The John McClane Of The DC Universe: Steve Orlando Talks ‘Midnighter’
Over the past eight issues, Midnighter has sent its title character on a grand tour of some of the weirdest corners of the DC Universe, pitting a leather-clad fighter with a computer brain against custom-made vampires, combination animals, an endless string of easily murdered clones, and more. And through it all, writer Steve Orlando and artists David Messina, Stephen Mooney, ACO and Alec Morgan have crafted one of the best books on the stands, full of adventure, action, and a surprising amount of gut-punching emotional content.
It’s a great book, which is why I spoke to Orlando about the process of fitting the Midnighter into a world that already has Batman, the big reveal in #6, the rocky relationship between Midnighter and Apollo, and the plans for the book’s future — which involve the Midnighter getting shot out of a giant gun into space. It’s based on a true story.
ComicsAlliance: Writing Midnighter had to be an interesting challenge. He was originally created as an analogue for Batman, but when the New 52 relaunch happened, both characters were suddenly in the same universe. How did you approach doing something different with the character?
Steve Orlando: I think it’s about realizing the differences between the characters. They do share a lot of the same DNA, but at the same time, there’s a lot about the way they approach life that’s very different. The core difference that I realized, and what drives everything Midnighter does, is that Batman is driven by this trauma in his life that defines how he goes out into the world. Midnighter has an approach that’s totally different — all of these things that happened to him, being kidnapped and experimented on, being made into the Midnighter, he’s moved on from those things. He’s trying to find a way to rectify all of that stuff with his life.
It comes through in this idea that Midnighter loves his job. That was in the pitch, and that really made the character for me. You see sometimes that he’s had all of these terrible things done to him, but he approaches it with this kind of manic joy. It’s horrifying, certainly, but at the same time, he’s a guy who’s never looking back. He accepts what’s happened to him, and he’s going to push forward. That sense of joy, even if it’s this murderous, madcap, grindhouse sort of joy, is a big part of his character. And yeah, in a world where Batman and Midnighter coexist, it strengthens both of them.
Everyone likes to make a big deal about Batman’s one rule, so here we can explore someone who doesn’t have that rule. In a world where the Justice League exists and operate on those sorts of paradigms, people know that they’ve stepped into a whole different arena when you see Midnighter at the end of the street. It strengthens both of those characters to have them as counterpoints to each other, one is not right and one is not wrong, it’s all different ways to deal with stuff, to deal with trauma, and the way that we deal with dual identities in general.
Obviously, there’s always the question, “Is Batman the mask? Is Bruce Wayne the mask?” With Midnighter, the mask is off, and whether he is shopping for a new end table or kicking someone in the brain, he’s always Midnighter. I think that makes him pretty unique in the DCU.
CA: It’s an interesting contrast to see through the eyes of Dick Grayson, who shows up pretty frequently in that series. It’s fun to see that Dick recognizes the good that Midnighter’s doing and that he’s dealing with a different sort of situation, but hates working with him. There’s a real sense of fun there.
SO: Yeah, and I think that’s a big part of why people respond to Dick and Midnighter. They’re not necessarily friends, they’re not necessarily enemies, but there is a grudging respect. It’s sort of like, “Hey, I like your style,” but at the same time, Dick does find Midnighter kind of annoying. Midnighter thinks that the rules and structures that Dick and the Batman Family have built into their lives are completely ridiculous, and doesn’t really understand them.
So you have a guy who has this pretty strong sense of moral structure in place, but is also pretty easygoing and can make a joke in Grayson, and then you have the Midnighter, who, when he sees a board full of buttons, is going to press every one of them just to get a rise out of you. The physical jousting, the verbal jousting, that’s the nature of their relationship. There’s a respect between them, because they both do what they do, and you see things grow from where they were. It was very antagonistic in Grayson, a little more fun in Midnighter, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
Dick Grayson likes the Midnighter because he thinks he could be better, and the Midnighter doesn’t feel like he has to get any better, he’s already great as it is. But they both believe in each other, and hope that the other would loosen up, or tighten up, when it comes to what they do.
CA: I think that the when you reveal the identity of Matt, the Midnighter’s boyfriend, it might have been my single favorite moment in DC Comics in the past year.
SO: Not when he threw the engine block at someone?
