Evergreen: Steve Orlando on Martian Manhunter
The first ever Keystone Comic Con—in beautiful Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—was fairly small, but it packed a punch. From some impressive panels and guests, to a healthy artist alley featuring some of the biggest names in comics, it was a good start to what will hopefully become a yearly fixture in the City of Brotherly Love.
I was at the show on Saturday, and had the opportunity to sit down with Steve Orlando and talk all about his upcoming Martian Manhunter maxi-series with his favorite collaborator, Riley Rossmo. Steve’s enthusiasm is infectious, and as a great lover of J’onn J’onzz myself, I was getting super-excited the longer he talked. I got a look at some pages, too, and let me tell you—this book is going to look stunning. I can’t wait to read it. Now onto the interview.
Brian Warshaw: Hello, Steve!
Steve Orlando: Hey!
BW: You’re not a vampire, by the way, you showed up in my picture.
SO: I saw that.
BW: I’m sorry if you’re disappointed, but you’re not a vampire.
SO: Well, I’ll keep trying.
BW: Or you’re the first vampire caught on film.
SO: I would be the second. We’ve all seen The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie.
BW: I have not.
SO: Oh. Well she checks her makeup in a compact, which, you know, is impossible when you’re a vampire. But anyway, that’s a digression.
BW: [Laughs] Yeah, right at the beginning, too. Okay, so Martian Manhunter…
BW: You’re doing Martian Manhunter. How did this come to be?
SO: He’s my favorite character. He’s always been my favorite character, so I was speaking with DC at SDCC 2017. We were talking about what I could bring to the table. We were just knowing about Mister Miracle launching, and launching big, and I was bold about it, I was confident about it. I said “if you let me work with Riley again, after how well Batman and the Shadow went over, and was reviewed, we’ll give you the evergreen Martian Manhunter book that you need, that he needs, that the character needs, that the company needs. And I politicked for it hard…
BW: You do realize you just said “evergreen” about a Martian Manhunter book, right?
SO: Oh, you noticed that? So I went into it hard, not just about him [J’onn], but about giving Riley and myself a chance to further our collaborative work relationship. And they gave us the faith to start working on it. So, it’s been a year, we’ve been developing it. Now you guys finally know, but, it’s been a long time coming. Longer than you guys have known.
BW: So what can you tell me about the book? First question: is it in continuity?
SO: Well, again, it’s going to be presented like Mister Miracle. It’s a prestige-format miniseries. It is not beholden to continuity. It’s character-first.
BW: Sure, sure. Anything else you can tell us about general premise of what we’re going to see J’onn up to?
SO: This takes place before J’onn has revealed himself as Martian Manhunter to Earth. A large part of it takes place on Mars. We’re doing more world-building and more development and investigation of his life there than really any other book has done. Ostrander and Mandrake did some incredible work in the 90s, we’re going even further than them—his relationship, his job on Mars, his relationship with K’hym and M’yri’ah. Martian culture in general—Riley and I are inventing more and more for it every day. And on Earth, we’re taking J’onn through the process of becoming a hero. We’re taking him through the process of grieving for Mars, grieving for himself and his family, and finding confidence, finding his heroism again, and finding the strength to reveal himself as Martian Manhunter to the world.
BW: You said that he’s always been your favorite character. Why do you think you’re drawn to him?
SO: I think that there is a nobility to him, but also a sadness to him. There’s so much to learn from him as a character. You know, he has elements of Batman, he has elements of Superman, but I think facing the loss that he faces, as an adult, separates him from them in very important ways. He, I think, feels, in many ways, responsibility that Superman and Batman may feel but aren’t as warranted. You know, Batman was a child, Superman was a fetus. They are not responsible for the loss of their parents, the loss of their world. But J’onn was an adult. He ultimately was responsible for protecting his family, and that is a failing. That said, we all make mistakes, and sometimes things are out of our hands, but reckoning with that shame and finding how to build on failure into success and pride—that’s his journey, and I think it’s extremely powerful. I think it’s more powerful as an adult, now that I am one of those, than a lot of other characters.
Because we face failures every day. Of course, our planet isn’t set on fire, we’re not teleported into the future and across thousands of miles, hundreds of thousands of miles, the relative future. But we all face things that we’ve got to overcome, and the fact that he really has to accept that he is not his fallibility, and find that honor, find that nobility every damn day—that’s what we have to do. And so, I think he’s very important. That’s why he’s moving to me.
BW: So, you mentioned that you and Riley kind of wanted to do this to work together, as well. Why do you think you guys work together so well?
