Steve Orlando Promises Punches (and Character Growth) in Midnighter

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Created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in Stormwatch and popularized in the duo’s genre-redefining The Authority, Midnighter has long been a fan-favorite character despite having almost no significant characterization beyond “Gay Batman Who Kills People,” a simplification that leaves little room for personality and growth. Even his historic marriage to longtime boyfriend Apollo, the first of its kind from a major comic publisher, did little to expose what goes on behind Midnighter’s signature black leather mask. All that’s about to change in the newly refreshed “DC You,” thanks to writer Steve Orlando and artist ACO’s Midnighter, the out-and-proud hero’s first ongoing solo title.

Kicked out of Stormwatch and separated from serious boyfriend Apollo (the pair never married in the New 52, DC’s 2011 relaunch), artificially enhanced brawler Midnighter has returned his violent focus to the streets, saving regular people from the kind of perverted super-science that turned him into a single-minded combat machine. In a major departure from previous Midnighter solo outings, the character is also discovering his personal life—that is, when he’s not putting his fist through criminals’ skulls. This includes exploring the character’s options in the bedroom, an aspect never before shown with Midnighter, and a welcome change for mainstream superhero comics that often portray queer characters as either neutered or immediately monogamous.

Paste spoke with Steve Orlando, best known for his Kickstarter success Virgil and his Image miniseries Undertow with artist Artyom Trakhanov, to discuss Midnighter’s joyous approach to his grim job, breaking the character out of the team dynamic and the delicate balance between real-world politics and comic-book wish fulfillment.

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Paste: Steve, a lot of readers are familiar with you from your Kickstarter “gaysploitation” story Virgil with artist JD Faith. How did nurturing that hyper-violent story with a gay protagonist prepare you for Midnighter?
Steve Orlando: It was a great start. Midnighter and Virgil are two sides of a similar but importantly different coin. Virgil, to me, is the queer community owning this blacksploitation-like cinema. It’s grittier, it’s more exaggerated, but the key idea of updating and taking ownership and giving agency in a new type of genre that happened in Virgil when it comes to exploitation is definitely what Midnighter did with action-movie types of roles when he debuted in the 1990s. And that’s what we’re doing now. As I’ve said, my take on Midnighter is kind of, “Why does Bruce Willis have to be rescuing his wife all the time? He could just as easily be rescuing his husband.” He’s that guy who does those crazy things and guess what, now it can be a gay guy too. That’s what it’s all about.

Paste: Virgil was set in Jamaica and you’ve spent time in Russia, both countries that have come under heavy international scrutiny for violent treatment of queer people. How much of the current real-world LGBTQ landscape seeps into Midnighter?
Orlando: It is there, but I think that is a fine line to tread. It’s not the 1940s anymore. Seventy years ago, you had Captain America punching Hitler on the cover of a comic and it was great. Fifteen years ago, you had Crossgen having some superhero punch Osama bin Laden on the cover of a comic and, rightfully so, it was deemed kind of insensitive.

I think Russia is a great fit for Midnighter. If you’ve seen issue #1, you know he enjoys patronizing Russia. It’s definitely something to acknowledge: that type of hypermasculinity, that type of discomfort toward the queer community there. But at the same time, I think it’s a slippery slope to have him be an easy answer. You have a character who could just walk into the Kremlin and beat up Putin and that would be great, but it wouldn’t solve any real problems. It might be cathartic for 20 pages, but then you’ve also kind of dumped on the real struggles that these people are having.

So what we tried to do, and what I hoped we accomplished, is acknowledge these things. Just like in Virgil, it’s fun to see the underdog get the upper hand on these people, but like Midnighter himself, we’re focusing on these micro-stories. Offering a too-simple macro answer to this is, in the short-term, fun comics, but long-term, I think, is kind of irresponsible.

We’ll be looking at how these issues are affecting people, and how it affects Midnighter when he’s in these communities himself. It’s different wherever he goes. Especially a character like him, who’s made of not giving a shit. We can’t ignore that. He’d love going to Russia, he’d love going to Jamaica, and he’d love making out with someone in front of Lenin’s tomb because that’s who he is. But at the same time, I think those types of stories on the ground are the ones we’d like to tell because anything else is a real-world struggle, and we have to acknowledge that it’s not a comic-book struggle.

Paste: Midnighter has had solo stories before but most fans know him as a core member of Stormwatch and The Authority. Are you creating a supporting cast for him from the ground up, or will we see familiar faces from the old Wildstorm universe?
Orlando: As the series goes on, anything is possible, but initially we are creating an all-new supporting cast for Midnighter because he is entering a new world himself. Things have happened due to his programming and the way he is and how we has made that mean he and Apollo have to go out and find out who they are individually before they consider being together again. He is going on his own and existing in new places and meeting new people.

At least in the first story arc, he’ll be meeting all-new characters and making these human connections. Some characters like Tony in issue #1, he’s probably known off-page for a while but you’ve never seen [him] before. Or you have new faces like Jason who are going to be his window into this greater community that he’s joining. And the villains are either all-new or people that Midnighter has never seen before.

