Like most minorities, LGBT characters were often under-represented in mainstream comics. When they appeared, they were frequently just plot devices and stand-ins for the damsel-in-distress. A reoccurring element in certain comics was that of a straight superhero avenging injuries inflicted on a gay or lesbian friend.
The gay friend was “punished” for his sexuality by ignorant violent straight men and avenged by a liberal one. This ultimately reduced the gay supporting character to little more than an excuse for the hero to showcase both his fighting prowess and open-mindedness.
The flip side of this was fully developed characters, such as Shepherd from 100 Bullets, who were implied to be gay or bisexual but never shown engaging in same-sex relationships or encounters. They were vital to the plot but rendered virtual neuters in terms of sexuality.
In recent times, comics have become more diverse with a lesbian Batwoman starring in her own long-running series and Marvel introducing a variety of LGBT characters in actual relationships.
But no superhero pantheon is complete without a Hades and that role of gritty gay anti-hero is reserved for The Midnighter.
Midnighter was originally a Batman analogue who debuted in Stormwatch and gained more prominence in the spin-off comic, The Authority. Unlike Batman, Midnighter had a variety of superhuman abilities, very little remorse when it came to killing opponents and no real personal motivation for his actions.
The Authority comic gradually degenerated from a politically aware wide-screen epic to a farce which often depicted the main characters (nearly all of whom were minorities) being tortured, sexually violated and humiliated before finally being allowed to avenge themselves on their tormentors.
Midnighter, being the team badass and the character that best fulfilled the usual fanboy power fantasies, was often exempt from the humiliation stage of this cycle. But like the other characters, he too suffered under the frequent creative mishandling of the Authority team. Devoid of any inner life, he was often written as little more than a hyper-violent caricature.
He may have started off as a Batman analogue but unlike the Caped Crusader, he had no trauma to drive him and no impossible war to wage. Without these, he was less a character than a collection of fighting moves and tough-guy one-liners.
Despite a relationship with a male team-mate, his sexuality was often just fodder for bad jokes and insults by super villains or else glossed over completely.
And yet the character always had potential. When handled by an intelligent writer, you could see the man behind the mask.
As well as an interesting back-story and unique abilities, Midnighter also possessed a kind of gritty glamour reminiscent of noir avengers like Sin City’s Marv and Punisher Max. Obviously his powers necessitate adventures on a larger scale than the average crime tale. But like Frank Castle and Marv, Midnighter is an anti-hero on the side of justice and carries a wounded humanity beneath the greasy overcoat of tough-guy glamour.
And it’s his humanity that cries out to be further explored.
Hopefully, we’ll get to see this happen in the upcoming Midnighter solo series. The series, a spin-off from DC’s successful Grayson series, will be written by Steve Orlando with art by Aco.
In it, Orlando promises to explore both the high-octave action scenes associated with the character as well as Midnighter’s civilian life, choices and personal interactions, romantic and otherwise.
And I for one welcome this. After all, readers connect to a character’s humanity, not his ability to kick the heads off his opponents.