Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s Midnighter #10. Written by Steve Orlando (Undertow, Batman & Robin Eternal) with art by Aco (Constantine, Wonder Woman), Hugo Petrus (Pride & Prejudice, The Man In The Iron Mask), and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (The Omega Men, Captain America: Sam Wilson), this issue showcases the outstanding action storytelling that has made Midnighter one of DC’s most thrilling titles. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
DC’s Rebirth is on the horizon, and in order for the struggling publisher to be reborn, some titles are going to have to die. DC unveiled its Rebirth plans last month with a video from Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns that provided little concrete information about what the company was actually doing, instead showering praise on Johns’ own past projects Green Lantern: Rebirth and The Flash: Rebirth and letting readers know that they’ll be the template for the future of the DC Universe, one that is still modern but embraces the best elements of DC’s rich history. How DC plans on accomplishing that is yet to be seen, and the video is full of the empty hype that surrounds so many superhero projects nowadays, especially these types of line-wide relaunches.
DC hasn’t actually provided creative teams for its 32 new titles, so it’s difficult to judge what these new books are actually going to look like, but by announcing the line-up, DC is asking readers and retailers to draw conclusions without all the information. All people have to go on is the list of books, and it’s an uninspiring line-up that lacks many of the most exciting, ambitious titles DC is currently publishing like Black Canary, Doctor Fate, Martian Manhunter, and Midnighter. On the plus side, all DC books will be $2.99 again, but 17 ongoings will be published twice a month, a schedule that invites creative inconsistency because it’s difficult for artists to hit those deadlines without their work taking a hit.
It’s clear that DC is doubling down on characters that have a presence in media outside of comics; all of the members of the Justice League have solo titles that will be shipping twice a month, along with Green Arrow, Harley Quinn, and the Suicide Squad. (The most puzzling character to get a double-shipping book is Deathstroke, a character DC has been trying really hard to make successful since he started appearing on Arrow.) Many of these new titles have strong connections to DC’s top heroes Batman and Superman, and Gotham favorites Nightwing and Birds Of Prey (now Batgirl & The Birds Of Prey) are getting revived while the Super-family is expanding with The Super-Man, Supergirl, Superwoman, and Super Sons.
These may end up being remarkable books with promising creators doing bold new things with the superhero genre, but with the limited information DC has offered the public, it’s hard to look at this list and not see a company playing it safe and relying on the old standards to keep it afloat. Given the publisher’s declining sales, it’s understandable why DC is moving in a direction that pushes its most popular characters to the forefront, but it’s discouraging to see DC give up promising titles rather than using Rebirth to give them some extra attention.
DC severely damaged its reputation by flooding the market with underwhelming titles during the launch of The New 52, and over the last few years that has led to diminishing sales as retailers order smaller quantities of DC titles because they may not sell if the quality isn’t there. The sales numbers for the DC You launch titles last year were rough, especially the drop-off between the first and second issues, but that’s not surprising given DC launched 21 new books in one month. DC’s strategy of dumping its new books as quickly as possible rather than staggering the releases over a few months (like Marvel does) is bad enough, but it’s even worse when these new books arrive after two months of an event that replaced the publisher’s entire line-up with largely lackluster miniseries. DC certainly hasn’t made retailers’ jobs easy for them, and they’ve responded by ordering fewer DC titles.
That’s a shame because there are some very good DC comics deserving of more attention right now, from the books mentioned earlier to miniseries like The Omega Men and Prez (which is supposed to be returning with a second volume but isn’t included on DC’s list of Rebirth books). Midnighter is one of the best, but it’s also one of the lowest selling, which is puzzling considering the title is full of humor, imagination, and action and features a hero who reads like a mix between Batman and Deadpool, but is unabashedly gay. It’s a superhero comic that stands out from the crowd, so why has it fallen so far under the radar?
It could be because of Midnighter’s origins. Beyond The Authority, the characters created at Wildstorm never gained much cultural cachet, and the little cachet The Authority had has long expired. Midnighter’s integration into The New 52 wasn’t very smooth, appearing in the mediocre Stormwatch series before being put to much better use as a recurring player in Grayson, but he’s reached new heights in his solo series thanks to the work of writer Steve Orlando and the main art team of Aco, Hugo Petrus, and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. (Alec Morgan, Stephen Mooney, and David Messina have also done very strong work as fill-in artists.)
Midnighter isn’t a very well known character, but beyond promotion for the very first issue, DC hasn’t done much to increase his profile. Midnighter was on quite a few Best Of Comics 2015 lists, including The A.V. Club, Vulture, io9, and Polygon, and DC could have used this critical acclaim to promote the book, especially with the first collected volume hitting stands just two months after those lists were published. In January, Midnighter was also named as one of the nominees for the “Outstanding Comic Book” GLAAD Media Award, which makes it disheartening to see DC cut the book rather than take notice of the acclaim and use it to build up the book’s audience. Midnighter is the only gay male superhero with a solo comic at DC or Marvel, and instead of working harder to elevate him within the DC Universe, DC is canceling his series and delivering a significant blow to representation of gay men in superhero comics.
