Story Profilers

The Identity and Community of Steve Orlando’s Midnighter

The Steve Orlando-written Midnighter and its follow-up miniseries Midnighter and Apollo were mainstays in comics discussion while they were running. While the superhero flavoring is laid on thick — Midnighter has a well-earned reputation as a hyperviolent Batman, black aesthetic and brooding but with extra blood — a focus of the story is gay romance, and it immediately gained the spotlight for being one of very few queer-led books coming out of the Big 2 publishers. The whole story is collected in three trade paperbacks, two for Midnighter and one for Midnighter and Apollo, that emphasize love, community, and a fascination with human viscera.

Though the recovering romance between Midnighter and Apollo is the through line tying the volumes together, the tension of the story is rooted in identity. Midnighter Volume 1 is titled “Out,” a direct reference to the eponymous hero’s identity as a gay man (the second volume is “Hard,” if you want your comics to give you a flirtatious, or lecherous, wink). The first page opens on Midnighter waking up to a distress call after a one-night stand, an affirmation of his sexuality important because Midnighter’s struggle with identity is not a struggle with his gayness. Instead, it is a three-fold search for what it means to be Midnighter.

The great tragedy of the character is that Midnighter can never fully move past seeing himself as a weapon. Through two flashbacks in the first volume, the creative team casts the hero as an individual who, despite swaggering confidence in combat, suffers deeply from his past trauma and an ingrained sense of otherness. As part of the experiments that turned him into Midnighter, he lost all memory of his past life. Midnighter created the false identity of Lucas Trent to provide a sense of normal humanity, particularly to make himself “worthy” for Apollo, which when discovered causes a fight where he describes himself as “not a person… Midnighter is a nameless, homeless fight robot.” When the duo breaks up, Midnighter suggests that his identity, particularly as an out gay man, was forged solely in the context of his relationship with Apollo, telling his lover, “I don’t know how to be me, without you.” Over the arc of the volume, Midnighter moves past this insecurity of identity and towards a healthier sense of self, exploring the questions of who he was and is, and decoupling his identity from Apollo’s.

These lines are laid out in the first three sequences following the first issue’s opening page. In the first action sequence of the series, a gang drives through the streets shooting at civilians. They hold the Perdition Pistol, a gun that tags people it shoots for possession and transformation by demon-like alien entities. The weapon hits two people: one of the gang members, whom Midnighter brutally decapitates, and a young girl. He threatens the alien controlling the girl’s body without harming her, getting the alien to release its hold and reinstate her identity. This subjugation of identity provides an avenue to begin a recurring look at Midnighter’s morality, a key part of how he defines his identity, and the pairing of brutality with empathy, even tenderness, that marks the dichotomy of Midnighter-as-weapon and Midnighter-as-human that plays out throughout the volume.

This duality is tied intrinsically with Midnighter’s complicated perception of agency. Near the end of the volume he states, “I can’t go back. Can’t help what was done to me. I can only point it in the right direction.” This view is reiterated at the beginning of Midnighter and Apollo when he explains to Apollo that killing is “what I was built for. I point it in the right direction… You can’t change it.” His claim of limited agency, that he is a weapon that can aim itself but always shoots to kill, dovetails well with his morality, which he summarizes in Volume 2 as “The hurt never need to worry. The hurters are on borrowed time.” However, his actions demonstrate a more nuanced, human reality based on choice.

