In this installment of the Queer Creator spotlight I spoke with Steve Orlando about his career and his various works and what it was like to work on the iconic landmark issue of Wonder Woman #750!
Orlando began pursuing his dream of writing comics at the tender age of 12 when he attended his first San Diego Comic Con. Steve pounded the convention floor, as it were, where he met his mentors Steven Seagle and Joe Kelly who happened to be writing X-Men at the time and the rest is modern history.
Chris Allo: What made you want to work in the comics industry?
Steve Orlando: It’s not a lie, in my case, because I started breaking in when I was 12 years old, but I always kind of had my eye on this. It was always something I wanted to do, whether it was writing, or editing, or being part of a visual art team. That didn’t really come into play until I was a little older. Going back to when I was young, even when I was about three or four, my father sold sports memorabilia, and I was not a fan of sports. So I would always be collecting all these non-sports cards at baseball card and baseball memorabilia shows.
And that gave me a strong fascination with superheroes, because they all looked incredible! You know, you’re a kid and here are all these brightly colored costumes and all these things. I was also going through, like, Garbage Pail Kids and things like that, but that’s a little less viable these days. There was a lot of Alf. A lot of fucking Alf cards as well. That’s going to date my childhood. But what stuck with me, I think, was the vibrancy of the worlds. Especially because I came in from both trading card collecting, and also back issues at flea markets while my dad was out collecting things.
I think that’s why I have such an appreciation of “deep cut” characters and concepts, if you’re talking about the lore outside of like the Big 2. You don’t know any of the characters as a kid, and when you’re that young, you don’t even really know who Superman and Batman are. They all seem just as important, right? That’s why I love Big Sir just as much as I love Wonder Woman, or loving – take your pick at Marvel – Slapstick, or Quasar, as much as I like Storm or Captain America.
So it all came from following my dad around really early on, but when they made Superman permanently electric and blue in the early 1990s, because he was never going back, they made an article in the Syracuse Standard – I’m from upstate New York – it really made it a time to get in. Because here you are in a ground floor moment, when Superman’s powers are changing forever. In that article as well, there were interviews with the folks who were putting it together. Of course Dan Jurgens, but I can’t remember who else was involved. Probably Stuart Immonen and Tom Grummet. And more, because at that time Superman was essentially a weekly book. I was fascinated with the creative process, and that made me think “hey, maybe this is something I want to do.”
I gravitated more towards the visual side when I was younger, and I still like visual art, but it quickly became apparent to me that the speed of my ideas, and what was going to be most interesting to me in a visual sense, was going to be writing. So I started hustling and doing it! You know, my friend? Some kids do can drives to get themselves, I don’t know what normal kids are into, a shiny new bike? But what I wanted was a plane ticket to San Diego Comic Con. So that’s what I did.
Allo: Good for you.
Orlando: At 12 I met Steve Seagle and Joe Kelly, who were writing X-Men at the time, and they started mentoring me on this whole business. It took almost 20 years, but that’s how it all began.
Allo: I read this before about you, but you kind of just hit the convention floor and pounding the pavement and approaching companies and editors?
Orlando: Yeah, I mean I don’t have any shame. And also, the narrative at the time was like “oh, you know Jim Shooter was writing the Legion of Super-Heroes when he was, what, 14 or 15? And it was Paul Levitz who only worked for one company his whole life, and it was DC Comics, kid! And he got in when he was 17!” So I was like, “shit, I’ve gotta get moving! If I’m going to be the next Jim Shooter, with no concept of what that entails, I need to get my ass in gear!” I tend to still be someone who doesn’t really sell fame. So I began approaching Seagle and Kelly. They kind of looked identical in the 90s, so it was easy to find them.
And that was also when Crossgen was starting to get going. I was following them almost monthly, I really loved those books. And because not as many people knew them at the time, they were really easy to talk to. I always talk about people like Seagle and Kelly, but I should really talk about people like Tony Bedard, and Barb Kesel, who also took a lot of time to kind of show me the ropes really early on. To this day I always remember to bring my balloons, and that’s because Barb Kesel told me that anybody who doesn’t do it is an unprofessional fool, and I’m not going to argue with that woman, so I always remember my balloons!