Maybe readers and retailers ignored Midnighter because of the inaccurate perception of the character as “gay Batman.” Midnighter was indeed created as an analog for Batman, but the only similarities between the characters are in their appearance and their shared need to bring the world’s criminals to justice. Batman’s need stems from the childhood trauma of watching his parents get gunned down, whereas Midnighter’s need stems from the torture, experimentation, and manipulation he endured to be turned into an unstoppable killing machine, and he uses his gifts to hurt those that make others suffer. Midnighter is superhuman in a way that Batman isn’t, with a computer in his brain that allows him to run a million simulations of a fight before it happens and find ways to exploit his enemies’ weaknesses in ways they don’t expect.
Midnighter’s focus on the character’s personal relationships (platonic and romantic) is its heart, but the book’s fight sequences are its soul. That soul is flying high and free in this week’s Midnighter #10, which pits the hyper-violent hero against Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad for some brutal, exhilarating action. Despite having a feature film in theaters this summer, the Squad has had an unlucky few years at DC Comics. But the team is finally on the upswing in 2016 thanks to the one-two punch of their appearance in Midnighter and New Suicide Squad’s new creative team of writer Tim Seeley and artist Juan Ferreyra.
This week’s Midnighter highlights Orlando’s tight handle on Squad mainstays Amanda Waller and Deadshot, capturing each character’s distinct type of bravado and showing how Waller’s vicious condescension creates friction with Deadshot’s snarky pride. As I wrote in the Big Issues on Midnighter #2, pride is a big part of Midnighter’s character, and his refusal to lose his cocky attitude infuriates Waller. She can’t dominate him the way she can Deadshot (who has a bomb in his neck to keep him in line), so she decides to torture Midnighter by having two of her superpowered guards turn his skin to salt that they can crack off over and over as he heals. They manage to take off a good chunk of his thigh before he breaks free by using tiny bursts of super speed to vibrate the screws off the bottom of the chair he’s chained too, and once he’s loose, the carnage begins.
Hugo Petrus draws the first half of the issue while Aco handles the back half, but their styles are so similar that it’s difficult to spot the switch. They both have an inventive approach to page layouts that uses micro-panels to accentuate certain visual details and help guide the eye, and they incorporate graphic elements like starbursts, spirals, and customized sound effects to give each action beat greater impact. The page with Midnighter breaking free from his chains and killing Waller’s goons spotlights all these visual strengths as Petrus and Fajardo Jr. detail Midnighter’s daring escape, starting by breaking from the structure of the preceding pages, which all feature rectangular panels with clean right angles.
Petrus starts by incorporating diagonals, including the issue’s one triangular panel, when Midnighter jumps into the air and flips around so the guards’ blasts can shatter his chair, and that layout shift intensifies the sense of motion on the page. The diagonal border of that triangular panel, combined with the micropanels layered on top showing Midnighter breaking the chair’s frame to create two projectiles, carries that momentum downward to add speed to the panel of Midnighter throwing the pieces of chair at his opponents. The path of those makeshift weapons ends with another rectangular panel positioned on a diagonal, which is layered with two micro-panels showing X-rays of the guards with pieces of chair penetrating their skulls and an evocative “GLUTCH” sound effect.
That page ends with Midnighter standing triumphantly in his tattered costume, one thigh fully exposed while the other thigh has a bleeding handprint on it from Waller’s torture. It’s an image that exudes confidence, and while the bleeding handprint isn’t especially attractive, Orlando and his art team emphasize the character’s sex appeal in that moment by having him show some skin. This creative team is consciously trying to make Midnighter a gay sex symbol in this book, and while he doesn’t do anything overtly erotic in this week’s issue, he certainly looks sexy when he’s kicking ass in a ripped up costume that reveals his hairy chest and upper thigh.
Midnighter’s escape is very cool, but the action highlight of this issue arrives when the hero finally leaps into action against Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Parasite. On a densely packed 21-panel two-page spread, Midnighter takes out Harley Quinn and Parasite by punching Parasite in the mouth and using one of his teeth to whack Harley in the forehead, and then Midnighter enrages Deadshot by proving that the marksman’s aim isn’t as perfect as he thinks, dodging a flurry of bullets until it’s strategically wise for him to get hit. It’s a busy layout, but Fajardo Jr.’s clean coloring provides clarity while amplifying the energy with vibrant pastels that make the linework pop.
This book’s action sequences can be a bit disorienting with the flurry of panels, but Aco, Petrus, and Fajardo Jr. have gotten increasingly better at creating a more fluid reading experience without losing any of the dynamic speed and power that make Midnighter such a spectacular action hero. Midnighter #10 is their best issue yet, and it’s unfortunate that the book is heading to its conclusion when it feels like this creative team still has so much more to offer with this character and concept.