CA: Listen, that was a good one, but I actually had a friend text me when #6 came out and tell me to call him when I finished reading it. I was so excited, because it was something that I’d never considered, an aspect of putting Midnighter into the DC Universe that meant you could put these two difference pieces together and make them arch-enemies, these two guys that are both kind of Batman, who both have computer brains.
SO: Thank you! They really are both sides of that line, you know? Midnighter is Chaotic Good, and Prometheus is certainly, at minimum, Chaotic Evil. Their power-sets made them a fun matchup, and at the same time, you realize that Prometheus is a guy who lost his parents to the forces of justice, and what does Midnighter mean in the DCU? That makes him a symbol for those kinds of things. Midnighter is a guy who does kill people. When I looked at a guy like Prometheus, who thinks that “justice” is a hypocrisy, and it’s all just a social construct, the idea of Midnighter pisses him off more than almost any other person. It was really exciting to get them in the ring together.
CA: It’s the way that it’s revealed, too, and how it’s set up. Prometheus is one of my favorites, I’ve read that JLA story a hundred times, and you never hide him. I know what he looks like without his helmet on, and that moment still took me completely by surprise. It’s such a gut-punch.
SO: That was definitely the plan, from the very beginning. It’s even better, because he kind of looks like Apollo, so it makes it, in many ways, a better sort of fake. Some people noticed that Matt is in #1, in the restaurant where Midnighter rescues Jason and fights off the terrorists. He’s in there from the very beginning, he’s the guy who says, “Cool” after Midnighter gets his line in on the final terrorist. We definitely wanted to make it seem like this guy saw him and was like, “Whoa, he’s a force of nature,” because Midnighter is such a presence. It’s very easy to believe that they’d be hooking up.
CA: Between Prometheus being a major enemy in the first arc and Freedom Beast showing up in the latest issue, it seems like there’s a pretty strong Grant Morrison influence in what you’re doing with Midnighter. Am I on the right track with that?
SO: I’m a big Grant guy, I’m a big Warren Ellis guy, and there’s a lot of that type of DNA in the book, too, certainly. Freedom Beast is a Grant idea, and I love it, but I also just love the character. Grant did Freedom Beast as an answer to what was an awkward racial reality of the character before, but the think that the important thing for me here is that we wanted #8, we wanted to do a one-off, and Dominic Mndawe’s ability is so inherently gross and absurd, and I love that about comics.
When I was reading back and I saw that he could smash animals together into different combinations, that was such a comics thing to me. Every book I do, you never know how long you’re going to be working with a character or in a certain pantheon, and I was like, “I’ve got to do this. I have to make sure I do this, because this is a thing I love in comics.” This moment of Mndawe combining this guy with a mosquito and then Midnighter pulling its wings off.
I think Grant likes that too, obviously. It’s the way that he’ll bring back things, minutiae from the past. There’s nothing better than making a major Batman villain out of a background doctor from 1963, in the case of Dr. Hurt. I think I like to dive into a lot of the same things he does, and I like a lot of what he did, obviously. One of the first books I ever bought was that 1997 JLA, so it’s that and a lot of the weird, genre-pushing science of Warren Ellis that makes up the background of the book.
CA: I really like the idea of the God Garden in that respect, that there’s so much increasingly weird technology out there that needs to be dealt with. It gives Midnighter a flavor that’s a good combination of the DC Universe and the pre-New 52 Wildstorm universe, which was built around everything being just two steps weirder than it already was in other superhero books.
SO: That’s the thing that I definitely trace back to Warren. You might remember that he did that JLA Classified story, “New Maps of Hell,” which was drawn by Butch Guice. It involves Superman listening to some type of demonic computer white noise, and then screaming it, because he’s Superman and he can mimic any sound or something, and that’s how they work. He brings the weird stuff into the DCU, but at the same time, I think that’s what comics need. It’s a slightly more grounded sort of Phillip K. Dick, Rian Johnson sort of world where, in the 1960s, when Batman was getting shot by a zebra gun.
That’s not saying that there’ll be a zebra gun in Midnighter, but I like wild ideas. There’s no budget in comics.
CA: So what can we look forward to in the next arc?
SO: The next arc is very exciting, it’s going to be Midnighter matching up against the Suicide Squad, starting out over something that we thought he was already done with: the Perdition Pistol from that eight-page preview that we did. I like picking that up, too, because I like the book to flow and zoom in and out, like real life. Characters pop in, characters pop out, sometimes you think business is done but it’s not. I’m sure readers thought that was done, and it was just a cool idea, and Midnighter thought that, too when he passed it off for safekeeping, but sometimes things just creep back up on you.
