Sunday, March 13, 2016

Let's talk at some length about Midnighter, on our way to a review of Midnighter Vol. 1: Out...which will contain story-ruining spoilers, so don't read this post if you haven't read the book but want to

Writer Steve Orlando's Midnighter ongoing launched as part of DC's June 2015 "DCYou" initiative, but apparently won't survive this summer's "Rebirth" initiative. The series' tenth issue is just now seeing publication this month, and its first collection, Midnighter Vol. 1: Out, was just released, so its removal from the schedule seems to have less to do with sales than an attempt to re-focus the DCU line. Or, I suppose I should clarify that it may have to do with sales, but only as far as sales to direct market shops go, as not enough time would have passed to see if the book would fare better in the bookstore market as a trade paperback than it did as a serially-published comic, be it a paper one or a digital one. I don't know DC's exact metrics, obviously, but it seems like this was likely about more than sales, however big a factor sales might have been.

I wouldn't go so far to say that the cancellation of Midnighter is a shame, given how many superhero comics there are on the shelves at the moment, but I can see how it might feel that way to fans of the character or the book. As one of relatively few out gay super-characters, Midnighter is fairly unique in one sense, despite how derivative his character is of other superheroes in most every other sense. I think he's the only gay male superhero currently headlining his own title, but I'm saying that off the top of my head, rather than doing any research on the matter, which does make the cancellation a bit of a blow in terms of diversity (The "DCYou" initiative in general brought a great diversity of the types of characters starring in their own titles...and the creators and even styles of those books).

It is a rather good book, though.

It suffers from several problems of course, chief of which is the fact that Orlando doesn't exactly have a partner on the series. You'll notice I referred to it as "Steve Orlando's Midnighter" above; I did so not because I don't think an artist deserves to be granted the same degree of authorship as the writer, but because Midnighter lacks a regular artist. In Out, which collects the first seven issues (and the eight-page preview that ran during DC's Convergence break), first-issue artist Aco draws about 86 pages (#1, #3, #6, most of #7 and the preview), but these are interrupted regularly by sections of the book drawn by other artists Alec Morgan (#2) and Stephen Mooney (#4 and #5). Those are a lot of personnel changes for a single story arc, and the second issue of a brand-new series is a completely ridiculous time to need to turn to a fill-in artist. What makes the uneven art particularly regrettable is that Aco has a particular style and way of depticting Midnighter's powers–using tiny little inset panels to call attention to the things Midnighter's fight-computer brain and/or enhanced senses pick up on–that the other artists drawing th stories remaining 62-pages don't adhere to.

It also suffers somewhat from The New 52 paradox in a particularly weird way, given the relative youth of the Midnighter character, and the fact that as a WildStorm character imported into the DCU at the launch of the New 52, he has literally only been in this publishing line/universe for four years.

On the other hand, the character is a Warren Ellis-created, Mark Millar-tinkered with character, who Orlando writes as an Ellis-tongued Batman with a dark sense of humor, an insatiable sex drive and a love of violence. He surrounds himself with other characters, even borrowing Batman's longest-serving sounding board for a few issues, allowing him to trade quips, flirtations and tossed-off technobabble throughout his adventures.

Elements are quite familiar, even similar to other DC books–the character has a bit of Batman, a bit of Deathstroke, a bit of Constantine to him, and the globe-trotting, high-tech, super-crime focus is reminiscent of the slightly older Grayson book–but there isn't really another book in DC's line exactly like Midnighter.

But let's backtrack a bit, as Midnighter's not exactly a household name or anything.

So, who is Midnighter?

As mentioned above, the character was created by writer Warren Ellis with artist Bryan Hitch, both well before they reached their current super-star status, way back in an 1998 issue of StormWatch, when it was still an Image title. He and Apollo were the sole survivors of a seven-member superhero team of Justice League analogues, being the team's Batman and Superman, respectively.

