Midnighter and Apollo 3

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Today, Mark and Spencer are discussing Midnighter and Apollo 3, originally released December 7th, 2016. As always, this article containers SPOILERS.

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Mark: Throughout the first three issues of Midnighter and Apollo, Steve Orlando has proven his love for the obscure corners of the DC Comics universe by incorporating his favorite elements at every opportunity. The most successful of these moments are like Midnighter and Apollo 1‘s Subway Pirates cold open, and don’t rely on the reader sharing his same pool of knowledge to enjoy. Midnighter and Apollo 3 is the first time in Orlando’s work that I’ve felt on the outside looking in. It’s alienating in a way I wasn’t expecting, but maybe gives me a better understanding of why Midnighter remains such a niche character.

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The issue is packed with an unusual amount of exposition, and not all of it smoothly delivered. The difficulty starts early with the introduction of the Mawzir, an “archdemon born from the stitched-together souls of war criminals.” Extrano explains that Mawzir serves the Lords of the Gun and that only an Eldritch Rifle called the Ace of Winchesters can dispatch it.

This is the first of Orlando’s deep cuts that hasn’t worked for me, probably because I had to take a trip to the Hellblazer Wiki to figure out what the deal with any of it was. Yes, Mawzir, the Lord of Guns, and the Ace of Winchesters are all pre-existing elements of the DC universe, but unlike Orlando’s best pulls, if you aren’t already familiar with them, their significance in the story is a little jarring. It’s such a specific introduction, with Extrano taking great pains to explain each element, that as a newcomer it just reads like clunky, confusing exposition. Similarly, the choice to hold Mawzir until the end of the issue initially made little sense to me, but couched as the eagerly anticipated reveal of a fan favorite (?) I understand it better.

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What I felt like I was missing through all of Midnighter and Apollo 3 was context. Not just with Mawzir and the Ace of Winchesters, but in the extended scenes between Neron and Apollo as well. I weirdly happen to be passingly familiar with the Mansion of Happiness board game Neron forces Apollo to play, but what is Neron doing with it in the first place? Is he an avid board game collector? Would Monopoly not be more tortuous? Is Neron’s love of board games well known? Is it supposed to be a joke (albeit a joke with no pay off)? Again, it’s such a specific choice that I can only assume there’s more to it than I understand.

Because so much of the issue follows that kind of specificity, even the elements I think are original leave me second guessing myself. Like is Vodyanar a demon I should know from somewhere else? He’s new, right?

And why does Orlando have Midnighter remind us twice that he has a fight computer in his brain?

Midnighter and Apollo 3 is not Fernando Blanco’s strongest issue, either. The ambitiously complex layouts we’ve come to expect from Midnighter titles are sadly missing, but even the talking scenes feel less carefully crafted than usual. Consider this early moment in the issue where Extrano is explaining his magic to Midnighter:

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The fingers of Extrano’s left-hand feel quickly realized, as does the rest of the panel. It’s not a dealbreaker, but is emblematic of the lack of polish the entire issue seems to suffer from. Like the whole thing needed a second pass to become fully realized.

If I’m down on this issue it’s because I’ve come to expect a lot from Midnighter and Apollo. Maybe an unfair amount. Spencer, did you walk away from the issue with a more positive impression? And are you a Mawzir mega-fan? I imagine this whole issue reads significantly better if you’re already familiar with the context in which it operates.

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Spencer: I’m not a Mawzir “mega-fan” by any means, Mark, but I’m not completely unaware of the character either. Orlando made sure to set up his groundwork here, introducing Mawzir, the Lords of the Gun, and the Ace of Winchester back in issue one of this mini-series. In fact, the initial reveal of Henry Bendix came with a pretty clear explanation of the details Extrano would go on to explain to Midnighter this month.

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Again, that image is taken from Midnighter and Apollo 1. Mawzir himself appears later that issue, in all his gun-handed glory, to kill Apollo’s physical body and damn his soul to Hell. So I don’t think you need to be fluent in Hellblazer to get this issue. Perhaps it might give you some more emotional attachment to Mawzir and his goons, but that kind of attachment isn’t necessary. Mawzir killed Apollo, so with or without the Ace of Winchesters, Midnighter will make him pay; that’s his role in this story, and it’s all you really need to know about the guy.

