Once known as one of the first openly gay characters to be featured in a relationship, and later the first gay marriage, in mainstream superhero comics, DC Comics’ Midnighter has received his own title in the publisher’s new wave. I sat down to talk with Midnighter writer Steve Orlando, also known for his series Virgil (with JD Faith, Chris Beckett) and Undertow (with Artyom Trakhanov), about his plans for the character with Midnighter artist ACO and how he sees the progress of queer characters throughout comics.
Ray Sonne for Comics Bulletin: We’ll start with the question I think we both want answered. Let’s have you define how Midnighter is not just the gay Batman, but is distinguished as his own individual character.
Steve Orlando: Midnighter really, besides the fact that they both wear black, is nothing like Batman. Warren Ellis created him based on The Shadow and I think that actually forms a lot of his character in more that he’s a community-type hero. That’s something we’re going to be building onto in the series.
In [“Midnighter #1”, we introduced] the SmartMark and the building of the Asset Network. These are people that he’s helped in the past that are people he has given a chance to […] help him do his job better. Eve though he can go through the Door in his apartment, to be anywhere he needs eyes on the ground to curate the type of things he should be helping with. It’s much like when The Shadow rescued you, you’d have these little signal rings to call him.
More than Batman, he’s a community figure, but what I’m realizing as I’m talking about this is that there’s no mystery to Midnighter. He’s 100% him all the time and that’s further the difference between him and Batman. Batman wants to be an urban legend and feared in that way, but Midnighter’s a very real person. No one questions whether or not he exists; people know he exists and that’s what makes him all the more terrifying.
That goes right along the major difference I was going to get into: as I said, he is 100% himself all the time, he has no secret identity, he has no sort of qualms about his life, he’s 100% confident in who he is. That comes from the fact that unlike a lot of aggrieved vigilantes, not just Batman, that are driven by these sort of childhood traumas, Midnighter is a guy that loves his job. And he’s moved on.
So when it comes to Midnighter versus Batman I think it’s joy versus brooding. Yes, his job might be horrifying, but he loves his job. He’s had bad things done to him, certainly, but he’s found a way to make it work. He knows that he’s sort of made to be this fighting machine, he’s made for violence. But he’s found a way to put it to use against the correct people and sort of be that earpiece for people in the community that maybe no one else will pay attention to. And those are the sort of stories he likes to be involved in.
Since he was invented, he was talking about doing that work. In [“Stormwatch #4” by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch], he was doing the work that he should have been doing in Stormwatch [the superhero team]. Then in New  Stormwatch, he’s talking about being there for the little guy. So that spoke to me when I thought about the character because he is the person who sees someone in need and makes a change in their life.
It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t take part in these huge superhero battles and things like that, but in his day to day he’s there for making micro-change to powerfully impact people’s lives.
CB: I always thought the same thing about Batman and Midnighter. Have you ever heard that the separation between Superman and Batman is that Superman is a character that came from socialism, or more socialist ideas, where Batman is more capitalist? The Authority came from more the Superman line because if you look at [The Authority:] Coup d’Etat and Revolution lines, they’re very socialist and very “little guy” sort of thing.
Orlando: The Authority especially was brought up with this sort of liberal push, but also with borderline fascism because you see them doing a lot of questionable things, but that sort of made the characters human. That’s why people loved The Authority: they were super powerful but reacted in emotional ways that maybe you could see that you would in that situation and even if they didn’t respond perfectly, that was kind of the point.
I think that Midnighter on his own harkens to some of that, but not all of it. He is not the “ends justify the means” type of guy and in some ways, The Authority was. Not all the time, I love that run, but they do kill like hundreds of thousands of people when they hold Italy in place to stop Regis and the alien Sicilians and I’m sure there’s some innocent people that got killed there, too.
