If there's one word that describes Steve Orlando, it's tenacious.
Starting at age 13, Orlando began trying to break into the comic book business. One email, one phone call, one comic book convention at a time, the then-aspiring young writer began making contacts and asking how he could improve his creative writing enough to become a paid scribe in the comic book business.
Seventeen years later, he's not only been entrusted by DC to take the helm of several new titles and guide recent events, but he's launching Justice League of America this month as the company starts to reveal answers behind "Rebirth," the mysterious universe it launched in summer 2016.
The climb to his current status at DC is quite an accomplishment for the writer. Two years ago, most DC readers had never even heard of Orlando when he was announced as writer of the "New 52"-era Midnighter.
But that doesn't mean his success came overnight. In fact, it was just the opposite. Newsarama learned how Orlando's tenacity helped him break into the business in this first installment of our two-part interview with Steve Orlando.
Newsarama: Steve, I know you're a long-time comic book fan, and you've chosen a career in comic books. What was it about the medium that was so compelling to you?
Steve Orlando: Since I started picking up 25¢ comics at the flea market, I've been a fan. You can go anywhere in comics. They're wild, and there's a wonderful absurdity that's always sort of drawn me in.
The first book I ever bought was an issue of West Coast Avengers where Tigra and Hellcat are arguing over the Hellcat costume and battling Tiger Shark and you know, you have Hank Pym and all these things that probably shouldn't work, but it's the perfect combination that does work in this wild and fun story. It's like the carpet in The Big Lebowski - these characters pull everything together.
Newsarama: West Coast Avengers #15.
Orlando: And I loved it. And I kept following it, from flea markets into actual newsstands and Waldenbooks, back when I was younger. And into comic stores. It was something that I just always gravitated towards.
I've always been a fan of mythology and folklore and pop culture. And comics sort of combined all those things. So it's kind of hard to miss out on.
Nrama: And at some point, you thought, I want to write these things?
Orlando: Yeah, the more and more I read about how these stories are made, the more and more I realized I wanted to be part of it. And that's why I started going to comic cons and asking around. And that's why I started trying to get in and become an actual working comic creator.
And beyond that, it's also the collaboration that attracts me.
Nrama: Really? What is it about the collaboration you like? The teamwork?
Orlando: Yeah, and you know, specifically in comics, if it's working perfectly, everybody in the team is making each other better and doing something they couldn't do as a singular creator.
As a writer, you have to love collaboration. Certainly, there are amazing writer/artists. But as a writer, the collaboration is interesting to me. It's scary, you know? Giving up control and things like that. But also, it's extremely rewarding.
Comics is a risky thing to create because of that, but the reward is so great when the story comes back and it's so much greater than the sum of its parts. It's something that you really only get, in my opinion, in comics.
Nrama: So let's back up to the story about how you broke into the business. You mentioned going to comic book conventions. Was that your education on how to break into the business. You started asking questions in person?
Orlando: Yeah. Everybody gets in a different way, as everyone will say.
First, I started reaching out to small publishers and offering to work for free, which I thought would be really appealing, until I realized that everybody does it.
But then I started going to shows, and speaking to editors and speaking to other creators and getting their advice about how to get better - not even how to break in, but how to make my stories better, which leads to breaking in. You know?
It's about knowing the people that are going to have opportunities to offer someday, and then it's about being ready and being publishable when those opportunities arise.
So I started making comics and I started going to shows. And it took a long time.
Nrama: How long was it, from the first time you showed up at a show asking questions?
Orlando: It took 17 years for me to be "in," at least in the eyes of most people. It took a little less than that for me to get published.
The key was going in with no ego and finding people that I respected, and then asking them how my stories could be made better. And as they slowly ran out of answers to that, over a period of a decade and a half, we got to a place where the work was publishable.
It's daunting, and it doesn't always happen that way. But sometimes it does. And if you really want it, if you care about these things, it can happen - it can happen instantly for some people, and it can happen years down the road. The point is to never give up, because it took me longer than I ever thought it would.
Nrama: Were there times you thought you should give up?
Orlando: Oh yeah. I probably quit trying to break into comics a thousand times.
Nrama: OK, not to age you or anything (although I guess this will), but you said you started 17 years ago. You don't seem old enough to have done that - were you really young when you first showed up at a comic convention with a comic book that you handmade?
