Originally launched as a Kickstarter back in 2013, Virgil is hitting the direct comic market by storm this September as a complete graphic novel from Image Comics. Writer Steve Orlando [Midnighter] has returned to Comicosity to share his thoughts on writing cross-culturally, and diving into the genre of queersploitation, played out in a tale of a closeted gay man whose friends were murdered and his lover kidnapped — and what he’ll do to get him back.
Matt Santori: Virgil is a very different piece centered on a gay character than those we’ve seen in recent years. In the past, we saw a lot of coming out stories. We’ve seen a lot of out characters. But we haven’t seen many stories of late about being in the closet, particularly in a place geographically where that is such a dangerous proposition.
How did that scenario evolve for you in beginning the project and why was it an important aspect for you to focus upon?
Steve Orlando: When it comes to Virgil, I wouldn’t say he is 100% in closet. He does have a circle of queer friends and is certainly in a relationship. But he’s not out at work, to say the least. The idea for that came to me from looking at where we’re going in Jamaica. As you say, it is a dangerous proposition. I just rewatched the short Jamaican documentary, Gully Queens. People, on a day-to-day basis, are threatened with death. Some are even actually living in a storm drain, because there’s nowhere else for you to go when you’re gay and lesbian in Jamaica.
I knew that I also wanted to play on the idea of power, as Virgil is a policeman — ostensibly in a position of power. But until he’s pulled out of the closet, he doesn’t really attain true power. It’s once he sheds all the normal phenotypes of power — his badge, his gun — that he really becomes powerful in the story.
MSG: You see that evolution throughout the book, definitely.
Since it’s been such a topic of conversation lately, I really want to go here off the bat. How do you prepare to write a character whose background — race, environment, cultural conditions — are so different from your own?
SO: Well, all it takes is respect and research. When it comes down to giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice, or telling a story that you feel needs to be told, it’s all about immersing yourself in what you can — reports of the culture, and first-hand accounts of people who are living there from day to day — so that you can create characters that do depict those things. You can create worlds and situations that are telling of that area, and not necessarily exploitative of those people in a negative way.
Certainly, it is exploitation fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are drawing on people different from ourselves as caricatures. I think a lot of the problems come into it when you approach work without enough familiarity. In most of these cases, there are good intentions, but not enough cultural ammunition to do a topic justice.
In the case of Virgil, on one hand, being queer myself I wouldn’t say that our experiences are 100% dissimilar. Certainly, I am not a man of color. Certainly, I do not live in Jamaica. But there are experiences that you can focus on and put in emotionally that aren’t necessarily universal, but apply. As someone who grew up in a conservative region of central New York, I certainly understand that point of view. Being a man of color in Jamaica, I don’t understand.
But what I can absolutely do is read personal accounts of people who are. I can follow the news there, and make sure that things that appear in the book are things that have actually happened. They are not extrapolations or possibilities. And by doing that, you can ensure that the book is accurate. I’ve spoken to people, especially since the Kickstarter outreach, and connected to them and heard their experiences there. And you put that into drafts, into revisions, and into the story going forward.
So, when it comes to depicting characters that are not 100% like you, it comes down not just to good intentions, but to respect. That is, to research these topics and give them all the facets and multi-layer presentation they deserve.
MSG: You mentioned getting feedback while producing the four-part Kickstarter mini-series. Can you share some of the reaction you received at that point and how it’s informed or reinforced your thoughts on the book as a whole?
SO: You know, the response was universally positive to the book. But the most important responses to me were those people who had seen or read about the book who were actually in Jamaica. Certainly other queer readers were excited to have this book in the world, being this type of aggressive tale for them, but having people email me that were excited that someone was talking about being gay in Jamaica was what excited me.
For the collected edition arriving in September, I asked one of the people from Jamaica who reached out to me write a little bit about it to be published on the back of the book.
MSG: We don’t really see as much of the genre of exploitation fiction — particularly queersploitation — as you’d think, even today. There’s been pockets of it, like Greg Araki’s work in the 1990s, but it feels like we’re still living with a bias toward only positive representations of queer identity. Can you talk about your interest in the genre and how it led you to create Virgil?
