Neon Noir: The Art and Style of ‘Virgil’ with JD Faith, Chris Beckett and Tom Mauer [Interview]
A few weeks ago, ComicsAlliance had a nice long chat with writer Steve Orlando about Virgil, the queersploitation graphic novel set in Kingston, Jamaica that he's been working on with artist J.D. Faith, colorist Chris Beckett, and letterer Tom Mauer. In honor of the book's release, we sat down with Faith, Beckett, and Mauer to hear about their experiences working on the book, and how they operated together as a team.
ComicsAlliance: Virgil has been described as a queersploitation comic, and we’ve recently seen success with other exploitation books, like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet or Bilquis Evely and David F. Walker’s Shaft. One thing I note with all three is that exploitation film has largely been cited as a primary influence, rather than exploitation comics. More and more often, we’ve begun talking about comics as being 'cinematic', and film is a visual medium, certainly — but the two methods still provide different experiences. How did the visual elements of exploitation film inform your artistic choices for Virgil? And what did you do with the comic that couldn’t have been done in, say, the Virgil Cinematic Universe?
J.D. Faith: I wanted to avoid any sense of irony — every emotion, when necessary, is pumped up to eleven. Kill Bill was the film I kept going back to. Its moments of tenderness were genuinely tender, which made the ludicrously gory action more impactful.
Virgil's gore in particular was inspired by the unfettered excess of exploitation and trash cinema. It just wouldn't feel right without it!
CA: With Virgil, I’m thinking a lot about color, particularly about the relationship between color and resistance. J.D., you mentioned “neon noir” (as seen in, for example, Drive) as part of your inspiration in your interview with Sktchd, specifically noting that you didn’t want to make "another desaturated crime comic" — a resistance against the genre standard.
There’s also an argument to be had about the color of Caribbean houses and buildings as resisting European colonialism. And then, the thing that occurred to me recently is the role of color — e.g., the rainbow flag — in the Western queer movement. Do you guys have any thoughts on that possible relationship? Has the theme of resistance affected parts of your process with Virgil, given that the story itself is one of resistance?
Chris Beckett: That's definitely an interesting thought, particularly about resistance against the genre standard. It's not something I was consciously going for, but I'm glad that it falls in line with the story that we're trying to tell.
I knew going in that we were looking to do bright pops in a world of darkness, and I tried more to play up that dichotomy. At first I wanted to focus in on more green and yellow as those are the colors of the Jamaican flag, but as I got more involved with the book, I tried to utilize each color of the rainbow to differentiate the scenes. You'll see a fight scene in harsh bright orange, another blanketed in red, a flashback in violet.
JF: The neon pink particularly is a rejection of the masculine misogyny so associated with action and crime fiction. I splattered the pink blood across the logo for that reason — if you look at the poster art for, say, the Taken films, they're about as colorless as you can get, save for some manly red. Virgil is blindingly colorful, which doubles as making the book more exciting and gives us another tool for expressing emotion.
Honestly, I prefer my projects to be bright and colorful. I can't think of any benefits to a desaturated palette other than convincing people that your comic is very mature and serious. Unless I do something desaturated soon, in which case ignore this!
Tom Mauer: Pink is a visual queue Steve also wanted in Undertow. To me, it's a conscious design choice, similar to [Jonathan] Hickman's repeating design elements on his Image books.
CA: J.D., I want to chat a bit about 'neon noir' and unpack it more, because, as much as Virgil is about Chris’ colors providing the neon, your line art — and a lot of the character positioning — in the book is very much about silhouette and shadow. The essence of noir is still very much there. Did the knowledge that the book was going to be brightly-colored change anything about how you did your art? Did it take effort to make it noir but not overpower the neon?
JF: That's about it, yeah. Particularly with comics, which involve creating a black and white image and then coloring it in, a different colorist could have resulted in a completely different feeling book.
Despite my aesthetic preferences, there's not a whole lot I can do in the ink phase to say that I want a colorful book. I'm forced to think in black & white, using my love of Alex Toth to try and create strong chiaroscuro compositions. 'Neon noir', for me, just means taking high contrast compositions and filling them with as much color as possible.
That said, there are still plenty of "for color" panels — meaning I drew panels with a lot of blank space knowing that Chris would fill in the gaps and make them work with his choices.
CA: And Chris, I can only imagine what it’s like to be able to let loose with bright colors the way you’ve done here. What concepts guided you throughout the project?
CB: Working on Virgil was definitely a different experience than most of the projects I've worked on in my career. I've spent a bit of time at DC Comics working on big action superheroics and a small run on a number of Cartoon Network books that was geared towards more bright, flashy, cartoonish colors.
Compared to those projects, Virgil is a completely different beast and a welcome change! Steve and J.D. were really looking forward to pushing the neon noir vibe, and it really got me pumped to play around with some wild color schemes. For example: we made a conscious decision to really amp up the saturation on the intense amount of blood scattered throughout the book. It's a strong magenta rather than a deep red and gives the story a much more intense charge. Coupling that with the cool and romantic hues I've associated with Virgil and Ervan's relationship brings a pretty stark contrast to love and war.
