Signing a 2-year exclusive contract with DC Comics heralds a new era for Steve Orlando’s career in comics. He’s taken opportunities to tell stories in the pages of Batman, Supergirl, and the upcoming Midnighter & Apollo—the first comic book in mainstream superhero comics led by a queer couple.
Although Orlando discussed queer inclusion in Midnighter and in his original graphic novel Virgil with Comics Bulletin in the past, he’s yet to discuss themes of gender and feminine influence in his work. I caught up with Orlando at Flame Con to talk gender, how it informs his worldview, and how it impacts his writing of Supergirl and Midnighter & Apollo.
Steve Orlando: Supergirl is about what strength means outside of hitting someone in the face. If you read the first issue, the fight in it does not end the way a traditional superhero fight happens.
And [regarding gender], I am certainly not a woman. There’s no surprise there. But as I’ve said… I have readers on the book who are women. And beyond that, one of my best friends is very prominent in feminist theory and so one of the things when I talk to her is the way you solve problems and the way that you approach conflict.
And so with Supergirl, I’ve said it before, my North Star in a way is Malala Yousafsai. [She’s] my favorite Supergirl story. Even though she doesn’t wear an S or anything like that, it’s about strength. And, you know, yes, it’s one type of strength to have that gut reaction when someone hates you to want to lash out, but I think in many ways it’s even stronger to show compassion and be able to show them understanding.
And so, Supergirl to me is what does it mean to be super? And it doesn’t mean to be like Superman. Because I, personally, think that Supergirl would be Supergirl even if her cousin never existed. You know, if she landed on Earth and had the experience she had, I think she would be the same person she is now, which is being an outsider, finding acceptance, finding people who are willing to take her in, and she wants to pay that forward to people. She wants to not judge people, you know, basically off her hot take because that’s what happened to her when she first landed. And so I think her experiences would make her Supergirl even if Superman never existed and that’s key for me. Because it’s not about building on the work of a man, it’s about building her own iconography.
Which, by the way, I know there was talk and some people wondered about the classic S shield. But I was actually excited for her to have her own version of the S shield because I want it to be hers. Not Superman’s symbol; it’s the Supergirl symbol. That was something I was happy that we kept from the New 52.
But again, that’s the very long version. The short answer is about what being super means and being super means expecting the best or finding the best in people, seeing the best in people even when they don’t. Showing strength that goes beyond getting in the ring and fighting someone. It’s much more than that. And I think with that lens in mind, she’s one of the strongest characters I’ve ever worked on.
CB: I guess that ties into my next question about Leslie McCall and Malala and … the strength of those two women. Did you want to talk a little more specifically about how you’re drawing influences from those two?
Orlando: Malala is certainly the key influence. When it comes to Leslie, it’s more about just the idea of intersectionality. My influences are not equal. I won’t lie about that. But it’s the idea about keeping these things in mind when it comes to diversity. It’s often thought that … you can have a “lesbian” book or “Muslim” book, but you can’t have a lesbian Muslim book, and why not? Because you can certainly have those in real life.
So it’s about keeping that in mind, that feminism—which I certainly would never say I’m an authority on because I’m not, but I want to pay respect to it—is about more than just women; it’s about the exterior struggle of women of different creeds, different races, different religions, and it’s about transwomen as well. It’s more than surface level for me.
CB: So … Malala and Leslie directly influenced Supergirl. However, moving outside of the books, what role models or inspirations do you have in your life, who are female or just feminine?
Orlando: There are many easy answers to this.
It’s interesting, I never had grandfathers because they both died well before I was alive. But I had a grandmother who lived to 101 years old. It’s kind of easy to say that, but it’s also true because I think about her life and what she went through while maintaining what some would say is a feminine type of strength because she never got a driver’s license. You know, there’s a lot of things she didn’t do, but you look at a woman who was born in 1906 and you think about the breadth of her life, someone who saw a box in the air when she was a couple of years old and the next day read that the Wright brothers had landed in her town with no frame of reference for what that was because it didn’t exist yet.
[She] would commute from Scranton to New York City every day to work in the textile factory during the Depression. To do that, come home, and have children and have her husband die in 1963 and raise three kids herself while running his business … and it’s the same sort of talk about the double responsibilities to people you have. You have to be a mother, you also have to be a career person, and you have to unify those things, and it’s twice as much as what a man would have to do. And so, I find that very inspiring to me.
My hostmother in Russia was very much the same way. The average age of a Russian man [at the time of death] when I lived there in 2007 was 55. … Respect for women in that country was interesting to me. I’m not saying it was good, but it was interesting because once you got to be like a babushka [Ed: Russian word for grandmother] … people knew what you had probably gone through and respected you for that.
