Steve Orlando is one of the most successful authors of American comics. After a five years exclusive contract for DC Comics, during which he wrote stories for their main heroes and also obtained various awards, the comic writer decided to focus on creator owned projects. One of the first is a new maxi series by Image Comics that Orlando created together with the Italian team of Arancia Studio and which debuted in the USA in October, Commanders in Crisis. We talked to Steve about his career to date, his most recent projects and his passion for the superheroes.
Hello Steve and welcome on Lo Spazio Bianco.
Tell our readers how you turned your passion for comics into a profession? How did you become a comic writer?
Well, I got into comics after decades of work. I started going to comic conventions and trying to network, find jobs, and make connections, when I was 12. For twenty years, I wrote scripts, got them drawn, and received critique from industry peers that I could trust. I then took that critique, and used it to make a new and better comic over the following year. Finally, after doing so for twenty years, I had a product that was good enough to be published. That was Undertow, a book I did with Image Comics in 2014, which I then used to send to editors and make more connections, first at DC and now at even more publishers in the years since.
In 2020 you terminated your exclusive contract with DC Comics, you are back freelance and it seems that you want to dedicate yourself to creator-owned projects. In terms of experience and growth, what did the DC years mean to you and what do they leave you as an author and as a man?
My time at DC was incredibly valuable. And I am not done working there, or at Marvel. But what I am doing is making sure to focus more heavily on original ideas, and the freedom they offer. Working at DC taught me the power of superhero icons, it showed me just how much they mean to people. It also showed me and trained me how best to find the core of a character, what makes them unique, and show that on the page by means of a story. For all the work I did in twenty years of studying comics craft, what I learned in DC in five years was probably even greater and more useful. I’m better suited now to tell a story, no matter what story, after the lessons learned from years working with some of the most famous characters in comics.
In Gotham City Monsters, one of your latest DC jobs, the team is made up of freaks and outcasts. Do you think comics can speak to and help young people who are experiencing difficulties in inclusion today, reaching them in depth? Can they give confidence and hope to young readers?
They absolutely can. Comic book stories, with their unlimited possibilities, are a great chance to make people feel seen, respected, and important. Since the first “nerd” felt validated by Peter Parker, and even before that, comics have shown outsiders that they too deserve a life of wonder, happiness, and adventure. As those ideas meet the modern moment, we must work harder than ever before to broaden the types of folks who get to be the heroes of these stories, as well as the types of folks that get to tell them behind the scenes. From that, you get better, more challenging stories that push the boundaries of fiction as the longtime legacy of comics insurgency demands.
In the same miniseries the role of Batwoman is also relevant. She is a superheroine who belongs to the LGBTQ + community, who in the first season of the TV series was played by Ruby Rose, an actress who presented many with affinity with the character. Can a casting of this type, as well as choosing female directors to shoot films starring women, give something more? Can it improve the synergy between the components of a work?
I think it unquestionably improves upon the authenticity of a work. Synergy is more at the whim of corporate decision making, and less than of creators. We all would wish for more contact across different mediums, but it’s not always allowed. That said, it is an asset to a production every single time folks behind the scenes share an authentic, lived experience with the stories and characters they’re telling. Authenticity is a goal we should all be searching for, either through intense research, our own experiences, or sharing our power as creators with another.
Midnighter is another of the heroes you wrote for DC and he’s a character who is always one step ahead of everyone in terms of combat thanks to his skills. What were the difficulties of writing it, taking this aspect into account?
The biggest difficulty of Midnighter is always finding a way to challenge him that isn’t a cheat. And I like to think we did that. Characters like Prometheus and Afterthought had enhancements that would allow them to counter, or at least stand toe to toe, with Midnighter’s fight computer. He might be able to hit someone before they know it, but the question was always – can that person be beaten by being hit?
You have received awards and nominations for both Midnighter and Midnighter & Apollo; Wonder Woman # 51 was considered by some critics one of the best self-contained stories of the Amazon; the first issue of the maxi series dedicated to Martian Manhunter was considered by Tor Books one of the best debut books of 2018. A thin red thread ties all these series and stories and so I ask you: what do all these awards and accolades mean for you?
It is never the goal to gain accolades for your work, because your first obligation is to always say something true and meaningful. If you set out with awards in mind, it can be as shallow and obvious as it is when movies are clearly made with an eye towards winning an Oscar. That said, we also aren’t creating with the aim of not having it connect with folks. Few truly don’t care if anyone appreciates their work. So when I write something that is personally raw and true to me, and it connects with readers or gets noticed in a natural, organic, way, that moment is always magic for me.
The new Image series Commanders in Crisis tells your very own superhero universe. Reading the first issue the idea I got is that you have planned in great detail the world (or worlds) on which the story takes place. How long have you had this story in mind and how has it developed over time?
A long time! While the reveal that happens in Commanders in Crisis #1 has only been in my head for a few years, the characters that inhabit the world have been gestating there for much longer. For five years at DC there were ideas I had that were too wild, ideas that weren’t allowed, ideas that didn’t fit the plan. I never forgot, I saved them, allowed them to grow into a superhero universe all their own. And that universe begins with Commanders in Crisis.
Commanders in Crisis also speaks Italian, starting with the penciler Davide Tinto, the colorist Francesca Carotenuto up to the editing of the project managed by the guys from Arancia Studio: how was this collaboration born?