Allo: I worked with Tony Bedard when I was with Marvel. He’s a really good guy, and a really good writer. So you did a creator-owned first?
Orlando: Yes, that’s true by numerous tokens. My first published work was in 2008, in the Eisner-nominated Outlaw Territory anthology through Image. I had two shorts that I made with my co-creator on that, an amazing hearing-impaired artist named Tyler Niccum. He actually has a book out that you can buy right now actually, about his life as a deaf hitchhiker. We worked together in 2008 and even that was through networking, actually. He was like “shit, I need someone to work with. Let’s make it Steve.” So we did that, and then I also worked with Celal Koc, a European artist, for Outlaw Territory volume 3. And if I’m mixing up which volumes I’m in, come and slap me in the face, because I did that a long time ago.
Allo: (laughs) Okay.
Orlando: And then in 2012 I had already been networking with DC for over a decade. So I got the opportunity to do a story there in the Strange Adventures anthology, about centaurs taking space peyote and hallucinating gladiatorial combat.
Allo: (laughs) Very topical!
Orlando: I know, all the time, right? That’s how bisexuals decide. We take our straight half and make it fight our gay half, and whoever wins, you know, gets to choose where the dick goes. Anyway, so I did that, and that was with DC, with editors Will Dennis and Mark Doyle. The funny thing is this was around the same time Tom King broke out with an anthology called Time Warp. This was years before we would meet, but it was the same round of early Vertigo short stories. That was around 2014, when I did Undertow, and I also appeared in the “yellow” issue of the CMYK anthology, with future friend and collaborator Gerard Way. So my past was really prologue in a lot of ways. I didn’t know it at the time.
So we did Undertow at image, and a lot of my friends and peers at DC were following my work and said “look, this is somebody reliable who can be trusted with work.” So thanks to the success of the Burnside Batgirl repackaging, I got an opportunity to pitch whatever I might do in a similar mode. Which ended up being Midnighter.
Allo: Which is awesome!
Orlando: It is funny when you think about it. I was in an anthology with Gerard, who ended up being a good friend and collaborator. And I was friends with Tom. He and I both had these poorly selling but well-regarded books at DC at the time.
Allo: I wouldn’t blame yourself. A lot of it has to do with marketing. DC was pushing out so many books at the time. It’s like, “what do I buy this month?”
Orlando: Not Midnighter and Omega Men, I’ll tell you that much! But that was in 2015. We’re both doing fine.
Allo: Would you consider Midnighter your breakout hit?
Orlando: Oh, very much so. I’d consider that my “Freebird,” actually. I’ve gone on to put out stuff that I’m much more proud of. But any creator evolves over the course of seven, eight years. At this point it’s been long enough that I can go back and… unquestionably it showed folks who I was at DC, and I made a huge fan out of Dan DiDio. I got signed as an exclusive probably about a year after Midnighter launched.
Allo: So being at DC, you got to write Midnighter, and then Midnighter and Apollo. You went on to write Supergirl, and then Wonder Woman… obviously Wonder Woman is a heavy hitter. What was that like for you?
Orlando: It was fascinating to work on a character and see… you know she’s one of the Trinity, but I think her character is easily the most complex. She has a lot of oppositional forces in her life, and she’s in one of the greatest corners of the DC Universe, and she’s also an agent of peace, which is something we tried to wrestle with throughout all my two-and-a-half runs. But I loved building parts of that world. It’s something I’d love to come back to, but sometimes I feel that I’ve said what I’ve said. I had wanted for years to do Martian Manhunter, and I was lucky enough to do a 12-issue series. I think it’s my best. It’s the best work I’ve ever done, and easily my best DC work. I worked with one of my favorite people ever, Riley Rossmo. The editors I worked with, Chris Conroy and Dave Wielgosz. I felt that I said exactly what I needed to say. It was unadulterated. I don’t know if I ever need to write J’on again, even though he is my favorite DC character. But with Diana, it’s like the more the world gets shittier and more hateful, there’s always more to say with Wonder Woman. It was an honor to be part of that, but of course there’s always stuff on the drawing board that couldn’t get done. That said, Conrad and Cloonan are doing a great job, along with of course Stephanie and Vita, who are doing stuff that I wish I could have done when I was there. So I’m really excited right now.