In his first mission, Midnighter fights Marina Lucas, a widow using advanced weaponry to seek vengeance against the corporation that killed her husband by knowingly releasing a food product without proper allergy warnings. By the strictest adherence to his moral code, Midnighter should hold no mercy since her assault includes innocent workers with no knowledge of the company’s corruption. Once he knows her story, however, he joins her attack against the corporation’s board of directors. He knows what it is like to feel powerless in the face of powerful figures that steal life without remorse, and empathizes with her pain and desire for vengeance. He tells Marina that she “did the right thing, the wrong way,” and though she goes to prison, he develops a friendship with her. Marina becomes one of the closest and most influential members of the community Midnighter builds in the absence of Apollo. His second mission is tracking down a kidnapped girl. While questioning her mother, Midnighter is direct about his violent methods, but listens carefully to everything she says and ends by promising that she and her daughter will be able to finish the book they were reading together. When he returns the girl to her apartment, he jokes with her and reassures her that nothing that happened was her fault. The final major plot mission before the Volume 1 finale is a team-up with Dick Grayson, former Nightwing and current Agent 37 of Spyral, to track down the Russian black market dealer Noi Akakyevich. While working with Grayson, Midnighter almost entirely refrains from killing, choosing instead to cripple Akakyevich as a potential path to redemption. As Midnighter explains to Grayson, “I don’t like your rules, but I respect you. So if we’re working, you can trust me to respect them.” Through these images, again and again, Midnighter’s insistence that his brand of heroics is a function of the fight computer in his brain’s programming to fight and kill falls apart as something that can be controlled by personal choice. His precise morality is malleable. He is compelled by empathy and compassion as much as a programmed drive to fight. Since Midnighter defines his identity by the violence that was done to him, and the violence he now metes out to protect others, however, he struggles to view this compassion as human.

The second sequence, addressing Midnighter’s past, is set at the God Garden, Midnighter’s birthplace and a repository of dangerous experimental weaponry floating in space. A man cast in shadow attacks the woman who tends the facility, known only as the Gardener. Later, the Gardener summons Midnighter to track the man down and reveals that he stole the only file containing Midnighter’s history alongside the Garden’s weapons. As soon as he knows his origin file is on the line, Midnighter agrees to hunt down the thief and stolen tech. The urgency of the search is highlighted with that flashback declaration to Apollo that “I don’t have a name. A childhood. Nothing… I’m not a person.” The search for the thief is a deeply personal search for Midnighter’s own past, and, to his mindset, his humanity. While the significance of the hunt is not mentioned directly, it serves as the impetus for all the action, though Midnighter seems as interested in removing the file from the field as much as learning from it. His initial reaction to the Gardener is to declare that the thief “won’t be walking for long.” When discussing the issue with his boyfriend Matt, he says, “I don’t know who I was. That was fine. But now, someone else does.” He never expresses desire for the file itself, only revenge on the man who stole it.

The third moment of confused identity is a classic for superheroes, Midnighter in and out of costume, and introduces his identity outside of heroics. He meets a man named Jason for a date, and the first image on the page is a look at his dating profile, listed under “M” with a costumed selfie as his profile picture. His interests are violence and punching, alongside a list of credentials that include a computer brain, superhuman flexibility, and headbutting aliens. Jason reveals he thought the whole thing was a joke (“It doesn’t stand for like, Mitch?”) and asks about secret identities. Midnighter claims he doesn’t care who knows about him, that he is, in all circumstances, simply Midnighter, but the use of “M” is itself a deviation in identity. It creates a situation where, like Jason, there can be doubt. Throughout the book, “M” takes on the function of Midnighter’s civilian identity, the part of him that’s allowed to go on dates and be human in a way that a fight robot cannot. Jason, his later love interest Matt, and local bartender and friend Tony all refer to him as “M.” Marina, who engages with Midnighter on a crime-fighting level, uses his full name, as does Apollo, throughout the whole series. While the fallout with Apollo has taught him to be honest and upfront about who he is – there is no attempt to hide behind the façade of Lucas Trent – there is still a pull to differentiate the soulless robot of Midnighter from the more “human,” more capable and worthy of love, M.

