Review: Midnighter- Killing Machine

Cross-posted from Prism Comics.

“I know what special abilities you have. I can see the enhancements. I can detect the increased electrical activity in your brain. I know what moves you’re preparing to make. I’ve fought our fight already, in my head, in a million different ways. I can hit you without you even seeing me.  I’m what soldiers dream of growing into. I’m what children see when they first imagine what death is like. I’m the Midnighter.”

Confession time. I was late to the party discovering many of the wonderful gems that Wildstorm has to offer. When it comes to comics, I’ve traditionally remained with the mainstream superhero genre and even with that I’m highly selective.

The Authority was repeatedly recommended to me in passing but I didn’t give it much thought. One night online however, I was having a discussion on an internet forum about the dearth of gay superheroes in comics and in the media in general. I voiced how we desperately need more Capt. Jack Harknesses, Willow Rosenbergs, Lafayette Reynolds, and Satsus, each of whom are awesome personified. Another forum member suggested I check out Midnighter because they felt he would be right up my alley.

Upon additional research, I learned that Midnighter had a spinoff ongoing solo series.

I won’t lie, I was highly skeptical and for good reason. For me comic books = serious business and I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been given horrendous recommendations. All the same I decided to maintain an open mind and have a gander.

A few pages into the Killing Machine, I realized I was not ready for the wild ride I had just embarked upon. In the opening scene, writer Garth Ennis lets the reader have it with both barrels and quickly establishes the kind of badass Midnighter is. In the first few pages alone, Midnighter takes on a mission in Afghanistan where he deflects gunfire with his staff, dropkicks a tank bullet back at the tank, and kicks a man’s head off of his shoulders.

By the end of that scene alone, my reaction was simply, “Wolverine what? Punisher who?” Midnighter is just that damn good.

In Killing Machine, we find our protagonist at a crossroads trying to figure out his place in life. Despite being the member of an elite superhero team, a lover and a father, he still fills empty and unfulfilled because he knows that first and foremost he is a weapon.

While passing through the teleportation portal from Afghanistan back to the base, Midnighter is subdued by soldiers of a man named Paulus. Paulus explains that Midnighter’s secondary heart has been replaced with a remote-detonated bomb and blackmails him to go back in time and assassinate Adolf Hitler because that’s what one does when it comes to time travel; eliminate history’s most infamous tyrant. With Midnighter’s ability to anticipate and calculate battle scenarios neutralized, he is left with little choice than to attempt to follow through on the mission, if for no other reason than to buy himself some time until he can figure a way out of his predicament and ascertain Paulus’s true motives behind the assassination plot. Of course Midnighter’s problems become even more exacerbated when he has to contend with time police officers from the 96th century who are determined to stop him at all costs, and for good reason. If Back to the Future, Star Trek, and Doctor Who have taught us anything, it’s that any form of time travel never ends well.

Gay superheroes, Nazis, time travel, time police, assassination attempts; if the summary sounds over the top, it doesn’t compare to the actual story. Killing Machine is twisted escapist black humor designed to appeal to the sadistic destructive 5-year-old little boy in each of us.

The bright and vibrant art style juxtaposes nicely against the dark twists of the plot. Penciler Chris Sprouse, for instance, opts for many clear close-up shots in his panels and the reactions of the characters and the clarity of the action scenes carry far more punch.

The follow-up story Flowers for the Sun, was an interesting elseworlds re-imagining of the Apollo/Midnighter relationship in feudal Japan. While not the most memorable one shot, it was a worthy read all the same.

In many respects Killing Machine spoofs the uber-violent dark gritty over-the-top comic tone that pervaded comics in the 90s. In short, it’s written in the spirit of the critically acclaimed Warren Ellis penned NEXTWAVE. Makes sense seeing as Ellis (along with Bryan Hitch) co-created Midnighter.

Make no mistake. While there’s snark and comedy aplenty in the graphic novel, Ennis effectively establishes that Midnighter is nobody’s punchline.

While I’m not a fan of a superhero being depowered in any capacity, (to me that’s a cheap storytelling device), Ennis makes it work. One of the positive thing that emerges is that it illustrates that Midnighter isn’t a badass because of his abilities. Midnighter is a badass because Midnighter is a badass. Specifically when he ultimately outwits Paulus at his own game, so to speak. While Midnighter is often outnumbered, he’s never outgunned.

But what makes Midnighter a monumental victory is that he isn’t written as “the gay superhero” but a superhero who happens to be gay. There is a difference. Too often queer characters, particularly gay men, are not only myopically defined solely by their sexuality but are also often relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes, minstrel shows, and walking homophobic jokes (that’s right Northstar & Rawhide Kid, I’m looking at both of you). Midnighter’s mere existence gives the proverbial middle finger to ultra conservatives.

Midnighter is not awesome for a gay character, he’s awesome period. With a mind as sharp and as cunning as Bruce Wayne’s, a ferocity that rivals Sabretooth’s, and a snarky wit that’s faintly reminiscent of Deadpool, this hardcore one man weapon of mass destruction is one of the few characters in comics who can call Batman, Cable, Punisher, Wolverine and Daredevil a bunch of punks and can actually back it up. In short, the coolest BAMF in the room just happens to be the gay guy.

He’s a compelling, enigmatic three-dimensional protagonist whose orientation is only one facet of who he is. That being said, he’s candid and matter of fact about his sexuality and is by no means ashamed or attempting to “pass for straight.” After all, if anyone is stupid enough to have a problem with the fact that he’s attracted to men, Midnighter will be more than happy to resolve the matter, as Paulus’s righthand Rourke discovered.

Perhaps the most priceless and hilarious scene is when Midnighter discovers from the time police that the 96th century is much akin to the 51st century in the Doctor Whoverse in that sexuality is fluid and that orientation of any kind is an archaic concept and that conservatives are simply delaying the inevitable.

And when it comes to the comic book industry and fandom that’s often notorious for its bigotry, this is a win. LGBTQs comic book fans need to see a kickass superhero who happens to be gay. But more than that, cis straight comic book fans need to see a kickass superhero who happens to be gay who debunks their preconceived homophobic notions.

Killing Machine is an action-packed and fun read. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and yet truly validating on many levels for gay fans. Of course, after reading the trade paperback, I only had one thought that plagued me about Midnighter.

Thank God, he’s one of the good guys.