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'Midnighter': Steve Orlando seeks to define DC's sexy, enigmatic gay hero

Superhero boyfriends Midnighter and Apollo made a big impact on mainstream comics in the late ’90s when their relationship was revealed in the pages of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s “The Authority,” showing analogs of Batman and Superman in a homosexual relationship that was approached with subtlety and nonchalance.

It wasn’t a big deal in the story that these characters were gay, but it was a big deal outside of the comic, particularly in a cultural climate that was starving for more diverse representations of gay characters.

Directed to “The Authority” by “Wizard: The Comics Magazine,” a young Steve Orlando was immediately captivated by the gay couple, but particularly Midnighter, the brusque, sarcastic brawler whose superpower shows him the perfect place to hit an opponent.

“I picked up ‘The Authority’ and it was, sure enough, awesome and [Midnighter] was awesome and just this totally different image and vision of what a gay man and a gay superhero could be in media,” said Orlando. “And then I went back and bought ‘Stormwatch,’ and thus began my ongoing love affair and obsession with Warren Ellis, which is completely one-sided.”

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Orlando’s introduction to comic books was a back issue of “West Coast Avengers” he found at a flea market, a story called “A Tale Of Two Kitties” that pit feline superheroines Tigra and Hellcat against each other.

“It's shocking that I'm still in comics because the first modern book I bought was part of ‘The Clone Saga,’ which I bought in a Waldenbooks in the ’90s,” said Orlando. “Despite the fact that it was when the Scarlet Spider debuted — I was really into his torn-off-sleeve hoodie at the time — I kept reading, surprisingly. I've been with it since then.”

“The Authority” was a considerably different take on superheroes compared to “West Coast Avengers” and “The Clone Saga,” and its gay characters spoke to the sexually conflicted teenage Orlando.

Over a decade later, Orlando is now an out-and-proud bisexual, writing the “Midnighter” ongoing series, the first DC Comics title headlined by a gay male superhero. It’s Orlando's first major superhero project, but if his creator-owned Image series “Undertow” from last year is any indication, readers can expect big ideas, nuanced characters, and plenty of action (sexy and otherwise) from his work on “Midnighter” with artist Aco and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr.

Hero Complex readers can view covers, pages and layouts from “Midnighter” in the galleries below.

In a recent telephone conversation, Orlando spoke about his personal coming out experience, the joys of writing one of his favorite characters, and the importance of a strong collaboration with his art team.

When did you come out as bisexual?

I didn't come out until I was 20, 21. One of the reasons is because for many people, coming out as bisexual is a gateway to coming out as gay, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to really know what the deal was with me when I did it. I definitely went through what everyone goes through on some level, starting in middle school. At one point being freaked out and rationalizing with myself for a while. Then bargaining with myself. “All right, maybe hanging out with naked dudes is OK, but actually touching them, that's weird.” And then magically that became not weird. And then you were rationalizing what was and wasn't OK. ... That progressed, and in college I was dating a girl who was bisexual as well, and it all sort of made sense. We could walk around and everyone was on the table, so to speak. At that point I knew girls weren't going away either, and that's when I decided that it was the right time.

Things have progressed from there, and now I don't really give a ... who I talk to about it. I never really have, which is maybe why I'm on "Midnighter." Because he has zero ... in his quiver as well. It's a progression. Not just about this book, because 13-year-old Steve never really thought that he would be adding to the legacy of a character that showed him that you didn't have to be like Jack from "Will & Grace" in 1998. There's nothing wrong with that either, but it showed that there was more than one thing in media. There's more than one role model. It's been a weird run, but a good one.

It's all a process, and I'm glad I did what I did so I know who I am now and I am very passionate about bisexuality. I see a lot of erasure on both sides of the community. I try to handle that as best I can, but it's important to me. And it's important in the same way as there's no one way to be gay. It's important to tell people as well, I've seen people racked with the idea of, "Oh, well I have to choose, which is a thing that people tell me." And that makes me sad because you don't have to choose. You just have to be you. I think it's important for people to know that. You need not be so dogmatic about it. There's this idea that men's sexuality isn't as fluid as women's and I just think that that's its own reflection of people's gender roles and people's socialization. People losing so much sleep and people having so much internal conflict because of these feelings they feel like they have to ignore, one way or another, and you don't have to. It's all about people, and that's my soapbox. It took me 15 years to develop it, but here we are.

