Who's Midnight?

Who's This? It's NOT the Spirit, there on page 16 of Who's Who vol.XV, but I don't blame you for thinking it was.
The facts: When Will Eisner enlisted during WWII, Quality publisher E.M. Arnold was afraid he'd lose the rights to publish his Spirit stories if he was killed and commissioned Plastic Man creator Jack Cole to create a close replacement. Smash Comics #18 (Jan 1941) thus saw the first appearance of Midnight, who became a regular feature in the book, eventually growing in popularity so much, it became cover feature. It lasted until Smash's cancellation with #85 (1949). As it turns out, Eisner served at home and didn't go overseas, so the Spirit's creator was safe and the rights issue was moot. Quality in fact published BOTH Spirit and Midnight stories through much of the forties. Jack Cole's Midnight is a much sillier strip, of course, even when it was being drawn (and written?) by Paul Gustavson (the middle issues of Smash's run).
How you could have heard of him: Roy Thomas gave him a rather serious origin in Secret Origins #28 with art by Gil Kane, and did use him as a member of the Freedom Fighters in equally serious issues of All-Star Squadron (most prominently, #31). John Arcudi's JLA: Destiny (an Elseworlds), used a Midnight character with the secret identity William Cole, obviously an homage to Jack.
Example story: Smash Comics #84 (1949) by Jack Cole
Midnight's date with Father Time is one of his last stories, and seems a natural given his name, and by now, the character has a relatively large supporting cast of zanies, who tag along, unwelcome, and cause trouble and hijinks. This reminds me strongly of the Jester stories also in Smash Comics, and not surprisingly, both strips were handled by Paul Gustavson at a crucial time. As this is a Jack Cole story, the zanies are well served by lots of slapstick going on in the background, breathing life into standard exposition panels. It's very Mad Comics.
That's Dave Clark surrounded by mad professors, would-be sleuths and animated pets, trying to choose a costume for the Diamond-Cutters' Masquerade Ball which he's been asked to cover for his radio station. Of course, as a journalist and Midnight both, he'd rather be tracking escaped convict Lefty Luger (hm, sounds like a Superman villain) than describing dresses on air, so his heart's not in it. In fact, screw it, he'll just go to the ball as Midnight, and his friends are absolutely not invited. Or aren't they?
That's right, Doc Wackey has invented the photo-copying machine, so they can just make copies of Dave's press invitation. If you're wondering how prescient Jack Cole is with this technology, the first photocopiers were introduced on the market the same year this issue came out. They had been in development for a while though, and a commercial artist like Cole would probably have heard of them. But for the kids reading, this would have been a convenient SF element. So they all go to the ball, but so does a man dressed as Father Time. Cue the time puns...
Meanwhile, a debutante with a million-dollar diamond dress is acting like a disco ball, begging to have it torn from body by an old man with a scythe. For decency's sake, he only makes off with a small (but pricey) portion. He makes his escape thanks in part to Midnight's bumblers getting in the hero's way, and some impressive scythe-work.
He can swing off of chandeliers with that thing, and bust a tire off a moving car with vaulting over it, as well! Midnight does track him to a clock shop, but it's dark and empty. Is that movement? GOTCHA!
Nope, just his "allies" trying to help (this happens a lot). Eventually, Midnight finds a fake backing inside a grandfather clock and bursts through.
It's Lefty Luger in disguise, and he's about to get clocked (now they've got me doing it). Brief fisticuffs ensue and Lefty is (happily?) knocked out.
Midnight's victory is short-lived, however, because he wasn't at the ball to do his radio show. If you think J.Jonah Jameson is a ballbreaker, wait til you see how Dave's boss reacts.
The Kiddies Hour? I used to work in radio myself and yes, that would have been a NIGHTMARE.

It's kind of sad there's no room for a character like Midnight anymore. For one thing, he's visually too close to the Spirit. For another, the company that owns him, isn't into doing comedy these days. Even in the 80s, Roy Thomas, the guy who should have been Midnight's protector (just as he protected other Golden Age characters) turned him into a serious and thus unremarkable crime fighter. There's nothing interesting about that take, save the name.

Who else?
Next week, I think I may be doing a three-for-one Who's This feature. Take a guess (no cheating if you've read my comments about the latest Who's Who Podcast on Firestorm Fan).


Unknown said...

I once no-joke played Midnight in a DCU RP. I'm actually surprised I was more or less faithful to the humorous bent of the source material.

Siskoid said...

Wow. The way my players crank up the comedy to 11, Midnight is really one of this characters they SHOULD tackle. One of my guys did play Jack Cole's Plastic Man a few times though.

Big Ulf said...

Fantastic series - just saw this. Great idea to play Midnight in a DCU RP...I played Red Bee as a Tibetan fighting master in the old All-Star MUSH (Wish that was still around).

Anyway, there was a Midnight back-up series in MS. TREE QUARTERLY when DC published that back in the 90s. Gorgeous artwork, gritty stories. The writer left Midnight as a silent character, no dialogue. Way different flavour than the original intent, but I wish I still had those issues.

Siskoid said...

Oh man, MUSHes... I'd forgotten they ever existed.


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