Hell, the cover for the issue in which Midnighter first appeared looks like an homage to Dark Knight Returns:

While Mignighter, like so many Ellis creations, wore a particularly movie-ready looking costume, note the cape-like coat, the scalloped sleeves and the cowl that looks like one of Batman's with the ears trimmed off.*

Unlike Batman, Midnighter was super-human, having a whole bunch of artificial enchancements to make him stronger, faster, smarter and with greater senses; these included an extra heart and a sort of "fight computer" in his brain that allowed him to predict outcomes nearly instantaneously, so he could essentially map out how to win fights just before jumping into one. (Batgirl Cassandra Cain, who had a similar ability gained in a completely different way, debuted well after Midnighter, if you're wondering.)

While he and Apollo appeared in that volume of StormWatch, they would reach greater heights in the millennial spin-off series The Authority, where they were part of a powerful superhero team with a no-holds barred approach to superheroing (I first heard of the team when writing up a little piece for my then-local paper about Ellis visiting a local comic shop; the shop's owner described The Authority to me as "an amoral Justice League"). Ellis and Hitch handed the hit book over to up-and-comers Mark Millar and Frank Quitely, and it was during their run in which Midnighter and Apollo came out as a couple. While it was refreshing to have two such powerful, bad-ass and (at the time) popular and prominent heroes come out as gay, it also made me a little uncomfortable in that they did so. Mainly because they were created as Batman and Superman analogues, and this was Mark Millar doing the writing, which made it seem like the intent may have been nothing more than a gay joke about DC's flagship characters (DC, by the time the characters had come out, had acquired the rights to the WildStorm characters and universe, and WildStorm was at the time an imprint of DC).

Whether that was the case or not–and hopefully it wasn't, but Millar's a writer whose sincerity is always a little hard to take given just about everything he's written since his brief run on The Authority–the characters certainly grew beyond simply being Gay Batman and Gay Superman (Who Are Gay With Each Other).

As was the case with most of the WildStorm characters after their acquisition by DC, the star of The Authority began to fall pretty quickly. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that what constituted success for characters overseen by Jim Lee at Image in the late '90s didn't exactly constitute success for DC in the early '00s, and maybe it had to do with the fact that DC's readership already had all those DC super-teams to read about, and thus weren't as interested in following the WildC.A.T.S. or Authority or whoever, even when they would occasionally cross over from Earth WildStorm to the DCU.

Midnighter did earn his own solo title in 2006, though, from the creative team of Garth Ennis and Chris Sprouse, the former of whom was perhaps uniquely positioned to write a semi-parodic superhero character whose adventures had gotten so big and absurd (this was years after The Authority fought God, remember) that the next logical step was silly: He sent Midnighter back in time to kill Hitler. Despite contributions from high-profile creators, the book limped along after Ennis and Sprouse's departure, and died after just 20 issues (That's still about eight issues longer than the current, second volume of Midnighter will last, however).

Hard to imagine that a book about a more powerful, more violent Batman without the moral code against killing wouldn't last too long, but then, that Midnighter solo book was stuck in the WildStorm universe, which, at the time, was going through a series of reboots that gained less and less traction with each attempt (a warning sign that DC failed to note?), and the creators eventually became those that DC felt they could spare from their DCU titles (a lot of Keith Giffen, in other words).

And then The New 52 initiative came, with a semi-rebooted, completely re-designed new universe that was composed under mysterious circumstances by the mysterious character Pandora for yet-to-be-revealed reasons, a universe that smooshed three of the 52 Earths of the extant DC Universe together: New Earth (The DCU Universe), the "Vertigo Universe" and "The WildStorm Universe" (Those last two had number assignations in 52, but I'll be damned if I can remember them, and I'm not digging through longboxes to find the comic in question).

