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Talking Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter with Steve Orlando

Comic Books

Talking Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter with Steve Orlando

‘Every Wonder Woman issue is about the bold, radical choice of putting compassion and love first.’

Steve Orlando has become a hot-ticket writer with critically acclaimed series like Midnighter, Martian Manhunter, and now Wonder Woman. We were able to sit down with him for an in-depth conversation about everything from the radical nature of love to morphing alien bodies.

AiPT!: The publishing history of Martian Manhunter has been kind of complicated, especially for introducing new fans. But your series seems to take a very specific focus on new readers. So what was the process like of trying to make it more accessible?

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Steve Orlando: Well, the idea with us was that we wanted to do something that would, if you squint, obviously it fits into everything else that’s going on in the DCU but isn’t burdened by everything you just said.

We’re in a time period in his life that we haven’t seen in a little while since to an extent the John Ostrander, Tom Mandraker series and then JLA Year One even earlier by Barry Kitzson and Mark Waid. So it’s been a while since we’ve explored this time period of when he was working with Diane Meade and still living as detective John Jones. And the through line for us is we’re trying to tell the quintessential Martian Manhunter story.

A lot of his books are about how he reflects in the DC universe or the Justice League, and those things are all vital, but we want to tell the story—the final thesis on who he is—and essentially how he got to the person that all these other iconic heroes and gods in the DC universe look to and how he becomes that shoulder they can lean on.

And the way you do that, and the north star for us, is to give him a story that’s so intensely personal and full of such tragedy, and thus such personal triumph when he overcomes, that we see how he got this wealth of experience, who he is as a person, where yes even Superman and even Batman and Wonder Woman can look and say whatever I’m going through, J’onn understands because he’s been through it—been through things that are twice as f*ckin’ bad and he’s overcome them.

AiPT!:So how did this project even come about? Did you approach DC and pitch it to them or did they approach you?

SO: Oh no, Riley and I absolutely approached DC. Martian Manhunter is my favorite DC character.

AiPT!: Really?

SO: For the reasons we just discussed. And when we were coming off Batman/Shadow, we were trying to figure out what we would do next and when I explained to him the possibilities of a book where we could invent all of an alien society and totally break the rules of what you would expect in human society. People have a form that is obviously relatively in stasis compared to what Martians have, a mind that is relatively closed off compared to what Martians have. That opportunity to really create and invent was very exciting to Riley, and I brought him on board and then came back to DC and I sat down with Dan Didio, we knew they were very happy with Batman/Shadow, and [said] this is what we would love to do next. How can we get there? And I started a heavy amount of lobbying for Martian Manhunter that eventually paid off.

AiPT!: What about working with Riley Rossmo do you love the most? His style? Do you share a work ethic and personality?

SO: It’s the person—we just get each other, you know? It’s one of my favorite collaborations because he knows that I want to be challenged with his work. Because how I work, I usually wait to really finalize my dialogue and character piece until after his art comes in. I know he wants to be challenged with a plot. I know that every issue he wants to receive a script where there’s probably something at first he doesn’t know how he’s going to solve it.

AIPT: And that’s definitely the case with Martian Manhunter. Lots of weird alien stuff.

SO: Yeah! And we just we like a lot of the same things. We like a lot of the same art, a lot of the same films and literature. But at the same time we also just know that we can push each other as hard as possible and it’s all in the interest of making the books as creative and innovative as possible. It’s one of the purest collaborations I’ve worked with and I love it. I’ve worked with Riley forever — hopefully we’re gonna work together on something else again after Martian Manhunter. We’ve already got some plans.

AiPT!: Ooh!

SO: We are so on the same wavelength of, “don’t worry about what’s easy, worry about what’s actually hard and it’s gonna make the book better and as good as possible. We’re both perfectionists. We’re both neurotic as hell and strange people and hopefully all that comes through on the page—I’m sure it does, the strangeness at least.

AiPT!: Yeah, it’s very creative stuff. The world building is really great. Martian Manhunter is a twelve issue miniseries you could say, but you also did something like that with Midnighter, which is how I learned about your stuff and I think a lot of people did. That seems to be a pretty challenging type of format for comics — does that fit in with you wanting to push yourself?

