Midnighter: DC’s Gay Superhero Could Use Some Rescuing

Almost ten years ago, writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch created Midnighter, who this past November became the first gay DC superhero to headline his own standalone series. But as of June's issue, Midnighter's sexuality has yet to be fully integrated into his character or his story. In anticipation of the arrival of a new regular writer for the series, AfterElton.com looks at Midnighter's origins and the handling of his sexuality by various writers and artists over the years.

StormWatch #4 (Wildstorm/Image Comics, cover date Feb. 1998) introduced two characters that would soon become symbols for a generation of gay comics fans: Apollo and Midnighter. At first glance, the pair were seemingly analogs of Superman and Batman: while Apollo was strong, fast, invulnerable and dependent on the sun for his powers, Midnighter was clad in black leather, could predict his opponents’ moves and liked to inflict heavy damages on bad people. So far, so good.

But from their first appearance, something was unusual: They were sometimes seen half-naked, dressing together before another day of fighting, as yet unaffiliated with any other heroes. (They were secretly rebuilt as human weapons by yet another power-mad character, with no memory of their previous life.)

A year later, as the StormWatch series morphed into The Authority (with the Wildstorm imprint now published by DC Comics), the two characters were included in the eponymous group, and over the course of their 12-issue run, Ellis and Hitch gave more and more hints that, unlike Superman and Batman, these two new characters were, indeed, more than friends.

The interesting thing is that the word "gay" wasn't used at the time. Instead, readers came to understand what was going on through scenes showing Apollo and Midnighter caring for each other, as in issue No. 7 when Apollo is wounded and Midnighter holds him in his arms. It was subtle (which was definitely the goal of the writer, who at first hadn't even told the artist the characters were gay), but very clear. Gay superhero fans finally had an enduring gay couple in their comics.

Then writer Mark Millar took over, and while the gay genie was certainly not put back in the bottle, the subtlety quickly evaporated. Millar's run, which lasted about 20 issues (including a four-issue miniseries), was full of homophobic insults hurled by villains, anal sex jokes and rapes (of Apollo, and then of his attacker by Midnighter) with large, tubular objects, a fate rarely, if ever, endured by straight male superheroes.

The characters were more or less reduced to their gayness, though they also got married and became foster parents of a young, superpowered girl — definitely a first for mainstream superhero comics. And at least they were portrayed as the more stable members of the Authority team in terms of relationships, which was a nice blow to stereotypes.

Various members of the Authority also had sexual relationships, but they were strictly temporary and shown as being more about good sex between friends than love. On the other hand, the gay couple is never actually depicted crumpling the bed sheets, unlike the straight characters whose sex lives don't have to be inferred.

Other Midnighter creators of interest include Ed Brubaker (story) and Dustin Nguyen (art) for their 12-issue The Authority: Revolution (2005) story, which actually used the relationship between the two gay characters as a catalyst for the team's dismantling. Only Apollo could have convinced Midnighter that disbanding was a sensible idea, and only Midnighter could do it by just walking out on his teammates without any explanation. Brubaker clearly understood how to use the deep love between the two men, as well as Midnighter's tendency to secrecy.

Solo Series, Multiple Problems

Last November, DC launched Midnighter as a new solo series showcasing the character. The opening five-part arc was written by Garth Ennis, a writer known for his violent and sometimes humorous comics, and drawn by Chris Sprouse, a clean line artist.

It was the first time a gay superhero headlined his own series (not counting a 1994 Northstar miniseries from Marvel where the character, though officially gay, was completely sexless), but gay readers were troubled by Ennis' declaration a few months before the start of the series: "I'll try to maintain it as a solo book, without any major appearances by The Authority in general (superteam, yawn) or Apollo in particular (boring blond twat)."

Ennis appeared uninterested in writing a gay character who happens to be living happily with another man and raising a teenage girl. Of course, since Ennis is a good writer, he gave his character a believable motivation by showing him thinking of himself as "not a lover," "not a father" and "not a friend." Midnighter has always been depicted as a loner at heart, as well as something of a psychopath. After all, he was built to be a "killing machine," which was the title of that first arc.

