I Want To See A Gay Character On The Justice League: An Interview With Steve Orlando [Flame Con]
Writer Steve Orlando's career has gone from strength to strength thanks to his work on critically acclaimed books such as Midnighter, Undertow, and Virgil. He's now working with some of the most fascinating heroes in the DC universe in his new ongoing Supergirl series and the upcoming Midnighter & Apollo, and he was recently announced as the new writer on Justice League of America. But he continues to balance these books with more personal projects, like the four-issue Boom fantasy miniseries Namesake, about a man hopping worlds to bury his two fathers' remains.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Orlando at Flame Con in Brooklyn last month to talk about queer heroes, the market for marginalized fans, and building bridges between creators and their critics.
(Note that this interview took place before Orlando was named as the new writer on Justice League of America.)
Comics Alliance: What does it mean for you personally to be at a convention like Flame Con?
Steve Orlando: It’s exciting for me, because it’s the type of thing I didn’t have when I was younger. The organizers came around with a little pop-up word balloon on a stick that you could put your own phrase in and take a picture of you with it, and the person before me wrote, “Because it’s awesome!” where “Why is Flame Con important?” was the question, and I wrote, “Because I needed it when I was a kid.” And I think that that’s true.
The sense of community is a great thing. There’s always been a queer community in comics, but having a chance to congregate, especially getting bigger than last year, it’s a great sign, and it was sort of an affirmation for me and all the creators here that what we’re doing when telling these stories that we’re not screaming into the void. There’s this real community that’s hungry for it.
CA: A lot of times when people refer to Midnighter or Apollo, they’ll say things like "Gay Superman" or "Gay Batman." Was it a goal of yours to differentiate Midnighter and Apollo from the Superman and Batman comparisons?
SO: It’s almost maybe a misnomer to say it was a goal, since they are different characters. It’s an easy short-hand, but Midnighter has never actually been like Batman from the time he debuted. Apollo’s maybe slightly more like Superman, but still, their personalities and the way the look at the world has always been different.
The goal, I guess, is really to — it’s kind of a trick, I guess, right? Because you disprove that conception by showing the characters as they are. The goal with me was to get back to the core of what made people love Midnighter and Apollo, and who they are and how they’re positioned in the DC universe. And then by doing that, of course you suspend the idea that it’s just "Gay Batman" and "Gay Superman." I think no one who reads the book, if they actually read it, could ever think that when they’re done.
That stuff, I’d say, was already there. And it’s just about understanding it as a creator, and packaging it for the next group of readers.
CA: And when you have a solo series or a duo miniseries, you’re given more room to explore that.
SO: Oh, absolutely. Honestly, that’s why it was important to have some time with Midnighter being alone, and that’s why it’s time to sort of build back now as of #12, and going back to the main series through Midnighter & Apollo, so that we can really give them a real solid foundation for who they are as individuals and who they are together.
CA: In an interviews close to the original Midnighter series launch, you spoke enthusiastically about Midnighter getting to represent as a gay male hero, but you also spoke a little bit about how no one character can represent a community. How important would you say multiplicity is when representing marginalized communities?
SO: Oh, it’s extremely important. That’s been the conversation of the day for me, people asking, "What’s the next fight for representation?" And I was just on a panel with Greg Pak, and he actually said it better than I could, which is a "diversity of diversity." There is no one character that sums up experience of an entire community, and once you bring intersectionality into it, it’s impossible for it to be just one character. What’s next is "more."
Because that’s what gives people what they deserve. However many faces in the world can’t see themselves in Midnighter, they can’t see themselves in Kamala Khan, they can’t see themselves in Barbara Gordon, or Cyborg, or take your pick. It’s just impossible, because not everyone’s like that. It's just a fact. What’s next is more. And how important is it? I think very important. Because that is, to me, the same job as representation.
And yeah, you fight hard for one, and you have to fight twice as hard for two, and that’s what we’re doing now.
CA: At a SDCC press breakfast, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio named Midnighter as a series that was selling particularly well in bookstores, in a trade format. How important is it for publishers to consider multiple sales venues — the book market, digital — not just the direct market, when it comes to marginalized characters?
SO: The real answer is: it’s important to consider all revenue sources, but at the same time, the way the market is structured — and by the market, I mean the way people get paid from sales of comics, unfortunately, and this is not the way that it should be — the weekly is still the most important. And, as you said, Midnighter came back because it sold much higher in trade, much higher than it was projected to, much more than anyone expected it to, in the collected format. And that’s wonderful.
There’s no easy answer to that question, really. Because until you fundamentally upend the distribution system, it will always be weeklies that deliver the fastest return. And thus, allow a book to stay on its legs longer, and that’s even more apparent when you look at creator-owned books. Ask any creator with an Image book selling at certain level how easy it is. You are basically going on faith that the trade will sell well, because you are actively going into the red six months out of the year for these things. And then, of course, the trade payout comes much later than it would on a weekly. So it’s a complicated issue.
At the same time, though, from a philosophical standpoint, you have to consider all the revenue streams, because those are the places a lot of times that marginalized readers will show up. Comics stores are changing, and a lot of them are very inviting, but not all of them are, so you can’t necessarily expect a Wednesday Warrior out of a marginalized reader. You must consider them, because that’s how the people who the content is created for are finding it easiest to consume that content.
CA: That understanding, and seeing how Midnighter did well in trade, is what created Midnighter & Apollo?
SO: Oh, definitely.
Again, businesses are not people. They look at numbers. On one hand, they look at one thing and see, "This is the demand for Midnighter." And then they say, "Oh no, actually it’s this." And now we want to reward that, we want to feed that, and people have made their voices known.