SO: Well, Midnighter, to be clear, was an ongoing, and unfortunately it just had to end. We planned longer but the sales were what they were. However, the fan support was so great that we were actually able to come back with the Midnighter and Apollo, the miniseries.

And that was actually going to be a later arc in the book. So circumstances were a little different, but yes, having constraints is both freeing and a challenge. It’s actually harder to do an eight page story than a twenty page story. So in the same way when you have those goal posts, of just a twelve issues, beginning, middle, end, at first it’s like, OK, I have to get everything in a limited amount of space. But also it’s advantageous to be able to block out things. I know exactly when they’re going to happen and when what happens. One issue is going to matter in another issue, so in that way it’s oddly easier perhaps doing a maxi series than an ongoing.

AiPT!: To dwell on Midnighter for a minute or so, he’s obviously a gay character, an LGBTQ+ character. How important would you say it is to have inclusivity in comics? Because some people are kind of stingy about that stuff and say it ruins the experience of comics or whatever nonsense.

SO: It’s very important and it’s always been part of comics. Inclusivity is important both on the page and off the page. It’s always been. As a queer writer on Wonder Woman, I’m still a man, so it’s one of the reasons that I’m fighting to use the book to spotlight as many new and old female co-creators as possible on the book. And then also show Wonder Woman supporting as many women and vise versa as possible. So it goes throughout all my books. Not just Midnghter and Midnighter and Apollo.

The representation of Diane Meade being bisexual versus simply a gay woman on the binary was very important to me as well. I’m bisexual. And so it’s important to me but I think what’s also important is that you back it up with character and that’s something that I always try to do. Meade being bisexual is central to Martian Manhunter’s story. Her journey in and out of pride is what shows her that she has to be less judgmental of Jon’s own journey—accepting his Martian form. And so inclusivity is vital because it shows people that they exist, that they can be heroes too. Our job as creators is to make it more than tokenism and to make it matter and to make it fully backed up by character and story. And that’s what I try to do. That’s a responsibility on us. Folks deserve representation. Everybody deserves representation. And what I should really be saying is you deserve good representation. That’s not on the readership, that’s on creators to do as good as we f*cking can. It’s what I try to do. And it’s what every other creator that I know personally tries to do as well.

AiPT!: Your whole career, you’ve done these kind of big series but you’ve also jumped around a little bit as a co-writer. I wonder, are you DC’s ace in the hole? Like you pop in wherever they need you?

SO: Well, where’s Dan Didio? Can we ask him if I’m DC’s ace in the hole? I saw him around. The real answer is I love collaboration. Whether it’s cowriting, whether it’s working with different artists on a book. And I’m not going to speak for other creators and how they feel about that. But I will say I truly believe when I am on a book it is a team effort and it’s the sum of its equal parts. I think that I’ve done well at DC because I consider my editors part of the team. On Martian Manhunter, Dave Wielgosz, Jamie Rich are just as integral to that book as me and Riley are. And by the way, as Ivan Plascencia and Deron Bennett are.

As much creative freedom as I’ve just talked about with Riley and I, we feel the same exact way about Deron and Ivan. We trust them to do what they do best. And we get out of the way. That’s how I work, whether it’s with a cowriter. I’m going to be announcing a book with Phil Kennedy Johnson at this show, actually. There are parts of that book that he has lived that I haven’t and there are parts of that book that I’ve lived and he hasn’t. Our collaboration is one where — it’s very freeform, man. I’m there to let him do what he does best and vise versa and make that book as authentic as possible. The final product, what you guys get, is what matters. Not our f-----g egos and things like that.

AiPT!: Tell me a little bit more about Wonder Woman. How do you want to leave your mark here on the character? And what aspects of Wonder Woman do you really want to play into?

SO: Wonder Woman is a book about a character who is, in her core, subversive. And that’s because in her core she believes in love, as you saw in the movie and seen in other runs. But that idea is always gonna be radical.

AiPT!: Even in the beginning when it was all fetishistic.

