Captain Midnight – A Little Cultural Archaeology

Batton Lash wrote an introduction to the second volume of collected classic Captain Midnight comics published by Dark Horse, stating that in his childhood, “certain characters were so popular in their day that they were still referenced long after they dropped off the pop culture”, and his experience is in some ways similar to my own. I’m one generation later in the cultural swim, so hearing about Captain Midnight is a little more like hearing rumors and details through a tin-can phone, garbled, with plenty of room for interpretation and not much to help me out in deciphering exactly what is being said.

CapMid400x400Lash heard echoes of Captain Midnight in the cultural zeitgest, like a receding tide carrying scattered artifacts, and heard contradictory experiences from relatives, from those who had read the comics, to those who knew him from the radio days. For me, I became interested in Captain Midnight through the new comics produced by Dark Horse, now in its first collection, and talking in an interview to series writer Joshua Williamson, then seeing the reprint of the old comics. But I wouldn’t say I know a lot about Captain Midnight. I like his strange costume, with a winged clock in the center of a red suit. I like the fact that he’s a genius inventor influencing industry (like Tony Stark). I like the fact that he’s a contradiction between an often quite two dimensional man of action and the moments when he’s called out for being so simplistic (a little like Tom Strong), and I watch closely to see what he’ll do when he’s challenged to see the grey areas in real life between heroic action and the best of possible worlds frequently based on compromise. I also like the fact that he can fly (well, glide like a flying squirrel really), since the Rocketeer was my first hero obsession as a kid. For the same reason that Superman captured the imagination when he first broke onto the cultural scene, and still does, I imagine: the spectacle of a man breaking the aery bonds is enough to make us stop and stare and speaks to the early days of flight as well as of exploration.

24032I took two volumes of Captain Midnight, one old, one new, with me on spring break from teaching to visit my family in the South. My family has been in many ways old fashioned, with lots of sitting around in parlors and being polite as a kid, especially around my grandparents, who certainly were scions of the radio age. Out of the blue, while driving through the countryside this spring, I asked my mother, “Have you ever heard of Captain Midnight?” The result was so far different than I expected that it inspired me to write this piece. My mother is a retired English teacher, and when I’ve asked her about her knowledge of comics in the past, it wasn’t exactly an area that inspired her interest. She recalled Archie, and the odd funny animal comic strip, but when I first gave some comics to my niece, there was a little pause, a hint of disapproval as if I should be giving her “real” books instead. But I have gotten used to talking about comics anyway, throwing the subject out there around people who aren’t familiar with them, on the off chance of converting someone by accident. So asking about Captain Midnight was one of those random talking-to-myself about comics moments and I didn’t expect an answer.

My mother geeked out about Captain Midnight and I simply couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Her reaction was as big and child-like as many kids currently feel about the Avengers, or Thor, or Iron Man. In fact, I didn’t have to speak again for a good half an hour while she unleashed stories and descriptions, remembering particular Captain Midnight stories, both from her own memory and those of her parents. It was like a cultural cache that had gone untouched for decades in a storage room surrounded by other curios the modern age had left behind. When she trailed off, I asked her, “How long has it been since you heard the name or talked about Captain Midnight?”. She thought for a moment, then answered quite confidently, “60 years”.

That hung in the air for awhile. 60 years and it was as if no time had passed at all. That is a hero tradition to be reckoned with. When she added that my grandfather had also been fond of Captain Midnight, even my grandmother, I was even more baffled. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I couldn’t even recall a superhero ever being mentioned in their presence, so it was all a bit of an a-bomb to the mind, given that I now make my living in comics.