CA: I know none of you managed to make it to Jamaica, so I’m curious about the research for the project. Google is everyone’s go-to, and pictures of Kingston itself are great — but I’m more interested in what you found or were influenced by that you didn’t expect at the outset.
CB: I watched Gully Queens, the documentary that inspired Steve. I also picked up some gorgeous picture books of Jamaica from my local library. I think it's really easy to water Jamaica down to the resorts and rum drinks, which is unfortunate since it's so much more than that. There's a really great scene right towards the beginning of the book where Steve pulls back the curtain on the resort atmosphere right before digging into the opening bits of violence. It's a great contrast.
JF: For me, I was really drawn to the ramshackle beauty of the slums — which is a good thing, because that's where a significant part of the book takes place. The glamour of the resorts is something that's constantly out of reach for our characters; a facade that glitters in the distance.
I was able to stick pretty closely to the reference I found, honestly. I changed or exaggerated bits to heighten scenes emotionally, but the contrasts already present in the city made the perfect backdrop for our story both visually and thematically.
CA: Tom, could you say a little bit about your stylistic choices for the lettering in Virgil?
TM: The font I chose has a more scratchy, dynamic, and urgent design than the fonts I usually go for in comics such as Undertow or Rasputin. It evokes a subtle feeling of trash cinema aesthetics. I try to integrate the lettering as much as possible with the artwork so it enhances rather than distracts or draws attention to itself. I'd actually used the same font on another successful Kickstarter comic before, The Package by Elliot Blake and Alexis Ziritt.
CA: Every team and every working style is different, so a new configuration of people often leads to new influences and new perspective. I’m especially interested when these things happen across roles (e.g., colorists influencing artists, letterers influencing colorists, and so on). Did any of that happen while you worked on Virgil?
CB: I worked pretty closely with Steve and J.D.. At times I found myself getting a bit more complicated in the colors and J.D. would step in and remind me that we're going for simple and bold. It's nice surrounding yourself with folks who want to put out the best product possible.
JF: Knowing how accomplished Chris was and is as a colorist really let me relax and trust his choices. I felt like I could do most anything and have it come out alright. The whole team was really great, which is definitely something that helps a lot when you're working on a comic.
CA: I’ve found that fight scenes are often some of the most revealing aspects when it comes to the cohesiveness of creative team. When you see a great one, you know a team is speaking the same language, because it requires a script that gives room for art, art that gives room for colors, and lettering/sound effects. Any amount of selfishness in a given dimension results in it falling flat. Can you guys say a little bit about what went into coordinating the fights in Virgil?
CB: Fight scenes can definitely be tough, especially when there's just a ton of characters involved. My goal is to make sure the focus is shifting accordingly and to ensure the story is being told and the eye is directed to the right beats at the right time.
JF: I drew diagrams! Lots of diagrams. Virgil's house, particularly, required a floorplan to be drawn up. The script has a lot of really well thought out choreography, so I didn't want to take away from that by mucking up the meticulous staging. I love storytelling and I hate drawing pinups, so there (hopefully) was never any concern over my showboating overshadowing the emotional beats of the scripting.
Like I said above, it was nice to know that I could trust Chris to use his colors to clarify/boost staging and tie everything together while Thomas placed the balloons perfectly to avoid clutter.
TM: I joined the team pretty late in the game, so the design discussion for the lettering was pretty brief. Steve and I have been working together for years and I know what he's looking for by now. J.D.'s compositions were great for the lettering placements. A joy to work on the book especially since the whole package gave me a righteous justice kick while working, as good exploitation fiction should.
CA: This was my last question to Steve and I’d like to hear your answers too — what was your big takeaway from the creative process of the book? And what would you like readers to take away from their experience?
CB: Honestly, I was out of the comics scene for a few years and was looking for a project to dip my toe back into the industry. I signed on originally for the Kickstarter’s seven-page preview, fully prepared to not reach the goal.
After some insane hustling by Steve, though, we managed to go pretty high over our goal. Suddenly seven pages turned into ninety and I found myself knee deep in comics again!
On top of that, I was trying out a style a bit different than what I was accustomed to, so I definitely felt the pressure. But, man, it was such a great experience working with everyone and meeting Steve and sharing wine and seafood with him. I felt pretty jaded with comics when I left back in 2012, but this was such a fantastic experience through and through that I've already started looking for new projects.
JF: I've long held the belief that genre fiction is one of the best vehicles for expressing complex ideas in a relatable fashion. Virgil strengthened that, showing me that something as simple as an action/revenge story can start a dialogue about something that people just aren't talking about and, maybe, provide some catharsis.
TM: I can only echo what JD's said: it's great that we can tackle issues in pulp fiction, sneak it in and thus raise awareness via entertainment. It's guerilla art.
Virgil is in stores now, published by Image Comics.