Tom Morello's "Orchid" Enters Its Second Act

A band of unlikely heroes, beaten down by a world ravaged by natural disaster and ruled by cruel tyrants, have found purpose in rescuing a rebel leader from public execution, but before it's done, their journey will test not only their skills but their character -- and a mysterious, deadly mask, sought by all for different reasons, could hold the key to their fortunes. "Orchid" #5 is in stores this week from Dark Horse, marking the beginning of the second of three arcs written by Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello and illustrated by Scott Hepburn. In addition to creating and scripting the comic, Morello, who now performs primarily under the Night Watchman moniker, has also released original songs as a soundtrack to each issue.

"Orchid," set in a future world in which a worldwide flood has devastated civilization, sent mankind into a desperate struggle for survival and jumpstarted evolution amongst surviving animal species, tells the story of a young prostitute who is thrust unwittingly onto the world stage when a fleeing rebel takes refuge in her home. Though Orchid is hostile to the clumsy insurrectionist Simon, this matters not at all when they are captured together, along with Orchid's brother, Yehzu. But Simon carries a powerful artifact, a soiled blue mask with a red star worn by the martyred hero General China, a mask that kills anyone who wears it -- with some important exceptions.

Comic Book Resources caught up with Tom Morello to discuss the series so far, the inspiration behind the book, and what's coming up next in "Orchid."

CBR News: You've got one arc of "Orchid" behind you now, but I want to start by talking about some of the big ideas behind this series. This is a very political series, and of course, you're a very political guy. One of the ideas in this series is that ordinary people, in large numbers, can effect change on an oppressive system. Have the real-world events of the past year, like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, affected how you see popular uprisings taking place?

Tom Morello: Well, I've been both involved in and a student of popular uprisings long before Occupy Wall Street. [Laughs] My political inspiration began in my mid-teen years, so I'm no stranger to the concept of people power. But it certainly has been encouraging and inspiring again, from the Arab Spring to the union uprising in Wisconsin this past February and March, to the global Occupy movement, as well, and there has been a degree of synchronicity with the comic book "Orchid," and the political themes of the haves and the have-nots -- or the have-nothings and the have-everythings that is one of the underpinnings of this world.

The title character is a prostitute, and you've previously described her as "the Spartacus of whores." Why choose this particular humble beginning for Orchid, and how does it inform her character throughout the series?

I wanted to write a hero that was from the absolute lowest economic and social rung of the ladder. She's a woman, she's a teenager, she's a sex trade worker, she lives in destitute poverty. Over the course of the twelve issues, it is her challenge to see if she is more than more than the sum of her circumstances. And, you know, she meets different characters along the way that either tempt her to bitterness and anger or inspire her to greater good.

We also see that the mysterious and powerful mask's previous owner, General China, ultimately betrayed his ideals. Why take this route, rather than having him be a proper martyr?

I think it's, one, a more interesting narrative twist, and, two, despite the ideals that are held by revolutionaries when they're in the midst of a fight, they often turn into the thing they despise the most when captured. That's not quite analogous to the General China story, but I wanted this character to be very human, and one of the things that keeps people in their daily lives from action is fear of repeated failure or regret. And that's one of the questions here -- can you overcome your own past? Can you transcend your own sins to forge a new self?

Speaking on this idea of sin, issue #2 begins with a pretty direct Noah's Ark analogue, with the world being drowned in flood. But in your world, there isn't much of a fresh start. To your mind, is this the direction culture would take if everything we have now was washed away?

Well, it's certainly the direction culture could take even if things aren't washed away! [Laughs] I wanted to use as a starting point that basically resetting the clock to Year Zero and throwing the roulette world into spin as far as who would rise and who would fall in a world without any rules. It's basically people living at a pre-Medieval level but there's this technology laying around that could be harness, and [I look at] how that affects people and creates the particular economic and social imbalance in "Orchid."

The first arc introduces the mysterious mask and sets our heroes on a quest to rescue the rebel leader Anzio. How does this quest help to define Orchid and her companions, as they go from what they were to what they're becoming?

The three main characters in the first arc, Orchid, Opal and Simon, they're all very damaged in some way. Simon suffers from delusions of grandeur -- I don't think it's much of a spoiler because it happens in issue #4, but this rebellion he's been talking about basically consists of seven people, five of which are dead. And then there's Orchid, whose entire life has solely revolved around survival, and Opal, who has this terrific stain on her past which has caused her to live her entire life in shame. That's our superhero team! [Laughs] I like the idea of it being this kind of "island of misfit toys," and yet we'll see as we move on whether they'll be able to bring things out of each other that help them to move on and to heal and help their cause.

