November 11th 2009

J. Michael Straczynski's "Midnight Nation"

Review written By Mark Richards

First things first: if you’re anything like me then there’s nothing more exciting to the average fanboy than reading a new comic. However buying (or reviewing) the latest release may be all very well and good, but sometimes it’s much more rewarding to return to the bookshelf and pick out an old favourite. Returning to an oft-read story is like going home; it provides the warmth and comfort of the familiar, but there’s always the opportunity to glean something new from your surroundings. When revisiting the same story there’s always some new insight, some previously unnoticed subtext, to be re-examined and, as the reader matures, so does their perception of the narrative. With comic books, of course, the added bonus is you have stunning artwork to galvanise the narrative - or even distract from poor writing. It’s always wonderful when you spot the artist’s in-joke, or something remarkable in the background that you didn’t see before. Additionally, it’s not very often you find a comic book or graphic novel that has a sublime story and amazing artwork; much of the time you’ll get one or the other, but it’s rare to find both. Moreover, every once in a while something profound turns up that you just have to share with the world.

And so I find myself returning to one of my favourites…Midnight Nation by J. Michael Straczynski. Running over 12-issues from 2000-2002, this 2003 collection centres on Lieutenant David Gray, a forlorn and disillusioned detective working for the LAPD. Tracking down those responsible for a spate of brutal murders, he is attacked and “killed” by a troop of grinning demonic creatures known as “Walkers”. When he awakes into a limbo-like existence, having crossed a metaphoric line into a parallel world, he finds himself tasked with crossing the United States on foot to reclaim his soul from a being known only as “The Other Guy”. David’s sole (or soul) companion is Laurel, his frustratingly enigmatic guide and protector, who leads him on the mystical and spiritual path to his journey’s inevitable conclusion. Along the way they have various encounters through which crucial choices must be made, wrongs righted, and sacrifices made in which people on both sides of the metaphor are damned and/or redeemed.

In addition to having one of the hardest names to spell in all of comicdom, Straczynski is also a prolific writer. He’s written for some of the most popular television of the past 25 years (The Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote, The Real Ghostbusters, He-Man – yes – He-Man!), created (and wrote the bulk of) the immensely popular Babylon 5, and most recently scripted the Clint Eastwood-directed hit Changeling. He has also written some of the most important Spider-Man storylines of the past decade (check out Spider-Man: Back in Black and our own review of Spider-Man: Evolve or Die). Like Changeling, Midnight Nation deals with themes of loss and pain, suffering and redemption, and unflinching hope in the face of despair. The characters we meet along David’s journey are all crippled in some way by their failure to act or by the choices they have made. The same can also be said for him and Laurel. Just as David denies himself a life by devoting himself to his job, so too does Laurel suffer repeated torture through her choice to cling to her faith. Even “The Other Guy”, David’s chief antagonist suffers for the choices he has made. As these characters expose their own pain, the reader too is taken on an emotional and philosophical journey that forces them to examine their own life choices.

One of the astonishing things about Midnight Nation is that the seeds of its inspiration were sown by Straczynski’s own existential angst and – to an extent – a savage beating at the hands of a street gang. Without my giving too much of the detail away, the collected edition features the author’s own account of the events that inspired his story and is an eye-opening read in itself. His openness and honesty is apparent not only here, but in the bulk of his writing on Midnight Nation, and there’s a sense of genuine sentiment that you cannot help but be inspired by. You could be forgiven for mistaking his tone as a little preachy at times, but that’s exactly what this is - a comic book that’s both a parable and a metaphor for a more fulfilling life. That’s not to say that’s all this is about, of course; Straczynski has written a dramatic and witty story that’s hugely entertaining and peppered with action. Although the reader is encouraged to think deeply about what has transpired, it shouldn’t detract from your enjoyment if you choose not to.

As mentioned above, great comic books are made by inspired writing and dazzling artwork, so I would be remiss not to mention it here. Pencilled by Gary Frank, with ink by Jonathan Sibal and Jason Gorder, Midnight Nation is a world of solid colours, of light and shadow that perfectly compliments Straczynski’s themes of hope and despair and the crossing of the metaphor. Frank has drawn a rich, vibrant world of wonderfully fine detail and fully realised characters. Everything is exquisitely rendered; each line and shadow comes together to convey great emotion, and the drama jumps out at the reader on every page. One of Frank’s strengths (apart from drawing great hair) is his ability to make his character’s eyes the very window to their souls. From David’s haunted despair, through the anxiety of the people caught on the wrong side of the metaphor, to the sorrow of “The Other Guy”, everything comes first and foremost through the eyes. As for the tattooed nightmare that are the Walkers, Frank manages to create creatures that are both terrifying and childlike as they gleefully tear people apart with their bare hands. Combined with Straczynski’s prose, the Walkers present a believable threat (physically and existentially) to our heroes.

To summarise, Midnight Nation is a beautiful story that is increasingly rewarding with each reading. As for myself, I have been moved to visit Straczynski’s other works, and encouraged to re-evaluate some of my own choices, putting this story up there with a select few books and films. Which begs this final thought: given Straczynski’s film and television chops, isn’t it about time they turned Midnight Nation into a movie? Some could argue, quite rightly, that this story has already found its perfect medium in which to shine. But how many times have we read something and thought; “I’d love to see this on the big screen”? Some stories deserve to be retold. Until that time of course, I’ll keep returning to the bookshelf.

So, I’m reading Midnight Nation…are you?

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