And why Midnighter walked out of the God Garden was for that exact reason. You had the Gardener essentially letting some people die to make a greater point and that’s not him. He’s going to put himself on the line even if there’s just one person there because that’s who he is. Further reason is that no one did that for him. A lot of Midnighter’s character is built around the fact that he didn’t have a Midnighter when he was younger, so to speak. When someone abducted him, and experimented on him, and erased his past, there was no one there to help him. So he’s trying to make sure that everyone else never has to go through that. He wants people to have what he didn’t have.
CB: It will be interesting to see how you compromise this with the Lucas Trent revelation. Midnighter was always only Midnighter and for most of his existence, creators didn’t see the necessity of giving him a “real” name. Are you following more of the New 52 since in that run the name Lucas Trent was immediately attached to him as his “real” name?
Orlando: All I’ll say about Lucas Trent is that there is no compromise, but it does play into the story quite strongly. it’ll be wrapped up very succinctly or at least there will be a lot of detail on that in “Midnighter #2” and so we are addressing it. My personal opinion of the character is that he’s Midnighter all the time and that that’s his name is powerful. It leads to sort of an icon like Toshiro Mifune in[Akira Kurosawa’s film] Yojimbo, who, when people ask what his name is, he says [in Japanese] “35-year-old blueberry field.” That’s his age and something he was looking at at the time. He doesn’t have a name, it’s just he is who he is.
That’s what led to the Man With No Name type of character for Clint Eastwood. To me, that’s the idea of Midnighter too. There’s no sectioning off, there’s no Venn Diagram of his life and soul. That’s important to me and is certainly driving the whole initial run with his origin file being stolen and it’s in the New 52. We’re acknowledging that Lucas Trent is a thing. You’ll see as we go on.
CB: We’re going to be releasing this interview right after FlameCon, described by its founders as NYC’s first LGBTQ comics convention. Most people probably aren’t aware of the queer comics community other than Alison Bechdel, who is their breakout star. However, that community has existed since the 1970s and in their comics always discussed issues in the community about not just relationships, but the steamy side of lesbian bars and gay men’s spas and also their various takes on how the main gay rights movement handled certain struggles. How much of those comics have you read and how much of an influence do you feel like they’ve had on your writing of both Midnighter and Virgil, if any?
Orlando: I’ve certainly read a lot and watched a lot. I’ve certainly read Fun Home and a big, formative queer comic for me is also Enigma [by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo], which came out in the mid-1990s. When it comes to film and other types of media, I’ve consumed a lot as well. My approach has always been, and I’ve said it in interviews, that as we approach queer themes we have to present them with as much normalcy that we would want them to achieve in real life. I think that’s apparent in “Midnighter #1.”
I’ve had straight people come up and say, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be freaked out by the gay stuff, but you just treated it like it was completely normal.” And it is! That’s always been my approach. I don’t want to unintentionally fetishize within the narrative by having it shine. The tendency is to say, “Look at how we’ve embraced gay culture, we’re putting so much gayness into it.” But by doing that, you’re also shining a spotlight that says “Stare at this, this is not normal. This is something to be gawked at, to linger on.” So my approach has always been that we’re going to be super confident when it comes to those themes and we’re going to treat them, again, with the normalcy we want in our daily life.
You’ll see as the book goes on and in “Midnighter #1,” it’s definitely in there. We’re super confident about it, but it’s not any more than you’ll see with Dick Grayson’s sexuality or Oliver Queen’s sexuality. It’s just as normal as anything else and I’d like the story to be treated in that way too.
What I bring up a lot actually is Arliss Howard’s character [Kale Ingram] in Rubicon, which is a show on AMC. He is a character, who was slowly, as you listened to his speech and saw things move on through the series, was revealed to be in a gay relationship. But at the same time his character came first and sort of grew organically rather than stopping the story to point out, “Hey, hey, look at us, we’ve got a gay guy in this story, look how normal it is.” That did the exact opposite so that’s where my approach is coming from.
CB: Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in their original invention of the character very much had a similar approach, but it was a lot more chaste due to the time period.
