Coming Out Stronger: Steve Orlando Talks Respect, Sexuality, and Violence in ‘Virgil’
Virgil is a project long in the making. The creative team of Steve Orlando, J.D. Faith, Chris Beckett, and Tom Mauer first launched the story in August 2013 as a "queersploitation" graphic novel publicly funded by Kickstarter. At Image Expo in July, Image announced that the book would join its upcoming line-up and receive a wider distribution, which was great news for the team’s fans.
The graphic novel is set in Kingston, Jamaica --- a country where anti-gay violence is unfortunately prevalent --- and follows the story of Virgil, a police officer on a mission of violent revenge after his boyfriend is kidnapped. ComicsAlliance sat down with writer Steve Orlando to talk about queersploitation, inspiration, and representation.
ComicsAlliance: Virgil is in a unique role in the book, because as a police officer he’s part and parcel of the some of the anti-gay violence that he ends up railing against. Though perhaps not in such an obvious or direct manner, participation in oppression for the sake of survival is a pretty common (and understandable) thing with 'passing' marginalized people. What was the significance, for you, in putting him in this position?
Steve Orlando: To me, this is key to the book’s examination of power. Virgil begins the book in fear, hiding behind the biggest icons of power he can think of --- a gun and a badge. But because they’re ultimately a deception, they’re in reality a way for him to hold himself back. It’s by shedding the common symbols of power and coming into his own as a confident, bold gay man, that he attains true power.
Virgil is about Virgil-the-character’s personal journey. When the story begins, he’s not as strong as he could be. His strength is more conventionally masculine --- tough talk, visiting brothels, drinking with the boys... but it’s more of a boast, less of a reality. More pompous, but with little conviction. So much of conventional power structures, conventional masculinity, is based on posturing. Threat displays in the wild. And Virgil at first buys into that. He’s not ready to take on the system yet, because he thinks he’s too small. He is a victim of inertia, like so many of us.
And to have him begin there is to have him develop. To fight and change. I’m already doing a book about a gay superhero (Midnighter) --- exciting in its own unique way. But this is different. Virgil isn’t about a superhero. It’s about a man forced to face himself and come out better and stronger on the other side. It’s about someone who is indelibly human --- who, like all of us, is sometimes his worst enemy. Sometimes he makes the wrong call. Sometimes he trusts when he shouldn’t, and doesn’t trust when he should. He’s not perfect. And I didn’t want to have him start out with this superheroic strength, this unearthly perfection.
Virgil has fears, he’s made mistakes. But his conviction drives him on --- so that by the fight’s end he’s become mythic. He’s discovered true, primal power, through the strength of his convictions.
CA: You make a point to show Virgil’s queer family, his support network, and acknowledge the existence of an actual community of queer people in Kingston — not just him or his boyfriend as lone wolves. We see them at home, but we also see them out in dance halls. Super interesting, since "dancehall homophobia" has become the way to describe an entire culture of oppression. I’d be interested to hear what you learned in your research about queer Jamaican communities. Did you talk to anyone who is living or has lived it?
SO: I have! In the case of the dance hall scene in the book, I was inspired by reports of how queer events such as this would, by necessity, sort of be pop-up dance halls. In basements, hidden areas. Because anything else would be unsafe. Violence is the day-to-day fact of life for the people on the ground, and they fight for moments that we may take for granted in the greater queer community.
When it comes to research, like anyone, I was at first surprised to see Jamaica named as "the most homophobic place on Earth" years back in Time Magazine. But that was also the spark that got me reading and digging into the culture and history. And in the present day, there’s no excuse not to research.
In fact it’s the responsibility of a creator to do this research, it’s part and parcel to the job. No matter what you’re tackling, you must approach it with respect and research. And it’s shockingly easy to find reports and accounts of the queer community’s struggle in Jamaica. Often, anti-gay violence is even shared on social media.