Midnighter and Apollo's place in the New 52-iverse was in the pages of a new Stormwatch title, which lasted less than three years. Written by Paul Cornell, who also wrote the similarly short-lived and poorly-drawn Demon Knights, this new iteration imagined the team as a secret superhero team that has protected Earth from behind the scenes for centuries. It featured The Engineer, Jack Hawksmoor and Jenny Quantam, teamed with all-new creations and lead by Martian Manhunter, who in the New 52's new continuity was never really a member of the Justice League. Midnighter and Apollo were among their newest recruits, and they both looked terrible, with a red-eyed, coatless Midnighter wearing spikes all over his costume, including a huge one on his chin, for, um, some reason. It's not like it's easy to hit the guy, especially on the chin.
The launch of a Midnighter monthly, two years after the cancellation of Stormwatch, might have seemed like something of a surprise, given that the character hadn't found traction anywhere during much of the past decade, and DC's readership's fairly strong rejection of any WildStorm books in The New 52 era (Stormwatch lasted 31 issues, Grifter 17 issues and Voodoo 13 issues.)

More surprising still was not only that it wasn't terrible, but that it was actually quite good. Aco put Midnighter back in his original costume, losing the spikes, armor and red-eyes and restoring his coat (The character still has to have bits of armor here and there, and his gloves look like they may have weights in them or something, which seems weird; Midnighter doesn't really need padding or anything, does he? Given his abilities, his costume should really just be as basic a superhero costume as possible, chosen for style over functionality).

So Midnighter looks like Midnighter again, and he uses the doors that The Authority used to use (and which Brad Meltzer borrowed during his brief, best-forgotten Justice League of America) as he travels the world beating the living shit out of evil, often directed by his "assets," people he's met in one way or another and "tagged" with high-tech thingees that allow them to "call" him when they are in need...or just see something or someone he needs to kill.

Orlando, as I said, writes Midngihter as an Ellis character, talking almost exclusively in an endless variety of clever/bad-ass bon mots and, as in an Ellis-narrative, there is a sometimes dizzying amount of bleeding edge, sci-fi technology on display. This isn't to say that Orlando is doing something bad or wrong; Midnighter should be an extremely Ellis-esque character, since he is an Ellis character.

Without an origin or what one might call a "real life," Midnighter is pretty much always Midnighter, and Orlando gives a great introduction to the character in the very first issue, by introducing us to him via his dating profile. Midnighter dates, a lot. The preview has him jumping out of bed with one man, the first issue has him spending the night with another man (who will become a series regular, although they decide to be friends pretty much the very next morning) and he spends most of the first trade dating a guy named Matt, who we will discuss a bit later.

Besides all the fun, creative conflicts and combat–alien body-snatchers posing as demons from Christian hell, artificially-created vampires and other "weaponized folkore", a woman who can kill by reciting one of six words, etc–Orlando explores Midnighter's past and personal life, with Apollo here his ex-boyfriend, who he broke up with because...well, the main reason is that they were one another's first and only relationship, but Orlando ties it to Midnighter's powers by having the character note that he already knows the outcome of every fight, and therefore he breaks up with Apollo before their fight. As Orlando writes the character, his super-brain isn't simply for physical combat, by conflict of any kind.

He also surrounds Midnighter with friends like Matt, Jason (his first date in the book) and a straight guy who owns the bar that more or less serves as Midnighter's superhero HQ. Or, at least, the place he goes to between fights.

The overarching plot is that someone has stolen many super-exotic, fantastical weapons from some orbital vault called "The God Garden," where a woman named "The Gardener" created Midnighter. The thief immediately begins distributing those weapons all over the world, and were that not enough incentive for Midnighter to track them down, The Gardener confides to him that she also kept a secret file detailing the real life Midnighter didn't even know he had.