Orlando: I totally agree. Warren and Bryan I think did a beautiful job with what they had at the time because of what they could do at the time. [Apollo and Midnighter]was one of the most nuanced of the time, and still is today, relationships that you had seen in gay characters. If you looked, it was obvious, and it was obvious from page one, but it wasn’t something the story found the need to put a spotlight on because it wasn’t a thing.
CB: I think your series is a sign of progress so far because both [you and ACO and Ellis and Hitch] treated it as normal, but you and ACO are able to talk more about it than Ellis and Hitch were able to or show more than they were able to.
Orlando: Oh, certainly.
CB: On that note, Apollo and Midnighter are famous within the comics community because they were the first gay marriage to happen in mainstream superhero comics. Do you think that because gay marriage is becoming more [accepted]—it’s legalized now in the majority of the United States—that that’s what’s allowing you and other creators to start exploring other themes more openly?
Orlando: It’s amazing either way, but I don’t know if there’s an exact causal relationship between those two things. I would say that gay marriage being supported by the majority is a symptom of the same thing that’s letting me do this. Our culture has grown somewhat more accepting, the community is somewhat bolder, and so the queer community has faces everywhere and that’s what has changed.
Besides campaigning and politics and things that are operating above the ground level is the thought that gay people are in equal and normal parts of society. That comes from the fact that more and more people are realizing that they know gay people. [They’re realizing that queer people are] not like strange ogres, they’re just people, and we’re all just people, and it’s a cumulative effect. It’s happening because more and more people are confident to come out, it’s happening because more people are gaining the strength to be honest about themselves. They’re becoming legion.
Not to give undue importance to things, but look at me. As you said, when Midnighter and Apollo were together in ’98, you went as far as you could with them and at that time I was thirteen and still figuring myself out. So that was the media I was reading to become the person I am today.
It is sort of cyclical. We have progressive depictions across media, we have more knowledge happening, it gives the next generation more strength, now I can do this book as bold as we’re doing it. You’re seeing it go across all parts of the world, but it’s all because of the visibility and the approachability of the community is increasing every day. It goes for gay marriage, it goes for depictions in the media. Is everyone on board with it, no, but they don’t have to be because it’s a civil right and that’s the way it is.
CB: What did you take away from Midnighter when you first read him and what do you want someone who reads your series to take away from him?
Orlando: When I was younger there were so few depictions of gay males in media. There were mainly the characters like Jack from Will & Grace that were very sort of energetic, hyperactive type characters. Midnighter really sort of broke that stereotype at the time; he showed that there’s no one way to be a queer person. He commands respect from everybody and he’s the coolest guy in the room, and yeah, he’s going to punch you in the face and he’s going to do it while trying to impress his boyfriend and if you disagree with that, he doesn’t care. That’s the idea he gave me when I was younger and I’m hoping we can push that idea forward with Midnighter, both with the character himself and his approach to life with 100% lack of fear, 100% confidence in who he is, damn everyone else.
Then there’s the supporting cast, which hopefully shows that there’s not one face to the queer community, there’s no one age, there’s no one body type, you could really look like anything. I think that’s important because so many people struggle with identity and that is certainly analogous to superheroes themselves. If you’re in the closet, the idea of a secret identity is very relatable to us and so we come out and we’re searching for identity much like we see Midnighter searching for identity.
His struggle is in many ways similar to that of the community and with the anger we have. Obviously, we can’t go and kick in someone’s skull even if we want to, just like the Flaming Lips say. Blowing your boss’ head off is stuff we can do in our dreams, but not in reality. That was a Batman Forever reference, by the way.
Some people say that Midnighter is very masculine. I think he’s confident and he’s bold and maybe if you want to go way back then he has masculine traits. But at the same time, Midnighter is very sensitive and he’s very vulnerable when he’s out of costume and that is sort of the contrast of the character. So I sort of buck against that. Most importantly, I hope the idea that it’s okay to be you comes across and that sometimes you do have to fight for it, but it’s worth it because you’re being true to yourself.