Allo: In recent years, comics have become more inclusive of LGBTQ+, black and brown characters. Obviously not enough, but things are changing. As a creator on that front, what are some things creators can do to help facilitate more exclusivity and even exposure to queer folks and lifestyles within comics?
Orlando: The thing is, my answer is not going to be sexy. One thing they can do is buy the books. And they can pre-order the books and not buy them in trade and not buy them in digital. I’m going to be honest because I just said that, and it sucks. But that’s also the reality right now. And people come to Orlando for reality when the reality is shitty. The reality is that right now for the publishers, their customers are retailers, and the retailers’ customers are readers. For better or worse, the industry is in need of a ballistic overhaul. But we’re not there yet. So right now, the best we could do is… the language of the Big 2 publishers is preorder numbers. It’s not ideal by any means, and I’m speaking euphemistically when I say “ideal.”
I remember when my friend David Walker was on Nighthawk… he’s a good friend of mine, and that was with Ramon Villalobos. That book was canceled shortly after it came out. And I don’t fault the publishers either, because the markets are so tight that they’re going to do what they have to do. There’s not really a villain here, or maybe there are so many villains that nobody is a villain. But that happens because preorder numbers weren’t high.
There are many other problems in the world, but if the question is how you can support more inclusive content, for better or worse, support the places that are supplying it. For the Big 2, that means you have to preorder and support the periodical editions. That said… the world doesn’t stop and start with the Big 2. There are other publishers with different metrics, like book market numbers and they expect books with a longer tail. Support books that you are interested in, but if the question is how you can support books at big publishers, the answer is preorders.
Allo: Talking about the landscape of comics, obviously right now there are more publishers. Of course smaller than Marvel and DC, but there’s definitely a lot more publishers and a lot more content out there. How exciting is that for you as a writer? Do you approach other companies? Does the new world of comics, with the amount of publishers right now… is that a good thing?
Orlando: More competition is always a good thing. More options for creators is always a good thing, because at the end of the day… if this wasn’t comics, say you were a farrier, the first job that comes to mind because I’m an idiot. Say you were a cobbler, and other jobs that don’t exist right now. The point is, if you have any type of office job, as we all know, it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to remain in that office. And if you work freelance, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work out. If you work in comics, you’re probably working in 10 different offices in a given month. You know, sometimes you need to refresh yourself. You need to revitalize. A pitch that you might have at one company may be a nonstarter. That might be because of the people you pitch it to, and it might be because of what they publish. But it might be gold somewhere else. And that doesn’t mean, because one person turned down the idea, that it was bad. It just wasn’t a good fit for that company.
The more companies we have that are trying to do different things and push out different kinds of comics, the better. Unquestionably. RIP the companies that tried along the way and failed, like Speakeasy and Crossgen, which I referenced before. I referenced those before because I love Crossgen books and I love Rocketo, which Speakeasy published. Frank Espinosa, amazing. Not only are those different places to work, but each company brings in a slightly different kind of creator, and they’re gonna know how to best hone their ideas and get them out there.
The onus is on us as creators to not just cold pitch things, but… something that I might pitch to Aftershock, who I have a great relationship with – and honestly, they’re kind of my ride-or-die because they supported creators intensely during the pandemic – a book that would be a good fit there maybe wouldn’t be a good fit for Vault, who are also doing great work. And vice versa. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve got to know which brands you’re going to. The problem is now there’s more brands than ever. Which means there are more homes than ever for unique stories.
