Why Comics Writer Steve Orlando Is Going From DC to Freelancing

Steve Orlando interview -Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Tajwar Ahad
The 'Wonder Woman' scribe, no longer under contract with the publisher, talks at length about the landscape of the comics industry and what he's going to do next.

Steve Orlando is about to have a very interesting year. The writer, who’s made a reputation for himself on titles like Wonder Woman, Justice League of America and Martian Manhunter over the past few years, is about to take a big step, leaving the security of his exclusive contract with DC after four years and lining up work with a number of different publishers — as well as some work outside of comics altogether.

While Orlando can’t share details just yet, logos of some of the companies he’ll be working with throughout 2020 and 2021 appear below.

To mark the end of his exclusive period, Orlando talked to The Hollywood Reporter at length about his reasons for signing, and now ending, his exclusive contract, the landscape of the comics industry as he sees it, and what he’s going to do next.

How long have you been exclusive with DC?

2014 is when we started doing Midnighter, so it's been six years in development and then four years exclusive.

What was it that originally drove you to sign exclusively to DC? Was it simply the idea of having a home as a creator, or was it the idea that you could use that as a platform to build your name within the industry?

I mean, look, I grew up as a DC guy. I was, you know, knocked over when they offered me that contract after Midnighter. And of course it's nice to have that reliability and a home for most of your work. But I mean, you know, young Steve, who is reading DC books out of flea markets in the 1980s and early '90s, you know, it's a dream job. And by the way, working for DC's still a dream job.

You know, when you're an adult, you realize that dreams have to evolve and change. So at the time, you know, there was no way that I would stay away from that, because it's like playing for the Yankees. (Laughs) So of course I would take it. And it's still a company that I have, and characters that I continue to have, great affection for.

I'm excited to continue on Wonder Woman for that reason. These are icons, and to be asked to become a lasting part of those things, you know, it's an honor, it's a huge responsibility, and there's just no way I wouldn't do that.

So just to clarify: you aren't leaving Wonder Woman. This isn't you leaving DC; it's simply that you're going to be writing elsewhere as well.

I'm definitely on Wonder Woman. Not only am I on Wonder Woman, but there's some pretty exciting stuff coming out of it.

You talk about Wonder Woman being an icon, and you wrote Justice League of America, but something I’ve appreciated about your DC work is that you also wrote books like Electric Warriors or Martian Manhunter, where you used the DC universe to do work that is — I don't want to say creator owned, but something that definitely showed off your voice.

Well, we tried. I think that that's because, especially when it comes to Big Two work, the creators that influenced me were people who had this love and affection for the companies' lore and who also had something to say with these characters. There was nostalgia, of course, because these were characters we grew up with, but also this knowledge that you had to serve and grow these concepts beyond that. Nostalgia and the stories that came before were the starting point for the next step of things.

I grew up a Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison guy, and to me, that's how they always approach things, with a heavy reverence for the past but also the knowledge that these things had to grow and change.

And to me, that's what working in a shared universe is about. So I'm really happy to hear you say that. And that's what I tried to do, you know? You can tell what a Grant book is, what a Warren book is — I mean, you can tell what a Kelly Sue [DeConnick] book is, right? There's nothing like her Aquaman run right now, but it's still very much Aquaman as well. So I think as creators, it's the alchemy we go for, that we aspire to, so to hear you say that I seem to have been able to be that alchemist is very exciting to me.

You know, you're mentioning Grant Morrison, and I’m reminded that when Grant was doing JLA, his series The Invisibles was running at the same time. The big superhero stories were never the sole focus of his work. Is that idea, that you mix this superhero work with something more personal, something more esoteric, integral to you as a creator?

Really, it's always very important.

It's why every year that I've been at DC, and every year that I've been on contract, I did have a carve out for an original and I had something come out. You know, we had Namesake, my Boom! book came out in the first couple of years of my contract. We had Crude, my book at Skybound, which came out during the term of my second exclusive. We had that Dead Kings, which came out at Aftershock. Even Kill a Man, which is coming out at AfterShock, was carved out during an exclusive as well. There's even more that I haven't announced,

I basically always went to Die Hard in these books, but at the same time I'm also a huge, huge follower of the Werner Herzog school of doing things that are just so challenging and so subversive. Sometimes that means getting them together is a struggle, but I also think that's what's important when it comes to fiction as well.