Vice Media’s Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens is a great primer, detailing the “Rich Queens” and the “Scary Queens” in Jamaica’s queer community, as well as the existence of the “Gully,” a large storm drain that is home to many of Jamaica’s homeless queer folk. The accounts are stark and shocking, as the documentary opens: “Homosexuals in Jamaica don’t have any hope.”
And research shows that the tension is pervasive. I read numerous newspaper reports on the violence, about sex work in Jamaica in general. And through social media there are personal accounts, people speaking about what it’s like day to day on the ground. And since the initial Kickstarter there has been outreach from people who are on the ground, directly contacting me --- happy the story is being told.
Our conversations influenced the final version of the book being released, and that outreach has been invaluable to me. And again shocking, is that during our conversations, which took place over a period of about a week, some people who said they previously hadn’t personally experienced violence said that two of their friends had been attacked.
And dancehall is just one negative stressor, along with religion and extreme masculinity and an over-a-century-old anti-buggery law that is still on the books. These structures enforce a false truth about homosexuality, that it in some way is a threat to masculinity. They enforce the lie that homosexuals are all pedophiles.
Dancehall lyrics have definitely influenced the book; in fact they appear in some of our villain dialog. And it’s easy to see the harm it does, how the music stokes the fire, with so much of it openly calling for the death of homosexuals, calling for violence against gay men and women.
It’s one of the purest expressions of what Virgil is punching back against.
But it’s also important to mention the other side of research --- the discovery of the heroes who are working for change. Individuals who have left Jamaica returning, braving death threats to try to help the community still living there. They’re trying to repeal bigoted laws, trying to change minds. And there are groups like JFLAG, working to protect and offer solutions to the community.
As you talked about communities --- it’s a huge part of the culture. Since the majority of Jamaica’s queer community have left home and are on their own, many pseudo families are created. With the community as a whole banding together to create something of a normalized life in a world that is aggressive to them at every turn.
CA: David F. Walker, blaxsploitation scholar and current writer of DC’s Cyborg, wrote the foreword for the graphic novel, and I’d love to know something about the conversations you guys may have had about the exploitation genre. How did you find they shaped the narrative, if at all?
SO: My talks with David influenced the upcoming release of the book -- which has been refreshed from the Kickstarter version. It’s telling of the opportunity that doing the Kickstarter release, which was limited to our backers, and then taking the two intervening years to build on the book and further refine it once we had a document to show people. And that’s both people on the ground in Jamaica, as I mentioned above, and people versed in blaxploitation, like David.
When I mentioned I was going a queersploitation revenge book to David, it was right after he told me he wrote Shaft. Obviously I was excited, Shaft is one of my favorite characters in general, and David is incredibly intelligent. So I knew I had to show him the book.
But even then I am not sure he knew what to expect until he read it. And as he learned, exploitation is the purest expression of what we were trying to do. It’s the good and the bad within the community. It’s raw, primal unrest. Often unrefined, lo-fi. It’s a story that just needs to be told. Talking the book through with David made me bolder. It made me better understand what exploitation is and why it’s important. It made me more confident that this was a book ready for the grander stage.
But just because a story is bold and bombastic doesn’t mean it can’t be focused. And talking to David, reading his Shaft, helped me better focus the style of the book. The language and the motivations behind the characters. It enriched them, taking them a bit deeper than the archetypes they were. And in that they became truer and more layered than before.
CA: You’ve touched on this a bit already, but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on masculinity and how it plays itself out in Virgil. There's lots in the story about "being a man." A lot of exploitation films rely on sex, violence, and the heterosexual male gaze — which is inherently going to be interrogated with an exploitation book highlighting queerness. Just by having a gay man — and a bottom, at that — going on a violent, rage filled mission, you’re already turning a lot of tropes upside down.
SO: I think masculinity has to be at the forefront in a society with such high tensions about homosexuality. Because a lot of the fear towards homosexuality and gay male sex especially is how it threatens traditional masculinity. Even the wrong headed concept that sometimes pops up that tops have to be masculine, that bottoming is somehow “more gay,” is based on masculinity and gender roles.