SO: We have an incredible amount of respect for each other. We have an incredible amount of trust for each other, and we just really like each other. We like a lot of the same stuff, we talk all the time, and a lot of teams that work together say that, but I think it really is like, Riley knows how to step back from me and what I do as a writer, and I know how to step back from what he does as an artist, and there’s a risk, and there’s a trust and respect there that I think challenges us to be better. I try, honestly, I try to stump him and challenge him every issue, because I know from talking to him that’s what he wants. He wants to not know exactly how he’s going to solve something that’s in the script because he wants a chance to innovate, reinvent himself, and challenge what comics storytelling can be.
And because we’re working plot-script format, that’s also a challenge to me to then come and make the dialogue as it appears on the page, and what comes out of me for dialogue, support what he’s done. There’s a give and take that is unlike any other creative process that I’ve been a part of. That’s why I think we make some of the best comics on the market. And it’s why he’s one of my favorite collaborators. Because we really, we want to make each other better, we want to [indistinct] on each other to get better, because that’s how you guys get some of the best damn comics coming out.
BW: Sure. I’ve got some of my own ideas, but from you, what do you think makes Riley particularly well-suited to a Martian Manhunter book, especially with a lot of Mars at the beginning of it?
SO: Riley and I both love body horror, and we love interesting organic type of scenes. And also, he really likes creating creatures. Look at Night of the Monster Men. The creature design for that was one of his favorite things in it. Here, it’s an open palette to invent an entire world. And also invent not just that, but body language, visual cues, a visual culture. You know, every Green Martian on Mars looks different, because for shape-shifters, at least the Green Martians vs the White and Yellow Martians, their whole body is an expression of their personality. It’s not just the clothes they wear or their haircut, because their whole body can be controlled by their mind. So we’re inventing culture from the ground-up, and for Riley who has such a diverse style and so many influences on his work, this is just carte blanche to just press every button and pursue every flight of fancy when it comes to designing Mars. And again, it’s a challenge, but what he likes about it, and what is amazing about it is that he takes a world that is truly alien and he makes it relatable. J’onn, whether he’s in his private form, his private shape or his public shape, doesn’t look human. His daughter who hasn’t chosen an adult form yet looks even less human. And yet when he picks her up from school, that’s instantly a father and his daughter. And as a father himself, I think he [Riley] likes the challenge of taking these alien personalities and infusing them with a relatability—a humanity—that almost shouldn’t be there. That’s an incredible challenge, but he’s winning it, and crushing it, every single time he has to do a Mars scene.
BW: Fantastic. How about the rest of the team? Do you guys have a colorist, or is Riley coloring his own stuff?
SO: No. So, similar to giving Riley space and respecting him as an artist, he wanted to continue working with Ivan Plascencia. I love Ivan, he’s worked with us on Night of the Monster Men, he worked with us on Batman/Shadow. And in the same way, we do give notes to Ivan, but we also give him room to express himself because every member of the team is incredibly important. And his colors, especially on the Mars scenes—they’re really bold, they’re exciting. You’ve seen the covers, and I think the book is an opportunity for him, as well, to invent a new palette, a new storytelling style on a world that doesn’t have to behave like Earth when it comes to lighting, when it comes to color and storytelling.
Deron Bennett is someone we both wanted to work with for a long time, so we said this a chance to bring him on and again, give him some things that are going to be things that he hasn’t had to letter before. We have telepathic word balloons, we have a lot of ways that characters speak that we don’t speak on Earth. So there are things he hasn’t encountered before, but it’s a chance for him to really step out and show his own craft. Because lettering is just as important as any other part of the creative process. In some ways I think it’s the most important, because that’s how you guys receive all the other information we do. It’s kind of the glue of the whole page, and it’s often overlooked, but I think lettering is vastly important, and I’m really excited to have Derron on the team.
BW: Yeah, we talked to Derron on our podcast a few months ago, and he’s just a consummate professional.
Well, anything else about the book or about anything else coming up that you want to talk about?
SO: Listen, Martian Manhunter is the book that I’ve always wanted to do at DC. They’ve been incredibly supportive. Just mentioning it in the same breath as Doomsday Clock and Mister Miracle is an incredible honor for us. It’s a lot of pressure, but dammit, I think we’re up to the challenge. It’s going to be a journey for J’onn that he’s never taken before, but I love this character, I want to give him the respect and the depth that he deserves, and we’re going to do it. I’ve never made comics as good as I’ve made with Riley, and these are the best books we’ve ever done. So you guys are really in for something that’s unbelievable.
BW: Fantastic. Well, he’s one of my favorite characters, too, and I’m super-excited for the book and can’t wait to read it. Thank you, Steve.
SO: You got it!