With that in mind, this issue’s final page isn’t meant to be a big cliffhanger reveal of a fan-favorite character, but simply the moment where Midnighter and Mawzir finally come face-to-face. It’s the calm before the storm, and really, that’s a description that applies to this entire issue. It’s a far more slow and thoughtful issue than we’re used to from Orlando’s take on these characters, and surprisingly low on violence; Apollo and Neron have a battle of ethics, and while Midnighter does knock around a few skulls, he spends most of the issue preparing for his sojourn to Hell by strategizing with Extrano, gathering up supplies, and saying goodbye to the people who matter most.

That’s really what Midnighter and Apollo 3 does best: what it may lack in action it absolutely makes up for in heart. Even if he keeps up his tough-guy exterior most of the time, Midnighter is surprisingly vulnerable throughout this issue. His goodbye to Tony reveals that he’s afraid he might not return from his trip to Hell, which is far from Midnighter’s signature confidence. And then there’s this gem of a panel:

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It’s almost unheard of for Midnighter to be this unabashedly vulnerable, this emotionally naked, and it really hit me hard. I know I say this almost every time I talk about Midnighter, but I continue to love how complex he is as a character. This kind of moment may be rare for him, but it’s not out of character in the slightest.

This issue’s slightly slower, place-setting pace also allows Blanco to try out some different artistic techniques. Aside from one moment as Midnighter makes his final preparations for his trip to Hell, Blanco abandons his typical “tons of insert panels” style altogether. Instead, we get an impressive splash page of Midnighter absolutely decimating some demons, or the moment a few pages later where a bloodied Midnighter walks through a crowd of demons like Moses parting the red sea.

I think my favorite technique from Blanco this month, though, is his use of grids. Blanco and Orlando limit grids almost solely to the scenes where Apollo and Neron are playing Mansion of Happiness, and I think there could be quite a few explanations why. A grid of panels is similar to the spaces on a board game, and the consistent, almost monotonous structure of a grid, with all its rules, is similar to the rules of gameplay that govern a board game, and perhaps even the monotony of some of the more tedious games.

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In this particular case I think the grid may have more to do with the slow, yet consistent, wearing down of Apollo’s resolve. That said, I’m just as fond of Blanco’s less symbolic, more literal use of a grid. Take the above image: Neron positively looms over Apollo, emphasizing the power he holds over him. That would be evident even if this was a splash page, yet the grid drives the point home by providing a point of reference; we can see that Neron gets an entire extra row of panels because he’s just that important in Hell. That’s a clever use of a layout, for sure.

Mark, I haven’t got any answers as to where Neron may have gotten his hands on a copy of Mansion of Happiness, but I think he made it pretty apparent why he uses it as opposed to, say, Monopoly. The game acts as a metaphor to show how man is incapable of finding happiness because of their many sins — it’s easy to see why a devil would be drawn to that.

That idea seems to have extinguished Apollo’s light for now, but I don’t think it will last. Maybe human beings aren’t capable of finding some mansion of happiness where they can live some carefree, eternal life of bliss, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our moments of happiness, such as the ones Midnighter and Apollo have found together. Moreover, what makes humans special is that we’ll never stop seeking happiness. Neron revels in the supposed futility of that, but on the other hand, it’s one of Midnighter’s greatest qualities. He’ll quite literally march right into Hell itself in order to save the man he loves, in order to rescue their happiness, even if he knows he’ll most likely fail. That’s an important lesson for all of us. Happiness isn’t permanent, and it doesn’t come easy; it’s something you have to fight for.

So Mark, I can agree that this isn’t necessarily the strongest issue of Midnighter and Apollo, but I think it’s going to be an important one in the long-run. We get a deeper look at Midnighter himself, we learn rules that are going to be pretty vital to the next few issues, and we set up the next major conflict, meaning that issue four can immediately open with Midnighter murdering a demon with guns for hands. That should be pretty rad.

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For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

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