Allo: You worked at the Big 2, you worked at smaller publishers, you worked creator-owned… what are the benefits of work for hire versus creator owned? What do you enjoy the most? What things about those experiences do you like or not like?
Orlando: I think the best situation is to have your feet in both pools. There is unquestionably something exciting and invigorating about being part of what is really a gigantic, decades-long ongoing story. Listen, I was the lead writer of the 750th issue of Wonder Woman. Nobody else can claim that, it was just me.
Allo: It was great, by the way!
Orlando: If I make it to 100 years old, I will still be the writer of Wonder Woman 750, and it will still be an amazing thing. And yeah, that’s a responsibility. It’s an honor, it’s exciting, and there’s no question there. I’m in the X-Men office now, and that’s an honor. I would argue it’s the biggest renaissance the mutants got in at least a decade. Not that there wasn’t incredible work in the interim there. To act like it’s not an honor and a privilege… anyone who says otherwise is complete horseshit. So those are exciting moments.
At the same time, you can’t take those things with you. So you also wanna be working on originals where you are not part of an 80 year tapestry. You are thread one on that tapestry. And it’s not that it isn’t exciting, it’s just a totally different thing. The way that I think you stay fresh for either one of those is by doing the other. Like, if I spend a month in the work for hire mind, I get that hunger to work on originals, and vice versa. And it’s not really like I just spend on a month on one or the other. Let’s be real, I do both every day, seven days a week. That’s what it takes to be a creator. A freelance creator, at least. But I think one fuels the other. And I think there’s a certain amount of freedom when you know there’s not going to be any sort of S & P person telling you can’t do this.
But that can also become a negative, because the reality is that you can’t say that with 50, 60, 80 year old franchises. There’s always going to be S&P on a huge character that’s also on lunchboxes, backpacks, or whatever else. To expect otherwise is folly. I expect to have different hurdles at different companies. I think that’s part of the game. Again, I’m not negging myself when I say to myself that more people are reading Wonder Woman or the X-Men, than a book like Loaded Bible: Blood of my Blood, a book in which Jesus was makes out with Dracula and wants to fuck with him. That’s just a fact. There are freedoms and restrictions that come with both of those scenarios.
Allo: You’ve been doing some really great stuff at Marvel. Last year you did the Darkhold with Wanda. You’re working on Marauders now. Not to compare DC to Marvel, but what have been the good experiences from working at each company? What do they do differently that’s great for writers? What could they do better?
Orlando: A lot of times as creators we talk about… I think there is a fundamental difference between, at least the classic characters at Marvel and DC. And I think it’s a product of when the characters were born. What we love to say, when we’re fingering our assholes as it were, is that DC is the world as we wish it was, and Marvel is the world as it is. But, you know, that is flowery fucking bullshit. The reality is that DC characters tend to be much more mythological and aspirational, and Marvel… not to say they were built around Spider-Man, because they did acquire Timely and other characters, but their trademark characters are mostly people you could meet on the street. That’s why Peter Parker was so revolutionary. He could shoot webs, but he’s also just like you. He can’t make rent, and he can’t get the girl, and the old Parker luck, and…
Allo: And he’s late for school.
Orlando: And Batman… look, I love Batman, but he does not have the old Parker luck. He has the old Tony Stark billions. Again, the general DC character is more mythological, and the general Marvel character is more… I don’t want to say more street level, but more humanistic and relatable. There are exceptions to both rules. Batman is more like a Marvel character, and Thor is more like a DC character. So they stand out in a world that contrasts them. And then of course there are characters like Captain America and the Destroyer, the original Vision, Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch… they were all created in World War 2, and the way that they function was more like a DC character. But they’re a rarity, and I think that makes them special at Marvel. And Captain America, by the way, was fighting the Nazis before we were! That’s always going to be one of the coolest fucking things. Not like I was fucking around then, but still.
Allo: Of course. Obviously this is a visual medium, so can you name some great artists that you’ve worked with? And maybe some great artists who you’d like to work with?