How did you get involved with the new "Midnighter" title?

I had known Mark Doyle, the “Batman” editor, for a long time. I met him through Will Dennis, who I've known even longer. The quick story of “How did you get into comics?” Well, I've known Will since I was 14, and we met at Ithacon in his home town. I supposedly had done work in comics because I wrote a four-issue vampire story that never got published, but I still put on my badge, and I saw this tall red-haired man and I said, “Oh, what do you do?” And he said, “Oh, well I edit ‘Hellblazer.’” And after I was done throwing up from nervousness, we became friends.

That was when I was 14, so now let's fast forward to the fact that it wasn't until 2012 that our relationship led to a spot where we could work together. And when that happened, Mark was Will's assistant at the time, and so we did this story in “Mystery In Space” that was about centaurs taking drugs and going through puberty as a gladiatorial hallucination. Mark edited that for me, and so when he went over to the Bat-office, he knew what he was getting into when he asked me if I wanted to pitch any characters. He knew it wasn't going to be a normal thing, and I immediately said Midnighter, because it was a character that I had been — if you saw me in the Denny's of Syracuse in 2002, I would've been there having a Grand Slam Slugger and ranting about how much I wanted to work on “The Authority.” This has been a long time thing for me, and for my friends at home, they're kind of flabbergasted it's happening. To be clear, so am I.

What was your pitch for the character?

The one-sentence pitch is: “Midnighter loves his job.” And I think that's revolutionary when it comes to the character. That's not to say that I'm revolutionary. It was revolutionary when Warren Ellis came up with it, because you have this character with the expectations of being the gay, brutal Batman. (Even though I, perhaps in vain, like to point out that he's based on the Shadow.) But I don't think they're similar at all. Because half the time you see Midnighter, he's smiling. And that's not something people associate with Batman. And that was, to me, getting back to the core of the character. Where he's blowing up a terrorist island and it's not some sort of grim send-off. The last panel is him smiling like a jackass and saying, “I love being me.”

That point of view is the pitch. He's something unique in this world, where we want dark, brooding heroes. And certainly, those are great too. But we can have something else. We can have this character who's had these bad events happen to him that normally make a Daredevil or a Batman, but they aren't lingered on. He's moved on, and loves what he is. He's found a way to love what he is, and that phrase, that sentence is something I think we all struggle with as humans. And it's obviously something we struggle with as we go through the steps of coming out in the queer community, so that nugget is what made the character for me.

How do you plan on exploring the man behind the mask?

To be frank, it's because we're going to, for the first time, really see him without the mask. We're going to see him — at the moment, he's not with Apollo. I love their relationship in “The Authority” and I would love if at some point in comics' future they get together again, but at the same time, Apollo understands Midnighter, and the way you force him to explore himself is by having him meet these new characters that don't know what he is. When you met Apollo and Midnighter, it was the 1990s, and it was disruptive because they were gay Batman and Superman. But it's not disruptive now. We have plenty of examples of perfectly understanding, somewhat heteronormative gay couples in media, and they've already been together five years.

At one point, it was great because there was no drama between them, but it's also hard to show who a character is as a person when they already know everything about each other. So we're going to be seeing him entering the queer community and we're going to see him bouncing off not just new people, but normal people. To see who he is, not just as a gay man, and his personality, which is super dour and cynical but also very aggressive and very bold. How he plays and how what he does plays off of normal people, and if he's going to change who he is. Probably not, but maybe he's going to find a way to integrate more things into his personality.

What kind of man is Midnighter attracted to? Does he have a type?

I don't think he has a type right now because as we open the series, he's really only been with one person. So there's a lot to say about him exploring that. I think Midnighter is not a person who maybe has a physical type or an ethnic type, so to speak, because already there's going to be no one that's like him because there's only one murder machine with carbon-fiber bones and all these things. If anything, his type is more of a personality type thing. You see the people that he associates with are oftentimes people who are better adjusted than he is. Apollo was better adjusted than he is, between the two of them.

