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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Comics Spotlight Review: Midnighter #1

DC didn't really know what to do once they had Wildstorm. I mean, they ported them into the DC Universe in the New 52, but... that turned out to be both a culture clash and a redundancy. Many of the Wildstorm heroes were more extreme versions of classic heroes, criticisms or appropriations. But when the first issue of the New 52 Detective Comics ends with the Joker's face getting torn off and nailed to a wall, having a super gritty Batman-analogue seems kind of... purposeless. 'Purposeless' is a great description of the New 52 Stormwatch, which was never as big as The Authority, never as smart as Ellis' time on the series, and just didn't have much to say. So, now that DC is giving the series' most popular character, the Midnighter, a solo series from Steve Orlando and ACO, can they make one of Wildstorm's most enduring creations speak to more modern readers?

If this first issue is any indication: Hell yes. 

Midnighter #1 gives us a small feel for the book's running story, about Midnighter hunting down a savage thief who may have information about Midnighter's former life. But Orlando knows that most readers aren't coming into this one sold on the series, so much of the debut issue is dedicated to that simple question: What kind of man is Midnighter? Why should we read this book?

Orlando's answer? Midnighter is a go-for-broke guy on the fringes of superhero culture. He's worked with them. He looks like them. But he's well aware that he's not one of them, and we should be too. He's a scrapper, a brutal man who revels in violence. And he's a lover. He's someone who will take his partner to bed on the second date, someone who feels deeply and hides it all underneath a thick coating of blood and adrenaline.

Orlando manages to convey all this in the debut issue, running us through a couple days in the life of DC's newest leading man. The book may be action-packed to an almost absurd degree, but Orlando is smart about where that action happens and what it says, making sure that everything we see is giving us a clear idea about what kind of book we're reading and what kind of hero we're following. He's not 'gay Batman' or 'ultra-gritty Batman', he's Batman if Batman could never, ever slow down - not to consider the ethics of what he does, not to build a family, not even to have a city of his own. Batman, utterly unmoored.

Part of the reason Midnighter #1 manages to tell us so much about who Midnighter is even in the midst of a fight scene is the book's talented art team. Unfortunately, they're also part of my only real issue with the book: Penciller ACO has tendency to craft too-busy fight scenes. At times, he manages to achieve the effect I think he's going for, an almost impressionistic blur of brutality reminiscent of what Paul Greengrass achieved in his Bourne films. But that's easier to do with the immediacy of film; here, ACO's disjointed hyper-detail combines with the vibrant colors of Romulo Fajardo, Jr. to create simple confusion. Everything is there on the page, but there's little sense of flow, no real rhythm. For a book that's built on the back of so much action, that's dangerous.

But then everything stops. In our Book Club podcast on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again, we talked about how Miller tends to go from a thousand panels a page to a single, iconic splash or a more simplified sequence, letting layout dictate tone and even inspire awe. And this is where ACO, Petrus, and Fajardo shine. The opening action scene, for example, is hard to follow, featuring two characters most readers won't yet know fighting with weapons we can't understand for stakes we know nothing about. There are thirty panels on those two pages. But then they slam on the brakes, coming to rest - after ceaseless motion - on a gorgeous still image. My brain went from a jumble of "whowhatwhere" to a more relaxed state almost immediately, the breathing room used to process the exhileration of the previous pages. It's not a trick that'll work often - it doesn't even always work in this issue - but rarely have I seen three pages of an issue sell the tone of the book quite so effectively.

Because Midnighter #1 is one of the spriest, most energetic debuts I've read in ages. Orlando, Aco, Petrus, and Fajardo never once let up, and while that can be disorienting at times, the book's tone of relentless forward motion is, in itself, a great way to put us in Midnighter's world. As with Mad Max: Fury Road, the non-stop aesthetic is supported by strong character work and design that turns something that could be off-putting into a more grounded, character-centric story. Like Grayson, another currently-running gem from DC, Steve Orlando's Midnighter is playing in a wildly different ballpark than the rest of the DC Universe. It's a mean, sexy, fun world, and Midnighter is a sublimely confident entry into it, an adrenaline-pumping joy ride when I was least expecting it.

Midnighter #1 was written by Steve Orlando, penciled by Aco, inked by Aco with Hugo Petrus, colored by Romulo Fajardo Jr., and lettered by Jared K. Fletcher. Published by DC Comics, Midnighter #1 was released on Wednesday, June 3rd for $2.99.

Midnighter #1 Review: 7.5 / 10

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