When DC Comics greenlit a solo series starring Midnighter, a hyper-violent, openly gay, Batman analog last year, both new readers and diehard fans of the character took notice. Unlike nearly every other LGBTQ comic book character that predated them, Midnighter and his partner Apollo's queerness wasn't a tertiary aspect of their personalities that could be easily ignored.
Writer Steve Orlando gave a new voice to heroes who were unabashedly gay, kicked-ass, and were planted squarely in the age of modern LGBT rights—a rarity in mainstream comics.
Despite a successful first volume and despite glowing reviews, DC announced that the series was slated for cancellation as the publisher once again planned to reboot its portfolio in an effort to boost sales. Fans were disheartened that there would no longer be a mainstream comic headlined by an openly gay character. But only a month later, DC revealed that both Midnighter and Apollo would be back in Midnighter and Apollo.
Ahead of this year's San Diego Comic-Con, I spoke to Orlando about what he has in store for the World's Finest Couple and what it's been like to give voice to one of the most progressive representations of queer romance in comics.
"The world’s finest couple is back, and more devoted than ever before is what I’m saying," he told me. "To themselves, and to kicking ass in the name of the wronged."
Over the course of their publication, these characters have gotten married, had a baby, broken up, and subsequently gotten back together. After all that, who are Midnighter and Apollo to one another these days?
I think Midnighter and Apollo’s history will always be important, and it speaks to how public perceptions have changed since their debut in 1998. When Midnighter and Apollo debuted in the '90s, they already knew they were the one for each other. They’d lived five years on the streets together, off-panel, before they ever appeared in print. Back then, any depiction of positive, confident gay men that weren’t punchlines was disruptive.
Now in 2016, we can find these types of depictions of positive, confident gay men on weeknight television. And in DC's current 2016 continuity, they have only known each other for less than a year. So they haven’t married or adopted a child. The greater notion to me is about these characters pressing ahead positive representations of queer leads in comics (and hopefully other media as well).
So why the breakup in the new continuity?
The majority of queer couples in comics in general just partner up to the first person they date.
When Midnighter and Apollo spent time apart during Midnighter, it was a chance to break a series of depictions of gay male leads that very quickly locked them into stable, relatively chaste, monogamous relationships (read: safe for the mainstream).
Having them apart for a bit last year during Midnighter allowed us to define Midnighter on his own, as a singular, individual character and show that these two are interested and well rounded, not defined solely by their relationship.
And this is the idea—my sincere hope with Midnighter and Apollo—to give them what in my heart and mind is a real, tangible, respectful passion and love for each other. Real long-term relationships are work, and I wanted their love to feel real, to have them feel like people I could know down the street, albeit with a more fantastic day job.
How, if at all, does your own queerness influence how you approach characters like this?
I would say my queerness doesn’t just affect my approach to characters like this, but my approach to any and all characters I work on. Experiences in life can give you empathy, even if they’re not completely analogous.
A good example is the feelings of being an outsider I have had at times, being bisexual, often struggling with acceptance both from the straight and gay communities. Those times in my life directly inform my work on Supergirl, who at times feels like an outsider thanks to losing her established life on another planet.
I guess it’s a reverse of a common mainstream societal comment when justifying working on minority characters—“I’m not an alien from Krypton, but I can still write Superman.”
I personally think that’s a false equivalency, but I do think the reverse can be absolutely true—that outsider and minority perspectives can strengthen depictions of ANY character, not just one from that community.
Which is why we need diverse creators not just on characters of their own group, but writing characters across the board. Personal experience makes a difference, but it makes a difference across the spectrum, well beyond depictions of minority characters and into a richer, greater point of view for fictional worlds as a whole.
What more should publishers be doing to bring writers and artists into the fold who aren't straight white men?
I can only speak from my own perspective, of course, when thinking about this. And that doesn’t mean that people who think different are wrong—my take doesn’t override another. People are thirsty for representation after years, decades, or a lifetime without it.
Personally, as a queer Jewish reader and creator, I've never felt one needs to be from a given community to write about a character from that community. I don’t personally see that as an obligation.
But what I do see as an obligation is to approach the characters with research, passion, and an immense amount of respect, knowing that what we do as creators is not “just comics” or somesuch, but for many, these struggles are life and death. Representation does save people. It was my own personal experience with Midnighter as a child.
I am always hesitant to say a creator has to have first-hand experience to write a diverse set of characters. But I’m quick to say that they must understand the true weight and responsibility of what they’re doing and that numerous mistakes have been made over the past decades, which can’t be ignored. They also can’t be the only ones writing about those characters, as well.
But what concrete things can publishers do to take action?
There are steps to be taken, much more work to do—and what can be done? Regardless of the company, work for hire, creator owned, big or small, I think the need is for active communication and engagement of the creative community.
Amazing bodies of work are out there, and the need is to seek them out actively and encourage them. And that work starts now, beyond just asking who they should be reading—it’s seeking out people to read. And companies making themselves available at conventions and signings. Across the board, the key is breaking down the barriers of communication between the people looking for kick-ass creators and the kick-ass creators doing great work.
What's your read on the current state of LGBT representation in mainstream comics?
LGBT characters have a growing presence in books, which needs to be maintained as the characters reach more people and gain greater and greater market support, so they can form a foundation for greater exploration and representation because no one character can be everything to everyone.
So, there's more work to do.
Yes. Branching out from basic labels into intersectional depictions and giving communities still hungry for representation the heroes they deserve. That means differently-abled heroes, it means queer heroes of color, it means heroes of differing religions, it means transgender and gender-fluid heroes—this list is as endless as the faces in the world. At its heart, it never ends.
But that’s the work of comics, empowering the idea that no matter who you are, you could be heroic, you could be mythic, you could have your own amazing adventures.