Amanda Waller steals the Perdition Pistol at the end of #7, through Deadshot, and it builds on itself. That’s how Midnighter gets in the ring with the Suicide Squad. It’s a tense relationship, working with Spyral against them, but that’s just it. If you’ve seen the conversation in #8, he’s not a guy that works for people, especially after the God Garden.
But he is a guy who will work with people, and above all that, he only really trusts himself with those things. The Matron sells him on it by asking if he really trusts her to deal with this, and of course, his answer is, “No, I think you’re an idiot.” That’s how he gets in there.
It’s an exciting thing. People think that Midnighter can’t be beaten, and that’s something that’s going to be put to the test. In my opinion, he’s the toughest guy in the DCU, he’s the John McClane of the DCU, and it’s not a Midnighter book — just like it’s not a Die Hard movie — if he doesn’t get the s— kicked out of him and then fight through to the end.
There’s going to be a lot of that. Deadshot’s one of the best shots in the DCU, Harley Quinn has her own sort of insane energy, and he’s never really come up against a character like Parasite before. There are a ton of new situations, and at the same time, it’s even more of an action movie than the first arc was.
I don’t want to talk too much about #9, but I will say that we launch him out of a gun into space in the first few pages. That kind of sets the tone for what’s going on in the Suicide Squad arc. You can find a lot in this old photo essay where these Soviet scientists tried to get a space shot with this big cannon, and they have this pig. They built this thing with a giant bullet, give the pig some vodka, and then they launch it out of a cannon, and when it landed the pig walked out fine. It feels very Russian, the idea that you could put a person in there, but it doesn’t work at all. That’s the inspiration for the first few pages — Matron thought, “This guy’s indestructible, we’ve got to get him to a place that he can’t teleport, let’s put him in a big bullet and shoot him at it.”
I should also probably mention that in #11, someone that people have been asking about comes back. We’ll also have a certain sun-powered ex of Midnighter’s come into play as the story goes on, and I’m very excited about that. When the book launched, people were sort of worried about how they’re not together, but I told people I had a plan, and lo and behold, I do. I’m very excited about Apollo coming into play again, it’s an interaction I’ve been waiting for.
They’re characters that were important to me personally when I was growing up, and I wanted to make them work in their relationship the way that real people do. I can’t wait for people to see them back together, because they’ve both been off and realized who they are. Apollo and Midnighter are back together on the cover of #11, and a lot of stuff is going to blow up. It’ll be a good time.
CA: Their breakup conversation, that we get over the course of a few issues, was really compelling. It’s one of those things where it takes this idea of superheroics and applies it to a very normal, human thing. They’re a couple having a fight, but Midnighter is a person who has a fight a million different ways in his head, and it turns out that it doesn’t just work with just physical combat, it’s an argument with his boyfriend too. The way that he decides to leave is something that’s in character with his powers and the insecurity that he has, and feels very true to him as a character in a way that I found fascinating. It’s something that seems like it could easily feel trite, but you managed to do it in a way that works. Was that a challenge?
SO: It’s always a challenge, but of the conversations that I’ve written in this book, the one that feels the most real is that one. They’re grown-ass men, but Apollo’s Midnighter’s first boyfriend. That’s a thing that happens in the real world. You realize, “I don’t know how to be me without you.” We know who Apollo and Midnighter are, but we don’t know who Apollo is, and who Midnighter is. That’s something that I’ve dealt with, definitely. You can realize that you’ve become defined by your relationship, and that’s a tenuous situation to be in.
At the same time, I think their relationship is very real. We’ve all been situations where we know where things are going, and for Midnighter, it’s just a little more obvious, and it’s more painful for him in that way. But it’s mostly drawn from real life.
The other thing that’s really drawn from real life, and it’s just a little thing, is that Matt’s dad says a lot of stuff that was very human, which is kind of ironic since there are very few people in it. Matt’s dad says that he doesn’t really care about other people, he just wants Midnighter to protect his son. He talks about when Matt came out, and how he was shocked, but also he knew it would be harder for him, and that was why he was stunned. That’s a real parent conversation about coming out. Things like that, the best way to not make them trite, perhaps, is to draw from my own life and put those things in there. It seems to work.