Midnighter isn’t the first gay superhero and this isn’t his first solo title but that doesn’t mean he and this book aren’t important. As the first gay male character to headline a solo series at one of the big two publishers (DC and Marvel Comics) and one of only a handful of solo titles starring a queer lead, the character and the book still have an important place in the landscape of what many still think of as mainstream comics. Midnighter Vol. 1: Out collects the first seven issues of the series written by Steve Orlando (Undertow, Virgil) and drawn by ACO (Constantine, Batman Eternal), Alec Morgan (All-New Captain America, Aquaman), and Stephen Mooney (Half Past Danger, Grayson); and these issues demonstrate a mixed bag of the best and the worst that Midnighter has to offer.
Midnighter isn’t a character that I had seen before in my time reading superhero comics. I had read books with gay characters and even books with gay leads but I had never read a superhero comic starring a single gay man. The same amount of attention that you’d see going to Spider-Man’s dating life is given to Midnighter as he goes on dates with men he’s met via a dating app. Midnighter is not a sexless comic as can often be the case with works featuring gay superheroes; they’ll come out, get a few focus stories, and often (as is the case of Northstar or Teddy and Billy of Young Avengers) be paired off so that their sexuality remains little more than a talking point accompanied by a few light kisses. While Midnighter was paired off with Apollo in Stormwatch, he’s broken off from him here and is free to, well, fuck.
Midnighter’s exploits in the dating scene and building his first real non-superhero social circle wouldn’t be compelling, though, without the strong voice that Steve Orlando provides him with. The character made a strong impression over in Grayson with his gleefully sardonic personality and that’s carried over here as the character owns most scenes with a compelling confidence that turns the often foregone conclusion of an action scene into an enthusiastic display of Midnighter’s ethos. Orlando goes a step further, portraying Midnighter in the same manner when he’s out in the world not actively engaging in superheroic activities. The subtitle of this volume makes sense; Midnighter has no secret identity, he carries himself out in the world the same way he does in costume. There’s more tension in a scene of Midnighter on a date with his maybe-soon-to-be boyfriend Matt than any fight scene as his “I always win” shtick for once doesn’t apply to his interactions with another person. This has the effect of simultaneously creating a casual tone for his violent encounters and a combative edge to the social scenes.
The illustration by ACO takes that ball and runs with it, often depicting Midnighter’s thought process and actions with a series of inset panels highlighting targets and impact points. The inset panels prove to be quite effective in several fight scenes but, unfortunately, the storytelling with them isn’t always clear. I stopped dead in my reading of the first issue to try figuring out the action of a series of insets tracking the path of a shot at a pool table. It’s a familiar adage that “no one bats a thousand” and, in baseball terms, ACO has a Hall of Fame batting average on the success of those layouts. His highly-rendered style packs in heavy detail with a range of depth that draws the eye in on simple scenes of domesticity while occasionally leaving the reader to get lost with the overstimulation in fight scenes that can make movement hard to track.
With the second issue, Midnighter loses visual consistency and never quite recovers it with an issue penciled by Alec Morgan. While ACO draws four of the issues (#1, 3, 6, and 7), the book doesn’t establish a clear visual style to lend the book more personality. It’s something that has a greater effect on monthly readers who may drop a comic upon noticing a change in artist and is, at most, mildly disruptive when collected into the trade paperback form. The art teams don’t change in the middle of a story; the first three issues are episodic going from ACO to Morgan back to ACO), the fourth and fifth are a two-parter handled by Stephen Mooney, and the sixth and seventh are another two-parter delivered by ACO. So, while the book as a whole may be inconsistent on the art front, the stories themselves never are.
It bears mentioning that, while different, the work of Alec Morgan that initially signals the rotating art teams is quite good and, in many ways, may be seen as a better fit for the book than others. Morgan’s lines aren’t as clean as ACO’s are; they’re dirty and anatomy isn’t so strictly adhered to. And Romulo Fajardo, Jr. doesn’t color Morgan the same way he colors ACO. His colors in the first issue are colder, rendering pages in a clean (almost sterile) style unlike his warmer, more textured colors that accompany Morgan. The second issue looks violent even at rest.
In terms of form and plot construction, Midnighter can often be a mixed bag. The second and third issues both experiment with jumping back and forth in time between different scenes. While that does a fine job of shaking up traditional structure and preventing the book from reading too same-same, it brings the momentum of some scenes to a halt even as it can make for a cool moment of readers realizing the final page of issue #2 happens simultaneously to the first page of #3. And it bears mentioning that Orlando often chooses odd words to emphasize in the dialogue that gives it a strange, unnatural rhythm.
After five issues of character introduction and cast building, the last two issues sort of blow things up and provide the first real hook into the character and his development. Unfortunately, while that sixth issue ends on a phenomenal scene with a neat cliffhanger to excite casual and more continuity-leaning fans, the final issue doesn’t follow it up as well as one might hope. Human motivations are replaced with misfiring villainous speeches explaining origin stories and the hypocrisy of superheroes that leads to a fairly standard (and, I should mention, unresolved) ultimatum for our hero. The choice of antagonist for Midnighter is a clever choice by Orlando and is one ACO has a real knack for drawing so there’s a sense they might take another crack at him should the book run long enough.
Even on the occasion that the craft falls short, the character of Midnighter and his central relationships remain compelling and well-rendered by this book’s team. A reader that sticks it through this trade with them will likely want to see what they do next. However, the concern still exists about the future of this book should art team shake-ups affect the monthly order numbers that have a strong impact on a direct market book’s longevity. Personally, I want to see what happens next and follow the creative team as they continue to develop as a unit.