22880I had been reading Dark Horse’s current Captain Midnight, and saw a great deal there I recognized from superhero comics of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, as well as pulp homage comics. I was particularly struck by how many of the classic superhero qualities the Captain contained, later prism-like separated into different personalities, particularly in Marvel Comics. Like Tony Stark, the Captain is a genius inventor and titan of industry, and this holds true in the new DH comics as well, and like Iron Man, he can fly, albeit through different methods. But like the more recent Kieron Gillen run on the Iron Man comics, the Captain is frequently seen in the older comics (as collected by Dark Horse in their second volume) to go in rockets into space, using his pilot skills to handle outer-lunar travel as easily as he might take a light aircraft jaunt on earth. A couple of years ago I would have told you that it’s not exactly run-of-the-mill for Tony Stark to encounter aliens on their own turf, but Gillen’s done that too more recently. And since I’m clearly a big Iron Man fan, Captain Midnight’s qualities on that front were bound to appeal.

But the Captain has other traits, such as a difficult simplicity in his moral outlook. I say difficult because it’s difficult to translate into modern terms with our post-modern recognition of shades of grey. Even in the old comics, he’s occasionally aware that he’s being too strident in his judgments on evil-doers, though that usually comes significantly later than his rather grandiose pronouncements that read like the “lesson of the day”. Does that make him too one-dimensional for readers now? Joshua Williamson, the writer on the Dark Horse comics, has done something very interesting with that difficulty, if you read the entire first run of Captain Midnight. I won’t give too much away as spoilers, but essentially he’s incorporated that severity in the Captain’s nature into the heroic flaw/crux of the plot and forced the Captain to take a hard look at it. And if he won’t, others will, and point it out to him. It’s like the old law, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. While that may equal rough justice, it also tends to spin Karma in a never-ending circle of potential revenge. And Captain Midnight through his very nature has spun a future for humanity that he never intended. Bravo to Mr. Williamson, for handling that “difficulty” and turning it into a virtue.

Screenshot20110116at8.52.53AMThe artwork in its myriad forms, from comics, to film posters and radio ads, devoted to Captain Midnight could fill an Indiana Jones warehouse-sized archive no doubt, but just flipping through a few images, I get the impression of bold poses, daring deeds, and a steely expression. What we are looking for in a visual impression of heroes is not so different today, but my first impressions of the new Captain Midnight comics were undoubtedly favorable. Particularly in the first issue by Fernando Dagnino, but also in the hands of later issues by Victor Ibanez, Pere Perez, and Roger Robinson, I was intrigued by the modern rendering of a very solid figure, a confused, younger face than I might have imagined, and his ability to transform so suddenly from a vulnerable-seeming human figure to a sudden icon, picked out against the night sky in flight helmet and goggles. That transformation captures the imagination in just the way the Captain’s flip from industry giant to star pilot must have captured the imagination of previous generations whether conveyed by radio wave or comic strip. It’s almost as if there’s something unrevealed, just a millisecond, in that transformation that remains unexplained. And somewhere in there is that old sense of “magic” in hero stories that retains a sense of wonder.

captmid0p4The same wonder my mother still felt just talking about Captain Midnight. He’s an idea, of course, that’s much bigger than any one story or incarnation you might find. But what I have acknowledge is the accomplishment of the modern series to approach that idea and corral it without trying to force it into a mold that doesn’t fit. The comic doesn’t underestimate the reader and assume we need a hero with a cellphone and an iPad to feel connected to the narrative. The touches of translation into current terms is light when it comes to characterization, even as they render the wider world of Captain Midnight quite recognizable with its military and technological complexes.

I have to assume that it would, theoretically, be possible to create a Captain Midnight story these days that actually did a disservice to the original character and material, though there does seem to be a bulletproof bedrock in his construction that has preserved him this long in the cultural consciousness. But the new series does more than just avoid catastrophe, it builds on and suggests that we may learn more about Captain Midnight than our grandparents did, things they wondered about. That we may get the answers they were waiting for on the radio. And I think that’s lucky. It’s strange to think that my grandparents might envy me when I sit down with my comic book and find their favorite hero. If anything, I’ve realized that Captain Midnight is an ongoing conversation in inspiration, even 60 years later.

Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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