Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Midnighter and the problem of spin-offs

I like the Midnighter. Equal parts Batman and Wolverine, Midnighter is a not-so-subtle parody of both. Unambiguously gay and in a relationship with his teammate, Apollo – himself a Superman trope – he makes explicit and then sends up the sexual anxieties that have surrounded Bats for decades; as an artificially enhanced uber-man with an Asian daughter, there’s also some room for a Wolverine-Jubilee analogy. (Though, again, being that Midnighter is gay, he also troubles the connection between hetero-masculinity and ultra-violence.)

But I only sorta like this comic. Interestingly, it reads more like a ‘classic’ Authority issue than the new Authority series does itself. The narrative style of compression and (un?)necessarily gory battle scenes seem pulled, with minor variation, from either of Ellis/Hitch or Millar/Quitely’s runs. The particularly gruesome ways in which Sprouse – one of the medium’s best storytellers, might I add – renders Midnighter’s conversation with the ‘Technical Advisor’ in Afghanistan carries a distinctly Ennis flavor, and the Advisor’s murder is delightfully ironic (and, again, distinctly Ennis) in the context of the slur that Midnighter muffles with his staff.

So it’s a fun Authority-like read with the requisite twist-ending, sure, but is it anything more than that? Even the arc that it’s kicking off seems too familiar – the ‘living weapon compelled to become an assassin for the bad guy’ thing was featured in Wolverine a year or two ago, and Ennis’ own Punisher stories included a variation on the same theme. Sprouse also seems too obvious a choice – like Tom Strong, for which Sprouse is probably best known, Midnighter and the Authority are often characterized as benevolent super-fascists, meta-fictionally wrestling with the moral-totalitarianism of the super-hero tradition and their own particular super-antecedents. (Remember Krigstein and his very familiar super-human army?)

Despite his appropriateness, then, something seems entirely too safe and self-conscious about Sprouse on this book – maybe because it becomes it all the more clear that this is more Solo Authority than Midnighter sans the Authority. Where Twain makes clear that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is no mere sequel to Tom Sawyer – and is likely even the more challenging book – or where Claremont took steps to justify the creation of a Wolverine title by distancing the solo character’s tales both geographically and thematically from Uncanny X-Men, Ennis makes no such attempt to show us why Midnighter’s stories needed some new outlet. I think that one question needs to be asked of every spin-off and answered to some degree of satisfaction: Does the new title do something so different that it requires its own separate existence? For all of Midnighter’s appeal, this first issue would indicate that the answer is ‘no’.


Anonymous said...

on the bright side, Midnighter doesn't star in three books and guest star in half the other books in his company.

Anonymous said...

i concurr. wholeheartedly.

Omar Karindu said...

Though at least part of the question here is the degree to which The Authority's challenge -- and by extension, Midnighter's -- are not in certain senses exhausted in their usefulness for advancing superheroes as a genre.

For one thing, the world situation may have changed sufficiently that their allegory of benevolent totalitarianism is no longer quite credible: the seeming resurgence of the uniploar world dreamt of by post-Trotskyite neoconservatism on one hand and a imperially-flavored liberal interventionism on the other has turned out to be incapable of handling the problems of 4th-generation warfare and the post-national globe. Nor has the technocratic idea of a new internationalism proven capable of dissolving either irredentist localisms or exorcising the spectres (to steal a line) of the old ideologies.

That said, one of the more interesting -- if not necessarily ratifiable -- things about Ennis's other work is his replacement of metanarratives with something like an ethics of care built on distinctly male homosociality. The military material, all enlisted men against the officers and against the deadly world around them, is the most readily apparent version. So too is the repeated return to the tropes of the classic Western and the general repudiation in his work of Moore/Gibbons or Morrison/Quitely formal pyrotechnics in favor of ingrained methods of comics construction.

In terms of specific works, Punisher is the pessimistic version of this, with Frank Castle typically played as the only "good man;" Preacher is the optimistic, but not utopian vision, in which it's possible for Jesse Custer and Tulip to go off and be good (a)heteromen together in a universe of two while the grand ideologies self-mutilate and then self-destruct. (Starr's first injury is inadvertantly done him by his proxies' efforts to carry out his directives; the Grail organization is undone by internal strife; God and the angels are destroyed by a plan God set in motion, the creation and empowerment of the Saint of Killers.)

That said, the Midnighter is a more direct posing of that queer "a" before the heteroman of homosociality, and his initial mission -- a gloriously direct satire of the effort to recode contemporary violence as the fulfillment and repetition of World War II as Western epic -- might well do something more interesting than the original and second-model Authority adventures can in the current clime.

neilshyminsky said...

Omar - there's a lot of very interesting things going on in your response, and I had to read it over twice before I could start drawing my own connections. I have a lot of follow-up questions, though. :)

I appreciate that you're drawing in Ennis' own work, especially because I hadn't thought of it before in terms of an 'ethic of care built on distinctly male homosociality' (this is probably because I've only ever read one issue of Preacher). The Midnighter becomes a disruptive presence in light of Ennis own work, sure, but to what end (or do you see this question being answered later)? He seems to repudiate any sort of sociality in the first few pages, but what do you make of that repudiation, especially in light of this consideration of male homosociality?

And if I'm understanding you correctly, you're implicating the Authority's interventionism in the same myth of grand narrative/ideology that they ostensibly opposed (which seems a pretty common view, though the value judgements attached to it differ markedly), and so they were unavoidably self-mutilating and self-destructive. How do you see the Midnighter's solo book, as it is ostensibly a satire of the Western epic from which the utopian Authority is derived, redressing those mistakes?