Comics, like other art forms, evolve in irregular waves, responding to the complex internal developments and external pressures between which their creators maneuver. It has become a cliché that we live in a rapidly diversifying society, and that the readership of comics reflects this general demographic trend. Still, clichés are true almost by definition, so as tired as one sometimes grows of hearing the same observations repeated, it is very unwise to dismiss them. At the same time a newer generation of comic writers and artists is willing to move beyond the boundaries that began to enclose mainstream superhero comics in the 1980s, boundaries set by the success of such visionaries as Alan Moore and Frank Miller and then modified and reinforced during the 1990s and 2000s. The grim exploration of personal tragedy and dysfunctional psychology, while never as simple or as hegemonic as some detractors have claimed over the years, is giving way somewhat to allow for a wider range of tones and a more flexible choice of themes. Pressured by the interests, and dollars, of new readers, comics publishers are finding it congenial to engage once again with social and political questions in a direct and sophisticated way.
In the spaces thus opened up books like Steve Orlando’s Midnighter have appeared and flourished artistically, although to be honest its published sales numbers have not been on par with its reviews. Nevertheless, Orlando and artist ACO have used this most unusual of characters to explore, with depth and humor, the life of a gay superhero faced with a cosmic challenge. Orlando pursues this along two tracks. About a third of issue #3 explores the challenges of Midnighter’s life as a newly single gay man. We see more details of his parting from former lover and fellow superhero Apollo, as well as the amusing adjustments facing his new paramour, Matt, who has never had a boyfriend quite like this. Orlando explicitly frames the narrative in terms of Midnighter exploring his identity and the meaning of his sexuality, and tacitly invites readers to accompany Midnighter on his adventure.
The more professional side of Midnighter’s life does not unfold in quite so straightforward a fashion. Our hero is still on the trail of the technology stolen from the God Garden, this time the Rohmer Reactor, a device that siphons life energy from one person and transfers it to another. Frankly, Orlando seems less interested in the convoluted details of Midnighter’s quest than in using the plot as a scaffold on which to hang the anti-hero’s trademark pointed banter and artistic violence. The best example of the former is when he approaches the mother of a girl who has been kidnapped to serve as fuel for the reactor, observing that “I would like to talk to you about finding your daughter and beating, intensively and repeatedly, the people who took her.” As for the latter, Multiplex, the self-replicating villain, who has unwisely signed on to bodyguard the reactor’s current user, finds that Midnighter enjoys few things more than an impromptu physical contest with multiplying targets, especially when said targets prove gratifyingly fragile and make satisfying breaking noises when they hit the ground.
The story ends with Midnighter discovering that the God Garden technology is being distributed from Russia. He decides to enlist aid for an expedition into the heart of darkness, and proceeds to a approach, well kidnap, Agent 37 of Spyral, otherwise known as Dick Grayson, formerly Nightwing, formerly Robin, and always a studied contrast in temperament with the murderous Stormwatch vigilante. This sets up an echo of the first meeting between these two heroes about a year ago real-world time, when Midnighter attempted to prevent Grayson from retrieving alien biotechnology from a hapless Russian smuggler. It would appear that Midnighter's computer-enhanced mind functions as an accounting database as well as a battle computer.