Down and Out in Jamaica: Steve Orlando and JD Faith Discuss the Violent, Vibrant “Queersploitation” of Virgil

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Steve Orlando and JD Faith’s neon-and-blood-soaked “queersploitation” comic Virgil surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal two years ago this week, but, much like its embattled protagonist, it’s a book that refuses to stay down. With interest in the story bolstered by Orlando’s DC cult hit Midnighter and his writing credit on the upcoming Batman and Robin Eternal weekly series—not to mention increased conversation around diversity and representation in comics—Virgil hits comic shops today in a revised edition from Image, featuring a striking new cover by Orlando’s Undertow collaborator Artyom Trakhanov.

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Set in Jamaica, a country designated one of the most homophobic places in the world by Time magazine in 2006, Virgil follows the titular character as he’s outed by a police colleague and must rescue his boyfriend from a group of violent bigots. Virgil is a striking example of the neon-noir aesthetic made popular by Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, with a pink-drenched palette established by Faith and colorist Chris Beckett. These stimulating visuals accompany striking violence straight out of the grindhouse exploitation cinema of decades past.

Paste chatted with Orlando and Faith in advance of the book’s Image release to discuss the responsibility of portraying gay life in Jamaica, the inspiration behind the book’s stunning visuals and the changing state of mainstream queer comics.
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Paste: You’ve covered this frequently while doing press for Virgil, but can you talk a bit about your feelings on creators telling stories outside of their direct experiences? Were you at all intimidated to take on a story about a gay black man living in another country? Did you feel any added responsibility at the time to “get it right”?
Steve Orlando: It’s all a matter of perspective. While I am a white person from central New York and Virgil is a black man from Jamaica, we’re also both queer men. Virgil from the start was queer noir that then evolved into being set in Jamaica. We actually decided first that we were going to focus on a grindhouse revenge story starring a gay man.

JD Faith: I probably should have worried more, honestly. At the time I’d just come to the realization that I’d drawn three books in a row starring straight white dudes. Being a straight white dude, I hadn’t noticed earlier because part of privilege is not having to think about representation—everybody in all media looks like you? Great!

I wanted to make sure the books I put into the world weren’t just part of the same problem. Will that mean screwing up despite my best efforts? Yeah, inevitably, but I feel like that’s better than contributing to the status quo. Past that, I think it’s just down to listening and learning from the people you’re representing.

Orlando: I have said it in a lot of other interviews, but I firmly don’t believe there are stories creators should “be allowed to tell” or not be allowed to tell. If you were only allowed to write about what you are, you’re not really a creator imagining things, you’re just writing autobiographies and variations thereof. Having said that, you have to understand the true weight of what you do as a creator, and you have to understand the responsibility of being a creator. When you are going into other cultures and you are looking at characters whose lives are different than yours, you have to treat them with respect. You have to treat them with compassion, you have to do your homework, and you have to do your research. If you’re going to write about something new to you, it can’t be an afterthought or just story seasoning, you have to treat these characters and treat these moments with the respect they deserve.

In the case of Virgil, I’ve always understood that these are real peoples’ lives we’re dealing with. It’s the Internet age, so research doesn’t just mean newspaper reports and news blasts and crime statistics and photographic evidence, it means first-hand accounts on social media. It means one-to-one contact. That’s the way you can get a picture that is realistic and textured and as nuanced as the lives that the story is taking on. For Virgil, we did our Kickstarter for a limited group and I was actually able to get the book in the hands of people who are living gay life in Jamaica, and get responses from them and get feedback from them and work that into the wider Image release.

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Virgil Interior Art by JD Faith

It’s not about should you or shouldn’t you, it’s about whether you understand the weight of what you’re doing. I think that sometimes, people don’t. They want to jump on the bandwagon of diversity, and it’s not about that. It’s about telling a good story and telling a respectful story, and as creators, we say, Oh, it’s just comics, but you’re doing something that’s directly related to the real life-and-death struggle of people. That has real weight and importance, so I don’t have any qualms about being of a different race than Virgil, but I would never approach that lightly, which is why we did all that we did for Virgil. Reaching out to people living that life day to day, taking in news sources, taking in film sources.

