Change is coming, and it’s coming faster than many of us might think. The superhero comics readership has expanded to include more women and minorities than it ever has in the past, and these readers have waited, yelled, complained, and even begged for comics creators to tell stories about people like them. Marvel answered the call with the critically acclaimed Ms. Marvel, and readers rejoiced. With Midnighter Vol. 1: Out by writer Steve Orlando and artists ACO, Stephen Mooney, Alec Morgan, and Hugo Petrus, DC Comics has given fans of diversity in comics another series to sing about.
While Midnighter is not the first gay superhero in mainstream comics, he was and remains one of the few to consistently play a headlining role in a dedicated series. His historic relationship with the superhero Apollo is one of the most treasured elements of Wildstorm canon to LGBTQ fans, which makes the creators’ choice to do away with the relationship and portray Midnighter as a single gay man a bold choice that works phenomenally. Instead of focusing on this tried and true relationship, Orlando and the artistic team strive to break new ground. They quickly establish the basics of their main character as a superhero: a strong fighter with a supercomputer implanted in his brain that allows him to simulate a fight 1,000,000 different ways before the first punch is thrown. Then, they establish the man behind the mask: a wounded loner whose past was stolen from him when The Gardener, a collector of intergalactic treasures, implanted the supercomputer in Midnighter’s mind. He doesn’t even remember his real name, and is simply called M by those on close terms with him. However, even though Midnighter doesn’t have access to his past, someone else discovers it when they rob The Gardener’s God Garden of all its treasures, including a file on Midnighter’s previous life.
What makes G. Willow Wilson’s and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel so remarkable is how it balances main character Kamala Khan’s life as a marginalized Muslim high schooler with her superheroic antics as the eponymous superhero. Throughout Midnighter, Orlando and company strike a similar balance between public heroics and private intimacy to invaluable effect. While it can be fun to watch heroes jump from fight to fight as they often do in superhero comics, the fights mean so much more when we care about the lives of the people behind the masks.
When Midnighter beats up a hundred people to rescue a missing girl named Amanda, we feel great that she’s safe and will be able to return to her normal life. That’s where most comics would end the story. Where the Midnighter creative team’s brilliance shines is when they follow that scene with a moment where Midnighter’s boyfriend intimately tends to Midnighter’s battle wounds before a hot shower. By giving us this moment, which is only one among many throughout the seven chapters of this volume, the reader becomes more intimate with Midnighter. We as readers are shown why we should love Midnighter and his partner, rather than told to love them through long overwrought dialogue with no visual or temporal substance, and the results are undeniable.
The art throughout Midnighter‘s first volume is best described as experimental. The series’ primary artist, ACO, is a bit of a mystery in the comics world, but deserves a great deal of attention for the work put into Midnighter. Their layouts shine when the images showcased are meant to be more symbolic than representational. For example, when Midnighter decides to rescue the aforementioned Amanda, he first makes a stop at her mother’s house, where ACO treats us to a galaxy of circular panels that juxtapose Amanda’s bright and innocent personality with grim fingerprints and handprints that serve as clues that help lead Midnighter to Amanda’s kidnappers. It’s a beautiful moment that demands the reader’s full attention and rewards them for it.
On the other hand, when ACO’s artwork needs to be more literal, especially in its representation of movement, it occasionally fails to meet the task. For example, in the billiards game played out below, it is difficult to parse the turns of the game visually, as panels are arranged in a circuitous order beginning at the center of the pool table and moving back around to the bottom. Once you understand the arrangement, it’s easy to say that it’s a clever layout choice, but unfortunately it makes the narrative unnecessarily difficult to follow. Perhaps if the panels had circled up and descended back down to the bottom row of panels instead of back to the pool table, it would have made more sense. As it stands though, the confusion caused by this visual choice forces the reader to rely on Orlando’s script to parse the scene. That said, even when the art fails to meet narrative snuff, ACO always leaves something pleasurable to look at from an artistic standpoint. This sort of innovation and creativity should be rewarded, even when it fails, as lord knows we could use more of it in comics.
From my perspective as a straight man, what makes Midnighter such a unique work is how it portrays queer sexuality in such a normative way. Historically, LGBTQ literature and comics have often explored feelings of “otherness” and isolation. Midnighter is neither. He isn’t plagued by questions about his sexual identity, and also doesn’t show fear when hateful people confront him about it. He is loved by many, platonically and romantically, despite posturing as a loner. He is the post-modern gay superhero we deserve– someone who isn’t isolated from the struggles that queer people face from society, but doesn’t let those problems isolate him. In a world that’s gradually becoming more and more accepting of people with sexual identities that fall outside the heterosexual norm, shouldn’t we support books like Midnighter, that present a gay hero the way we want gay people to feel in society: as accepted?