August 27, 2015

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Captain Midnight Series Review - Part 2: "We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them"



Written by Joshua Williamson
Illustrated by Fernando Dagnino, Manuel Garcia, Michael Broussard, Miguel Sepulveda
Colours by Javier Mena, Marta Martínez

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
The Dark Horse line of superhero comics falls under the banner of Project Black Sky. The popularity of the line in general and the quality of the characters developed in the core Captain Midnight series lead to a few spin-off and team-up books that brought the heroes together in different situations. The Skyman character introduced in the second arc received a fantastic spin-off miniseries from writer Joshua Fialkov and artist Manuel Garcia. While it was a fascinating series, the only significant effect it had on Captain Midnight was the procurement of the art team for a later arc. While it is a series that stands on its own merits, it would start a completely separate discussion.
The second major spin-off title is the original graphic novel titled Two Past Midnight. It brought together all of the Project Black Sky characters together as they teamed up against a common enemy. Again, while it is definitely a high quality title, there wasn't much emphasis placed on Captain Midnight and the only lasting effect was the introduction of the technology based criminal known as Tempus.
Despite the potential story that this name implies, Tempus doesn't play an important part in the overall legend that Captain Midnight is building. That doesn't mean that the arc doesn't have its exciting moments, such as when Cap is attacked by an enormous matter-devouring Kraken; it is just a reactionary side adventure that allows Jim Albright to flex his inventor's muscles and blast out some impressive technology.
This arc contains gorgeous art from the team that created the aforementioned Skyman miniseries: Manuel Garcia, Bit and Javier Mena. The team's dynamic becomes abundantly clear in the complex scenes with their ability to play with light. The colours bring the pencils and inks to life in such a tremendous way that it fixates the reader's focus on the intense realism in the scene. One disappointing part of Garcia's pencils is that his depiction of the wiley and most definitely female Joyce Ryan comes with an unfortunate amount of masculine features.

The next arc resumes Captain Midnight's chase after a new nemesis who has made regular appearances in each previous arc. In an effort to not spoil your own enjoyment of the series if you haven't yet read it, I'm keeping the identity of this villain secret. Despite this, there are a few aspects of this confrontation that need noting. There is an unfortunate creative decision to surround the character with black shading which casts all of the lines and wrinkles on his face into shadow. This instantly takes away any of the grey morality surrounding the character and places him firmly in the position of the bad guy. One of the most important themes in previous arcs has been the rejection of the black and white morality and the recognition that life is often not that simple. To remove this at the last second not only decreases the impact of the final fight, but starts to invalidate all of the previous character growth.
This is unfortunately where, in my personal opinion, the series starts to lose sight of what made it great. Alien technology has long been a part of the series as the source of the vast majority of Albright's inventions. The encounters and the relationship with extra-terrestrial life is kept abstract and isn't delved into in extreme detail. This added a level of mystery to that aspect of the story and allowed your imagination to fill in the blanks. By making the encounters an explicit and critical part of the story, it tries to add an explanation to a situation that didn't need it.
The epic clash between Captain Midnight and his antagonist is a beautiful sight to see. Fernando Dagnino makes a return to the series with extremely impressive work. With the final confrontation taking place in the air, he has the chance to show the sheer scope of this battle and the level of power between the two. Lightning bolts are flying everywhere and despite a slight lack of urgency from the text, the scene is electric and pops right off the page.
The attitude of the series villain is deliberately off-putting and comes across as unstable. His reactions are identical to a child throwing a tantrum because he hasn't got what he wanted from the person that he loves the most. The entire scene serves to show the dangers of idolising a person without actually interacting with them. You build up this idea of what they are to you and what they're capable of and when it comes down to difficult situations, it's wrenching to discover that they are in fact a person just like you.

Unfortunately, this is where Captain Midnight's main journey ends. Any lingering situations from his past have been wrapped up and everyone that he knew has either been held accountable for their actions or, in the most unlucky cases, has been brutally murdered. The final arc has been seeded during every previous story with hints about an even bigger bad that has been pulling the strings behind every confrontation. However, it feels so detached from the over-arching story that it feels like a bonus story from Williamson that has been tacked onto the end; this can be interpreted in both a positive and a negative light.
Manuel Garcia and his team make a reappearance to give this arc a very atmospheric and distinctive feel where Joyce fortunately looks a lot more feminine than before. There are times when the bright colours from Javier Mena add such a strong vibrancy to each scene and help to highlight key situations where each character is given a chance to stand out. However, the final two issues see pencils and inks from series newcomer Miguel Sepulveda. He brings a very crisp feeling to the book but maintains a level of consistency as to not make the transition a jarring experience during these final climactic scenes. There is one particular example where Sepulveda isolates each character in their own section of a large fight which prevents the scene from feeling too messy.
This arc's villain, The Archon, is mentioned prior to his first appearance, but isn't built up to enough to make you actually dread his arrival. With his only contribution to the series being his manipulation of other characters, his appearance isn't disquieting and is most definitely not frightening. When he finally shows his face, his description of the first 19 issues as only the first act of his plan does make you wonder what he has in store for our heroes.
One of The Archon's most disconcerting effects is his invasion of the Squadron's supposedly safe places. No matter what has happened previously, there are always a few places that have remained untouched and unspoiled. Seeing them completely taken over by The Archon is something that lingers with you after reading it. To let you know how serious the story is, Dark Horse's masked vigilante known only as 'X' is brought in as a supporting character. His title has been characterised by its violence but Captain Midnight has remained relatively PG-13. To see such a violent person let loose in these pages lets you know that a more forceful hand is required to deal with this villain.

The team that Captain Midnight creates and the people that have drifted in and out of it has been one of the core components of what has made this series great. Towards the end of the arc, team linchpin Charlotte Ryan exclaims something in an inspirational moment that will warm your heart. At the very least, Cap has left behind a strong legacy in his team of people that remain self-confident enough to speak up when they think that the dream has gone awry. The end of story is left open-ended so that if someone wished to in the future, they could easily pick up exactly where Williamson has left off and keep building on the legacy that he has left behind. This pulp character has truly been redefined for a new generation and will hopefully not fade back into obscurity.
As flawless as the first 11 issues of this series are, it does begin to shift away from the initial "Man Out of Time" storyline and starts to become far more generic superhero story. There are definitely moments where that theme begins to resurface but it is quickly squashed by the appearance of another villain. The plot becomes far more focused on Jim Albright's fight in the present which is a clear progression for the character, but is not the reason that many people signed up to the book.
In his update to the lore of Captain Midnight, Williamson has created and dealt with a wide array of varied and intriguing characters. While I would love to go into detail about them each in turn, I'd rather leave them for you to discover on your own. The breakout star in this series is definitely the questionably aligned, teleporting mercenary known as Helios. Not only was his attitude appalling in all the best ways, his fighting style felt so extremely innovative and was portrayed well by each artist. Whenever Helios fought, the page would fill up with a scattering of panels that represented the madness and the daze induced during a fight with someone using a personal teleporter.
Despite how it may seem by the length of this review, there is so much more to this series to discuss. Captain Midnight has been the core of Dark Horse's superhero line for almost three years now so it's disappointing to think that I may never read another issue. Despite the problems that I had with it towards the end, this is undeniably an extremely high quality series. People who say that comics are only for children and the simple-minded have clearly never branched outside of the biggest publishers.
Relationships rise and fall within these pages and people make discoveries that they never wished to make. Behind all of this is a man trying to make a difference in the unfair world that he's found himself a part of. Captain Midnight represents the person that we all aspire to be as we blunder through life and, while he's definitely not perfect, it's difficult to see him as anything but an inspiration.