Last summer, I sorted through my comics collection, deciding what comics to part with and which to keep (a process I discussed in The Fate of the Teen Titans). Sometimes I hit a series that forced me to stop and consider. Keep or sell? How much did I love the series? How likely was I to ever reread it? Would I miss it if it was gone? When I reached ‘Mazing Man, however, I had no need to even pause. Of course, I was keeping it. ‘Mazing Man was one of my all time favorite comics ever. No question. I did, however, pull it out and set it aside. The time had come to reread it.
Even if you are a comics fan, you have probably never heard of ‘Mazing Man. You won’t find a hard-back, deluxe-edition-collected-series in your local library or comic book shop. Personally, I think the series definitely deserves such treatment, but alas, it was almost designed for obscurity from the beginning.
Just who, or what, was ‘Mazing Man? The series was created by Stephen DeStephano and Bob Rozakis, and published by DC Comics, for 12 issues (Jan.- Dec. 1986), followed by three annuals. ‘Mazing Man was also the “superhero” name of the main character. Siegfried Horatio Hunch III stood about 3 feet tall and always dressed in a homemade superhero costume complete with a yellow cape, metal helmet that covered his entire head, and polka-dot boxers worn over his black tights. Sometimes he added a Batman style utility belt filled with homemade gadgets that occasionally worked. His greatest power was eternal optimism and unshakeable faith in the goodness of the people around him. He lived in Queens with his best friend Denton Fixx, who happens to have a head like a dog, Denton’s half-sister K.P., and a collection of eccentric friends and neighbors. If you think all this sounds like an unlikely set-up for a superhero comic, you’re right. DeStephano and Rozakis were always clear that ‘Mazing Man existed in our universe, not in the DC Universe of Batman and Superman (though the Dark Knight did make occasional guest appearances on the covers,) and that the comic was a sit-com, not a super-hero adventure. The closest ‘Maze (as his friends call him) came to fighting crime was rescuing a baby from an oncoming truck or a cat from a burning building. Instead, the stories revolved around every day adventures like a trip to the beach or a Mets game, an unexpected dinner party, or Denton’s desperate attempts to write the next issue of “Splendidman” for BC Comics. The stories were all light-hearted and delightfully whimsical, with artwork to match. I loved finding the latest edition of ‘Mazing Man waiting on the rack of my comic book store, and it always went right to the top of the reading pile each month.
But right from the beginning, ‘Maze was in trouble. In almost every issue, Rozakis warned us readers that sales numbers were low and urged us to recommend the book to friends. Sales inched upwards, but not fast enough. By the end of the year, the book was cancelled. Fans remained passionate however, and ‘Maze returned in a one shot annual the next year, and the year after that, and then, miraculously two years after that. And then disappeared forever.
So, what happened?
For one thing, ‘Mazing Man was published by DC Comics. At one time, that would not have been an issue. In the 1960s DC, as well as Marvel, published a wide array of genres. Westerns. War stories. Romance. Sit-coms. But starting in the 70s, they started to shed all those other genres, and by the mid-80s were focused exclusively on superheroes. As they did, they also shed the audience for those other genres. By the 80s the comic book audience was almost exclusively focused on superheroes. Along with that, the type and feel of stories shifted. Writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman brought a richer, deeper, more serious view of comics and superheroes. The Tim Burton Batman movie pushed back against the campy, cartoony superhero. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight came out at the same time as ‘Mazing Man, putting out a darker, even dystopian view of superheroes, a view that spread rapidly through the industry, embraced by creators and readers. Within a couple of years “grim and gritty” became the norm. It was just not the time for a sweet, whimsical comedy to find an audience.
Of course, the mid 80s also saw the rise of the independent publishers, small companies experimenting with different stories and audiences. ‘Maze would have fit in with Fusion, The Weasel Patrol, The Desert Peach – stories that had the same feel. The independents catered to a much smaller audience, and the sales numbers that doomed ‘Maze at DC might have been quite respectful at any of these small companies. (Although, most of these titles did not survive the 80s, overwhelmed by the rise of the grim and brutal superheroes of the 90s.) But Rozakis and DeStephano were DC guys. Rozakis in particular had written for various DC titles for years. I don’t know if it would have occurred to either to seek out some other home for their creation. (And their contracts with DC may have prohibited it anyway.)
Today, of course, the comic world is very different. Superheroes still dominate, particularly at DC and Marvel, but they have to share the space with all manner of fantasy, SF, serious examination of real world stories and issues, and, yes, flights of whimsy. Many small companies publish books and the audience has diversified well beyond young, white males. The audience for many of these books is smaller, to the point that sales numbers that would have looked disastrous in 1986, can look quite satisfactory today. Had ‘Mazing Man come along today, it may well have found a solid home and we might well be enjoying the on-going adventures of ‘Maze and his friends, looking forward to a monthly dose of optimism and smiles in a world that too often lacks both.
But that is not how it played out. Instead, ‘Mazing Man is faded from memory, a good example that stories need to be more than good if they are to survive. Stories exist as part of society. They need to reflect the views of the readers if they are to find an audience; they need to fit the interests of the producers if they are to be supported and promoted. And ‘Maze, alas, did neither.
Instead, ‘Mazing Man was a case of a hero doomed by being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. And even his optimism could not survive that.