And so these seven issues feature Midnighter hunting for the arms dealer, meeting him only at the last page of the second-to-last issue.
The DCU connections are, for the most part, somewhat minimal. Midnighter encounters Multiplex, an old Firestorm villain whose power is to create innumerable clone bodies of himself, which makes him, if not Midnighter's arch-enemy, at least his favorite guy to fight.
At one point, Midnighter recruits/kidnaps Dick "Agent 37" Grayson for an extended team-up, apparently returning a guest-star favor (Midnighter appeared in the early issues of Grayson). It's actually kind of hard to overstate how much fun it is to see these two characters together. On the meta-level, it is of course interesting to see Grayson teaming up with a more violent, more psychopathic version of Batman, but this black-cowled crimefighter has a personality, and quips as much or more often than Grayson, and he's also gay, which makes his teaming with the sexiest man in the DC Universe a lot of fun, as he relentlessly flirts with Grayson.

I was actually sad when their mission ended; Midnighter and Grayson is about as enjoyable a Dynamic Duo as Batman Dick Grayson and Robin Damian Wayne were. Whereas Grant Morrison basically inverted the traditional Batman and Robin personalities in his Batman and Robin (grim, humorless Robin allied with a sunny, smiling Batman), Orlando's Midnighter makes Grayson the straight man and the guy who has to keep Midnighter from killing all of his opponents constantly.
And then we get to the climax of the book, which is where it suffers from the New 52 paradox and, if you're reading this despite my spoiler warning, let me remind you that I am about to ruin the end of the first story arc, okay?

So among Midnighter's circle of friends and allies is his new boyfriend Matt, who has white hair. Because Apollo also had white hair, a far more common hair color for people under 70 in superhero comics than it is in the real world, one could safely assume that the choice was quite deliberate, that the character was meant to evoke Apollo, and that Midnighter perhaps was attracted to him because he reminded him of his first love.

As it turns out, however, there's a more prosaic reason he has white hair. Matt is secretly a pre-existing DC Universe character, who also happens to have white hair. He's the character who robbed the God Garden and has been distributing it throughout the world and he's been plotting to murder Midnighter for at least five issues. He's also been dating, and sleeping with, Midnighter for weeks and weeks.

This is a little weird not because the character was seemingly straight in the pre-Flashpoint DCU, although I suppose that's a notable change, but also because that is a crazy amount of work to go through just to kill this one, single superhero, and killing this one, single superhero isn't the character's primary motivation, either pre-Flashpoint or even as stated in this book.

Okay, so here's the reveal:
That's right, it's Prometheus. So once again, we have a big moment in a New 52 series presented as a big moment that is a deliberate call-back to a now out-of-continuity story. The impact of the reveal, which is the cliffhanger of the sixth issue, depends on a reader knowing who the hell Prometheus is...which is something The New 52 was explicitly designed to not have happen that often, since all previous Prometheus appearances aren't supposed to exist anymore (which is maybe for the best, as after the three stories Grant Morrison wrote featuring the character, they were all terrible, terrible stories; I'm convinced that Cry For Justice and it's follow-ups, along with Identity Crisis, are a big part of the reason DC decided to try a reboot at all).

This Prometeus character was created by Grant Morrison who used the opportunity of DC's 1998 "New Year's Evil" specials to present his origin in New Year's Evil: Prometheus #1 (penciled by Arnie Jorgensen). That origin was essentially a reverse of Batman's: The son of criminals who saw his parents gunned down in front of him by police officers at a young age, Prometheus devoted his life to becoming the perfect soldier to wage a one-man war against justice. He appeared in a two-part arc in JLA #16-#17, in which he attacked the League in their Watchtower, taking down one of the most powerful League line-ups ever through a combination of trickery and high-tech gadgetry.

Among his gimmicks was a specially-designed helmet that allowed him to download particular skills and fighting styles directly into his brain.

He returned for Morrison's final JLA arc, "World War III," in which he was one of the members of a new Injustice Gang composed entirely of League-level threats. After that, well, don't read any Prometheus appearance after that.

Now, long-time DC readers–or at least newer readers who have read Morrison's JLA run in trade, which I hope is anyone at all interested in DC's superheroes, because those comics are just the best–will know all this when they see that splash page, and think, "Oh shit, it's Prometheus!" (And, maybe, "Wait, Prometheus and Midnighter were doing it all this time...? Huh.") For others, this is just a random bad guy.

