Monday, June 30, 2003

Midnight Nation
J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank, Jason Gorder, Avalon Studios, Dreamer Design
Joe’s Comics/ Top Cow Productions/ Image Comics

David Grey is an LAPD cop who’s so dedicated to his job that he basically sacrifices his personal life, though not fully aware of the ramifications. His life is placed on the line after an encounter with hideous ghostly beings, and he discovers later that he’s been thrust into the ‘metaphor,’ a place that is essentially the real world inhabited by those like him, people who have become ghost-like because the real world refuses to ‘see’ them anymore. Not dead, just non-existent.

In the metaphor, David meets Laurel, a woman who tells him that they must literally walk to New York to reclaim David’s soul (and not Paul Michael-Glaser… bad joke). During their journey, David finds out more about his new state of existence, ponders on the purpose of his existence, and becomes faced with one of those life-altering choices, a staple of most if not all morality tales.

Midnight Nation is a modern morality tale, and Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5 and writer of the acclaimed comics series Rising Stars) paces it well enough to keep a reader interested, while adding new information about the workings of the metaphor across the twelve issues. Infused with existentialism and spirituality, Midnight Nation urges readers to question why we’re here and what matters more in life. It’s a character-driven piece, where over half of what goes on involves David and Laurel talking to each other, enabling us to get into their skulls and find out what makes them tick. The action scenes are, while numerous, are not overstated and obviously not the high points of the story.

What I liked about Midnight Nation was how Straczynski unfolded the metaphor origami, sliding each facet into play without being blatantly expository. He even gives the antagonists some real motivation meat, stating genuine purpose and function couched in human reality. Though the dialogue does get cheesy in parts, with an obligatory and lengthy “this is what’s really going on” monologue, they’re mostly forgivable in the context of pop comics. This is Image/Top Cow, not Vertigo.

Unfortunately, the choice of art style for Midnight Nation detracts from what should otherwise be a hard-hitting and contemplative comics story. Gary Frank’s work here is, while consistent, inappropriate to the book’s themes. His style here, which adapts the Image-school, would be excellent for superhero or high adventure stories (he used to draw The Incredible Hulk). But to fully evoke the spiritual mood and atmosphere of Midnight Nation, I’m looking at the styles of Duncan Fegredo (Enigma), Michael Zulli (The Last Temptation), or even Jon J. Muth (Passion Play).

Straczynski once again proves himself as a formidable writing force in comics, where emphasis on character and the human condition rule. If you have extra moolah to cough up, do get Midnight Nation, but be prepared to get slightly depressed. It has strong things to say about hope and purpose, so it’s not really recommended reading when you’re down in the rut, despite its happy ending.

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