CB: At Special Edition NYC, you summed up “Midnighter #2” at the DCYou panel as “If corporations are people, they are people you can punch.” Is this something you’re going to bring in from the old Authority where he’s very confident in his opinions and political?
Orlando: I don’t think Midnighter is always an intensely political character, I think he’s a heavily social character. Sometimes those things can’t be separated. The fact is Midnighter is super confident and he doesn’t care who you are. Is he political, I’d almost say no because he doesn’t give a shit about those things, that’s not the kind of game he plays.
But it comes to, as we’ll see when “Midnighter #2” comes out, if it hits that ground level where he’s seeing people being hurt by something or people reacting to things that hurt them because of the political machine, then it’s totally his thing. It comes to the point of seeing the hurt and fixing the hurt in trying to put the fear into the fearmongers. The fact is it’s all based on these person-to-person connections, affecting real social change.
So I really hesitate to say that he’s an intensely political character other than the fact that he almost can’t escape those two things because today so many minorities and social groups are being abused by the political system that you almost can’t separate the two. But it’s not how his mind works.
If we were in Detroit where the 1% has their water on and poor people have no water, he’s going to go right to the mayor’s office and kick him in the face. It’s not like a political game-playing thing for him so that machine doesn’t work for him. He’s a no bullshit character and doesn’t really have time for that. In many ways, he’s a sort of antithesis to the political machine.
But, as I said, he’s very community-based, he’s very social-based. You have to look no further to the violence in multiple communities and sort of the push and pull against the establishment that you’re having all across the world in different areas to see that community action and political action often do spill into each other.
CB: Someone who reads his original books might take away the message that because he is gay, he is inherently political. I think that it is another sense of progress in that you’re trying to not separate from it entirely, but are also showing that just because he’s gay doesn’t make him particularly politicized or particularly liberal or particularly anything.
Orlando: I would agree accept some common conceptions that Midnighter is a liberal character because he doesn’t believe in this cultivating individualism that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” He’s out there all the time putting himself on the line for someone else. He knows that oftentimes power structures don’t allow people to have a voice.
At the same time, he is serving as judge, jury and executioner for the people who do cross a line so he’s also not completely liberal. He exists in his own world, trying to make a better world that he knows he’s not a part of, as we’ve seen in “Midnighter #1.” He wishes he could be. He knows he’s not a normal person.
CB: Regarding formatting for the rest of your series: a lot of the solicitations seem to be self-contained. Is that what you’re going for where you have a very accessible series for each issue, or, as “Midnighter #1” seems to indicate, are you planning on an ongoing plot for at least the first arc?
Orlando: It’s a little of both. The ongoing plot facilitates that we have a semi one-off structure with all the technology stolen from the God Garden. He’s tracking all these leaks down and putting a stop to them in different areas. It certainly lends itself to having both a one-off story and an ongoing meta story that’s developed by those. The first few issues will at least be accessible, although they will also drive the meta story forward because we have crafted this idea that this bad tech is leaking out and being disseminated by someone. Examples of that will pop up as he moves the hunt for that person forward.
CB: Is this starting off straight from the first arc of Grayson [by Tim Seeley, Tom King, and Mikel Janin], where he was with the Gardener? Here there’s a familial rift between him and her.
Orlando: If you read Grayson, that is great but not necessary. In “Grayson 7,” Midnighter walks out on the Gardener so that is [the Grayson creative team’s] take on these issues, so to speak. He never wants to see her again, but you can’t pick your family. Liking someone, loving someone are two different things. It’s not necessarily based on anything that’s going on in Grayson or anything that went on in Grayson other than that we had to pick up the idea that he was having a rift with the Gardener at the end of his last appearance in Grayson. But it is, otherwise, completely self-contained.
Down the road, if we see appearances from other characters, they will have stories entirely in their book or entirely in our book so that you don’t need to pick up anything else. That’s sort of what I like, it’s more like comics I read when I was younger. If you like the character, you can go pick up that book, but you don’t have to pick up that book because everything you need is right there.
