Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Doctor Mid-Nite

By Matt Wagner, John K. Snyder III, and Ken Bruzenak
Published by DC; $19.95 US/$31.00 CAN
Collects Doctor Mid-Nite #1-#3

It was, in part, Tim O’Neil’s review of Martian Manhunter #1 that persuaded me to review Doctor Mid-Nite. Tim’s commentary regarding the never-ending revamping of J’onn J’onzz put me in mind of all the recent and upcoming won’t-last-more-than-a-year revamps of never-selling characters at both Marvel and DC, which in turn reminded of one of the few examples – of which I’m aware – of a creative team doing the thing right.

Which isn’t to say that I’m at all familiar with the original Doctor Mid-Nite, and in fact I’m fairly ignorant concerning the more complex continuity elements of the DCU. That’s hardly a weakness in reading Doctor Mid-Nite though, as Wagner gives us a brand new character in an updated guise.

In a rare example of a superhero comic achieving the narrative goal that every writer of masked crusaders claims is his, but rarely meets, the man behind the mask is what drives Doctor Mid-Nite. The proof is in the simple fact that, while reading the first chapter of the trade, I was getting very impatient with a reveal that would never come.

Let me explain. Doctor Mid-Nite is narrated by Carmilla Marlowe, a young web designer and wanna-be novelist suffering from a rare condition that causes her skin to burn when in direct sunlight. The only help Marlowe has found for her predicament is A39, an illegal steroid. Marlowe meets Dr. Cross, who quickly sniffs out the woman’s illness, while getting a fix from her regular dealer. Cross convinces Marlowe to let him treat her condition without the drug, and eventually Carmilla learns her mysterious doctor is into more than just giving free medical advice to self-medicating web designers. She accompanies him as he donates medical supplies to homeless shelters, condoms to prostitutes, distracts himself by dabbling in robotics and molecular chemistry, and apparently wrangles in reformed gang-bangers – among others – to act as muscle and reconnaissance in his altruistic endeavors. In fact, the only reason he runs into Marlowe is because he takes it upon himself to do some undercover research on A39. When a scientist developing a chemical to fight oil spills is kidnapped, Cross gets involved. A bartender in the employ of the kidnappers poisons Cross with A39, and the effects force Cross into a car accident. While attempting to help his unintended victims, Cross is blinded when the engine of their car explodes. He eventually discovers that, like his predecessor, somehow the combination of the A39 and the accident manage to blind him only in the daytime, while he can see perfectly in darkness.

The reveal I referred to above, that I was waiting for and that never came; was of how we were going to find out, before his accident, that Cross was already donning a mask and fighting evil. The guy had a space-age house with an electronic voice as his butler. He spent all his time helping people he didn’t have to help, while at the same time investigating crime. Before he even donned a costume, he felt like equal parts Batman and the older, more theatrical pulp heroes. The fact that he wasn’t already a superhero threw me for a loop, and it felt strangely refreshing to meet a character who was a bonafide hero before he became a superhero. The accident that blinds him isn’t what inspires him to go on a crusade, it’s what enables to him to fight the crusades he’s already fighting on a more direct level. The costume and the pseudonym almost feel unimportant. They don’t represent a Batman/Wayne duality, but rather a simple necessity in order to give him a hook and inject him into the world of superheroes. Because of this, in spite of the deliciously cheesy lines he sometimes belts out and the uber-renaissance man that would be tough to swallow in a less "super" medium; Doctor Mid-Nite is one of the most believable, fallible, and altogether human superhero characters I’ve come across.

Humanizing superheroes is one of Wagner’s greatest strengths, and here it doesn’t stop with merely the concept of a hero-turned-superhero. One thing that bothers me about the majority of superhero comics – and it’s something that’s become so commonplace that it’s only when I read something like Doctor Mid-Nite, or watch a show like Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League that I’m even reminded of it – is how writers pander to the versus-debate crowd by fearing to portray their lead characters as anything but well-oiled ass-kicking machines. The possibility that the hero might actually lose is a joke not worth mentioning, and the idea of a genuinely suspenseful superhero comic is equally laughable. If there are any Marvel readers left who can ask "Oh, but could Wolverine possibly win this fight?", I both envy their ignorance and pity them for what could only be a crushing disappointment when they hear back from Mensa.

Doctor Mid-Nite, thankfully, is no well-oiled ass-kicker. Moments after his first genuine "super" battle – a relatively short tussle with a steroid-amped thug – he collapses in exhaustion. Later in the trade, when another thug shoots at him, he doesn’t duck. He doesn’t leap-frog with ease through a web of bullet motion-lines. He gets. Fucking. SHOT. Even in the end, he fails to completely stop the machinations of the bad guys.

And his crusade is no "one-man war against crime!" Before he even dons the mask, Cross develops a vast network of allies. The beefcake Nite-Lite, the weasely and homeless Lemon, the mute lawyer Mouthpiece, and eventually Carmilla back him up every step of the way. We never get the usual, this-is-something-I-have-to-do-alone-I-can’t-ask-you-to-put-yourself-in-harm’s-way-I’m-the-guy-on-the-cover-of-the-comic, ASSHOLE. In the climactic battle of the trade, Doctor Mid-Nite does the unthinkable. He calls the feds for back-up. He calls duly authorized law enforcement agents who are actually legally mandated to do this kind of shit and, get this, actually tells them what’s going on! It’s like the world’s turned upside down! Are me and Brad Pitt the same person? Am I really dead and that creepy kid’s too much of an asshole to tell me? What’s in the box? WHAT’S IN THE FUCK-ING BOX?!?!?!

What I’ve neglected to mention so far is John K. Snyder’s beautiful hand-painted illustrations. Before picking up this trade I was a little disappointed that Wagner had not, as usual, penciled his own story, but Snyder’s work makes up for it. His wild coloring and panel design make every page different from the next, and his hard edges and tendency to illustrate the more muscleman-y characters from feet-to-shoulders in a big, menacing "V" is reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz ( = good thing).

I don’t know if Wagner or Snyder ever had ambitions for Doctor Mid-Nite to become a regular monthly (and considering that Wagner seems to prefer working on mini-series, my guess would be they didn’t), but if so, then the welcome failure of Pieter Cross to feel like any other hero on the stands is probably to blame for its absence.

If you’ve never read Doctor Mid-Nite and somehow my review has managed to spark your interest, but you’re concerned with what seems like a fairly high price tag for the collection of a 3-issue mini, don’t be. Like another mini from Wagner, Trinity, each chapter of Doctor Mid-Nite is close to 50 pages long, and I’d wager it will read better than most of the other DC or Marvel trades you might find out there, regardless of length.


Scene -- said...

your review has managed to spark my interest!

good point on the batman and justice league cartoons. it never really hits me how well the characterzations are on that show until i'm actually watching it.

Anonymous said...

I love this book!


Anonymous said...


I too was a huge fan of this mini.

A revamp of Mid-Nite was the lure.
Wagner reeled me in.
Snyder friggin blew me out of the water with TNT.

It's one of the mini's that I KNOW I'll sell off with the majority of my collection, but will regret forever doing so.

Good call.