Steve Orlando is one of the biggest writers in comics, penning everything from Midnighter to Supergirl, Justice League of America, and The Unexpected. But next month the bi scribe returns to his indie roots with Crude, a gritty revenge thriller from Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment.
Former Russian assassin Piotr Petrovich Bilibin is investigating the death of his estranged son, Kiril, who fled to the blood-rusted oil refineries of Blackstone rather than come out to his father. Now Piotr must take on a powerful private corporation, organized crime, and a worker’s revolt to avenge his son—and finally discover who he truly was.
“It’s The Raid meets A Single Man, with a bit of Road To Perdition in the mix,” Orlando tells NewNowNext of the comic, which debuts April 11. “Piotr drove Kiril to the ends of the Earth just for a chance to feel accepted. When it gets him killed, all Piotr has left is to play out his revenge on an entire city—to show the world, too late, that he wasn’t ashamed of who Kiril was.”
Below the GLAAD Media Award nominee talks about Crude, queer representation in comics, and the books he’d love to work on.
What’s your elevator-pitch version of Crude?
It’s one conflicted man’s fight to accept his son, played out as a massively violent turf war that threatens to tear a remote industrial refinery city down to its foundations.
How is it different working on a book for an independent publisher? Would this be the same book if you pitched it to, say, DC Comics?
At a publisher like Skybound, we have the wonderful opportunity to create our characters and worlds from whole cloth, original creations, original foundations. Working at a publisher like DC, which is work-for-hire, offers a different opportunity I consider equally special: to add another brick, another layer, to this monolithic story that has been ongoing for nearly 80 years, to be part of something massive. Both are exciting opportunities that I, as a creator, am lucky to have.
Would Crude be the same book? Absolutely not, but that’s because it’s a product of everyone involved. Not just me and [artist] Garry [Brown], but our colorist, Lee Loughridge, letterer Thomas Mauer, and our editor, Jon Moisan. Even this same book at a different independent publisher would be different, and that, I think, is what makes the true collaboration and teamwork of making comic book stories, specifically, very special.
You actually lived in Russia about a decade ago. Did your experiences, or current events like the purge in Chechnya or collusion in the U.S. presidential election, factor into Crude?
Crude began development long before much of these recent actions came to light. When I lived there, tensions with the LGBT community were simmering, but not yet as overt. Gender roles were strict. Many things were unsaid. This is the world Crude came from—a world where lives are lost, relationships withered, because of toxic masculinity and things unsaid.
What current events have done is, in a way, vindicate the actions of the characters in Crude. Previously, it might have been hard to understand for someone who has never been in the closet why people would go to such lengths for freedom, to be themselves. Why would someone go to a place as grueling as Blackstone, where the book takes place?
But now we see the danger, and the aggression, is more overt. Now we know just how painful it can be to be in the closet, to be the target of constant judgment and suspicion. We know the danger now, not as subtext, but text, and it has in many ways made our characters more sympathetic, I feel, to an audience that may not have personal experience with their pain.
Obviously, you don’t come from a family of Russian assassins, but are there any autobiographical elements in Crude?
It’s hard to do a story that lacks autobiographical elements, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. Even Undertow, a story with no reasoning human characters, led by fish folk, had my own experiences baked in. So Crude? Certainly.
There are the what-ifs of anyone’s life that touch mine as well. What if we communicated better with our family? What if we hid less of ourselves? What if we were strong enough to risk being vulnerable to more people? And there’s of course the anger, which I share, any time I see people being punched down upon, victimized by a vampiric cycle of good and evil where in truth, both sides just look at them as human capital. I wish I could do more, and for this moment, with Crude, Piotr can. I am envious of that.
We’re seeing a real renaissance of queer characters in comics, with some fans loving it and some grumbling. What kind of reaction have you gotten from incorporating LGBT characters into books like Midnighter and JLA. What’s your response to the “haters?”
In all honesty, I haven’t had many haters! I understand powerful responses: The new is threatening to some. And in the case of people waiting for representation, they’ve often been waiting for decades, sometimes their whole life, and they’re starving for it! They’ve been underserved for so long by the media, and they want what they deserve: a voice, a face, a sign that they can be the leads of their own story. To me? That means richly layered, complex, three-dimensional characters with all the nuance that the people they represent have in real life.
As I’ve said from my very first Midnighter interview, people deserve characters, not caricatures. And I feel, I hope, as long as I do my best to deliver that, not just with one character, but again and again, people will be patient with me when I misstep, and go along for the ride when I succeed.
Do you think we need more bi representation in comics and pop culture?
I think we need more representation not just of the LGBT community, and of the bisexual community, but of all underrepresented groups. We’ve barely even begun to touch the fascinating complexities offered by intersectionality, the places these different communities intersect. “A diversity of diversity,” a phrase coined by my fellow creator Greg Pak, is the horizon we’re always chasing but can never catch. And that’s the challenge of story.
As bisexual rep goes, I am excited to see more. I’m excited to see creators address bisexual erasure, about the myth of “choosing” one side or another. I’d love to see creators address the varied spectrum of attraction, and the journeys we take while figuring out our own sexuality in a world that prefers a harsh binary.
If you could write any book from any publisher what would it be and why?
I’ve been lucky enough to do some! Midnighter and Batman/The Shadow were both bucket list books, and here I am looking at them on my bookshelf!
I remain a massive fan of Martian Manhunter and The Shadow and would love to tackle them someday. But, as well, I’d live to do a renovated adaptation of Imre: A Memorandum which is arguably the first gay novel with a happy ending, from the early 1900s.
I’d also love to do a gonzo version of [the Tarzan-pastiche pulp novel] A Feast Unknown, and a bildungsroman on Boris Godunov.