In my own vision, I’m not making a general statement, [the status of being a babushka] seemed to supersede many things that it would not in America. I had seen older woman call out police for abusing tourists and things, things that you would probably get arrested for here. But respecting that older woman, knowing that she had probably raised her kids by herself for 30 years, knowing that she had probably worked a job even at the age of 70 so she could keep her apartment, all these things.
My hostmother was … 51 years old and had two kids and I don’t know when she had a husband, it was probably at least 20 years ago [as of 2007]. But she was also a school administrator, and also ran their house and also ran their summer home—because in Russia, the majority of people have a forest home or a woods home, a dacha, that they go to over the weekend. She did all those things and I found it very inspiring especially in some ways in those countries where there is a little more emphasis on tradition because that just adds another layer. You have to be a businesswoman, you have to be a mother, and oh, also you have to do all these things that women “just know how to do.” So you have to know how to make all their foods, you have to know how to do all the crafts and all those things…
It’s more than I’ll ever have to deal with, it’s no lie there. It’s something to look to, and I think it’s very important.
CB: Double duty, actually. In the Supergirl TV show, there are themes about how it’s not actually possible for you to do all these things, therefore you’re constantly trying to save the planet while being a journalist or whatever. Do you envision that your run will have kind of “double duty” elements to the character in the series, or…?
Orlando: Well, I think certainly, especially when she settles into her role as Kara Danvers as well. I think it has to be an aspect as well.
The greatest reality with superheroes is that, even with the Super characters, people say, “Oh well these are Gods, they’re not relatable at all.” Actually, I think they’re quite relatable, it’s just that their struggles are made into these mystic things and can also be measured back down into things that we do on a day-to-day basis. You know, Supergirl struggled to come to Earth and be accepted. We face that when we start a new job, if we move to a new country, if we start dating someone else and we meet a new social circle. We face that all the time, it’s just that our conflicts don’t have lasers…
The tragedy of what you’re saying is that they’re always losing, right? Even Superman is. Every time Batman saves someone, somewhere else in Gotham City someone is getting mugged, someone is getting murdered, he’s failing somewhere else. And that’s true for Superman too, that’s true for Supergirl. … Even she cannot be everywhere at once. And we say that in issue 1—and you know, it’s a hopeful book so I don’t like to dig into it too much–it’s a reality, if you had their super senses, you would constantly be listening to people that you’re not helping
So for me, not to get too emotional because … I really like characters with S’s on their chests, and I tend to go very macro with things where I don’t know if everyone totally gets where I’m at, which is fine because I don’t always get where I’m at… For me, in Rebirth, I went super general with this scene, where she comes out of the sun, where she explodes out of the sun, and there’s this one balloon where someone is saying “can anyone hear me?” And there’s a reply shot of her saying, “I can.” Some people read it and said yes, that’s nice, but that’s the moment for them, right? We all feel like that sometimes. And that’s, I’m like getting a little emotional now, actually.
CB: Me too.
Orlando: But that’s why we love superheroes. And that’s what they give us… I read that page and … I sent a note to my editor and I was like “you know what… the whole process of making Supergirl Rebirth #1 has been worth it if people get this.” Because that’s what superheroes do, it’s more than just people getting punched in the face, and um, I don’t know. I don’t have an end for that statement. [laughs]
But it’s a real thing. That’s why I’ve always loved them. You know, because… that’s all we really want sometimes. And we don’t always get it.
CB: Yeah, for sure. Okay, so we will slide over to Midnighter and Apollo… Actually, I think the last time we spoke about Midnighter was before the first book even came out, which is a crazy long time ago… Among the many subjects we talked about is Midnighter’s gender expression. I think you actually said that Midnighter was not as masculine as people thought… First, let’s back up a little bit. How do you define masculinity and femininity?
Orlando: I mean, the real answer is I try not to. I can say how I think other people do, you know. There is no shock that there are some things people consider traditional, that people look at as being masculine—brawny, stoic, you know. Your Dad From 1950. Your Mom From 1950. Why do I think that? I think because it was one of the worst times to be a woman in American society, but if you were a man, you probably thought it was the best time ever.
But I try not to define masculinity and femininity! There are things that are considered traditionally masculine and I think that that is the stoicism, that is the “toughness” the “hardness,” and in my opinion, also stubbornness is part and parcel to that.
But with Midnighter, I think when I said that it’s because he was often thought of that before. Like “Midnighter doesn’t have feelings! And he just punches people in the brains!” And it was like, well those are all true, but he could also be this other thing. You know, and that’s what doing those first twelve issues was about. It was about him finding that, being able to talk about his mistakes with Apollo, being able to have actual conversations where he wasn’t sure about himself with Tony.
