The wide-spread support of gay marriage and LGBT rights is one of the most positive changes to our world over the last few years, and with this progressive shift in public opinion has come more and better representation in pop culture.
In light of this, I want to reexamine the original Midnighter series from 2006 (not to be confused with the recent 2015 series written by Steve Orlando.) The 2006 series was originally written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Chris Sprouse.
Garth Ennis is best known for his work on Preacher, Punisher Max, The Boys and other ultra-violent works. These days, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision when appraising comics and to judge them solely on their representation of minorities. By doing so, one runs the risk of overlooking the artistic or literary worth of controversial comics.
After all, a work of fiction can possess an inclusive cast yet still lack artistic merit. Similarly it can incorporate certain stereotypes and still be creative. As proven by The Birth Of A Nation, repellent stereotypes or messages don’t automatically prevent something from being well executed. If this was the case, propaganda would be ineffective.
Garth Ennis knows how to write an effective comic. His body of work is characterized by a manic energy, subversive ideas and complex villains. They’re also marked by very conventional sexual politics and an over-reliance on shock tactics. Problems arise when these two qualities meet.
If a Garth Ennis character enjoys a slightly spicy sex life, chances are they’re a villain or damaged. Ennis frequently includes problematic tropes in his works and does so without the self-awareness required to satirize them.
Most of his works take place in a twilight world. Both heroes and villains are capable of acts of shocking violence and Ennis has a gift for making us sympathize with the monsters. The traditional boundaries between good and evil are blurred. Therefore he relies on sex to differentiate between sides.
His villains, tragic, humorous, or otherwise, are frequently associated with anything he considers to be “other.” In Preacher, moral depravity is repeatedly linked to kinky sex, bisexuality and BDSM. Jesus De Sade, Miss Oatlash, Starr, and a host of other villains are all shown to engage in unconventional sex.
The hedonistic pansexual Jesus De Sade is a kinkster who sleeps with all genders and indulges indiscriminately in BDSM, bestiality, and pedophilia. Miss Oatlash is not just a Neo-Nazi but also a would-be Dominatrix. An earlier story arc features a macho, closeted cop who turns to BDSM to express his self-hatred and internalized homophobia. The occasional anemic hints at a supporting character’s bisexuality isn’t enough to balance the scales.
But despite this problematic handling of kinky and/or bisexual folk, Ennis still delivers gripping story lines, wonderfully off-beat tales, and satisfying character arcs. Unfortunately, little of this is present in his run on Midnighter.
He depicts Midnighter as both hyper-masculine and oddly sexless. Ennis never writes Midnighter so much as holding hands with his then-husband, Apollo. The closest we come to any recognition of their relationship is Midnighter’s grim statement that “I am not a lover” during one of his internal monologues. Ennis’ Midnighter is not a lover – he is a weapon and weapons conveniently have no need of sex, love, or even a quiet cuddle with their partner.
The book shines when the focus is on Midnighter’s many fight scenes but flounders when it comes to developing the titular character into anything more than a generic badass. In Ennis’ hands, Midnighter is a watered-down Punisher with superpowers. His motivations are barely understood and he never throbs with the inner life seen in characters from Ennis’ previous works.
I’m not leveling an accusation of homophobia at Ennis for the simple reason that I don’t believe homophobia played any part in how he wrote the book. The only real homophobia is the bigotry spouted by the villains and this fulfills much the same purpose as kinky sex in Preacher. It differentiates the bad guys from the morally ambiguous, violent Midnighter. At no time does the reader feel that Ennis is endorsing the villains’ world view.
Nonetheless, the over-reliance of lines such as “Just think of yourself as AIDS” combined with occasionally sexualized violence committed by Midnighter (in one scene, he shoves his staff down a bad guy’s throat in way reminiscent of oral sex) gives the book a juvenile air.
Looking at it now, Ennis’ run seems dated but ultimately harmless. It would be interesting to see how he’d handle Midnighter if he wrote him today.