Even in "The Authority," people were friends with Apollo and put up with Midnighter. For the most part. I think he's attracted to people, like we all are sometimes, that have what we don't. That do what we wish we could do in a better way. These are people that maybe their problems and their life operates on a different scale. They're not operating in the world of crazy that he does, but they're also handling it better than he is. He's a confident man, but he's attracted to confidence, and he's attracted to people who take things in stride and learn how to not look at everything like a competition or like combat, because that's what he's created to do.

How are you balancing Midnighter's love life with his superhero life in your scripts?

The way I look at it, it's very important to me not to shine, and this isn't intended to sound incorrect, but it's important to me not to shine an undue light on it. And when I say that I don't mean that we're going to avoid showing him being gay. We have plenty of gay people being gay in the book. But I also think it's important not to fetishize his personal life simply because he's gay. So the way I approach it is I try to devote time in the script to it in the same way that you would devote time to a character's personal life were he to be straight. And not make a bigger deal of it than we do of Oliver Queen's romantic life. Than we do of Dick Grayson's romantic life. Because that type of nonchalance is really the acceptance that we want. We don't want to be a special class. We want equality, so I think the narrative itself has to treat it with that equality. So we definitely devote time to it, but I think it's important to show that this is a book that itself does not treat the fact that it has a gay lead as anything different or anything unusual.

"Midnighter" is the first DC comic headlined by a solo gay male character. Did that create any pressure for you?

Well there's certainly expectations, and I was talking about that with some other people. It's absurd to say there's no pressure in expectations, because it is the first, but at the same time, I think it's an unrealistic expectation of me to have of myself, for the community in general, that a single book can sum up the experience of everyone in the queer community. That is something that I think a lot of new gay media is struggling with, and it happens because there's a drought of gay representation. So when it happens, people are so thirsty and everyone wants to see everything in this one story.

If "Midnighter" has 50 issues or 100 issues, then certainly I could tackle all the things, but at the same time, a show like "Looking" was revolutionary, but it can't do everything for the gay community because it still has one setting, it's not an anthology series, and it's focusing on three people. Should those three people have been more diverse? I could agree with that, but even if they were, they couldn't be everything to everyone. So yeah, you always sense that pressure because you want to make everyone feel like they're represented, but I think the real thing that we have to do, and the pressure in truth, is not to show and get everything in. At least in the first story arc, because it's impossible.

To create something that appeals to everyone a little bit, you'll also have something that profoundly affects no one at all. I don't want to do that, but I do think the responsibility is to create depictions of the queer community and men and women that are as rich and layered and textured as we are in real life. That's something I think I'm obligated to do. That's something I hope we do, and that pressure is very real. Having gay characters instead of gay caricatures is really where the pressure comes from.

There was a bit of an uproar from fans when you revealed that Midnighter would use the app Grindr. What is your reaction to that?

You've seen issue No. 1, Oliver. How do you think we handled it?

I thought it was fine. I had no problem with it, but I also had no problem with it when you first said it. A lot of gay men use Grindr.

I think that you summed it up. "Uproar" makes it sound like there's anger. I think there's worry. A lot of people that I talked to when it came to this were like, “Well, if you're going to have a 'sex-positive' book and you're going to show him having a sex life, are you going to talk about prep? Are you going to talk about X, Y, and Z?” And you've seen, even in the 8-pager, I think it's important that we show him as a sexually active male and yeah, we have condoms in the first issue. We don't have an issue where he is explaining what they're for or how to use them. A: I could never do that as well as Neil Gaiman. And B: It's not an issues book.

But I think it is important, and I think the worry people have is about responsibility. If we're going to show Midnighter not being monogamous, we have to also take what goes along with that and show him being responsible and send the right message. Because I think the sex-positive message is super important. It verges sometimes on a strange type of slut-shaming, the way people sometimes refer to gay sex. Which is not right. There's nothing wrong with gay sexuality, of course. But I even think that comes from a greater fear of sending the wrong message to readers and people who may only see him being active but not see what goes along with him. The fear of Grindr comes from the fear that we're not going to show him being safe and doing these things. We are, but not in a way where it's stopping the flow of the story.

