Story: Los Angeles Police Lieutenant David Grey tries to arrest a suspect in a pair of drug-related murders, but instead finds himself at the wrong end of a beating by otherworldly creatures called Walkers. Rather than kill him, the Walkers’ leader takes David’s soul and sends him to The Place In-Between – the world of the homeless, the out-of-work, the out-of-date, and the out-of-luck, where people and things fade to after they are forgotten or abandoned. David soon meets Laurel, an emissary from the Walkers’ opponent in an ongoing metaphysical conflict, and the two set off on a cross-country walk to New York to confront the Walkers’ leader and reclaim David’s soul before he becomes trapped In-Between forever.
Review: In some ways, I consider “Midnight Nation” to be Straczynski’s most successful work. Babylon 5 was certainly a more ambitious and more admirable undertaking, and probably his greatest accomplishment, but the realities of TV meant that sometimes things didn’t quite click right. With Midnight Nation, Straczynski revisits many of B5’s themes, but in a more personal story that is still cosmic in scope and works tremendously well in this collected format.
The Shadow/Vorlon conflict has a number of parallels to the Walker/Laurel storyline, for example. Once again we have a good-vs.-evil conflict that tries to muddy the distinction. The “good” guys aren’t completely honest, while the “bad” guys lay out the truth for a caught-in-the-middle protagonist in hopes of securing his cooperation. The scenes between David and the leader of the Walkers have a lot of bite to them, perhaps even more than the similar scenes in Z’ha’Dum. The villains here are not randomly destructive – they argue that our codes of morality are merely fictions that keep us from realizing our potential happiness, and that the old order should be demolished so that freedom may ultimately triumph. The Walkers are so destructive that ultimately it’s impossible to sympathize with them, but it is at least understandable why they have set themselves up against the forces of creation.
There’s also a meeting-oneself-from-the-future scene, where David gets some cryptic information from his future self, that feels like it could have come right out of B5, especially when Straczynski eventually revisits the scene from the future-David’s perspective. Some of the parallels also come from the art – I look at the older David, and I could swear that Gary Frank was looking at Bruce Boxleitner from Sleeping In Light as a reference. That may just be the fan in me talking, but the echo works, at least in part because Frank does such a good job of conveying emotion in his characters that it’s easy to read the drawings as almost performing.
Perhaps most importantly, “Midnight Nation” reaffirms Straczynski’s belief in the ability of the individual to make a difference, to respond to adversity and overcome it. “Midnight Nation” is a celebration of hope, of the belief that things can be better than they are; not idle hope in the sense of mucking through and waiting for things to change, but hope as a motivation to take risks and work for change in one’s own life and in the world around us. Straczynski hammers that theme home throughout David’s journey; David is almost always ready to seize on even the slightest chance of success, while those he meets are usually resigned to their fates. In the beginning of the story, the contrast is between David and those of the In-Betweeners who insist that there was nothing they could do as their lives slid away from them. But as David gets closer to New York, he discovers that it’s the same resignation and absence of hope that fuels the Walkers’ efforts to wipe out creation and start over.
There are some who might say Straczynski belabors the point, that David’s “I have to do something” statements veer from characterization into polemics. I can’t say for sure, but I think most of the people who would respond this way are at least in some sense hostile to Straczynski’s central tenet; they would argue rather compellingly that hope and determination do not always triumph over circumstances. Outside forces constrain all of us, and often those forces work against us or are downright malevolent; just because I want to fight the good fight doesn’t mean I will win.
As valid as those arguments are, I think they miss Straczynski’s point. This is not a story where the power of hope and love magically vanquishes the villain at the end, nor does everyone come out of it with their problems solved, although it’s certainly an uplifting ending. What Straczynski is arguing is not that we can win ’em all, but that we can win some of ’em. That the worst case scenario doesn’t always have to play out, that no matter how constrained we are by circumstances, we always have some leverage, and it’s better to use that leverage than to simply be passive. If Straczynski shouts it from the rooftops, maybe he needs to in order to get past the noise and the screens we set up to block that simple message. And I think the passion with which Straczynski believes in what he’s saying permeates this story, to the point where the reader can’t help but feel it.
Author: J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils: Gary Frank
Inks: Jonathan Sibal and Jason Gorder
Colors: Avalon Studios’ Matt Milla with Dan Kemp and Justin Ponsor
Publisher: Joe’s Comics/Image