It’s been a long time since I was a regular comics reader – and I’ve always been more of a Marvel girl anyway – so the much trumpeted DC ‘New 52’ reboot passed me by, for the most part. I was aware they’d done some interesting things (having a book headlined by a gay female character was groundbreaking, and the top level talent committed to Batwoman showed this was no token effort) and also some dubious things (Starfire as mindless sexbot, that infamous Catwoman cover, the firing and rehiring of Gail Simone on Batgirl). But there was one thing I really cared about: what would happen to one of my favourite comic book couples: Midnighter and Apollo of The Authority?
I fell in love with these two from the start, and how could you not? Envisioned, clearly, as a sort of Batman and Superman in love, they were one of the few manifestations of gay relationships in comics, initially so controversial that a scene of them kissing had to be removed from an early story (this despite the ultra-violent, adult nature of The Authority books, because it’s clearly fine to show a fist punching through a head, but not two men having a bit of a snog).
One of the joys of their relationship is that it just was: you never felt like the writers were being all ‘look, we’re progressive!’ about it. They were a couple of longstanding, who bickered, joked, argued and, yes, this being comics, were occasionally mind-washed into betraying one another/struck down with potentially fatal alien diseases/ separated by global atmospheric disasters. But despite the necessary trappings of the comic book universe, they always felt like real people in a real relationship, guided by the talents of writers such as Mark Millar and their creator Warren Ellis (both masters of the relationship-within-a-team dynamic).
They weren’t just groundbreaking for what they were – a gay couple who married and adopted a child – they were also great characters. Midnighter was the psycho (and occasionally slightly pompous) vigilante prone to taking himself way too seriously, which Apollo undercut with warmth and sly wit, often acting as his husband’s translator and filter to the rest of the group, which made for some very funny scenes. Their relationship was the heart of The Authority, a fact that was recognised by their teammates. Obviously no characters who go through a stream of writers will ever be perfect, and there were occasional missteps and questionable moments, but overall these were two of the most interesting – and, you could argue, important – characters in comics. So what the hell happened?
Folding The Authority’s universe into the mainstream DCU was always going to be tricky. So many of their stories were told on epic, planet-changing scale, there’s simply no way of telling them in the main DCU without raising the question, “Why did Superman let this happen?” So reverting back to Stormwatch and having that exist as a shadowy organisation that tries to stay secret from all the ‘other’ superheroes is a fairly sound idea. And while I disagree with the dissolving of Apollo and Midnighter’s marriage – at a time when marriage equality is a hot topic, it seems a shame to get rid of one of the few examples of a gay family in action – I can see the logic behind it. The writers were keen to assure fans this didn’t mean the characters would be straight or that they wouldn’t be together – it just meant we all get the fun of enjoying their relationship from the start.
Except… it hasn’t worked like that. There are plenty of problems with the new Stormwatch book – a proliferation of writers in a short run is rarely a good sign, and the books are hampered by cluttered and confusing world-building and muddled stories that are less than gripping. But my main gripe is that the Apollo and Midnighter relationship is so, so bloody awful. Soapy, heavy handed, full of angst and devoid of even a smidgen of charm (their initial flirtation consisted of Midnighter’ completing Apollo’s sentences, which just made him seem like an annoying prick, and for a super-being who can harness the power of the sun, Apollo doesn’t half whine a lot). It feels like the book is so scared of being accused of ignoring they are gay, it’s decided that’s ALL they are, and that’s all they seem to talk about (though it also managed to further outrage fans by going completely against character for Midnighter and making him contemplate killing the young Jenny, ignoring the fact that, for all his ruthless brutality, Authority-era Midnighter was a man who was fiercely protective of children, so this felt like a proper betrayal.)
Salt was further rubbed into the wound when the characters made an all-too-brief cameo in I, Vampire, and writer Joshua Hale Fialkov reminded us just how much fun they could be. No tub-thumping about their relationship, just Midnighter casting an appreciative glance at Apollo’s arse when he takes off (well, you would, wouldn’t you?), and Apollo’s much-missed dry humour back in evidence, whether it’s learning he’s impervious to vampires (“I’ve found out a way to kill them. I could just let them eat me”) or making new allies: “Sorry, they brought both the new guys. If it helps, we both punch really, really hard.” Those are the guys I miss.
You could ask why it matters. Why get so invested in what is, after all, just another silly superhero comic? Well, of course being a geek is almost, by definition, about being invested in things that many people think silly; part of the joy of being a fan is that you love these things, sometimes more than is sensible. But I also think that in this case it really does matter. As gay superheroes – and as a partnership where both are ‘super’ – Apollo and Midnighter are still part of a pretty small group, and if comics are keen to address their lack of diversity, it seems a shame that they are handling such key figures so badly. Ultimately if Stormwatch sinks, it takes two icons of equality with it, and that would make comics a poorer world for everyone.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments…