Welcome, everyone, to the second installment of Forgotten Heroes, with a column on the character who hooked me into Justice Society of America. This feels appropriate to me after recently having tried to get back into Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League of America, a team that apparently consists of preening, status-conscious egotists jockeying for a promotion to middle-management. I don’t understand quite why it’s turning out this way, given McDuffie’s usually strong output and the quality of his work on the animated Justice League, but the fact remains: heroism it ain’t. I also don’t understand why there seems to be a persistent belief that only angsty, dysfunctional characters are capable of complexity; given my plans for future installments of this column, it’s seeming that one of my underlying themes is a focus on complicated characters who don’t incline towards despondent moping or petty melodrama. With that in mind, let’s move on to the subject of today’s work…
The Character: Pieter Cross, Golden Age legacy hero and perennial Justice Society of America member. One of the most respected physicians in the world. Blind, but able to see in darkness with infrared vision; this ability also serves as a sort of x-ray vision for medical diagnoses. The “most compassionate” member of the JSA, according to Green Lantern Alan Scott.
The Problem: There isn’t really much of a problem with Pieter. He’s a likable supporting player in a popular book, and has a unique role in the DCU that makes for easy guest appearances in other titles. The only issue at hand is the large cast size in Justice Society, and the lack of screen time he receives. For instance, in Geoff Johns’ recent Kingdom Come sequel in JSA, Pieter’s blindness is cured, which eliminates his infrared vision and prevents him from saving a teammate’s life. A whole story arc of Pieter attempting to find his place as a doctor after losing his gift-curse is compelling material, but thanks to the demands of the JSA book, it’s given no more than a few panels over the course of several issues. Pieter’s only solo stories have been the original miniseries that introduced him, as well as a couple of fun arcs in JSA: Classified, and he deserves a chance at an ongoing.
The Concept: This is an easy one. Superheroic surgeon is pretty damn elegant. Think of the images that medical work evokes: urgent life-saving under impossibly complicated logistics, frustrating detective work in the form of diagnostic medicine, diseases so complicated and strange that they border on the alien, grotesque physical oddities and deformities. These are things that translate easily into superhero comics, and this is a book that allows for the opportunity to really explore the physical meaning of superpowers, and by extension, our fascination with the body. Having superpowers must be an incredibly eerie, anxious experience – imagine the last time you were sick with something beyond a simple cold and unsure how long you’d be ill. Then imagine your sickness had the ability to level a city block. That’s what having a superpower would be like. And Doctor Mid-Nite is the only person who can tell you what’s wrong when your superspeed is affecting your natural aging.
Not to mention that even basic medicine and illness is incredibly complex, and doctors are often forced to act on conjecture. Think of any medical show you’ve seen, and the guessing and mental contortions made to discover the root of a problem, and then imagine that in a superheroic context with speculative science and odd powers. What if Atom Smasher needs shrapnel surgically removed, but can’t shrink back to normal size with it still lodged in him? What if Bombshell develops an autoimmune disorder (along the lines of pemphigus) that causes a blistering reaction to her metal skin? That’s a niche that’s rarely been looked at in comics before, and it’s one that bears examination, and under the control of a writer with some grasp of medicine and biology would be fascinating.
Doctor Mid-Nite’s also great character to confront several of the largest problems with superhero comics in recent years. As many have pointed out, most effectively Garth Ennis in The Boys, comics characters really don’t do much that could be called heroic anymore. Dr. Mid-Nite’s position doesn’t allow much time for hand-wringing angst – he doesn’t just fight the villain, but has to save lives doing it, in a way that goes beyond just pushing them out of the path of falling debris. And he’s got to deal with the aftermath in a way that most heroes never have to learn. He’s there for the entirety of a crisis, filling numerous roles, and through him we see a single disaster through a multitude of perspectives. He’s the hardest-working man in the DCU.
He’s also extraordinarily sympathetic, and one of the reasons for that is that we actually get to see him dealing with the people who suffer through disaster. In an age of comics when most superheroes seem too engrossed in battling villains over decades-long blood feuds or arguing with teammates to care about the civilians caught in the middle (although maybe I’m kidding myself thinking it was ever any different), Doctor Mid-Nite is the one with the responsibility of saving everyone, during and after the calamity. He’s the ultimate humanitarian superhero, and this not only makes him an easy protagonist to cheer on, but also one with a viewpoint of his dual professions that’s both incredibly broad and deep. And that kind of complicated perspective makes for plenty of story potential (and most importantly, for stories rooted in characterization) as we see Pieter deal with ethical issues and urgent crises.
The Style: This is a potential obstacle, because Mid-Nite’s in so many worlds, narrowing that down to an aesthetic is difficult. With his Batman-esque costume and darkness gimmick, it’s hard to dismiss the heavy noir and pulp influences on the character, but his personality isn’t cynical. Heavy shadows and contrast between light and darkness, in the noir tradition, is a compelling look, but it has to be used purposely and effectively or else the book’s going to appear bleaker than it really is. Hospital scenes also carry the potential of looking far too sterile and cold, and that’s something to avoid here. It’s a book, at heart, about life-saving, and demands warm colors and close, personal camera angles to contrast with the dense murkiness Pieter’s gimmick implies. He’s a character who navigates the darkness with his reason and empathy, and the book should reflect that.
The advantage of the book that offsets this difficult balance of tone is the wide-ranging potential it has to handle different types of stories. Pieter’s role opens him up to diagnostic-based medical dramas; noirish detective narratives; realistic, down-to-earth chronicles of disasters and their aftermaths; traditional superheroic punch-ups; and intricate character drama. Provided a subtle writer with faith in the audience was attached to it, the book would also potentially be a vehicle for thoughtful social commentary, as well as grappling with ethical issues and even some existential questions about the nature of the human body.
The Ideal Creative Team: This one is difficult, as again, this is an unexplored territory in superheroics. Returning Pieter to his creator Matt Wagner would likely yield interesting results, although my recent obsession with Mark Waid’s run on Fantastic Four suggests that the vibrant imagination, understanding of complex character dynamics and impulse towards exploration that he displayed there make him a prime candidate for this title. The artwork is a tougher prospect, but Nicola Scott’s detailed facial expressions (her hungover Scandal Savage in the first issue of Secret Six was stunning, conveying weariness, grief, and an almost reluctant hopefulness in the same shot) could really add to the emotional heft of this book.
The One-Sentence Sell: An easy one that even normal people might get – it’s House, but with superheroes.
Join us back next week when we look at one of the most neglected members of the Bat-canon. And seriously, DC, please start considering audiences of normal people. They have money and seem to really enjoy the Batman.