There are plenty of surprises along the way. The first arc ends with issue #4, and there are many unexpected twists there.

One of the really interesting characters to me is one of the warlord Tomo Wolfe's lieutenants, Don Barrabas -- the man of nature under the thrall of the city. What does he represent to the fallen world of "Orchid?"

Yeah, the two lieutenants of Tomo Wolfe are Don Barrabas and Don Gletkin. Don Gletkin whose hold on power is retro, monster, robot firepower, and Don Barrabas, whose strength lies in him being a badass Dr. Doolittle, who can control wildlife. Both of them are, in a way, owned and manipulated by the leader, who plays them like puppet strings for his own ends. I wanted there to be that juxtaposition between Gletkin's reliance on the technology of the old world and Barrabas who is very much a creature of this new world, where it's not clear at all what the boundaries of morality are. Barrabas is someone who hates all humans except for Tomo Wolfe, to whom he's devoted. Though they are the "villains," they are human, the cruelty within Don Barrabas is due in part to the horrendous abuse he endured from his childhood. In future issues, we learn Tomo Wolfe's back story, as well. They're not these kind of cookie-cutter bad guys who are just born evil. Their relationship and reliance on one another is part of the book.

You now have a complete arc's' worth of pages from artist Scott Hepburn. What does his style bring to the story you're telling? What can you tell us about how you work together?

Scott is fantastic. It took a year to find the right illustrator for "Orchid." Some of the biggest names of comics illustrators threw their hats in the ring. I found out that the creative team of putting together a comic is not dissimilar to a rock band, in that it's not just who's the best, technically-adept drummer, it's the chemistry you have together that both makes it enjoyable and makes the best final product. When Scott and I first connected, it was immediate, I knew he was the right guy. The first thing he did was send over sketches of his ideas for Orchid and Anzio, I thought they looked fantastic -- they weren't just how I imagined the characters, his sketches improved upon how I saw the characters. And he, of course, is a veteran of comic illustration, the "Star Wars" series -- he's a great cinematographer, in a way, and that helps me as a first-time writer. I have a million ideas, but reining them in, to go panel by panel, issue by issue, Scott was tremendously helpful.

You're also offering a download of new music with each issue. How do you feel that's complemented the comic or fits in with your own creative process?

Much like the story itself, the music unfolds over twelve issues, and the idea was to have a musical score for "Orchid." I've done extensive amounts of scoring for films, and I like the idea of doing a musical score for a comic. So I'm able to use that skill set in the realm of "Orchid." It's really fun.

It also helps build a bridge between fans of my music who may never have bought a comic -- it's maybe the spoonful of sugar to help introduce them to the world of "Orchid." It's also for comic book fans who might not be familiar with Rage Against the Machine or Audioslave or the Night Watchman, it gives a fuller picture of who I am as an artist.

Great. So what can you tell us about the series' second arc, beginning in this week's #5?

Over the course of the twelve issues, it's a story that begins in a very small way, in the backwater [community] of the bridge people, with small family dramas, the hopes and desires of the misfits. In the second arc, it begins branching out pretty tremendously, to the wider world and the struggle for power in that world between contending forces. We lose some major characters, major characters are introduced, and it's all ramping up toward the final arc, where the personal politics of the first arc are played out on a more global scale.

Now that you've started working in comics, are thinking about a follow-up for after "Orchid?"

I have no plans right now. The reason I'm doing "Orchid" is, I have a story to tell. I have a passionate commitment to this tale and these characters. I have no plans beyond that. I love doing this, though, I'll tell you that. This is not a story that I farm out to anybody -- every T is crossed and every I is dotted by me. I oversee every aspect of it, from the advertising to the mastering of the songs... I'm very proud of it, I take it very, very personally, and I'm all in for "Orchid." But I don't have any plans. We'll see at the end of this, where the world of "Orchid" stands. If I were to do anything else beyond "Orchid," it would be in the same world.

[I want to give my] thanks to the fans and readers. As someone who was an avid collector in my youth and has returned to it in the last ten years or so, it's awesome to be in this comics world. It's so trippy to spend time at the conventions and stuff, to immerse myself in the wonderful and crazy world of comics!

Tom Morello's "Orchid" #5 is on sale now.

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