And yeah, without the numbers on the Midnighter trade, there wouldn’t be Midnighter & Apollo.
CA: In the upcoming Midnighter & Apollo miniseries with artist Fernando Blanco, we’ll get to see the spotlight on both of them. Will this miniseries incorporate threads from Midnighter’s solo series?
SO: Oh, definitely. For people who just pick it up, you should be all good, hopefully I’m doing my job and we’re all doing our jobs, but it will definitely pick up the threads from Midnighter. It is very much a response to that in many ways.
CA: Will the focus be shared equally between the two or, since Apollo didn’t get a series, will we see more from his perspective? What’s that going to look like?
SO: I wouldn’t say it’s more of an Apollo miniseries. They are both there. As the book opens, you’ll see the things that happened, and it is a book that puts them both in totally new situations and lets them both shine as the characters they are. It’s certainly about both of them.
CA: Your Boom Studios series, Namesake, with artist Jakub Rebelka, features a different kind of queer presence in the sense that main character Jordan has two dads. Do Earth and Ektae treat same-sex couples differently? Is there a comment on modern Earth?
SO: You know in a lot of my books, I don’t like them to be about these things. I feel like that is — it seems to come from a good place, but often ends up sort of fetishizing all of these things.
In the case of Jordan having two fathers, you will see a lot of how his relationship with his parents has affected him. At the same time, I will admit that, me personally, I didn’t want to write another story about people not being okay with gay parents. I don’t necessarily know that that’s the thrust of the book, but having said that, it will present his issues with his family on equal footing as with a straight parent. And that, to me, is the statement that we’re making.
CA: And will we see their family dynamic, presumably in flashback?
SO: Ah, yes! Based on the concept of the book, I don’t know that you’ll see it in an active way because, you know, they’re not around anymore, but you’ll definitely know how they met, and the difference and complexity between people’s relationships — their relationship is a big thing, it’s easy, especially since when they’re not there to speak for themselves, to make a judgement on their relationship. Just because things didn’t work out doesn’t mean they didn’t work at one time, and I think that that’s a big part of the book.
There’s a lot of anger associated with a lot of family dynamics and people’s relationships with their parents, and you want to just say that they’re one thing or the other thing, but parents are just people too.
The big motion for me is, yes, something bad happened between his parents. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other at some point. And that’s how life is. It’s not always one thing, there’s no happily-ever-after in real life. There’s happily ever after, and then you’re arguing at Rite Aid.
That, to me, is where we want to go with it. I just want to take a different look at things. And treat them with what I think is a weightier, more realistic perspective. And it is maybe less romantic in the literary sense, but I also think it’s more meaningful, because people see their own parents in these things, people see their own relationships with their parents, and the people around them that are created by their anger in these things. And that’s what we’re here to do.
CA: Are there any other queer social units that you’d like to see explored, either in your work or more in general?
SO: Oh yeah, there’s an infinite amount, in general. There are things that I want to do, certainly, in the can right now, or at least in the oven, that I’m very excited about. And I sadly can’t get into that.
Look, I want to see it all. We were talking on this panel earlier, like, "Oh, you have your Muslim character and you have your lesbian character, but what about lesbian Muslims?" They exist. We exist. We’re all real.
It’s a tough question to answer, only in that I feel like I don’t want to single anything out. I want to see it all. I want to see a gay character on the Justice League. I want to see... pick your genre. And I want to have it there. And that's what I try to do. And the other thing is, I don’t want to be the only one doing it. So certainly I’m always going to try and work these themes into my works, but what I want to see is other people doing it, other voices coming up and doing it too. It shouldn’t be just me. It’s not just me already. And there’s more people that have something to say.
CA: What would you like to see from the industry — however you define that — in terms of supporting both queer creators and queer stories going forward?
SO: From the top-down side, I want to continue to see confidence in the ability to and the willingness to try these things out and see what works. And also, if something doesn’t work, to not say, "Okay, this will never work again."
You try, you find a different way, you try a different thing, and you find out which fits. And sometimes there’s a tendency in any kind of business model, if one sort of risk doesn’t work, then you never go back there. But these things are important, and it’s all about finding the right fit.
So on that side, I want continued confidence. And I think you do get that. But there can always be more. There’s more work to be done across the industry. It’s not about one company or another.
But also — and it’s a minefield to even get into — I want more communication between the consumer side, the reader side, and creators, but I also want — people shouldn’t be afraid.
Understandably when you have a drought of representation, it’s easy to have a strong reaction if something isn’t 100% right. But often times creators are well-meaning and they don’t know. I have friends that have stepped into places they didn’t realize were mistakes, and it’s not from any mal-intent, and I think the key to moving forward is that communication on both sides, creators being open that they don’t know everything, and readers also knowing that people are trying, people are involved in this push and this development, and there are going to be people who make mistakes.
You never want anyone to feel like it’s too much work to do this, because it’s vitally important. We have to help each other. Consumers want better representation, and I think many creators want to do it, and that’s getting more, obviously, diverse voices in there. And it’s communicating and having this relationship with people so that they know what is connecting in a way that is not toxic. Because that real discussion is how things progress.
Whatever has gone wrong, that creator is never going to listen to an extremely visceral, angry sort of reaction and, at the same time, and I understand that anger, I’ve been there myself, but I don’t know that it helps move things forward. I’ve been that guy. "Obviously this has been written by a straight guy, f--- this guy," and that’s totally human. I do that all the time in many life situations.
And then I step back, and I’m like, well how can I unf--- this guy? And that’s the second part that is beneficial. We are all in this together. More than ever, thanks to the internet community. And I think we need to work together to get what we want.