The comic book market has changed in the last five years, and there are so many more outlets for a creator. You've got AfterShock, Vault, TKO and a number of publishers who are pushing out work aimed at a mainstream audience that just weren't there five years or six years ago. Is that something that you've been keeping your eye on?

Yeah, I have. And I think what's also key is a lot of those companies have a slightly different flavor. They offer different work relationships on the creative side, which I think is fascinating and challenging. But also, they are trying different things. TKO is sort of dodging the direct market almost completely with their direct distribution, and the three ways you can get their books, you know, digital, trade paperback or their collection of the bundles of hard copy, like bingeable single issues.

When I see things like that, I think it's fascinating because it's different. You know, sometimes things won't be a success, sometimes they will; they've been pretty successful. What pings me is when people are trying something new. You look at a company like AfterShock, which for a while, maybe if you squint, it looked like a couple other companies that focus on original IP other than the fact that they were not sort of anchored with a major license in the background. But now, this year, they're coming out with the AfterShock Army, and if you're a creator working for them, that is really, really heartening and exciting to see.

It's a big focused outreach to retailers and fans that is working to raise awareness with people on the ground. It's something in stores giving retailers more support. In my opinion, the more support you give retailers, the more they know about the books and the more they know how to sell them. So when I hear that again, that's extremely exciting to me.

Look at a company like A Wave Blue World, which offers a different deal than a lot of other companies, and is also focusing now on doing mostly book market stuff. Their footprint in the direct market is maybe not as big as a lot of other companies, but their footprint in the book market is growing and growing. And in many ways, for a midsize company, I think that's very interesting, because companies like Diamond Distributors have a lot of barriers to entry from mid-level publishers. And so I love when I see these companies forcing themselves to innovate.

You mentioned that each company offers different relationships with creators. Is it something where you have an idea and think, well, that wouldn't work with this publisher because it's not the flavor they're publishing? Or is it something where you want to work with a publisher because of, for example, TKO’s distribution model, and so you start tailoring an idea specifically to them?

We should know the types of books a publisher does and what they do. That's what you're describing.

And maybe it is what you said; maybe it's, "Oh, I love this distribution model. Then let me go look and see what these folks are about so that I'm not sending them something that out of the gate is just not what they do." You don't send a superhero book to a company that's based around folklore or mythical horror, for example.

But maybe it's the reverse; maybe I have a superhero book, or a mythical horror book, and it's like, "Oh, these are the people who could do that." So it can be either one, but that's also the duty for us as creators. You know, we always want to feel special. But at the same time, publishers also want to feel like you're not just treating them like a means to an end or like they're all the same. I mean, when you send a pitch out, you're asking for attention. And if you're just sending the same thing to 20 different people, you're actually not giving attention to the people you want attention from.

I think that it can happen a lot of different ways. Maybe it's something about the publisher that's attractive, but if I send a pitch or concept out, it's never [to] two places at once, because it probably doesn't fit everywhere in the industry. Since I've been looking at coming up off contract, I've basically been working since May of last year on setting stuff up for this year, and there's a lot of awesome stuff coming, but each book is very different, each concept is very different, each format is very different. And it wasn't a thing where I just took this took this book and sent it to Image, Boom!, TKO, AfterShock. It was more like, "Oh, these are things that have been in my mind for a long time — what is the publisher where we could both benefit the most from doing this book?"

You mentioned that you've been thinking about this since May of last year. So this is clearly something you have prepared for. Was it scary?

It's terrifying, but it also came with realizing that I've been very lucky. I was in a very privileged position. Some people never get offered exclusives. To have had it and still have a good relationship with DC, I'm very thankful for it, but at the same time, as creators, we can't be comfortable. It's almost like being truly freelance — risky, horrifying, sure. It's also where 99 percent of people who are writers and work in TV, film and prose and poetry, anything, that's where they are. I felt myself getting that sense of comfort [with my contract], and creatively, that's also horrifying.

I mean, by the way, I've worked my ass off in the past four years on contract with DC. But at the same time, I have this drive to innovate and to do new things, and that freedom is very exciting, but it's also something that comes with a price. And that price is that security.

So on one hand, stepping out and doing all these new things is certainly risky, and it's certainly intimidating. That's sort of fire under my ass, like, I felt like I needed to kick myself in the ass. And that fire is also what everyone else in the industry has, so I wanted to get back in the mix. ... You need to define yourself as yourself. I'm thankful as hell to be the writer of Wonder Woman, but as I've said online, the identity that you should have as a creator is what you mean and what you put out of the world.  