And yes, exploitation relies on a frank depiction of sex. I think of the hospital sex scene in Coffy in this, or even earlier with the bold, controversial sex scenes in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. There’s no frills. There’s the reality of sex, unashamed. And so we have to turn those tropes upside down by presenting gay sex scenes with the same raw nature as other heterosexual sex scenes.
And why does masculinity play a role in Virgil? Because Virgil himself inverts those tropes. He’s a confident, strong gay man who embodies some traditional masculine traits, but he’s more complex. And he’s a bottom, which in many cases is the greatest inversion of traditional masculinity. To be a man who is penetrated is perhaps one of the more threatening things for a dogmatic view of masculinity. You are receiving the very symbol of masculinity.
And any structure with so many rules, such a tense definition, is thus fragile.
Someone who can both satisfy some of this dogma, while also subverting other parts of it, is naturally threatening. Traditional masculinity is a fragile thing, relying on blunt character traits that are easily broken down, easily deflated. But anything that is so easily wounded is also thus extremely defensive. And that is where the anger and fear comes from.
CA: Let’s talk language; you use some noticeable Jamaican slang and slurs — but you also chose to, for the most part, write the patois as standard American English, which I thought was an interesting — and really good — choice. What was the thinking behind that?
SO: Well, a lot of that comes from what I mentioned above. Research and respect. When it comes to vernacular and using dialectics, idioms, and the like, a little goes a long way. You obviously run the risk of parody. And so I researched Jamaican names, Jamaican phrases. And I spent years in college with two swimmers from the Jamaican national team, so I had some personal experience with Jamaican slang. You use enough to set the stage, but especially when writing something like a patois, which is shown visibly instead of audibly in a comic, there is a huge risk it will come off wrong. It will always seem stronger and more pronounced. Often too much.
Language is important to the book. In the case of Virgil himself, there’s a noticeable difference between the way he speaks in public and the way he speaks at home with his boyfriend. And to me, when he starts, it’s adding to his facade. It’s part of his masculine play, to fit in. And then once he’s out for revenge, it speaks to his unrefined rage. It speaks to his wading through the worst the world can throw against him, meeting it on its terms, and coming out the better man because of who he is.
And again, it’s all about the takeaways, it’s about thinking ahead and realizing how things can be received by readers who aren’t in your head. There’s a reason that when the book uses slurs, they are not race based, but sexuality based. That is a reality there --- people use horrible language against the queer community. It would not be honest to avoid it. But at the same time, while I know myself well, readers may not know me at all. And so the choice of what kind of aggressive language to use comes from experience, respect, and taste.
CA: When I think of Jamaica and the Caribbean, one of the things that always stands out to me is the use of bright colors in homes and regular buildings — and this book is bursting with color. Was there a trip to Jamaica involved for research? And what was the back-and-forth like with artist J.D. Faith and colorist Chris Beckett?
SO: We did not go to Jamaica, which is unfortunately an economic reality for comics creators. But as with writing the book, an intense amount of research is something that is part of the job. If you’re going off the cuff with something that means so much to so many people, that is real and often life and death for people, you’re not doing your job. And there’s no excuse not to immerse oneself in visual research for a book like this, in the era of Flickr, Deviantart, Instagram. The images are out there, from the city itself, its infrastructure, and the nature encroaching around it.
J.D. came to the book with the idea of creating a signature palette, inspired as you said by the area’s associated bright colors as well as his desire to use color as a storytelling element, as with such crime films as Heat and Drive. Color strengthens the narrative in those films, and that’s what J.D. want to created. And it wasn’t a single effort, but a collaborative effort with Chris Beckett, who developed a new coloring style just for the book.
To me, that’s what makes comics collaboration great --- when it works, it’s a team of people not cutting each other any breaks, [but] making each other better, with an eye on a unique creation that no single member could manifest on their own.
CA: In your interview with The Beat two years ago, you shared that you chose Kingston because you wanted to draw attention to anti-gay violence in Jamaica, given its reputation as a tourist attraction. It’s clear to me that you wanted to shine a light on a topic that many don’t know about, and that you took the responsibility seriously with about six months worth of research.