This distinction feeds into a deeper desire for connection and community, which he explores through dating and is crucial to separating his own identity from Apollo. Midnighter’s drive for community is first symbolized by the Network, a globe-spanning group of informants tagged with technology that allows them to communicate with Midnighter at a touch. He bumblingly tries to build his immediate community, and bridge the gap between M and Midnighter, by tagging Jason the morning after their second date. In some ways this backfires, as Jason backs off from romance into being friends, but it is also a first step in Midnighter developing a healthy community of people around him. The first two issues are, in fact, largely devoted to introducing the members of this community – Tony the bartender and Jason in issue 1, then Marina and love-interest Matt in issue 2. There are also hints of a wider queer community through Joe and Jerol, background characters who appear jogging with Jason and Matt while Midnighter is on a mission.

Midnighter’s inability to disconnect from Apollo is apparent early on in his repeated return to Moscow on dates with both Jason and Matt, littered with references to past experiences there with Apollo. When M dwells on these experiences, Matt declares, “We’re owning moments together. Do them with someone before? They’re ours now. Hostile takeover.” From this rhetorical reset, M begins carving a niche for himself. He goes out to the club with Matt, Jason, and Tony, or hangs out with the three of them at Tony’s bar. As his community grows, Midnighter’s reliance on Apollo to set his own identity decreases.

These three threads combine in the volume’s final act, Midnighter and M colliding when Matt reveals himself as the villain Prometheus and the perpetrator of the God Garden heist. Prometheus lures Midnighter into a recreation of his childhood home, complete with pictures of Midnighter as a boy, and offers a dilemma: Prometheus has downloaded Midnighter’s origin file into his brain and erased the original. If Midnighter kills Prometheus, he will lose any chance of recovering that information; if he lets Prometheus walk, the villain will kill countless others. Confronted with this choice, Midnighter makes two declarations. First, “You think I like how I was made? I can’t go back, can’t help what was done to me. I can only point it in the right direction.” As discussed earlier, this is essentially self-objectifying, turning himself into a constructed being, but it is also a coping mechanism for the trauma that shaped his life, at a time when he truly had no control. Any agency he claws from that experience is a rebellion against his abusers. The earlier implications that he desired revenge on the thief more than knowledge are here stated as recognition that any knowledge to be found there couldn’t change who he has become. After delivering a crushing blow to Prometheus, he states, with finality, “I know exactly who I am.” At this point, Midnighter has found who he is outside of Apollo; he has built friendships and fumbled in romance, and now he does something contrary to his sense of morality, but also impeccably human. Midnighter allows Prometheus, grievously injured on the ground, to summon the Cosmic Key and teleport away. He is disgusted by this traitor, who broke his heart and sought to destroy him, but allows him to live.

The volume ends with Midnighter gathering healing, strength, and affirmation from his community. Jason assures him that not even he can be perfect. He admits to Marina that he’s “doing some work on [himself].” Tony offers encouragement and promises anything he needs to the man he’s come to see as a brother. These images provide emotional resolution, but most importantly they show the vital role that communities play in growth. Midnighter cannot change his past or who he is, fundamentally, but he can choose to surround himself with people who accept all aspects of himself, M and Midnighter, and help him confront new traumas.

Threaded throughout the action, queer community building remains a core component of the sequel volumes as well. Midnighter Volume 2 not only brings Apollo back into the picture, but introduces Robert, a young gay man making a documentary on Midnighter, and his roommate Will. Midnighter and Apollo brings in the magic-user Extrano and his husband Hugh, as well as a cameo from their daughter. Both books end on scenes of community celebration, the characters discussing the joy they have in each other and the importance of growing these relationships, old and new.

Midnighter prefers the term fighter over hero, but he is, always, a survivor. While the action is visceral, the soul of the comic is in how relationships are formed and allow us to survive easier. Midnighter knows he cannot change his past, but his community gives him space to process and heal and doubt. Midnighter’s fundamental understanding of himself doesn’t change, but his relationships grant him the time to discover himself more fully. For all that Midnighter doesn’t change, this section of his life is shown to constantly grow and morph, and thus enrich his life. Through Midnighter’s struggle with identity, the creative team offers a message of living with trauma and the beauty and need of community, both in general and in specific queer spaces.

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This entry was posted on October 10, 2017 by in Comic and tagged , , , , , , , .

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