There’s a great and relatively succinct documentary on YouTube from Vice called Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens, which very starkly paints the reality of life there, where a large percentage of gay males are homeless and living in a storm drain. You’re not just writing a story. For many people, it’s the first time these tales will be told, so you really have to know what you’re doing and comprehend what it means to be a creator. If you understand that, there should be no qualms about doing that and moving into new cultures, but you can’t be flippant about it. You have to be respectful. Without throwing shade or anything, many of the sources that have been critical of such things have embraced Virgil, so hopefully the time and the care we put in paid off.

Paste: Steve, growing up, were there examples of queer representation in comics that felt particularly right or wrong to you? I remember the messiness of Phat and Vivisector from Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix really resonating with me.
Orlando: It’s no secret that I was strongly affected by Midnighter, let’s get that out of the way, and now here I am putting words in his mouth. When I was younger, that was a huge thing, and not because I like leather, but because seeing this bold, unapologetic, but also nuanced, gay relationship amidst what was essentially a more violent Justice League setting in The Authority was pretty crazy for me.

Comics came a long way in 15 years. I was buying DC’s Who’s Who? and Marvel Handbooks at flea markets and seeing caricatures, not characters. When you got back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, both larger companies were putting out these characters that were just pastiches. In the ‘90s, they were both doing some very nuanced work. You mentioned X-Statix, but also The Authority, and for me things like Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma, and Shade, the Changing Man, which wasn’t just about queerness but was also about gender identity. A lot of Vertigo books in the nineties were questioning those things. I always bring up Enigma, but I can’t overstate its importance to me. It was both subtle in its treatment of this tender homosexual relationship, but also the right kind of bold and pop-culture vulgar as well.

Paste: You’ve always described Virgil as “queersploitation.” Is exploitation a genre you want to continue to explore? Exploitation directors tend to work in thematic trilogies or loose series.
Orlando: I like the rawness and the lo-fi style. Doing something because it’s just something you have to say, because it needs to be put out there—it’s a need, not a desire, and I like that a lot. And so, on some level, almost everything I do is influenced by it. When I was younger, I took in a lot of Clint Eastwood movies, but most of my characters could be influenced by John Shaft as well, and characters like Foxy Brown—that type of assertiveness comes through in all my characters. I think there is room to return to Virgil, but it would be a thematic return. I want everyone to get the story of this Virgil, at least, in this book, but that’s not to say there aren’t other places in the world where this queer focus and this type of bombastic gay action/revenge type story could be set. We can have a different lens but drop these themes in a new place and discover a new setting. I’ve already talked to JD and it would be great to come back at some point with new characters and new places, but the same aggressive style.

Faith: I want to do more genres, I hope! I really want to draw some feminist horror. Let’s make that happen.

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Virgil Interior Art by JD Faith

Paste: Shocking violence is nothing new to comics, but queer sex is rarely seen outside of the alternative press scene. Virgil not only has sex with his boyfriend in the book, he also bottoms, which challenges the expectation of which half of the relationship would be the “masculine” action hero. Was that a conscious decision?
Orlando: It definitely was. It’s interesting—so many of these stereotypical action heroes are also a distillation of, “What is man, what is masculine?” In doing a book like Virgil, I wanted to create something that was disruptive, that was subversive in that context. Making him gay does that, but making him a bottom as well pushes that even further. While the whole idea that there are things that are masculine and aren’t masculine is bullshit, if we’re dipping into those tropes and trying to climb the house of cards that is mainstream masculinity, few things are as threatening to that as a man who bottoms, because he is taking on the stereotypically feminine role. He is receiving the symbol of masculinity so to speak, so the idea that Virgil does that and is all these things that are otherwise traditionally masculine is a bold statement I wanted to make.

