Damnation, both as a spiritual condition and as a metaphor for more secular misery, has long inspired some of literature’s greatest creations (Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment spring to mind). While it is probably presumptuous to compare Midnight Nation to these pillars of Western literature, its story of damnation, loss, and hope in the modern world certainly gains points for its ambition. Neither the fires of hell nor the tortures of conscience are the primary plagues that haunt the lost souls of Midnight Nation’s sad cast of characters, but rather the all-too-simple process of falling through the cracks in an increasingly callous society. A university student need only walk through virtually any neighborhood of Chicago after dark to feel the presence of this Midnight Nation, the sad examples of humanity most of the rest of us do our fearful best to ignore.
Written by J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the TV series Babylon 5) Midnight Nation is perhaps most notable not for its subject matter, but for its medium, that of a graphic novel (a comic book in paperback format). Comics have traditionally been dominated by the superhero. The adventures of costumed crime-fighters remain the mainstay of the comics industry, but no primary-colored spandex is to be found in these pages. Originally a 12-issue series, Midnight Nation has now been collected in graphic novel form, finally allowing it to be enjoyed as a single, cohesive story rather than a run of 22-page chapters.
The story itself revolves around David Grey, an LAPD homicide detective who in the course of investigating a depressingly typical gang-related murder loses his soul. With the help of semi-mysterious traveling companion, guide, and protector Laurel, he must walk across the country within a year to regain it. This journey from Los Angeles to New York (the seat of all evil, confirming the prejudices of many) is less a travelogue then a metaphor laden with philosophical and thematic exploration of hope, misery, angels, and devils, among other biblical themes conducive to many an authors’ fictional penetration of the human condition.
David Grey is a decent man and a good cop, but he is brooding and depressed over his estrangement from his wife because of his unhealthy fixation on his work. As a hero, he’s damaged goods, generally self-centered, and often a bit of a jerk. Still, as a believable everyman and as a protagonist for such a morally ambiguous story, he works quite well. Laurel, David’s often sarcastic and cryptic guide for his journey, is in many ways more the moral center of the story and represents the conflict between misery and hope which dominates Midnight Nation. Numerous other minor characters arise on David and Laurel’s cross-country journey, each with a memorable tale of loss and being lost to the world.
Since Midnight Nation is a graphic novel, Straczynski’s story is conveyed though the images of penciler Gary Frank as well as through the words of the author, and the combination of the talents of these two ranges from very effective to extremely powerful. Frank boasts a realistic and richly detailed style with a talent for depicting both gritty cityscapes and desperate characters, and provides an important grounding to the more supernatural elements of Straczynski’s story. Artistically, the real standout is Frank’s depiction of a certain fallen angel pivotal to the second half of David Grey’s journey. The menacing but melancholy, sinister but tragic appearance of Lucifer is a flawless counterpoint to Midnight Nation’s interpretation of “the Devil” as an ambiguous figure who is tormented and resentful, profoundly capable of evil but surprisingly easy to sympathize with.
Like any work, however, Midnight Nation is hardly without flaws. The most central of these is the blend of the realistic, the metaphorical, and the religious/supernatural, which might be a turn-off for at least some readers. It is an extremely ambitious story, with a great deal to say about a great many aspects of human existence. Whether or not it succeeds on all counts is something that will depend on the individual reader. Also dependent on the reader is the reaction to the fact that this is, after all is said and done, a comic, and therefore a fundamentally different experience than a novel or movie.
Anyone willing to brave the stigma that is attached to the comics industry (a niche of geekdom in general decline since the mid-’90s) will find a mature story about the segment of humanity that is relegated to walk in the shadows. The people who fall through the cracks of society are every bit as present in this story as David Grey, nominally the main character. The homeless, the hopeless, and those condemned to loneliness populate Straczynski’s Midnight Nation and are visible only to those who, like Grey, have started down the path to damnation. The question remains as to the status of those of us in the real world that have learned to consciously ignore the plight of our fellow human beings.