Orlando: Great artists that I’ve worked with… I’ve never worked with a bad artist!
Allo: Well, the standouts. I know you love all artists, but who really brought your work to life?
Orlando: I would love to say I love them all equally, but I would be lying (laughs). Well I’ve already said that I love to work with Riley Rossmo, who’s at a few different companies right now which bums me out, but stay tuned because I might get the band back together for something really quick. Riley and I hit it off from moment one. We worked together on “Night of the Monster Men,” and we worked together with Roge Antonio. And Andy MacDonald – Andy actually has a book with me coming soon, so keep an eye out.
But Riley and I, we just got each other. We’ve always loved the same kind of stuff. And he’s someone who always wants to be challenged, which is good because I’m a bastard when it comes to writing challenging scripts. We loved working on “Night of the Monster Men,” he was the first name that came up when DC offered me Batman/The Shadow, and I’m probably one of the biggest Shadow fans at DC. I’m probably one of the biggest Shadow fans around. He is my favorite character.
Orlando: Yeah. I’m frequently asked who my favorite Marvel and DC characters are, and there’s different answers for that, but my favorite character is The Shadow. So it could only be Riley, and it led to an incredible visual reinvention of that whole world. Sure enough, as soon as we got the final pen stroke of that book, we began lobbying DiDio, who’s one of my strongest supporters, for Martian Manhunter. Once again, I’m a kid in a candy store. I would work with Riley in a second, and not just because he’s one of the nicest Canadians in comics, but that certainly helps.
But he’s not the only one. I want to point out that I loved working with ACO and Hugo Petrus during my Midnighter and Apollo run. Fernando Blanco… Ryan Sook on The Unexpected. I’m going to lightly fluff him here and say Ryan Sook was like, in Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy!” But he’s just the kindest guy. Of course his work was off the chain. His work was incredible, but always so humble for someone I consider a giant. And funny story, he actually drew a portrait of me for my alumni review at my college. So I’m gracious, I’m not lying. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with Joelle Jones, but I love Joelle Jones. I’ve met her a lot at summits and stuff like that. Maybe I got a cover or something like that, but she’s incredible. I’m probably forgetting countless people at DC.
Allo: It’s okay!
Orlando: Oh, and of course, beginning to work with Ivan Reis on Justice League of America. And getting a Kevin Nowlan cover, are you fucking kidding me? Who am I, what’s going on? On the Shadow/Batman crossover.
Allo: That was incredible.
Orlando: Getting a Frank Quitely cover to Milk Wars… I could go on! Oh, and RIP by the way, getting a John Paul Leon cover for Midnighter. Just the nicest guy, and gave me the cover for a very gracious price for someone who, again, I consider one of the greatest artists in the history of the industry.
Orlando: That was great. It’s a small thing, but Brittany Holzier and I campaigning for Ramona Fradon to be a part of Wonder Woman 750. Something I’m incredibly proud of. Something that was mostly Brittany’s work, but she and I came together and I’m incredibly proud of it. Easily the most historic living female comic artist. There are no words that could be heaped upon her that would be undeserving.
And at Marvel, they lined up a murderer’s row for me. Cian Tormey on Darkhold… everyone I worked with on Curse of the Man Thing… Andrea Riccardo… Francesco Mobli… they’ve all gone on to do incredible work at Marvel. Eleonora Carlini on Marauders… the energy she brings is incredible. It’s a revelation. Folks who haven’t checked out the book really don’t know what’s coming.
Allo: Any tidbits about… well of course my favorite character is Psylocke, so any big plans for Psylocke on the Marauders?
Orlando: Well, before I answer that, why don’t you explain more, because I think a lot of folks who are Psylocke fans… I have an answer for you, but I wanna hear you turn the tables. I’m always fascinated about why people like Psylocke. I think we both know that the person in the body that we once believed to be Psylocke is not the same character. As she always should have been, the actual Japanese woman is back in the Japanese body. When you say it’s your favorite character, do you mean Qanon, who appeared in roughly three issues before disappearing for roughly 30 years, or do you mean Betsy Braddock?