CB: So are there crossovers or cameos planned?
Orlando: Nothing yet. It’s just something I like to have in my mind because people like to ask if there will be more Wildstorm characters or if they will see Grayson again or if they will see Apollo. The fact is, I love those characters. If people will buy the book, I’ll go on and on because I’ll write it as long as people want me to. My personal goal, at least, is to see if we can do it long enough to see his 20th anniversary, which is in 2018, but we’ll see.
So many people have asked about [other characters] that I like to think about it and if we can, that’s an approach I’d like to take where the characters are guesting but it’s a story for us.
CB: There’s a lot of great characters that he has interacted with in various ways because of [his previous books]. Is it a fun thing to work with connections that are already kind of established, but not necessary? How is it in comparison to writing your original books, like Undertow and Virgil, where you have to start from scratch?
Orlando: It’s a little different and it’s also not as different as if I was on Superman or Batman or something because there’s not a ton of Midnighter stuff out there. But the response was huge for “Midnighter #1,” more than we expected, because it is a character that not a ton of people know. It’s there and I love that stuff.
They are different muscles. I love, more than some other people maybe, really obscure comic references. For me, it’s like having all the action figures in the world to play with, which is awesome. On the professional level, adding to the legacy of a character who was hugely influential to me is mindblowing. Each issue is packed with a ton of references that don’t inhibit the story. If you get them they’re there, but if not that’s fine. There’s a lot of stuff for me to give notice to and plug in.
You may or may not notice that the first time caption of Midnighter #1 actually matches the first time caption of their first appearance in Stormwatch #4.
CB: You first read “Stormwatch #4” when you were 13 years old. Have you had ideas stewing in your head for the character for 10+ years or do you normally work in that process we discussed at Special Edition: NYC, where you described how you come up with a cool image, such as Midnighter killing someone with a steak, and write around it?
Orlando: The story basis always has beats for what I want to do, but more than that it always contains my own personal take on the character. Getting back to that idea that he is the Man with No Name and the guy that didn’t really have limits and could do the thing you always wanted to do, but for some reason, be it moral, be it societal, you couldn’t do it. That was stewing in my mind for a long time. So I’m excited for that being there.
The idea that I could be working on a character so high on my list so soon is so mindblowing so I didn’t have a lot keyed up other than the basic idea of getting him back to being DC’s premiere badass and being as cool as fuck.
CB: Which is a fine goal, indeed. What can you say that you’re looking most forward to in the upcoming issues?
Orlando: Without spoiling anything, I can say a couple of things. “Midnighter #2” introduces what will be another ongoing character for the book that I’m very passionate about. I’m going to be very excited to see her journey as it parallels Midnighter and goes through the rest of the series. “Midnighter #3,” just based on the solicits, is one of the most maniacal ideas I’ve ever come up with. Him versus Multiplex is like the gift that keeps on giving. It’s the perfect character for him and sort of plays into that manic glee he has with his job. Even if he’s outnumbered by a thousand, it’s more that he’s just excited, it’s like a smorgasbord for him.
“Midnighter #3” might be my favorite issue so far because it digs into a lot things that are really core for the character, like his relationship with children. You see in “The Authority #1” that he’s joking, he’s smiling, it’s all funny until he lands on Gamorra and this Gamorran soldier is putting this kid between them as a human shield and then it’s no joke. It’s him being terrifying as fuck and you better get out of his way. I always felt that he has had a strong affinity for kids because it was one the one thing he didn’t have. He didn’t have a childhood so children in danger anger him more than anything else. I think he has a special affinity for them as someone who was victimized when he was younger so I’m excited to explore that a little more.
“Midnighter #3” contains one of my favorite scenes with the character, it’s something we haven’t explored with him yet in other books even though it’s intrinsic to his character. So I’m excited to see people see him deal with that and fight with Multiplex as well.