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Tragic heroes: Steve Orlando and Amancay Nahuelpan discuss ‘Gotham City Monsters’

When the going gets tough, the tough get monstrous.

DC has a not-so-secret stash of monstrous characters that rarely apepar in pages and exist on the periphery of the giant-sized universe. Now, a few of them are getting a chance to shine as Steve Orlando and Amancay Nahuelpan assembles a team in Gotham City Monsters. The book features Frankenstein, Killer Croc, Orca, Lady Clay, and Andrew Bennett, a ragtag squad operating in Gotham City who unite to combat a universal threat. Before the first issue’s release, we spoke with Orlando and Nahuelpan about the nuanced case, the book’s creative process behind, and the inspiration and themes involved, among other topics.

Gotham City Monsters #1 is out now wherever comics are sold.

AiPT!: Did the two of you get to pick the cast of the series or was it given to you?

Steve Orlando: I will say that the cast came together before we found out that Amancay was going to be working on the book. So a lot of that came from me brainstorming with Jamie Rich and Dave Wielgosz, who edit the book and are also awesome. A lot of it came from that there was a hunger to do Frankenstein again, and Jamie & Dave came down to me, and they know that I love that character. There’s characters that most creators secretly love, you know, there’s not a single person I’ve spoken to, writer or artist, when I mention I’m doing this book, that hasn’t been like ‘Oh, I f**king love Frankenstein,” you know, he’s one of those comic creators’ characters.

No one really says no to that chance, myself included, so when they came to me and they said, ‘We want to do a Frankenstein book, and we want it to be as bold and strange as the original Morrison/Mahnke series.’ I was like, you know, obviously I’m in, because if you’ve read Martian Manhunter, that has become something that I am very fond of. Telling innovative, bold, and strange stories is what I want out of comics.

Once that came to be, it was more about who was available, who needed a spotlight or hasn’t been seen in a while. And most importantly beyond all that, who was going to bounce off, who is going to support Frankenstein on this team? Who is going to fight with him, who is going to bounce off and challenge him? Because that tension is what’s key to a team. There are characters in issue #1 and there will be some in issue #2, where there’s a very real trauma that brings them all together, but it doesn’t mean they like each other and it doesn’t mean at first that they know that they can even stand each other. Their journey to being people who actually can interact and learn and respect each other, that’s the book, across this tapestry of multiversal damage and danger that’s shockingly horror-esque.

Horror is something that we’ve been able to get away with on the book that Amancay’s doing an incredible job on. So it was more for me, knowing that Frankenstein was the core, knowing that it was going to be in Gotham, it was like “Well who are the people who are going to give him the most problems, who are we going to force him to get along with?” And that’s how the book came together.

AiPT!: Speaking of Frankenstein, what do you think his place is in 2019? He was created in Seven Soldiers and had a short run in the New 52, but where do you feel he stands in the greater DC landscape right now?

Orlando: I think Frankenstein is in many ways one of the most tragic heroes in the DC Universe. There is a pain to him that is very real. He is a heroic pessimist, and on its surface there is something very tragic about that. You see in issue #1, with the Minotaur, he acknowledges that that person’s situation is unfair, and that it should have gone different for him, and that he doesn’t deserve death. But as he says, life’s not fair – before lighting him on fire. I think there is tragedy in the fact that even though he can acknowledge that he wishes there was a better world, he’s also wantonly accepting that it’s not what he wants.

But at the same time, I think he’s inspiring because despite all that – despite the heavy, heavy dose of realism, the idea in his mind that the world is absolutely bad, and he is one of the only people willing to see that and fight it – the fact that he is still there fighting it, and the fact that he still does believe in justice, and good. And not these highbrow concepts of the greater good, because that’s what Melmoth is about – he’s about saving people he can see. And I think that that is, in many ways, even though he is a tragic character, and almost comically dour, it’s inspiring! Because he is still there doing it. And to know that the world is bad, and he probably can’t save everyone, and he probably can’t save the whole thing, but to keep doing it, and to keep fighting, I think is, in the modern world, in 2019, extremely powerful. So I think he’s back just in time.

AiPT!: You mentioned the Morrison run for Frankenstein. For the rest of the cast of the book, what runs and prior works are you drawing from?

Orlando: Well, I think that nobody who works on Andrew Bennett does that without acknowledging the awesome, awesome work that you had Andrea Sorrentino and Josh Fialkov doing on I, Vampire. I should stress, and I’m happy to answer this question, by no means should you have to read anything except this book to know who these characters are, especially because they haven’t shown up in a minute. But as for inspiration, yes. Definitely I, Vampire. In the case of Croc, both the recent issues of Suicide Squad, because that’s where he gets parolled, and that sort of mindset that he’s in is very key for the book, but also, his individual early appearances! Because that’s when he really was still a character who you could see that maybe wouldn’t have been who he was if society had given him a chance. And so I think that that is very key as well.

And in the case of a new character like the Red Phantom, the inspiration is something totally outside – the Gaston Leroux, I mean the obvious inspiration is Phantom of the Opera. But also, he’s drawn from the vaudeville era, and he’s actually really inspired for me by the just-back Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern. Not in his powerset, but in the character dynamic. Because it always fascinated me that Green Lantern operated in Gotham City in World War II, in the 1930s, and he was Gotham’s hero before Bruce Wayne was even alive. So here you have this monolithic character in Batman, and he has a couple people that he has hero worship for, because they were his heroes when he was a kid. And in a way, that’s what inspired the creation of Red Phantom.