Beyond that, it goes back to the thought that it is a huge part of the gay community, and if we're going to be showing a modern depiction, a contemporary depiction, it would be ludicrous to not acknowledge it. You'll see whether or not it works out for him, but the idea that he wouldn't try it when almost 100% of the gay people I know have tried it — they may not like it, and it may not work for them — seems weird to me. And I think people get worried, they assume that it's just going to be all the book is about, and that's a reasonable fear, but that's not our take. Our take is that if we're going to be tackling the community, we have to acknowledge that it's there. It's certainly a divisive thing in the community, to say the least. But it is a thing. I looked up that there's 1 million people signed on to it at any given time. So people are using it.

The thing that stuck out to me about the preview and first issue is that sex is in there at all, because it's so underplayed or ignored in a lot of superhero comics in general. Romance doesn't get a lot of play, but sex especially.

I agree with you, but times are changing. “Grayson” has a splash page of a woman straddling him and screaming, “Dick!” And we did launch out of “Grayson.” I hear you, but we've moved in what we can and can't show. And that's also important, that it's a T+ [Teen Plus] book and not a Mature Readers book. I almost wanted a T+ book. We're not showing anything in “Midnighter” that if it were a straight couple, wouldn't be T+. It's not like you see him topping some dude. Those things aren't happening. If it were Mature Readers, it would send the message that somehow it's naughtier if it's two guys, and I don't think that's the case at all. Because it's not, and it shouldn't be.

But so often you see, oh, this is Mature Readers because there's two guys kissing, but it's T+ when it's basically a softcore hetero scene. It shouldn't be that way, obviously. We're tackling it and coming out of a book that is playing up the suave aspects of Grayson, and honestly I think Midnighter is much more attractive. Although I'm sure the Internet would disagree with me because Grayson's [backside] has its own following, of which Midnighter is a member. It's important to show him as confident. We're not ashamed of his sexuality, and we're not making smut. There's nothing wrong with showing how he relates in those situations.

While on the topic of Midnighter's sex life: In the preview story, are those Midnighter's Batman underwear on the floor?

Those are Midnighter's underwear. I think that makes sense, because Midnighter has a sense of humor and he loves to push buttons, so of course he would have Batman underwear because he probably thinks Batman is the most hilarious guy in the DC Universe. In the same way he loves poking holes in Grayson's roles, I think Midnighter would think Batman is hilarious. That's not a secret plug for a crossover. Just the way that they approach life is so different. That's the fun of seeing Midnighter in "Grayson." That's the fun of seeing him with other DCU characters, because if he has a choice to say something that will ruffle people's feathers or not, he's always going to say it. That's one of the things people like about him.

What's the most fun thing about writing “Midnighter”? The most challenging?

The most fun thing is creating the centerpiece for each issue. If we don't have a crazy action movie type thing happen in every issue, then we're not really doing it right when it comes to “Midnighter.” So the most fun is coming up with these things that are going to happen that I know are coming, but you guys don't know are coming, and that's what's wonderful about it. In the case of the 8-pager, when DC asked me to do it, I was like, “Sweet! And here's the pitch: he's going to joust a truck.” That was the whole thing, and then everything else grew around that. But I knew that punch-line of him jousting a truck over him was the jewel, and in issue no. 1, there are a couple things as well that I hope show people that he's a special kind of guy and there is a little bit of absurdity to his character that we hopefully are leaning into to make it fun in all its black humor and ’80s-to-’90s-to-now type of action movie weirdness. It's great creating those moments, and as you can tell by what I mention in Caps Lock every time I'm on the Internet, it's clear what I like most about each issue.

The most challenging thing — the character itself and his power set is challenging, but the fun thing is finding ways around that. And it is always a thing on my mind, but also I think people wrongly think of him as being more powerful than he is. Basically, his power is to find out a way to hit you, but that doesn't mean that he can hurt you. Hypothetically, he could fight Doomsday for hours and Doomsday could never, ever hit him, but he also, no matter how many times he punched Doomsday, it wouldn't matter. That's not an invention of me; that goes back to when he fought Regis in “The Authority.” That's what he said, “Keep hitting me, it's not going to matter.” So finding ways to creatively use his powers is probably the most challenging thing, along with, of course, the fact that he is known for being relatively quotable. So creating the Midnighter moment, so to speak, is the most fun thing, but also the most challenging thing because there's an expectation there. I'm not going up against softball players. I'm going up against Warren Ellis and Mark Millar and [Grant] Morrison, and that's super intimidating. It's the right type of fuel, but it's also super intimidating.