SO: As someone who came up watching exploitation films and seeing these kinds of heroes, I like the rawness of the genre. I think it’s unrefined in many ways. Films like Sweet Sweetback or Coffy have an anger behind them that sums up the struggles of a group (in these cases, the African-American community). In the case of the queer community — and the even more oppressed on-the-micro-level queer Jamaican community — I like the honesty that comes with that. There’s an unrefined, low-fi nature to the book.
That’s not to say we did one draft of Virgil and it was done, but I like the lack of pretension in it. I hesitate to say it’s a negative representation. What I think it is, in emulating exploitation fiction, is the idea of addressing the problems of the Jamaican gay community and not just looking without, but looking within. You saw that in blaxploitation pieces. It’s not just stresses from the outside. It’s stresses from the inside as well. It’s the idea that you need to address all of these problems.
And we do that, hopefully, in Virgil. He is in some ways his own worst enemy, with his negativity and outlook on life at the beginning. But then he grows into a different and more confident person as the book goes on. That appeal to me comes from the power behind those films and books. It’s the same idea behind novelists publishing in Russia during the Soviet period. There are people who just have a message that is so raw and so primal that they need to tell it. And they don’t have time for frills or bells and whistles.
That’s what was appealing to me about the genre. I really wanted to find a story that spoke to me in that way, that let me have that message. Yes, there’s a lot of unrest in the queer community today. There’s a lot of unrest in the African-American community today. Interestingly, I approached the book first as depicting queer characters. Then, as I realized there was more to say, by digging into an area that was even more unwelcoming to the gay community, it became a situation where I had to research the Jamaican side of the characters.
To me, they were queer characters first, and in many ways they still are, but that setting is such a tinder box and so raw right now. If we were doing exploitation, that unhidden meat was so important. It’s where we had to go.
MSG: Tell me about the artistic team you assembled for the book — J.D. Faith on pencils/inks, Chris Beckett on colors, and Thomas Mauer on letters/design.
SO: The initial project with J.D. was a nice example of how the comics community is always growing. You meet people and then the right project comes along and you can work together. J.D. and I were acquainted through other people I was pitching with years ago. Then we were both in an anthology called Nobodies a few years back. I hadn’t really seen his work, but when I got my comps of the book, I thought, “Wow. This guy is great.”
So, I reached out to him and it turns out, we liked a lot of the same things. For J.D., it wasn’t even about wanting to do a book with queer content. He wanted to do noir and something new with noir, to be able to play with these visual storytelling styles. That was the appeal for him, to dig in and do something different with this type of story. Looking at his work and his passion for those types of themes, I knew he was the right guy.
With Chris Beckett, I wanted to bring some queer creators onto the book, and I hadn’t really known Chris, but who did know him were my editors at Vertigo. They knew that Chris had been looking to do some color work. He’d done some work on Supergirl, so I sent him a picture of my dog reading a comic, and that was it. We decided we should work together.
And not just that, but to work with J.D. to develop a style that was unique to the book. Chris’s style before had been very different, but through collaboration and figuring out how he and J.D. could make each other’s work better, they created the style of Virgil.
Thomas is just one of my secret weapons. I’ve known him for almost fifteen years. He was a designer on Top Gun and works on Rasputin. When you need a guy who can get things done on time and know what I’m looking for without my even saying it — maybe sometimes even better than I’m saying it — he’s the guy. I was happy to bring him on.
MSG: As the collection comes out this September, any last things you’d like the fans to know to encourage them to check out the book?
SO: I think it’s an important book. It’s a raw book. And it’s one of the first of its kind to present a gay lead in the way that it does. I always hesitate to say it’s the only book to do what it’s doing, because that’s not true. There are people who aren’t in the position I’m in right now — and hopefully someday they will be, to say what I’m saying, but even louder.
But I also don’t want to sell it as a book with a gay lead. I want you to check it out for being an amazing action book, a two-fisted crime book, from creators who have never done this before. It’s my 80s action movie put smack in the middle of Jamaica with a gay lead. There’s the one-liners, the extreme violence, and the unbridled passion that makes us love these revenge tales so much. That to me is just as important.
Final order cut-off for the Virgil graphic novel is August 17. Call your comic shop today to get your pre-order in for September release from Image Comics!