But it also seemed like an easy way out of showing him having affection toward another man, which he never does during the six issues written by Ennis. That doesn't mean Ennis tried to de-gay him exactly. Once again, villains insult Midnighter with homophobic comments ("little fruit," "trouser-pilot" — everybody knows he's gay, apparently), but we do get a one scene where the character, traveling in time, learns that in the distant future sexual orientation won't exist anymore and "everybody just … does everyone," which invigorates him to no end.

Was not showing him with Apollo a way to make the series more palatable to a larger audience? Was it an editorial mandate or simply Ennis' preference? It's a curious issue, especially since even the sixth installment — which presents a tragic love story between two Japanese samurais who look very much like Apollo and Midnighter — doesn't contain any instance of same-sex affection. They lie besides each other at night but don't touch or kiss. Moreover, there's the problem of feudal Japanese samurais using words such as "sodomites" and generally behaving like homophobic Middle Ages knights, which is absolutely out-of-character for people of that time and place.

At least, things weren't as bad as during Millar's run back in 2000, when DC editorial censored a kiss between Midnighter and his lover.

The seventh issue of the new series, written by Brian K. Vaughan (who's already proven his gay-friendliness in his Ex Machina series, where a mixed-race gay marriage takes place), begins with a cute full-page kiss between the two married men, thus breaking the no-kissing track record of the series so far. But even Vaughan falls back on using a homophobic villain in his issue. Homophobia seems to be shorthand for "bad guy," but it reeks of laziness from the writers. After all, we don't see the opponents of female characters always behaving in a misogynistic way. It would quickly get boring and would rightfully raise a few eyebrows.

The June issue of Midnighter — the most recent — written by Christos Gage, had absolutely no gay content. At least it boasted a nonhomophobic opponent, which was some improvement.

Next month brings another single-issue story, and following that the series will welcome its new regular writer, Keith Giffen, a well-known and renowned writer and artist currently involved in DC's company-wide crossovers. Giffen isn't especially known for writing gay-inclusive comics, though he's written a few gay-friendly scenes in his recent humorous Justice League miniseries. He's declared his plan to delve deeper into Midnighter's unknown past, but has stated no intention of involving Apollo. (DC has not answered our request for an interview on that subject.) It remains to be seen whether he'll write a more well-rounded character than most of his predecessors.

He's Not the Only One in Black

Midnighter was cast in the same mould as violent superheroes like Batman (who at least is supposed to not kill anyone), Marvel's Wolverine and the Punisher. Indeed, Midnighter is very much like them, apart from the fact that he's unashamedly and openly gay — at least in theory. To reduce his being gay to a few jokes or jibes, as gay-friendly as they might be intended, shows a reluctance (or an inability) to write a believable gay character.

Instead, the intelligent integration of his gayness is a goal at best sporadically reached. Not showing Midnighter with his lover — or in some way acknowledging his sexuality — makes him just another black-clothed violent hero, something that superhero comics don't really need. The originality of the character seems to lie in the balance between his tough behavior and his tenderness with his male lover and his daughter.

It would be nice if Giffen decided to show Midnighter being happy with his partner, or at least interacting as a couple beyond a kiss here and there (and it would be consistent with the way those characters have been portrayed). And Giffen also needs to find other ways to empower the villains than by simply having them insult Midnighter with anti-gay rhetoric. Even if it's always done as an excuse for the antihero to kick their asses (which, after all, is what most readers want to see in a Midnighter comic), it's a selective acknowledgment of the hero's sexuality that reduces what could be a complex, vibrant gay character to a conflicted, inconsistent curiosity.

Other Midnighter Facts:

· The first appearance of Midnighter and Apollo is collected in StormWatch: A Finer World.

· All the Authority comics are available in collections.

· The first Midnighter collection, entitled Killing Machine, will be published by DC in November and will include the six Garth Ennis-penned issues.

Illustrations:

· Cover of issue #5 of the Midnighter series, art by Chris Sprouse.

· The first appearance of Midnighter and Apollo, art by Bryan Hitch.

· Apollo and Midnighter kiss, from Midnighter #7, art by Darick Robertson.