Review: J. Michael Straczynski's Midnight Nation, Vol. 1 trade paperback (Top Cow/Image)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

What if I told you that J. Michael Straczynski wrote a really good comic in which its hero walked across the United States? Admittedly, Midnight Nation and Superman: Grounded share almost nothing else and were published about ten years apart, but the former is part of a chain of proof that JMS is better when editorial interference is at a minimum. Key to JMS’s signature style is his willingness to change the status quo. Just as The Twelve starts as a fish-out-of-water plot and ends as a murder mystery, Midnight Nation starts as a police procedural and ends as religious fiction. These rapid changes in tone and concept work well in context, but often make it hard for JMS to do his best work in a larger universe (unless he’s in charge of its twists, as with Rising Stars).

The story follows homicide detective David Grey as he starts out investigating a seemingly normal murder, until a scared witness alludes to murderous creatures who wait in the shadows. When the witness turns up dead -- with just enough gore to convey the horror without taking the reader out of the story, thanks to the work of master artist Gray Frank -- Grey finds himself hurtled into a shadow world running alongside the real one. He’s not dead… yet; he has a year to regain his soul before he turns into one of the creatures, called Walkers. Accompanying him is a mysterious woman named Laurel who always seems to know more about the situation than she lets on. I really can’t say more about the plot without some major spoilers along with quite a bit of explanation.

Midnight Nation is the closest you can get to a Christian-themed book without feeling like you’re being preached to. It’s couched in the central narrative of Satan’s fall from grace, his temptation of Jesus, and the parable of the Wandering Jew, but at the same time, JMS is telling his own story using those themes. Instead of using the exact name, he presents Satan as the main villain while calling him only “the Other Guy," which prevents anyone from getting offended. His plan will be familiar to anyone who has read John Milton’s Paradise Lost; he is raging against an imperfect world and an imperfect creator. [At Doug's request, part of this review that originally discussed the role of creationism in the story has been removed.]

One of my favorite storytelling facets in Midnight Nation is how it treats the “In-Between” world inhabited by David, Laurel, and the Other Guy and his Walkers, among others. It houses people and things which have been discarded and which have faded away into the background; this reality of the undead cannot interact with that of the living. It eventually becomes clear that between his wife’s departure and his obsession with work, David was on his way into this netherworld even without the Other Guy’s intervention. The first person to enter this state was Lazarus, the only biblical figure to be identified by name in the book (Jesus is not shown directly). I can’t decide whether I want Lazarus to be more present in the story; he brings a bit of levity while he waits for death to finally arrive, but it would probably ruin the narrative balance.

David’s traveling companion, Laurel, is easily the book’s most intriguing character. It’s never quite spelled out if she’s God, an avatar of God, or an angel. Her name makes me lean more towards the latter, as it evokes the “-el” suffix in the names of many Hebrew angels. The journey she takes with David is one she’s taken before; all others have failed and become Walkers, and we see the fate of the man who did this directly before David. JMS definitely takes some time to break down why these events are happening and plug up some plot holes, with David often asking why things are happening and why they can’t change. Fate and choice are central to both Midnight Nation and its biblical origins; the Other Guy tempts David with his freedom and with power, and it’s all presented as a necessary part of the journey.

This is easily some of the best art of Gary Frank’s career, in part because of the slightly different colors by Matt Milla. The artwork ends up looking a little sharper than his work on Superman (which, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved). There are occasional re-used panels and pages, but in most cases, this is out of storytelling necessity, especially in a scene in the epilogue involving a time loop.

I will say that this must have been a nightmare to read month to month. Each chapter of Midnight Nation flows almost seamlessly into the next; there are numerous sections where I can’t quite figure out where the issue breaks are. The pacing is a little uneven, with the trip covering months in under a couple of panels while spending entire issues in one location. At the same time, there’s very little padding. Traveling on foot is not only necessary since the characters can’t interact with real-world vehicles, but it’s also symbolic of the pain caused by their trip and, of course, of Jesus’s walk to his death. While the ending drags on a bit, it sets up the Wandering Jew parallel I mentioned earlier. I’m not certain that a sequel to Midnight Nation is in the pipeline or even warranted, as everything wraps up nicely in a bittersweet but surprisingly hopeful epilogue.

After this gloomy tale, I think we need something to cheer us up ... perhaps something with a little “KLANG!” to it.
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  1. Hi Doug, you stated that " I normally roll my eyes at any story which features creationism in any serious light.." would you care to elaborate?

    1. I'm a very strong advocate for keeping creationism and "Intelligent Design" out of schools. It has less to do with religion (at least personally) and more to do with respecting science and human progress. That said, using the creation story in a work about religious themes is perfectly fine.

  2. It just seemed like a very odd comment that didn't fit into the review. Especially since comics are a fictional medium that have all sorts of different gods/goddesses/pantheons etc. One of the seminal works of the medium, in my opinion, is Garth Ennis' Preacher which had Christianity and creationism as one of its central themes. I just didn't see why you felt the need to make a comment like that in the context of the review. I don't have any religious affiliation or belief but it stuck out to me as out of place in the context of the review. Thanks for the explanation.

  3. I get what you mean. It's just one of those topics that always gets me ranked until I can really contextualI've it.