Orlando: I was 13 when I contacted my first publisher, and 14 when I went to my first show, because I had to save up enough money in returnable cans to pay for my plane ticket to go to Wizard World Chicago in 2000. That was the deal with my parents, that I could go if I paid for my plane ticket, and they would pay for the hotel.
So I spent a year collecting cans in upstate New York so that I could go to the show.
But before that, I had been given a shot, just from the basis of, perhaps, the cut of my email jib - I have no idea - with a small publisher called Bloodfire Studios. I had written a four-issue vampire mini-series for them that I was sure, of course, was the greatest thing that had ever ran in comics, and now when I look back on it… well, I try not to look back on it.
But you know, I had done that and was sure it was going to come out. So after that happened, I started applying for professional badges, and you can usually get one if you show them you know how to write a comic script, you know how to draw a comic or letter a comic. And, you know, I was sure that I had made it then, because I was going to be published.
Of course, a lot of things didn't come to fruition - those guys are great guys, but the book did not come out. And I kind of just kept doing that, you know? Until I found something that did come out and people I could work with.
It was a big learning curve, you know? Starting from just a basic thing - formatting, you know, I think it was at that show in Chicago where I met Tony Bedard and Barb Kesel from CrossGen. And it was even very basic things like numbering your balloons to make things easier for the letterers and style type things that I wasn't even thinking of. You know, little things like that build up and, as I said, if you find people whose work you respect and who are willing to take some time with you, and if you take their advice to heart, you can find ways to get better.
It's different for everybody, but I was never interested in, honestly, hearing what was potentially great about a script I did, because you know, everyone has their parents for that. What makes you better is finding out what you can work on, and finding out how you can improve. And I found people that were very patient and very helpful to me - and in my case, it was the folks at Man of Action Studios (Joe Kelly and Steve Seagle specifically). They gave me advice on how to get better for 15 years.
Nrama: You had other jobs during this time, though, right?
Orlando: I studied Russian language and creative writing in college. I got a degree in Russian language because, where I went to college did not approve of comic book writing. So I actually wrote and illustrated a 100-page book as one of my senior projects in college. And then after doing it, they said, surprise, you can't have a creative writing degree anymore, because this isn't writing.
Nrama: That's ridiculous.
Orlando: Yeah, that was a bummer.
But here I am talking about writing comics, so… ha ha.
Nrama: Yeah, in your face, university. What college was it?
Orlando: It was at Hamilton College.
Nrama: OK, but it took you 17 years to get into the comic book business. You got a job after college?
Orlando: Yeah, upon getting out of college and realizing I didn't want to live a life that working in Russian language taught me - working for the government, it just wasn't for me.
So rather than going to grad school, I was very lucky to live near the owner of a wine store, where I lived, and that's when I got into the wine business. I did that for nine years, until like, last year. Moving to different stores until I sort of became more like a scotch and tequila and spirits buyer for places.
But yeah, I had a day job probably until I signed my exclusives last year. And honestly, I still part-time for some people for clarity of mind and, you know, I work for an importer now mostly just to give myself an alternative and so I don't go mad working in my house all day with my dog, you know? So I still do it.
I think it helps you have balance, so you're not just staring at a computer all day.
So not only did I have other jobs, I still kind of have another one, although the percentages I dedicate to each have changed significantly in the past couple years.
Nrama: OK, so I am getting the feeling that a word to describe you is "tenacious." At what point did you feel like you actually had a chance to make it in comic books? Like, OK, I think this could be a career.
Orlando: Honestly, not until Midnighter. I mean, I had Undertow at Image, and I had two different eight-page stories at Vertigo. And before that I was in the Mystery in Space anthology - that was the first thing I ever did, and then I did CMYK: Yellow. The other person I owe my career to, besides the Man of Action guys, would be Will Dennis, former editor at Vertigo..
And then I was in Outlaw Territory back in 2008, which was nominated for an Eisner Award.
So all those are times where I was like, "OK, I'm getting published." And for some people, maybe, if things align correctly, that is a time where offers start to come in.
But that just didn't happen with me.
In form or another, I've been published at various time since 2008, but it wasn't until Midnighter started where I thought, "This is something that I could give precedence over my day job." Before that, it wasn't economically feasible.
Check back for part two of our interview with Steve Orlando, where we learn more about his approach to comic books, how he'd describe his style, and what comes next for the writer.