‘Mazing Man (#1 – 12) – Bob Rozakis

3 out of 5

I would’ve been one of the ones buying my monthly issues of ‘Mazing Man, agreeing with the generally impassioned letter writers who praise its humble uniqueness amongst the DC hero stable, while also fearing its almost assured cancellation for those same reasons… But I think I would’ve been part of the problem, as I likely would’ve stopped short of outwardly recommending the book to people. It’s very much a series that could, but never quite did, always on the verge of being something really special and revelatory, in a simple slice-of-life way, and then veering off toward Archie-esque gags instead.

The book undeniably has something, though: it stars ‘Mazing Man, a short, unpowered fella who wears a shiny helmet, a cape, and undewear-on-the-outside in the approximation of superhero garb, which is rather outlandish in the corner of the DC Universe he occupies, in which Superman and Batman are only comic book characters. “Maze” wants to bring such heroism to life, though, and feels the most responsible way to do that is via baby steps – helping people cross the street; solving a squabble between neighbors; that kinda thing. And if, every once in a while – every few issues – his good citizen shtick actually helps stop or solve a crime or two, then that’s exactly on the same level as those other good deeds.

While never spoken aloud, there’s definitely the suggestion that Maze is aware that his outfit is pretty ridiculous, and gets him his fair share of behind the back snickers, but that there’s some purposeful distraction involved: both for Maze himself, perhaps making it easier to feel emboldened to intervene where many would pass by – even for simple favors – and also countering the world’s ills with a bit of goofiness.

Writer Bob Rozakis and co-creator / artist Stephen DeStephano drop Maze into an apartment building, and turn this into a situation comedy, with approximately two stories per issue, capturing the latest accidental hijinks with which Maze is involved, or letting us get to know the rest of the cast: Denton his roommate; KP, Denton’s sister; Eddie and Brenda, the married couple-next-door; and Guido, the hairy-chested lothario next door. Also, Denton happens to look like a dog, but he’s not a dog, this being the only detail of that nature in an otherwise pretty grounded lil’ comic.

…This also being one of the ways in which the book never quite establishes itself. There’s willful ridiculousness to Denton which makes one wish Rozakis / DeStephano had risked some other oddities with the book, and / or made him the focus: given that Denton is a struggling comic book writer, there were certainly some sympathies there. But instead, the book juggles Maze and Denton, and then wraps things up in 15 pages with a gag. Rewardingly, linearity carries over in these stories, and issue by issue, which allows for some really fascinating stuff, such as the series’ no-doubt peak when the opening humorous tale of a ballgame is backed by a more dramatic look at Brenda’s and Eddie’s marriage; it’s a 1-2 knockout in which we get jokes, but also explore Maze and Denton’s friendship, and the way Maze’s heroism can play out in the “real” world, then followed up by a pretty sober take on relationships (if a little too pat in its conclusion). But this is a strength that’s never quite repeated; other issues of ‘Mazing Man nibble at this duality and then step back, as the creative team keeps trying to figure out what the best way is to balance the weird and humble book they want with something that might sell, and tellingly, I’d say things get less brave and more joke based as we go along.

DeStephano’s art is a lot of fun, sort of a Mad Magazine-style looseness, tied to a tight, 9-grid panel. Rozakis’ often packed scripts mix a lot of dialogue humor with slapstick, and unfortunately, not all of that gets to the page in the best format, with DeStephano pressed to jam it all in and missing some timing, and letterer Bob Lappan quite often having to sacrifice reading order to leave room for the 3 or 4 characters who have to appear in all those panels. But there’s an earnestness to the project that keeps it flowing, despite its stumbles.

And that’s true of the series as a whole. The book struggled with getting marked as a kids book, based on the appearance of ‘Mazing Man, and some of the more gag-laced issues – though heavy with copy – might fall into that, but if you start with ish 1, it’s clearer that Rozakis and DeStephano (as encouraged by editor Alan Gold) were trying to do something completely other. The first issue achieves that, as does #6, but it’s a struggle to find that balance, and the comic fails at doing so consistently. But you cheer for it. ‘Mazing Man, the character, is an underdog; the book is the same way. I’ve returned to it multiple times, not because I expect it to read differently, but because I like the way Bob and Stephen tried, and tried with clear passion, crafting a title that is surely imperfect, but has never been exactly repeated, even decades on.