This book was born out of my longtime collaboration with Davide Caci and Mirka Andolfo’s Arancia Studio. I had helped them in a variety of capacities, working on english-language comics. And after a few years, we decided it might be fun to build a comic book series from the ground up. And so, Commanders in Crisis was born, with Arancia connecting me with Tinto. They are an incredible creative partner, and a large cause of the current moment being one of the most fulfilling creative periods of my career so far.
There is a particular aspect that struck me in the heroes who make up the group: they all have powers unrelated to physical strength and closer to other aspects such as speech, the ability to X-ray vision, the understanding of a quantum universe, the power deriving from the approval of others. All elements that the characters then transform into physical power, but in any case my idea is that you wanted to get away from a violence for its own sake that is now invading our daily life, in the USA as in Italy and in many other parts of the world. What would you like to convey with these choices of peculiar powers?
I think you’re absolutely right, and I’m glad you saw that. In Commanders in Crisis, power comes from more subtle, unexpected places than where society usually finds strength. And for the character that does have immense physical strength, Prizefighter, the tradeoff is that he is completely codependent on his fans to maintain it. Real, adult strength comes from complex, mature ideas, not just hitting something real hard. That’s why for the most part, the heroes of Commanders in Crisis need to be creative in order to succeed. They need more than anger, they need creative consideration.
Also in Commanders in Crisis, as in your other comics, the theme of inclusiveness (whether it is gender, race, religion, etc.) is very strong and heartfelt. All the heroes of the team are people belonging to groups that in contemporary Western society are often marginalized and that in your comic, somehow, have managed to overcome the barriers that were placed on them. My question is: how much has influenced your writing what has been happening for years in US society and has reached even more extreme consequences in recent months?
It’s impossible to ignore what’s happening in the world around us. But that said, I would be pushing for a more inclusive type of storytelling regardless of that, because our job is to reflect the real world. We may tells stories that are very strange reflections, but our anchor is the modern moment, no matter what. And the world outside our windows is diverse, it’s filled with folks from all different walks of life, each with a different journey. I think holding onto that fact, the the world is diverse and better for it, is more important than ever, and it will always be an element in my work. You can’t make a statement about reality while ignoring what that reality is. And the realty of 2020, and the future, is and will always be diverse.
Commanders in Crisis will last for twelve issues, but since the debut issue, the idea that a reader has is that of a narrative stage in which dozens of stories could be told. Is this your goal, to get to have a universe of stories told perhaps not only by you but also by other authors?
Very much so! This is the event that launches a world, and there is nothing I’d like more than to continue both under my own hand, and under the welcome collaboration with new, exciting voices. We want to keep making the comics the world needs for as long as we fucking can, with the best people possible.
In addition to Commanders in Crisis, in October will arrive, published for Aftershock Comics, Kill a man, a comic that tells a very particular sports story, written jointly with Philip Kennedy Johnson. Would you like to tell us a little about this work and then, let me ask you: are you a fan of Rocky films?
I am a big fan of Rocky Balboa as a character! I feel then he’s at his best, he’s a truly unique hero for humanity: someone who ultimately is fighting to prove himself to himself above all else. To got the distance. And after all, that’s really the best we can do in life. So when that narrative is shared with a new type of underdog, such as Adonis Creed in Creed, it’s inspiring. In fact, it was the inspiration for Kill a man. PKJ and I wanted to update the story to the more modern, heated world of MMA, and update the lead to one wrestling with his sexuality, so that we could tell a story very personal to us in our own ways (PKJ an MMA fighter, me a bisexual), and also give a new community the chance to see that they too can be champions, on their terms above all.
Interview carried out by email in September 2020
Steve Orlando is an American comic writer. In 2000, he began attending conventions looking for work in the comic industry. Between 2000 and 2014, with the release of his first work, Undertow, he began publishing for Image Comics. In 2009 and 2014, Orlando was part of the Outlaw Territory Anthologyseries, the third volume of which was nominated for an Eisner and Harvey Awards. In 2015 came the original graphic novel Virgil.
In 2015, he launched Midnighter for DC Comics as part of the DC You editorial initiative, featuring artwork by ACO, nominated by io9 as one of the “20 Best Comics of 2015” and “The Best Portrait of a Gay Superhero in Mainstream Comics”. This series was followed by Midnighter & Apollo. Orlando was part of the writing team for the weekly Batman & Robin Eternal series, before launching both Supergirland Justice League of America as part of the DC Rebirth initiative.
In 2017 he wrote the Batman/Shadow crossover, followed by Shadow/Batman for Dynamite Entertainment. In 2018 he worked with Gerard Way on the Milk Wars series, a crossover between the DC Universe and the DC Young Animal characters.
Also in 2018, Orlando writes five stories for Wonder Woman monthly, issues 51-55. In 2019 he returns to Wonder Woman in issue 73 and his work with Jesus Merino opened issue 750 of the magazine, kicking off the return of the classic numbering for the series.
At the end of 2018 Martian Manhunter arrives, a maxiseries of 12 numbers and third collaboration with Riley Rossmo. Orlando wrote a story illustrated by Sina Grace for Hello Mr., in the magazine’s first issue in comic format. In 2019 he provided the English-language script for the trailer for Mirka Andolfo‘s live action series Mercy.