At the beginning of the next issue, #7, Orlando recaps Prometheus' origins, and even includes The Cosmic Key (which, at least as presented here, simply allows him to disappear; we don't see his Ghost Zone or crooked house). It's kind of uncomfortable, at least to me, because there's no acknowledgement of the fact that Orlando is re-telling part of Morrison's story from the Prometheus special, or using a character that someone else created. I know this happens all the time in Big Two super-comics–Orlando didn't create Midnighter, Apollo, Grayson or Multiplex either–but given how few appearances Prometheus has had, and the way in which he's used here, it seems...worse, somehow. I don't think I'm articulating it very well, but his re-telling of Prometheus' origin, a character that I believe is appearing for the first time in the New 52-iverse here, borrows pretty heavily from Morrison's origin, with no indication that this character is a pre-existing one or that any borrowing is going on.

It just doesn't work for me, and maybe just me perosnally, that the character is used at all, for the same reason I don't like how The New 52 comics keep relying on old, pre-New 52 comics with which to buttress big, unearned moments, but also because if you're not familiar with the character and his stories, this seems like a new and original character (if randomly presented), but if you do, then this feels uncomfortably familiar.

All that aside though, Orlando does take Prometheus' name literally to incorporate it into his plot nicely (Prometheus having stolen "fire" from the God Garden for his own personal use). I think his appearance heralds the book falling a part quite a bit, though. While Prometheus' vendetta against law and order and superheroes is restated, and Midnighter likely qualifies, he's a hell of a superhero to start with. Prometheus makes a speech about Midnighter's hypocrisy, fighting murderers by murdering them, but hey, maybe you want to start small?

On the other hand, in JLA he did start with the Justice League, although they had the benefit of being the most public face of superheroics in the world. The fact that Midnighter is such a behind-the-scenes kind of guy–it's not like if he was killed any other superheroes would notice–makes him a strange target for Prometheus' first strike.

And then there's the lengths to which Prometheus went, essentially pretending to be in love with Midnighter for weeks, just to get close enough to almost murder him when his guard is sufficiently down. (Had he succeeded, that would be what, 1 down, 359 more to go...?)

Their battle is surprisingly dull, too. After Prometheus stabs Midnighter in the chest, suits up and begins his monologue, he tells Midnighter that he's made himself unreadable to Midnighter's computer brain, and that his own brain has been "programmed with the abilities of thirty of the world's best fighters," including Lady Shiva, Batman and Midnighter himself.

But when they fight they just punch, kick and beat one another with blunt objects (Prometheus has his super-baton, while Midnighter resorts to a fire poker and a doorknob). What should be the best fight scene imaginable is just one more fist-fight, and not even anywhere near as in interesting as the many, many fights of the previous six issues.

Midnighter and Prometheus are actually well-suited to be archenemies, but this was pretty out-of-left-field, draws attention to the problem at the core of The New 52, raises all kinds of distracting questions and, of course, fails to deliver on its promise.

I wouldn't say it ruins the first story arc of Midnighter, which is apparently going to be the first half of the series, but it certainly sours Out quite a bit.

*It didn't actually occur to me until I was staring at this cover and its close-up of Midnighter's cowl just now, but I suppose Doctor Midnight might also have been a source of inspiration for the character, given the name as well as the fact that Doc Midnight also rocked a black cowl that looked a lot like the one Batman would eventually sport, sans ears.

1 comment:

SereneNight said...

I've read the series, and I think you are spot on about many things. Matt's white hair was very evocative of the original Apollo design (who I confess I prefer). I liked your explanation of MAtt's origins because I didn't get that, so thanks for bringing that up.

As a Midnighter fan, I did feel the long separation between him and Apollo was somewhat contrived. Although it might've made made sense and maybe the writers felt that a single character was more relatable?

Lots of good action, and some great pencils in this book. I'm sad it was cancelled.