NOTE: The following essay contains spoilers to my book The Midknight. If you have NOT read the story, I suggest you read it first before reading the following essay.
Part I: To Be or Not to Be ... A Vigilante?
When it came to the creation of The Midknight, I always knew the kind of story I wanted to tell. It's your basic mythological, hero's journey-type of story that may sound like something out of a comic book. It's a story of heavy emotions of love and hate; action; revenge; corruption; redemption; and, ultimately, personal growth. Every character is pulled to their limit in this story and many life lessons are strewn throughout the book. For some of the stand-out scenes, I took many aspects of classic philosophical motifs (from the likes of Stoicism, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Socrates, Hegel, and Augustine) as well as classic myths and blended them together to tell a modern-day story. It is through this technique that The Midknight basically illustrates how much our emotions can control our lives -- if we let them.
We must first start with Jesse Sands' main threat of his newfound powers through the serum. Because this is a story with many mythological and comic book-like qualities, it can be said that the serum featured in the story (Liquid Nocturnus) is a metaphor for everything emotional. It is a symbol to represent someone's extremely powerful emotions as well as their actions that are brought about because of ther serum/emotions. THE question of Jesse's morality as a result of the serum's effects in The Midknight is something that every person (whether granted with super-like powers or not) faces.
"There is even another sort of fear, less obvious, but perhaps just as important, that many superhero narratives bring to our attention," comic writer Jeph Loeb once stated. "Many of us fear what we may have to do to stand up to evil in the world. Will we have to resort to force and violence in order to contain or defeat the forces that threaten us and those we love? The superheroes often do, but they know where to draw the line. Will we?
"Many great philosophers have understood that we human beings are creatures of habit. Once we resort to violence to solve a problem, we are a bit more likely to do the same thing again on a future occasion -- whether that future occasion really requires it or not. If we are sent to war in a foreign land, will we return as more violent people? Will it ruin our lives? Will we be forever changed in detrimental ways? That's a real fear for any good person living in the modern world.
"Good people rightly fear the effects that a use of force or violence could have on their own souls. If it comes to resisting evil, will I actually have allowed evil to win after all, but in different form, in my own soul?"
To explore these questions even further, we must first identify the situations that Jesse experiences in the story that may lead him (or any individual) to violence and evil. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." This thought can be seen in many morality stories -- whether novel, comic book, movie or play -- today.
Jesse does indeed become a vigilante and finds himself turning into a monster in order to fight the monsters (whether they are guilty or not). Most vigilantes break some of the laws in order to pursue the real criminals who are violating more important laws, and to protect law-abiding citizens from thugs and murderers. To the extent that any laws on the books protect criminals and impede the pursuit of justice, Jesse will be a lawbreaker.
Like most vigilantes, Jesse is overwhelmed by the thought of: Why should well-meaning social structures be allowed to stand in the way of what is objectively right? Near the end of The Midknight, Jesse knows that the Russian mobster could not have the same charges brought against him in a case where Jesse knows he's guilty and that no court could convict him. He doesn't let this law stand in his way of bringing justice to the criminal. And vigilantism would make sense IF the vigilante is in fact doing good, but it would be far more troubling if vigilantes lack a clear perception of right and wrong. But what happens if the vigilante's views on guilty and not guilty, right and wrong, begin to blur?
Although Jesse gains a few superhuman enhancements, this is not a legitimate reason for him to decide to fight crime. Taking a stand and defending himself, as well as his family and girlfriend Vanessa Strummer, is understandable because their lives are threatened by a ruthless gang of killers. However, Jesse choosing to seek out whatever criminals he can find and punish them with his own brand of vigilante justice is open to discussion. Why? First, he's clearly not a police officer and, second, his newfound powers certainly don't issue him a license to punish anyone, let alone kill them. Is he right or wrong? That question is a major focus for most vigilante plotlines appearing since the late 1970s. One of the classic vigilantes is Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey from the Death Wish movies. Another is Frank Miller's Batman in The Dark Knight Returns (in which the moral examination greatly influenced The Midknight). It's no startling fact that characters such as Paul Kersey, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Frank Castle/The Punisher, Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Eric Draven/The Crow, Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Elektra Natchios/Elektra, William Foster/D-Fens (Michael Douglas' character in the movie Falling Down), Parker (from Richard Stark's crime noir novels), and Creasy (from A.J. Quinnell's Man on Fire novel) are all vigilantes (and they were all an extremely influential inspiration for my creating The Midknight). However, mostly all of these vigilantes (with the exception of William Foster) have a sensible reason for taking justice into their own hands. Kersey's wife and daughter are brutally attacked; Bruce Wayne's parents are killed in front of him by a mugger; Frank Castle's family are killed by the Mob; Matt Murdock's father is killed by a sloppy hitman; Eric Draven and his fiancee are murdered by a street gang; Peter Parker's father-like Uncle Ben is killed by a thief who Peter could have earlier stopped; Elektra Natchios' father is killed by an assassin right in front of her; Parker is betrayed by his wife and the criminal outfit he works for, and left for dead; and Creasy's friend, the little girl he was hired to protect and the only person who showed him unconditional love, is murdered by kidnappers.
So, what is Jesse's ultimate motivation to "take the law into his own hands?" The paramount answer is that he is fed up -- fed up of being bullied around, living in a world where the criminals, bad guys and bullies get away without any consequences. Plus, being a cop's son, Jesse knows how the justice system works and doesn't trust it. This is where Jesse's views of right and wrong begin to blur. The effects of the serum, as well as the haunting memories of his constant abuse from past bullies, begin to overtake Jesse's logical thinking. His emotions soon overtake his ability to logically think through a situation and soon they drive his "eye for an eye" belief into overdrive.
This is showcased for the first time in the story when Jesse seeks out and punishes the three young men who have yet to stand trial for allegedly killing a young mother and her two children. After Jesse's attack on the bus that is to escort them to their next prison, the last young man standing pleads for his life and says, "I was just along for the ride! I didn't do anything! I promise! I didn't know," Jesse coldly replies with, "No. You just didn't care." Therefore, Jesse had already made up in his mind whether this young man was guilty or not and kills him. His emotions from seeing the innocent family's picture and relating it to his own family are what drove him to seek out and murder the suspects.
Is this a good enough reason to be a vigilante and take the law into your own hands? Is it enough to keep fighting crime? Well, certainly it is for all of the other characters I've previously mentioned. Even though most of their perpetrators were caught or killed, these vigilantes (if still alive) continue their crime-fighting ways. Yet they all continue to struggle with their inner demons and justly uphold the law, only targeting those who do break the law. Although their sanity may be in question, their morals are not. These are people who have the means of upholding justice and do so risking their own lives. All of these vigilantes, including Jesse, all receive some feeling of great accomplishment when saving a life or delivering a bad guy to justice. This is called utilitarianism, which is a philosophical view that the right action in any circumstance is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And if beating one villain will save several potential innocents, these vigilantes can still be seen as somewhat virtuous. It is only when they begin thinking and/or feeling for themselves and placing other innocents in danger that their morality can become twisted and wrong.