When comic book writer Steve Orlando announced he would be stepping away from his exclusive contract at DC Comics, where he’d written Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter, he expressed his desire to push boundaries even further in his future writing projects. Commanders in Crisis, Orlando’s first official release as a freelancer, delivers on that promise, plunging the reader into a multiversal event story that feels immediately relevant.
In the first few pages alone, Orlando’s team of unassuming heroes must take on time-traveling emotion bandits, who are bent on stealing the hope from the present because there’s none left in the future. What’s unknown to the people being saving is that these heroes are not from this galaxy. In fact, Prizefighter, Seer, Sawbones, Originator, and Frontier are the last heroes of their destroyed worlds. When the idea of compassion itself is murdered, the heroes must solve a case of “Idea-icide” which threatens existence itself.
While Commanders in Crisis calls back to Orlando’s previous works like Doom Patrol: Milk Wars and Thunderbolts, he says that the world-building he did with Italian artist Davide Tinto (Marvel Action Spider-Man) feels fresh and very of this particular moment. Even while the heroes themselves — Prizefighter, a Superman-like character only as strong as the crowd wants him to be; Seer, a quantum god only able to use her powers for one minute at a time; Originator, a hero with the ability to shift reality with words — are rooted in superhero mythos, their powers reflect on the current state of the world. The idea of a reality-altering “crisis” is a common trope in superhero comics, as seen in events like Secret Wars or the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths, which Orlando says made for a natural way to introduce a new set of modern heroes.
“I had all these sort of strange superhero ideas I wanted to work with. I figured why not try to put it into one universe and use an event, which is kind of current to the moment, to launch this universe,” Orlando tells SYFY WIRE. “The challenge is bigger here but at the same time, it’s similar. We can get people in the door with tropes that they are relatively familiar with. We had the Crisis on Infinite Earths TV event, so I think a lot of these storytelling methods are more mainstream than they were in the past.”
Commanders in Crisis looks back to past crises in order to reflect the very real one the country faces today.
“There’s this doom from books in the ‘80s like Watchmen,” Orlando says. “We’re living in a moment like that. So I wanted to have an angle of something that needed to be defeated that couldn’t just be punched in the face.”
In the first issue, readers get a glimpse of a very divided America. In Congress, senators spew fiery rhetoric pushing the pending "The American Individuality Act," a law that would establish 52 individual nation-states.
“The funny thing about that piece was when I started writing this book a year ago, that part felt ludicrous. The eerie thing that is even more and more it seems to be plausible. We thought about how we could dramatize this idea that we’re supposed to stick together but there are factions in the country that just don’t like each other. So, how do you combine that with something like America First?” Orlando says.
Commanders in Crisis’ characters are also topical riffs on established tropes. Both Orlando and Tinto have settled on Prizefighter as their favorite among the group. A superhuman whose strength is directly tied to the people he’s fighting for. Prizefighter notably has hints of his creator, Orlando admits.
“He’s not exactly like any other queer character I’ve written like before,” Orlando says, referring to his time writing a six-issue limited series about Midnight and Apollo, two of DC’s most prominent gay heroes. “[Prizefighter] has the brazenness of Midnighter but the sort of confrontational hope of someone like Superman. He’s not a guy who’s going to explode your brain Authority-style, but he’s also got the privilege of being invulnerable, and knows for better or for worse, that when he creates a meme-able moment like that he’s only going to get stronger. I used to say that Midnighter is just me as a superhero, but Prizefighter is much more like me, because I’m obsessed with outside validation, I like combat sports, I like the show business of wrestling, I love the costuming and presentation and that’s all in that character.”
Tinto tells SYFY WIRE that he wanted the character to look like a real fighter from a very similar era to the ‘40s, so he opted for bandages on Prizefighter's hands, typical of a bar fight.
“I love all the scenes where he shows his strength. A little arrogant but with discretion and never fails to show his beautiful smile,” Tinto says.
Orlando says Tinto’s art and style offer prospective readers an entry point into his strange new world.
“I think his art is the perfect spoonful of sugar,” Orlando says. “The welcoming art of this book is the Virgil of this journey, bringing you through this strange idea hell that I’ve created. I’m the weird one and Davide is the cool one, saying ‘Why don’t you listen to this guy.’”
It’s a great creative match, and the unity between writer and artist is, in a way, reflective of Commanders in Crisis’ core theme. Compassion and teamwork matter, so what happens when people give up on the very idea of uniting?
“If we can’t care about the pain and suffering of someone we’ll never meet, there’s no future going forward, not just for this country, but the world,” he says. “That’s why it’s such an important idea. We can be reminded that we need to care and show love for people and that’s what I want in the works that I do.”
The first issue of Commanders in Crisis arrives on Oct. 14 from Image Comics.