Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Midnighter is an important comic for the LGBT community. Our Magen Cubed is here to explain why.
My relationship with queer superheroes has always been a little complicated.
As a child growing up in the 1990s, I came into my own reading Marvel Comics and watching DC Saturday morning cartoons. Back then openly queer characters were hard to come by. There was the heavy queer implications of Mystique’s relationship with Destiny, the more-than-friends flirtation of Rictor and Shatterstar, and the thinly veiled romantic attachment shared by Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series, but nothing concrete. (Both Rictor/Shatterstar and Ivy/Harley have been confirmed as canon, but when I was a kid, no such luck.) Even Northstar, Marvel’s first openly gay character, was tiptoed around, his sexuality rarely mentioned for several years after coming out in 1992. For most of my life as a comics fan, queer representation was most often found in meaningful looks and lingering touches, leaving readers to fill in the details. That left queer fans like me feeling left behind.
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During my late teens and early 20s, characters like Marvel’s Wiccan and Hulking and DC’s Batwoman began normalizing queer relationships and experiences in mainstream comics. For the first time, I was able to easily find comics that attempted to develop and explore queer lives. These comics, at least on face value, reflected some of my own experiences as a queer woman. Some of the most important of these comics were Stormwatch and The Authority, and the characters Apollo and Midnighter. Created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, Apollo and Midnighter (analogs for Superman and Batman respectively) were probably of the most visible queer heroes in all of comics for many years, eventually marrying and adopting a daughter. After spending my formative years with few openly queer characters to latch onto, Apollo and Midnighter were a comfort to have.
Titles and characters such as these took strides to veer away from the typical melodrama of coming out stories, homophobic violence, and AIDS cautionary tales that were so often the norm. However, while certainly progressive for the time, they weren’t perfect by any means. Homophobic violence still plagued queer characters, along with fairly routine sexual assaults. Too often queer characters were still couched deep within the rosters of team books, their stories rarely developed, their relationships treated with kid gloves. While their straight counterparts were usually afforded the chance for deeper, more nuanced relationships, queer characters were paired off immediately, dropped into marriages or tidy monogamous living arrangements.
Queer relationships are often too polished and perfect to reflect the realities shared by many queer comics fans. As endearing as these pairings tend to be, they’re usually shiny, unrealistic, and almost totally platonic fantasies where the nitty gritty of human sexuality and interpersonal dynamics are sugarcoated and brushed aside. Straight characters can have deep, rich, complicated romances; queer characters often seem to require too much time and effort from their respective publishers to be worth the trouble.
This is why DC’s new ongoing Midnighter series is so important. It’s not only the return of one of comics’ most beloved openly gay characters, but it’s almost one of the most realistic, honest, and necessary portrayals to date.
This version sees a younger Midnighter split from longtime canon husband Apollo. While not married in this continuity, he and Apollo are on the outs, trying to figure out their relationship and who they are apart from one another. Now Midnighter’s single, dating, and trying to balance work with his personal life. Work just happens to involve finding new and creative ways to rip out spines and beat bad guys into pulp; sometimes that makes for some awkward dinner conversations. He goes to gay clubs, uses dating apps, and as of the third issue, is pursuing a remarkably healthy relationship with his love interest Matt.
Midnighter is single, sexually active, and getting used to a dating scene that he’s not necessarily equipped for. After a lifetime of violence sent him rushing into a loving (but apparently somewhat codependent) relationship with Apollo, Midnighter is out on his own for the first time. And he’s kind of loving it. The end result is a funny, violent, sexy, quirky, messy series of adventures of a living fight computer who happens to be a fully-realized gay man. This creative team embraces the rarely seen, sexually charged, and emotionally complicated aspects of queer relationships, doing due diligence in bringing them to the page.
Midnighter and Apollo’s romance is allowed to be problematic and painful. Though deeply committed to each other since they both came out, they agree to split up to figure out who they are apart from one another. The sexual encounters they have outside of their relationship give each of them the space to see if they can still make it work. It isn’t clear if Midnighter and Apollo will get back together, and that’s okay. This isn’t a story about a married couple; it’s a story about a delayed coming of age. Whereas many of their queer superhero peers have been quickly pushed into monogamous, virtually sexless relationships, Apollo and Midnighter both recognize that they’ve never been with anyone else. They’ve never learned to date or to be with other people, or even how queer life really works in larger society. They’re emotionally isolated, dependent on each other, and in need of answers to questions they never thought to ask in the heat of the moment that initially brought them together.
I can say from personal experience that this isnt’t entirely unheard of. Straight parents and school teachers aren’t usually the most prepared (or willing) to explain the birds and the bees to queer kids. You have to seek that information from knowledgeable sources, listen to your potentially idiotic friends, or just wing it on your own. Now Midnighter is going through this, too, with all the awkwardness, humor, and tenderness that process invites. Sleeping with different partners, going to gay clubs, and using dating apps like the average gay man would. Queer sex is treated as normal, healthy, and ripe for exploration, rather than shied away from or given strict prescriptive limitations. Small touches like this are so appreciated when your typical queer superhero comes prepackaged in a perfect relationship and never has to worry about awkward morning-afters or other dating pitfalls.
Series writer Steve Orlando’s characterizations are nothing short of delightful. The dialogue is absolutely dripping with sarcasm but affords Midnighter serious pathos throughout the first three issues, patiently doling out tender flashbacks and genuinely human sequences to hone Midnighter’s strong emotional core. Midnighter is charming, explosive, and downright funny. He gleefully vaults into danger and wears his emotions on his sleeve, subtly vulnerable despite his trademark sadism. He puts everything on the table, even when it backfires on him, and is learning as he goes. Orlando’s character voices are simply on-point issue after issue, and it’s hugely entertaining to watch Midnighter’s story unfold from fight to fight, relationship to relationship, balancing each aspect of his life with a wicked sense of humor.
Artists ACO, Alec Morgan, and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. absolutely luxuriate in the blood and chaos of the first three issues with gorgeous action tableaus and smart page design principles. Even for the joyful violence Midnighter inflicts, these art teams successfully provide meaningful context through interspersed Apollo backstory segments and Midnighter’s tenderness with Matt. These moments of intimacy, as well as his interactions with the children he’s rescued throughout the series, beautifully humanize Midnighter, rounding out his violent nature with moments of genuine compassion. Midnighter isn’t just a well-developed gay man, he’s one of the most engaging characters with an ongoing title on sale right now.
It’s so refreshing to see.
Midnighter is at once an honest, bloody, fun, and heartbreaking book. Its necessary and relevant portrayal of contemporary queer relationships and experiences is incredible, especially with only three issues under its belt so far. After a lifetime of making the best of the queer characters offered by mainstream comics, I am absolutely in love with Midnighter. Give this book a shot; chances are you will be, too.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed