The struggle is real

+ an interview with comic-book writer Steve Orlando

I’m fighting to retain a sense of normality in a week where the world is anything but normal.

Alongside writing comics, I work in PR and comms for one of the UK’s last independent arts universities. I’ve been in regular contact with Public Health England about coronavirus since January, though I didn’t really comprehend what a threat it would be. It wasn’t until something like 8 March 2020 that the UK Prime Minister unveiled a public coronavirus action plan and began to advise against non-essential international travel. It wasn’t until 23 March 2020 that a lockdown within the UK was initiated to stop people leaving their houses. How many lives could have been saved if we had acted sooner?

Weirdly, right before things seemed to tip over the edge with global events, I reconnected with an old friend from school who I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, since he dropped out and mysteriously disappeared from the face of the planet. Talking to him has really cheered me, because his vanishing was a question that I’ve wanted answers to for such a long time. We’re both trying to be respectful of each other’s life choices, but it feels like I might be living in a high concept pitch for a Netflix original series – a Jehovah’s Witness and a Satanist reconnect at the End of the World!

I’m in a fortunate position to weather the coming storm, but all the same, life is difficult. I don’t mind the isolation, because I’m happy sat alone in a cave writing, but being unable to visit the sea feels inordinately hard. I relocated to Devon on the South West coast of England, far from family and friends, to have easy access to the sea, because it rejuvenates me and gives me a sense of peace and purpose. To have it so close, but not be allowed to visit the beach, highlights how depressing the immediate surroundings are outside my front door.

A lifetime ago in 2019!

Until very recently I was taking my children to regular family therapy sessions, because growing up in a house where Pathological Demand Avoidance is present has its own unique challenges, and shapes us to respond at times in unhelpful, painful ways. This is my nice way of saying that I’m trying to find a way to work full time and fit in time for my own writing, around home-schooling two children who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to communicate with each other without a referee.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given that I’m watching live trackers of the global death rate in relation to coronavirus. I always worried that in a situation like this I’d let down the people that I love by giving in to selfish regrets, like a petulant child filled regretting every opportunity that being a responsible husband or father caused me to turn down. Happily, that isn’t the case. I’m mostly pleased that I’ve crammed so much into each day and never stopped to rest.

If you’re sinking, as I had been, I can heartily recommend putting up photographs of happy times around the house, to remind you of all the good times. Whether you can afford to have photos professionally printed and buy some cheap frames online or you’re doing it yourself on printer paper at home, I’m finding it liberating to walk around the house and see photos from past comic conventions, from days out with the kids, from snow days and birthdays.

I don’t know what the world is going to look like at the end of 2020 or what kind of lives we’ll return to, but I can’t wait for the freedom again to decide for myself where to go and when. I want to drive to Newquay and watch the surfers at Fistral beach, to Tintagel to dream about the time of King Arthur, and to Boscastle to visit the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. I want to go out into the sea on a kayak and stay out there all day, circumnavigating the coastline and exploring distant islands. Find something to look forward to and hold on tightly to it while we get through this year. Today I’m going to confirm my place at Thought Bubble comic convention in November 2020. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

BLOOD MOON chapter two is still on the horizon. I haven’t had time to properly catch up with John or Aditya or Hannah yet, but John assures me that life finds a way, and I have his solemn promise that those are his own words even if they sound eerily familiar.

John gives up a lot of time to create BLOOD MOON and might never see any money from it, so if you’re eager to see what comes next, the best way to secure his time is commission some other work from him to keep the lights on while we put our nightmares on the page.

Here’s a sneak peek of what’s to come.

BLOOD MOON chapter two preview by John Pearson

American comic-book writer Steve Orlando recently left DC Comics after completing a four-year exclusive contract with the publisher that saw him writing A-list series such as Wonder WomanJustice League of America and Martian Manhunter. I don’t know him well, but he seems like a lovely guy. I’ve been on Twitter long enough now to have met a lot of comic creators like Steve online before they hit the big time, and he’s one of the people that genuinely loves the medium and continues to champion the other creators who he met on his way up. If that’s not the measure of an artist, to use your platform to amplify the voices of others who don’t have the same reach, then I don’t know what is.

And Steve is all about amplifying voices that haven’t been widely heard in comics in the past. His work has been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, recognising his “outstanding representations of LGBT community and the issues that affect their lives”. His Midnighter series was named by io9 as "The Best Portrayal of a Gay Superhero in Mainstream Comics." So what I’m saying is that if you haven’t read any of his comics yet, you should really check them out.

1/ What first motivated you to become a writer and, as you face new challenges, have your motivations changed over time?

My first motivation was a love of the medium - going back to the mid-90s, when I would see editorial pieces about how stories came together and Marvel and DC, I knew I wanted to be part of that process. Hell, that's why I went to my first comicon at 12 years old, to try to start breaking in. Almost two decades later, I got the foot in the door. But I kept working because I knew, even if there were things I did to pay the rent in between, that writing and storytelling was the only thing I wanted to do. And now that I've BEEN in for some time, the challenges are of course different.

I have to push myself not to become comfortable in one place, with one type of storytelling, or one character. Or even one medium! Since coming to comics, I've found a new love of prose and screenwriting, and so now, the motivation is to always be on the hunt for the new: new formats, new genres, new storytelling and new ideas. Find the new ideas, express them in news ways, give readers the innovation they deserve, not comfort food.

2/ What piece of art or artist has most inspired you in your life?

Probably Bulgakov's MASTER AND MARGARITA, my favourite novel. In context, it's a powerful piece written in a time of creative oppression, acting as both an elegant farce about a society circling the drain of amorality, and as an ode to the power of creation itself. "Manuscripts don't burn" is a defiant mantra for every creator struggling to speak truth and push boundaries, and it's also a memento mori, especially considering this piece as published after Bulgakov died.

It's a reminder of the importance of the work, even acknowledging the battle could be pyrrhic, it may not reap rewards in our lifetime. But just like manuscripts don't burn, stories never die, and so that phrase becomes a constant inspiration to produce work you'll be happy to know will outlive you - even if you don't plan on checking out anytime soon.

3/ What does your creative process look like – if the comics that we’ve seen so far are the tip of the iceberg, what goes on under the surface that we don’t normally see?

Days and weeks of research and stress, mostly! I keep an idea board in my office, since it's common for me to have a lot of possible ideas in the course of researching whatever I'm working on for the day's topline. So the board is where I throw my random titles and ideas that I want to attend to later (such as AMERICA 2: AMERICONthey're not all winners yet). 

But when something is just at the outset, it's about consumption: reading as much as I can, watching as much as I can, finding a mood board of sorts to keep me focused on the right tone for story. So I decide what I want to say, decide the basic conflict driver, and then build characters around it that will intensify that conflict as much as possible. That process can be quick or it can be ongoing for months, depends, but the key is to not commence on the actual writing until the structure and power is in place so you're working with something that's as strong as possible. It's the pre-work here that's as important as the writing, so you know you're operating with a strong foundation.

4/ If you woke tomorrow and were no longer constrained by time, budgets or even skills that you haven’t learned yet, what would you make?

I've been lucky that a lot of the old answers to this question, I've been able to complete! MARTIAN MANHUNTER, KILL A MAN, DEAD KINGS, MIDNIGHTER AND APOLLO, they all would've been a potential answer at one time. Now? I'd love to do something similar to what Jasons Aaron and Latour have done with SOUTHERN BASTARDS. I'd love to do a longer story, ongoing even, about the place that made me the mad fool writer that I am today. And it'd probably be called LOST EMPIRE STATE. It's on my whiteboard right now...

My Spotify playlist for you this week is huge. HUGE. It’s called !, because this is the list of music that I used to listen to on my iPod years ago, and ! appeared on the list before everything else so it was easiest to find. This is probably what I was listening to about ten years ago, maybe, influencing all of my early comics. It only works on shuffle, because I couldn’t bring myself to add all of the songs to Spotify in order. But this is great stuff. There’s a lot of Esben and the Witch, which if you’ve never heard them before, sounds like the building crescendo of a pagan orgy. The whole list is basically a combination of beautiful female singers and crushing ugliness, so it juxtaposes the bleak dirge of a band like Denali with the screams of From Autumn to Ashes.

When I was growing up I was all about emo before it had a name, anything packed with the raw emotion of a man with a broken heart who didn’t have the vocabulary to do more than blame the woman who dumped him for being such a dick. I don’t know why music like this appeals to me, it just does, and I only love it more as I get older and discover the opposite side of the coin, songs written by women who wanted their man to be more than the disappointment that he was.

That’s it from me. I’ll keep these newsletters as regular as I can, for the sake of my sanity. You didn’t sign up to read my therapy, but I’m working so hard right now that all the self-care bullshit circulating the internet seems like white noise to me and writing is all I have left. What good are potted plants and bath bombs when I don’t have time to speak to anybody on the phone or sit down for more than five minutes?

Take care of each other. I hope you’ve got some financial stability in these awful times, or as much as any of us can hope for when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. As a parent, when times are tough, I tell myself that every day that I can maintain a level of normality for my kids is a gift. Tomorrow the sky might fall in, but if today we’ve kept to our routines and I’ve protected them from as much as I can, then that’s the best I can do. Every good day that we achieve is an accomplishment that nobody can ever take away from us. Hang in there.

Hit me up at @PMBuchan on Twitter if you want to talk. Bearing in mind that my replies might take a little longer than normal!