Because… the hope for me is that people will see that it’s never all or nothing. Sometimes we are, “traditionally masculine” or “traditionally feminine.” We can be hard, we can be soft at the same time in different times. And that is where I want to take him, hopefully, because he was looked at as this character who was all quips and punching people in the heart and I love quips and punching people in the heart, but there’s more. And there’s more to real people too.
CB: Right. Last time, we didn’t talk specifically about where you were pulling from– well a lot of it was New 52… But you also pointed out that you purposefully made it so that the first lines in Midnighter #1 were the first lines in Stormwatch #4 by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. Have you been rereading any of The Authority books recently because we’re going to go into the visuals somewhat soon?
Orlando: The series Bible for me is always going to be the first 12 issues of The Authority. And, the things I thought were great before I have not changed. I will always love issues 7 and 8 of the original Midnighter run, the [Brian K.] Vaughan and Darick Robertson issue and the [Christos] Gage and Jean Paul Leon issue, which is after that. Which to me is like the perfect Midnighter story that I wish I had written because he’s this character that again, you think is super hard, and it’s literally about him saving someone’s cat. But, of course, it’s Midnighter so it turns out to be like a murder cat. A robot murder cat. But still! It was Jack Hawksmoor saying that fine, you like to go and deploy in some war-torn country because that’s what you’ve been made for, but how about you try helping a real person?
“And how about you try helping a real person?” is kind of the whole point of my run so I could never say that that’s not an influence on me.
CB: That’s a really good issue. I think it’s also highly underrated too because it’s so cute. [laughs] [Midnighter and Apollo] need to have a dog again at some point.
Orlando: The little girl in the Gage and Leon issue calls Midnighter ‘black leather man’ at some point, or something?
CB: Yeah, “big scary…”
Orlando: “Scary leather man.”
But there’s also this awkwardness to Midnighter where he doesn’t get jokes like I do is influenced heavily by that issue because there’s a little bit of ridiculousness to the character, certainly. And he meets this normal person and she’s like, “Didn’t you try to be president?” And he’s like, “No ma’am, I was…”
CB: “I was part of a junta.” [laughs]
Orlando: Exactly! Like no human says that, but he thinks it’s totally normal. That that is the response.
CB: He was highly introverted in the original canon, which I always appreciated and also kind of related to because when you’re introverted like that, you sometimes literally cannot reach people. So his responses were really funny because of that.
Orlando: That line is the direct reason why in the Midnighter issue 3 that I wrote, which is still my favorite issue, when he goes to that woman’s house and she’s like “is this a home invasion?” he’s like, “no, I wanted to talk to you–”
Orlando: “—about finding this person who kidnapped your daughter and punching them repeatedly.” And I was just like, yeah no person would say that except Midnighter. Because he thinks that’s a totally normal thing to say. You know, no question in his mind that that’s totally legit.
CB: Yeah. Okay, so, the reason why I was going into visuals is, do you remember Kev? That was the Garth Ennis and Glenn Fabry book.
CB: The art in that book, also the Bert and Ernie sequence of the original Ellis and Hitch The Authority run… but there are indications… where you will kind of notice that Apollo has body language that is a little more effeminate, has tastes that are a little more effeminate, and going further into that… he is often put into the feminine position in the relationship.
On the one hand, this is obviously problematic because it’s part of a misogynist system that is unfortunately still a part of comics today and it’s really heteronormative and not necessarily reflective of what gay couples look like. On the other hand, if you’re feminine, you might see more of yourself in him, versus, you know, Midnighter who is a little bit more masculine still. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how you plan on depicting those two and that kind of dynamic in your upcoming book.
Orlando: So, it’s an interesting question and it’s a tough one to answer because the reality is I, as a collaborator, tend to give very little direction on those things because I want there to be room for the art team to have something to say. You know? So I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s also semi-true because I wouldn’t want to answer questions about the choices ACO or [Alec] Mooney or anyone made in Midnighter because I leave those choices to them, usually. Because I feel that is what collaboration is about.
Having said that… I want to continue the idea that there’s nothing wrong with the idea of being more “feminine.” And it doesn’t have to look one way, I mean Apollo is the beefier of them, so to speak.
I hesitate to make a judgment that he is more feminine, though, it is in many ways the eye of the beholder. He’s certainly more easygoing and adjusted, but I think that’s always been his way. He is more approachable, he is—which is funny because in more standard comic vernacular, he’d be less approachable– basically Superman. People feel more comfortable around him. He’s more understanding, so to speak. So if you want to look at what is more stereotypically a more feminine way of problem-solving, of approaching conflict, he certainly has that. And I think that’s important. But he’s also incredibly strong-willed. He’s also incredibly unwavering, as you’ll see as the story progresses.
I don’t set out with a specific agenda, is what I’m saying, other than to make them fully-fledged people with hopefully all the masculine and feminine traits that we all embody at different times in our life and in different situations and in different social situations.