random access that makes it easy for the reader/viewer to check back for clues he missed. Perhaps the best example of "play-fair" style mysteries in comic books is the Maze Agency series, created by writer Mike W. Barr (Camelot 3000, The Outsiders) and visually realized by artist Alan Davis (Excalibur, Miracleman) in 1986. The Ellery Queen character himself once made a guest appearance with The Maze Agency.

Many sources give 1988 as the date of this comic book's first appearance, and Adam Hughes (Ghost, The Catwoman) as Barr's artistic collaborator. That's because the 6-page 1986 story, "The Mile-High Corpse", was printed privately, for promotional purposes, in hopes of finding a publisher, and wasn't made available to the general public until it appeared in a 1990 special. The actual series didn't begin until Comico (Grendel, The Elementals) published "The Adventure of the Rogue's Gallery", by Barr and Hughes, with a December, 1988 cover date.

This launched a monthly series from Comico, in which Barr, a fan of Ellery Queen, served up a murder mystery each time, often going so far as to include a Queen-style "challenge to the reader" in which he paused the story to note that the reader now had as much information as the detectives, and was now able to name the murderer just as the protagonists were about to do. What he didn't mention was that often, this was possible only if the reader happened to be a deductive genius at the level of Sherlock Holmes or Adrian Monk, but he did play fair — the information was there, even if the reader wasn't likely to get full use out of it.

The Maze Agency was owned and operated by Jennifer Mays, one of two co-stars. The other was Jen's partner in crime-solving, true-crime writer Gabriel Webb. Gabe steadfastly resisted becoming an agency employee, because he was convinced an employment relationship would interfere with the personal one he and Jen were forging together. Roberta "Bobby" Bliss was the city homicide detective (it was set in New York) who often got in on their cases. Fictional private eyes often have a stormy relationship with such characters, but theirs with Bobby was, like those of many of the more cerebral and less tough guys, was relatively smooth. A final supporting character was Jen's business rival Ashley Swift of The Swift Detective Agency — Jen got her start in the business as Ashley's employee.

Barr wrote all of the Maze Agency stories, but Hughes, whose tenure didn't go quite back to the beginning anyway, wasn't so steady on the series. His last issue was the fifth; the sixth (May, 1989) was drawn by Joe Staton (Power Girl, E-Man). A succession of artists followed, including Rick Magyar (The Question), Mary Mitchell (Batman) and William Messner-Loebs (Journey).

Nor was Comico very steady as Maze's publisher. As of #8 (December, 1989), it was put out by Innovation (Justice Machine, Bill Ward's Torchy). That lasted until #23 (November, 1991. Innovation also did couple of specials and an annual. Including a brief revival by Caliber Press (Deadworld, The Crow) a few years later, there were about two and a half dozen issues during the 1980s and '90s, making it the second-longest running (after Ms. Tree, more the hard-boiled type) detective series in the history of independent comic books.

In the 21st century, IDW (John Law, The Badger) launched a Maze Agency reprint series in graphic novel form. The first volume, which came out in 2006, reprints the first five Comico issues.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Mike W. Barr