"Undertow" was your first major comics work. What lessons did you learn from that book that have informed your work on "Midnighter"?

The main lesson is about collaboration. Not just having an email relationship, but having a strong contact with your artist. Because the best thing about comics is that it's a team, and you really are in a relationship that's working, and it is a relationship, trust me. You're making each other better, and that came from when I was working on “Undertow.” Knowing when to let Artyom [Trakhanov, artist] go wild. Every script for “Undertow” was 22 pages long, and you may notice that no issue of “Undertow” is 22 pages long, and that's because he would just dig into these scenes and say, “You know, I want to expand this. This would be even better if we could put the splash page in here.” And so on. So as a writer, sometimes there's that urge where you're like, “Oh man, but I have such a plan.” And then you realize, “Wait, I'm being an egotistical jackass.” This is a team effort, and maybe I have a plan, but I know this guy and we've known each other for a long time and I'm sure he's just going to take what I wanted, the kernel of what I wanted, and make it even better. Learning when to give yourself up to the tidal flow of collaboration is what I learned on “Undertow,” and it worked out great.

That's what we're going to bring in “Midnighter,” because I could never script the type of insane layouts that Aco is doing on that book. That's all him. I am image-based and I am dialogue-based. I give that all to him, but it's really about setting him up and just knowing that he's going to do his thing. And letting him do his thing. It almost never works like you envision it. Sometimes there's those Kodak moments where you're like, “Oh my god, that's exactly what I wrote in the script, that's exactly like I envisioned it.” And yeah, you feel pretty cool and suave when that happens, but at the same time, you have to be ready to improvise and know that you are both sides of the coin making this book. And you're working together to make something that is better than either of you could make on your own. So I learned that on “Undertow” because Artyom is an amazing artist, and I could never script his weird, crazy, inventive layouts. And now I'm putting it in “Midnighter,” where I'm working with another artist that I could never script his crazy and weird, inventive layouts. It's actually been a strong through-line.

And what do you feel colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. brings to the art on “Midnighter”?

To be honest, Romulo's an extension of what we just talked about. Aco wanted — we didn't have a colorist, and he suggested Romulo. He goes, “This is a guy I know, we could be in really good contact and we're comfortable with each other and it's just going to work out great.” And it's easy for editorial or for me to be like, “Who are you to tell us who's going to work on the book, bro?” But you've got to know when a thing is right, and to the credit of Chris [Conroy] and Mark [Doyle], my editors, who are super smart and know better than I do what's going to work, they said, “Let's give it a try.”

And sure enough, them being super tight has led to a type of intense style that you maybe couldn't have if you had an art team that didn't know each other or wasn't in close contact with each other. Because they have a shorthand that they work with. They know each other's cues when it comes to going from inks to colors, and also because they know each other, the back-and-forth of any type of critique is not stressful. It's just wonderful and they know where everyone is coming from. Romulo brings the energy and takes what is already an insane page and he knows exactly what to emphasize. He knows exactly what to draw the reader's eye to because he knows so well what Aco is going for. To me, the way the pages come together is how wonderful collaboration can work when it works. Obviously, if it's a catastrophe, it's a catastrophe, but I've never experienced that yet.

What do you readers to walk away with after reading “Midnighter” No. 1?

Honestly, I just want them to walk away and say, "That was awesome." That might be simple sounding, but I don't think it's simple sounding at all. Because it's such a loaded book and there's so much baggage that comes along with it being the first gay-male-led book, but if we're really looking and accepting him as a character, they shouldn't say, “That was an awesome gay book.” They should just say, “That was awesome.” And hopefully they like him. He's a unique character with a sarcasm and a wit and a personality that doesn't pop up all the time, and I hope, having read issue one, they feel that they know him and they want to go on this journey that he's on as he figures out what Midnighter means. What Midnighter means, whether he's in the costume or not. And yeah, that journey's going to involve a lot of punching and a vague amount of innuendo, but it's going to be an exciting journey and hopefully they'll care enough about him to keep going.

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