Still, I think a lot about voices — who gets to talk and who people will listen to. This is a team of white creators on a book about Caribbean characters in a Caribbean country. Did you think about bringing a Caribbean creator onto your team?
SO: With Virgil, the creative team was assembled when we selected the subject matter, a collaborative effort, rather than me coming to the team with the story. First a group of people came together to make a book, and through discussion we landed on Virgil as something that was resonant with us.
But that is not always how the motion goes during a production. And if the idea had come before the creative team, things could have developed differently. In other projects I’m developing right now, they already are. Comics happen in different ways, depending on the spark.
The inciting spark for Virgil was the idea of a team collaborating, which pushed us in one direction. But when the inciting spark is narrative in nature above all, then the conversation should always cover the inclusion of culturally experienced voices in the work. Because in any industry, any creative field, there is always room for new voices at the table.
And as well, while there are white creators working on a book with Caribbean characters of color, there are also two queer creators on the team, on a book about queer characters. And the queer perspective is the first way we approached Virgil, as it was something people on the team did have personal experience with.
In this instance, would I then have asked someone from the team to leave and brought in a new team member? No. But what I did do, as I mentioned above but is also pertinent here, is bring in voices of color to influence the final version of the book being released. And their voices were heard --- there are changes in motivations, in actions take in the book, which happened through my conversations with people living this fight in Jamaica.
And I think it’s important to say I don’t believe specifically that one must be from a given underrepresented group to tell a story featuring that group. Especially taking into mind intersectionality, the truth I think is more complex. In any situation, what is required is respect for the people, passion, and research. And connection with those people when possible.
I understand this desire, as a queer creator who often would read books featuring queer characters and lament their handling by straight creators. But as a queer creator, I recognize the slippery slope of saying only X creators can work on X characters. The desire comes from a need for authenticity, which is completely legitimate.
But as well, I know that were I to be told by someone I could only writer queer characters, that would not be a good thing. [Editor's note: Orlando shared a link to this post in which Christopher J. Priest talks about minority pigeonholing.]
To continue the line of thought in a way that pertains directly to me, instead of putting words in other people’s mouths, when Midnighter was announced many people reached out to me to “make sure I was gay.” And as a bisexual man, I empathize with that impulse. I don’t mind the question, and will always openly speak about it. But I would also point out that Midnighter was created and beautifully rendered by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, two straight creators who nonetheless treated him with respect and passion.
And so what I’m saying is that being from a given group to work on them isn’t obligatory. It’s a great thing when it happens, but not obligatory. What is obligatory is respect. Doing the work that is demanded of you as a creator.
Having said that, while new voices are coming into comics, there is a lot more work to be done. One thing doesn’t mean the other isn’t important. And when the motion of a book’s production moves differently, when the team is not assembled before the subject matter, there’s also no excuse not to do creator outreach. As I mentioned above, I’m pitching books right now [that] feature women of color, in nontraditional relationships, and along with pitching the character itself/herself is pitching the addition of a co-writer to the book with a stronger connection to the group, instead of a queer writer alone.
CA: What was your big takeaway from the creative process of the book, from research to Kickstarter to scripting; the whole thing? And what would you like readers to take away from their experience?
SO: I would say it’s growth. Any comic, any creation, is a living document. I will tweak a script right up until it’s due, and would do so forever if it never was. You can always make something better. And thanks to the opportunity Image Comics has given us to bring Virgil to a larger audience, we have in turn been given an opportunity to hone the book. To return to it as stronger creators and refresh the volume. And to take in another two years of events, of conversations and perspective, that influence how the characters act and the details of how their violent story plays out.
Virgil was always a strong statement. It’s an outed cop, out on the street for revenge, who’s not leaving town without his man and some blood on his hands.
But the process of Virgil, producing the book and having two years to interact with backers, readers, and grow as creators, has let us take what we said and say if even better.
Final order cutoff for Virgil is August 17 2015. Contact your local comic book shop for more details.