Paste: Midnighter has historically been Midnighter first and the man under the mask a far distant second, but he was given the “real name” of Lucas Trent in the New 52. How important is Lucas Trent to Midnighter? Does he think of himself as having that identity anymore?
Orlando: Midnighter is Midnighter, and that’s a huge part of the character for me. There’s an explanation for what the deal is with Lucas Trent, but when you first met him going way back—and part of the allure of the character for me—he was like The Man With No Name, or Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. He didn’t have a name. His name was Midnighter, and he was Midnighter all the time. There was no secret identity involved back then. Maybe he’s not wearing his costume, but he’s always Midnighter. He’s 100 percent himself all the time.

It seemed kind of ridiculous to me: if we’re doing a book about a guy who’s super-confident and out of the closet as a gay man, why wouldn’t he be out of the closet as a superhero? He doesn’t care who knows what he does. As a matter of fact, he probably even challenges people to disagree with him about what he does.

For us, Midnighter is his identity. That’s his name. Whether he’s buying a banana or shoving a fork through some criminal’s head, he’s always doing it as Midnighter. I think that’s a fascinating part of the character. It’s something that sets him apart, because he has no secrets. He’s not a secrets guy, almost to a negative degree. You always know where he stands on things, and he always knows where he stands himself, which I think is something we can all aspire to.

Paste: For a hero, Midnighter takes a lot of pleasure in dishing out pain. As a writer, how do you tap into his sadistic side?
Orlando: My approach to the character, as I’ve said before, is that one of the things that sets him apart in a world of brooding anti-heroes and heroes, is that Midnighter is not a brooding guy. He loves his job, it’s just that his job is horrifying.

It doesn’t matter which company it is, so many superheroes have been built on this life-altering tragedy that they never seem to get over. You look at it in the real world sometimes, you’re kind of surprised: Daredevil, a 38-year-old man who’s still not over his dad getting killed. Which is fine, that’s comics, but I wanted to do something different with Midnighter.

His life, including the way he focuses his abilities, it’s his lemons-to-lemonade moment. He can’t change that he was abducted, he can’t change that he has no past, or that he was engineered for fighting. He wasn’t engineered to make steak sandwiches. It’s what he does. But, at the same time, because he’s lost that, the worst thing in the world for him is if he ever allowed someone else to become another Midnighter, so to speak. If anyone else has what happened to him happen to them, or is a victim of bad science in general, that would be the worst failure to him. So he knows he has this itch for hyperviolence—it was built into him—but he found a way to focus it where he can help people and he can save people

As you saw in the 8-pager, he knows how to focus it. Even in the story, people think he’s going to kill this little girl because she’s possessed, but he’s not a maniac despite what everyone says. He probably likes people thinking that, but he can judge when the situation calls for the “full Midnighter” and when it calls for some of his other skills. Which, as you’ve seen, is often being the most intimidating man in the room, even if he’s bluffing, which none of us ever knows if he is.

Paste: What does ACO bring to the series?
Orlando: He brings an incredible amount of energy and creativity to the book. I knew looking at his stuff in Batman Eternal and First Born that he was going to do good work, but he really has upped his game and put an incredible amount of power into the layouts and design for the book, and it has only made me work harder. He’s made me better and hopefully he doesn’t hate me for putting all these incredibly challenging things in the script. [Laughs]

To his credit, he killed it. I really think it’s a star-making book for him. His layouts are explosive, he has an incredible sense of detail, even weird details that I like, like food details. I have a really intense sense of what the food should look like, he takes it all in stride and does an amazing job. He wants details, he wants reference and thoughts on everything. Whether it’s these characters’ apartments, different settings, the look of these characters, nothing is sort of off the cuff for him. He wants a real sense of place, real architecture, and he puts real thought into every design. There’s nothing nondescript in the book, and I think that is exciting.

I can script normal thugs and he’ll decide that he wants them to be these face-painted crazy people and it’s great, it’s extra detail on the page and it enhances the entire experience. Midnighter should be a book that’s explosive. You’re looking at a character who was first drawn by Bryan Hitch, and soon after drawn by Frank Quitely, so I think ACO knows there’s a history to be part of here. So do I. A character who was written first by Warren Ellis, then Mark Millar, and was touched by Grant Morrison—it’s an incredible burden of legacy and hopefully I’m stepping up to the plate, but I know ACO is totally taking the reins and showing he’s a contender with those guys.

Paste: Your Twitter bio identifies you as a “wine and spirits nerd.” What’s Midnighter’s drink of choice?
Orlando: You’ll find that out as the series goes on! As I said, I’m into extreme food details and I’ve cut numerous conversations from the script about how he’s ruining his palate because no one cares but me. [Laughs] The quick answer is that Midnighter is definitely a whiskey guy, and that can be well whiskey as the story begins, but as he becomes more of a person and learns to focus on things that aren’t punching people in the head, you might see him learn to appreciate other things as well.

Joking aside, we’re talking about one goofy character note about whiskey, but the whole book is about him sort of finding out what he likes to do and what he is when he’s not fighting. Even is his previous solo series, often he’d spin a map, put his finger somewhere, and go there and kick someone in the throat. Now he’s still doing that—someone gets punched in every issue, I promise—but it’s also about him discovering what else there is to existence. He’s going to become a fuller person as Midnighter, if Midnighter can be someone when he’s not in costume. Which he can. Spoilers.

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Midnighter #1 Variant Cover

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