The publishing landscape has changed significantly in last five years, but I think that the audience has changed as well. I think there is more diversity, there's more interest in different types of stories than there has been in a long time. Is that something you feel that you're now going to be able to engage in as a result of this move?

Absolutely. I mean, I have things that are coming up, some are in the direct market, some are focusing on the book market, that I'm very excited about. Some are going to be in prose, I'm stepping out and working in prose, some are going to be in animation. I've worked for the Man of Action folks on something, my first episode that's going to air on TV, which I'm very excited about.

In the past year, I've done my first few treatments for animation. I've done multiple spec pilots. It's not just even staying in comics and pushing out to where graphic novels and comics can go, it's pushing myself beyond that as well. I think that those things are all incredibly exciting. I think you can get so much across to play now, as you said. Not just the graphic novels, but I would say things like animation excite me incredibly. Things which I was a relative novice to until a couple of years ago. What can you get done? Obviously, I'm a Warren Ellis guy, so something like a Castlevania show, but also things like Legend of Korra — what can be done on TV?

The DC side of TV is doing incredible diversity and representation, because the audience is so much wider, and they're excited to be served. I watch Legends of Tomorrow and I'm like, fuck, Sara Lance is the best DC character ever, and she's not even in the comics. She has all the swagger, like this bisexual time-traveling Woman With No Name, and it's amazing.

And so, TV is exciting to me. All these places are very exciting to me because of the types of stories you can tell. Different audiences need different stories, different platforms need different storytelling tools. That's what's exciting about 2020 for me, and 2021, to be clear.

You said you've been talking to various people about leaving your contract and being excited about all these new projects. What has their response been? Has there been a lot of praise and assistance? Have people been saying, "You're nuts"?

Nobody is on contract forever. When I talk to [Man of Action's Steve] Seagle about it, he's all, "Welcome to what everyone else is doing, now get to work, you lazy bastard." (Laughs) But to be clear, him telling me now get to work — that's exactly how I feel, and that's exactly what I do. I cherish our interaction, even if it would seem brusque to other people.

Okay, here's the teasing part for everyone. If you were to suggest three projects, not yours, that are influences on the work that you've got coming out in the next couple of years, what would you say?

One is strongly influenced by The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is probably the best silent movie ever made. Another one is influenced by Bad Lieutenant, both versions — the Abel Ferrara version and the Werner Herzog version. Another one is influenced, sort of, by Altered Carbon and Gattaca.

When it comes to a project that'll probably be toward the end of the year, hopefully, it's very influenced by a book that was huge when I was a kid, which is Thunderbolts, the [Kurt] Busiek and Mark Bagley series. I've teased a little bit about that, and I think what we have going on there — I'm super super excited to announce that, as well.

That's not to mention, somewhere in here is a gay time travel romance erotica book that is going to be pretty awesome and is essentially Nikola Tesla and John L. Sullivan traveling for time, having adventures and, well, having a bit of each other as well.

Can you tease people that you'll be working with? And by people, I really mean companies rather than specific creators. Unless you're willing to do that.

I can't. (Laughs) There'll be announcements this year, but you're going to see stuff coming out from TKO that'll probably surprise you. I'm working with Studio Arancia, which is my friends Davide Cici and Mirka Andolfo. I'm going to be doing a couple of projects with them, both in the U.S. and also across Europe.

I just signed with Fuse Literary, whom I'm going to be working with for future prose projects — I've got a couple of prose things that are not connected to that, but future prose is going to come out through those folks, which I'm very excited about.

There's also more I'm very excited about. It's essentially Midnighter and Apollo with the training wheels off, it's maybe one of the books I'm most excited for. I'm breaking out of capes, but also the capes that I do have will be all the more cool, all the more badass and all the more subversive. I can't wait for that.

And that's not even to say the companies where I'm still trying to lock down the fine print. I have a lot coming, but what's exciting for me is we're serving a lot of menu items. I mean, there's prose, there's animation treatments. There's new non-capes creative comics content coming. There's capes content coming, but it's going to be bolder than what we saw before. I'm sort of firing on all cylinders.

And that's not even all the things that I'd like to be able to say, all the things I can say, which is very exciting to me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.