He’s someone who has been in Gotham, doing good, within his sphere of influence, the Magus Theatre, for over 100 years. Batman’s grandparents maybe went and saw him when he was on Vaudeville there. And so this idea that, much like the Court of Owls, he is old relative to the characters we consider iconic like Batman, I’ve always found fascinating. And so that sort of feel, the true age of Gotham, and what heroism has meant there, for longer than Batman, that’s the key to that character. So in a way, back to the start of the question, I think it’s Court of the Owls, and some more books.

AiPT!: We’ve gone through a couple of the monstrous characters in the book. Amancay, how do you approach drawing one of these monstrous characters when it comes to body language and showing their emotions? Is it different from a more “normal” character?

Amancay Nahuelpan: I was actually just talking about this with Steve! One of the challenges is getting these monstrous characters the emotions, the human being emotions, and that’s the goal, to get people to relate to the characters. And through that, the emotions are really important to make them clear in each character and each of the situations they are going through. Soon there will be some other stuff going on with certain characters and all that, so this will probably be the most important thing to keep in mind with working with the characters, that the emotions are there, obviously the body type and all that is primal, but expressing what they’re feeling and going through under certain situations is the most important thing from their point of view.

AiPT!: Who is your favorite character to draw in the book?

Nahuelpan: Frankenstein, for sure. And I really tend to enjoy Orca, for some weird reason. I’m enjoying drawing her right now. But Frankenstein is definitely, no doubt, the number one there.

AiPT!: And Steve, who’s your favorite character to write in the book, right now?

Orlando: As I said, everyone’s going to say Frankenstein because he’s the best. I really love the Frankenstein and Croc dynamic in many ways. To give a more specific answer, I think Croc’s journey as an ex-con, starting from his lowest, is the most relatable of any of them. His pain is very real in the moment. I love how Frankenstein knows what it’s like to be looked at as a monster, he’s been doing it for over 100 years, so he knows how to play Croc in different ways, though that’ll probably come back to bite him in the ass as the book goes on.

AiPT!: Given the choice of the antagonist of the book, revealed at the end of the first issue, how do you feel this series fits into the DC landscape right now? Melmoth isn’t a villain that most readers are familiar with.

Orlando: Well, the book is supported by the things going on in the greater DC landscape, but it’s not a book that you have to know about more than we give you in the book. In some ways, Melmoth is one of many people trying to solve what’s going on in the DC universe. And the difference is, he’s operating in the shadows, he’s operating underfoot. He says later on in the book, he doesn’t want Gotham from Bane. Gotham is Bane’s city. He’s happy to just scurry through the shadows and just steal from Bane’s city. He’s got bigger aims, he wants to save the entire multiverse. And so it’s a reaction to things going on in Justice League, it’s a reaction to things going on in City of Bane and Event Leviathan, but the fact is that all of these paths that are going on in different books all connect with Gotham City Monsters, and that’s where our story kicks off. These events are the foundation to finally bring these characters back into the spotlight and tell this incredibly horrific and incredibly action-packed and personal story, but they are also not books you have to follow otherwise because those feature other characters.

All you have to know is provided by Melmoth, Frankenstein, and what’s always between them – there’s a grave danger facing reality and existence, and Melmoth wants to essentially use his “ends justify the means” way of saving people, which is what he wanted to do in Seven Soldiers, and Frank is there to say, “The ends matter. People matter. And I’m here to stand in your way.” And that’s the core conflict of the book. That’s the real thing and the real question going forward is not necessarily “is this book going to solve what’s going on in Justice League?” The questions with the multiverse and the hole in the source wall, that’s an opportunity to tell you this story about two ways to save the world, one horrific and one intensely personal, and the battle between those two.

AiPT!: Could you two discuss how your collaboration has been? Steve, how have you adjusted your writing for Amancay, and how have the scripts for you, Amancay, worked in comparison to other books you’ve worked on?

Orlando: I’ve started with people who I know are interested in it. I prefer to be very collaborative with my scripts, my scripts are in a looser style that gives the most room possible to innovate, and that might seem risky, but the reality is because I trust my collaborators. Books to me are truly a team effort, and this book wouldn’t be what it is without Amancay, and so my job as a writer is to get the ideas and the emotional beats and the images, and then get out of the way so he can tell the story in the best possible, and thus I will toss it over to him.

Nahuelpan: It’s certainly been a great experience working with Steve because of his way the scripts are. They tell me the main ideas of what happens on the page so I don’t get that exact “This panel does this, this panel has this”, it gives me the freedom to work on the layouts and the way that I think would be the most optimal for the page layout. So from that point of view, I have the freedom to help the page, the way I think would probably work better for the story that Steve’s telling, and it’s just been great because it gives me that freedom and that’s something I didn’t have with other writers. If there’s anything to change or whatever, the editors will let me know, but basically, Steve has more experience working with the scripts and all the ideas he brings to the story.

AiPT!: So to talk about the future of the book for a bit, we know that Batwoman will be showing up in the book in the future. Horror as a genre has a history of queer subtext and exploration of queer themes; are there any plans for that kind of exploration in Gotham City Monsters, considering Batwoman is such an iconic openly lesbian character?

Orlando: I mean it’s a book by me, so…. By the way, Red Phantom is also adding to the queer universe of DC Comics, so it’s not just Batwoman actually. But this is a fascinating reminder that there is a lot going on in a lot of characters. But I think the key is that in both Phantom and Batwoman, as queer characters, there’s an aspect to them to help other characters go through what they’re going through and learn about themselves. In my opinion, there unquestionably is an exploration of queer themes, because there wouldn’t be a resolution and there wouldn’t be these characters leading in the path of heroism, if Phantom and Batwoman didn’t have to go through what they did. She’s key there, because so much of what she’s gone through has strengthened her, in her identity as a queer woman, and that allows her to help other people strengthen themselves.

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