Allo: I mean, it’s funny because I loved Betsy when she was introduced, and when she was introduced in New Mutants and took on Sabretooth, I fell in love with Betsy. And then the evolution happened, and the visual of Kwannon was something I loved too. Those are kind of my favorites. I follow Captain Britain, and I follow Marauders because I follow Kwannon wherever Kwannon goes.
Orlando: I’m just always interested. Psylocke is a war captain, and you’re going to see her… I don’t want to spoil too much, but she’s going to step up in a leadership role more and more over time. You kind of see that evolution as she’s more confident in herself and can do a lot more now that the correct mind is in the correct body, so to speak. You’ve already seen that in Marauders #1, but it’ll become text, not subtext, by the time the year’s over.
Allo: Awesome, that’s exciting. They’re both really great characters.
Orlando: And look, she goes to fucking space if she wants!
Allo: Your book Party And Prey touches on the “Party and Play” gay subculture. Which is known as the “PNP” crystal myth fueled sex scene. It’s known to be a bit scary filled with predators, extortion, suicide and addiction. What was your interest in this and what was the impetus for the story?
Orlando: In regards to PARTY AND PREY, since I co-wrote the book I tend to not do solo Qs for it. BUT I think a lot of what you’ve asked is answered by the text piece my co-writer and I included in the book? We try to let the work speak for itself on things we’ve done together, and intended that to be our statement on the content.
Allo: Any advice for up and coming queer creators, or creators in general, that you wish you had when you were starting out?
Orlando: Look, comics is a challenging business. There are less spots at Marvel and DC… it’s easier to play for the Yankees or Red Sox. Know that it is a challenge, but know that it can and will happen if you don’t give up. I like to tell my story because it’s a story of almost 20 fucking years. I know someone can buy a pie for someone in a diner and get a book the next week, but that is not my story. And there’s nothing wrong with that story either. There’s no one way to break into the comics industry, just as there’s no one way to break into the comics or any other entertainment industry.
The thing is, make your books and hone your craft. It’s easier than ever. When I was a kid we didn’t have crowdfunding, and we barely had the internet. Now all those things exist. It’s easier to connect with likeminded creators whether they are established or aspiring. And make content! Make the content, and make it short. Almost everyone, myself included, is guilty of saying “this is my Dune, or this is my Lord of the Rings. My first book will be 100 issues long, and everyone will see!”
No one will see, because no publisher will take a risk on the faith of an unproven talent. Make eight page stories, make 10 page stories, which, by the way, are harder to tell than a 100 issue story. And find peers or editors or creators who you respect and you think have your best interests at heart and get critiqued. Get ready to hear some things that you’re not necessarily excited about, but that’s why I say make sure to find creators who you respect and have your interests at heart. Even if they’re things you don’t want to hear, they’re probably things you need to hear.
Look, I was mentored by one of the most lovably gruff people in comics. When I met Steve Seagle, he told me “here’s what’s unprofessional about your work, kid. Either I’ll see you next year or I won’t.” It doesn’t have to be that harsh, but you have to find folks whose critique you respect, and you have to get ready to take it. If you do that, it could be a long process, it might be a short process. And maybe you won’t get there. But use the resources that are out there, like crowdfunding. It’s easier than ever to tell your story unadulterated. You don’t have to be like me sneaking in in 2008. You can do your book with 38 dicks like Euphoria, and it can get funded, as long as you’re speaking your truth. Don’t be deterred by speed bumps and things like that. You can get there. And also, know that before they got in, every creator you know probably quit trying to make comics a thousand times. God knows I quit many times, and the only reason I didn’t is that I’m extremely stubborn. That’s what you take to heart. I would call Steve Seagle and he would be like “this isn’t fair, I want to quit!” And he’d be like “no you don’t.” And that’s when I’d be like “fuck you, old man! I’m never going to quit!” Even though he was probably the same age that I am now.
Allo: Thanks so much, Steve for a great interview!