SO: Yes. But the fact is, [certainly] in the current moment but throughout history, someone who puts compassion and love first is always going to be radical. It’s always going to be subversive because that is oftentimes not our inclination in society. So yes, she is this person who inspires other heroes in the DC universe. It was a big moment for me in Supergirl where I could show that Kara is someone who is already obviously a hero. She has heroes too—and that hero is Wonder Woman.

So the book is about how that philosophy of radical love creates tension in this modern superhero context. And it’s also about her coming to terms with the fact that even though she believes in that and wants to believe that everybody else believes in that, there are some people who maybe just don’t. There’s a moment in the annual where she puts someone in a lasso and she finds out it’s not that they don’t understand what they’re doing is wrong, they don’t care. And that’s hard for her.

I think that at the end of the day, every issue, every Wonder Woman issue is about the bold, radical choice of putting compassion and love first. And that goes for my previous runs and it goes for this book too. That’s going to happen in the most explosive way possible. It’s going to happen with some incredible DC guest stars in it and female heroes in the DC universe that you haven’t seen interact with Wonder Woman, in some cases, ever.

But at the end of the day, that philosophy is always at the core of her. It’s what’s always going to make her unique even among equals in books like Justice League. She is someone who at the end of the day, if violence happens in a Wonder Woman book, she will get angry, but the true failure in her mind if she comes to blows with someone is not theirs, it’s hers. Because she couldn’t find a way to get through to them. And the true tragedy for her is that she’s allowed it to come to blows.

And yeah, she will win a fight. Especially to defend those that are in need. But she wishes it would never get to a fight. She feels if she could have just understood them better maybe it wouldn’t have to be there. I think that that idea of understanding and listening and honestly having the privilege of being invulnerable and not always being at risk so you can listen. It’s never not going to be radical. It’s what we really need right now. That’s what the run will be about.

AiPT!: Yeah, because the other members of the Trinity, like Batman and Superman, obviously they represent certain ideals as well. But especially for Wonder Woman, she seems to talk about it, she seems to play into the themes even more potently and seems to give writers an opportunity to play into those themes of compassion like you’re saying.

SO: Absolutely. Our first arc is going to wrap up when Willow’s been doing with Cheetah. And I think it’s a very good example.

AiPT!: Her stuff is really good.

SO: I think that Cheetah has done a lot of bad things and Wonder Woman may hate the things that Cheetah does but I don’t know if she’s truly capable of hating someone. It’s always that she hates the action. And that is why at the same time she will never truly give up on Barbara Ann for example. Even if she does truly loathe a lot of the things she’s done. That love for her that started in the Rucka arc with Liam Sharpe is always going to be there. That’s Diana in a nutshell.

AiPT!: I gotta confess, I haven’t been a huge Wonder Woman fan for a while. But G. Willow Wilson really kind-of roped me back in. And I think he’s done a really brilliant job. Bsut your having to follow in her footsteps. Was it intimidating trying to follow into what she’d been doing? Or what lessons have you learned from what she’s done?

SO: Well, it’s been an interesting run because I was on the book before her and then I was working with her during her run with the single issue I did, #73, and now we’re picking up where she left off. A lot of her book…rhymes — I don’t know of a better word than that, but will echo what we’re doing, because a lot of the book’s interrogation of the concept of love is interesting now that Aphrodite is dead. And what is Wonder Woman if love is dead now?

So we’re picking up a lot of the themes but at the same time I want Willow’s run to stand on its own because she has done incredible, incredible work. We’re going to use her run as a starting line, but our tones are definitely different. We’re very different people. She’s much smarter than me. The book will feel different. It will feel similar in ways to my previous runs but that is also important to me because she has done incredible work. And I know how her last issue ends, obviously, and it’s a wonderful interrogation of the ideas that she has. These mythic ideas—what myth really means when characters embody concepts. It’s a really elegant finish.

So we’re gonna use that as our starting line and her themes of love as I’ve discussed and how that reverberates out to the world will continue. But we will definitely be kicking this off as a superhero thriller book versus a mythic thriller book, which I think it has been, when my arc begins. And that’s out of respect for Willow. She has done such incredible work there I don’t want to dilute it. I want it to be a tome and a thesis as it is, and it’s a wonderful one. And I’m exciting for you to see how it ends.

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