Without getting into spoilers too much, if characters in the book were more secure in their own masculinity, then Virgil wouldn’t be able to get out of a certain dangerous situation. But his is a culture that is threatened by any crack in the masculine armor. I think that aggression of hyper-masculine people toward the gay community, it makes sense, really. That’s not an endorsement, but there are so many rules about how to “be a man,” and any time there are so many regulations and such a dogmatic structure in place, it makes it easy to put a crack in it. It makes it easy to disprove. When something is wounded, it gets defensive. I think that’s where a lot of the aggression toward the queer community comes from, and that’ something we wanted to address in Virgil. You know, with a two-fisted punching-in-the-face type of vibe.

Paste: When you were writing Virgil, did you set out to address the relationship between societal pressure and individual bigotry? Are Virgil’s tormentors fully responsible for their actions and attitudes?
Orlando: To be quite honest, Virgil is a very focused look at one man carving his way through society. Within the book itself, people seem to make their own decisions, so we don’t dive into that too much. In most cases, the characters themselves aren’t aware of these pressures, as is often the case in real life. I don’t employ a lot of third-person omniscient narration, so we’re looking at characters who aren’t always aware of why they’re doing things, just like we aren’t in our day to day life.

But having said that, I certainly acknowledge those outside pressures. There’s a strong, centuries-long tradition of colonialism and religion affecting these areas that are so virulently anti-gay, and it comes from the morals imposed both by the original white colonials, and it also comes from the fact that American mega-hate churches that can’t get away with those type of views in the states are outsourcing them and masking them as aid and poverty-relief. It happened in Jamaica and it happened in Africa and in other second- and third-world situations, and along with that comes these types of virulently anti-gay views that simply aren’t accepted in America anymore.

Is Virgil the place to tackle all of this? Not necessarily, because of the lens that we have and the style that we have, but it’s certainly 100 percent never just the case of, Oh, these views happen organically. There are people pushing these views constantly, and tying them into things people need so that the message gets muddy. But at the same time, people do make their own decisions, and the fact that there are people in Jamaica who have broken that influence, who are members of JFLAG, who are trying to get the anti-buggery laws repealed, shows that people can fight against those views. I think it’s a huge topic to get into. We have such a micro-focus in Virgil, but as a creator who’s looked into these things, it’s a huge presence in my mind.

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Virgil Interior Art by JD Faith

Paste: So much of the characterization in Virgil and in Midnighter is conveyed through action scenes. How do you approach that as a writer? Does it mean relinquishing more control to your artistic collaborators? JD, does that frequently mean rejiggering scenes to improve the story’s flow?
Orlando: “Relinquishing control” sounds very Machiavellian. [Laughs] It means trusting collaborators more. Certainly, that’s what collaboration is all about. It’s about knowing when to step back and letting the other people do what they need to do. Hypothetically, when it’s all working, it’s about a team of people making each other better than they would be on their own and keeping each other honest. Whether it’s my dialogue and scripts, JD’s line art, Chris Beckett’s colors, Thomas Mauer’s design and letters, we’re all their to bust each others’ balls and make each other better.

Faith: Story comes first, and if the written version of a scene is difficult for me to convey visually, I’ll change it (with approval) to something that reads more clearly in a still image. Virgil still loses on pages where he loses, he just may get an easy-to-draw bottle smacked over his head rather than a scale model of a cruise ship.*

*example may not be in comic.

Orlando: It’s about trusting the audience, too. In Midnighter and in Virgil, I never use thought bubbles, I never use third-person narration, and I try to never at all use internal monologue. It leaves a lot more unsaid, but it also makes it more naturalistic. I hope it makes it more realistic. When you see someone walking down the street and they’re grimacing or whatever, they don’t have a blue box above their head telling you what they’re feeling, you can only gather that from looking at them. That’s what I try to do with my books as well. I want reading these books to be like meeting these characters, and maybe you don’t find out everything about them at the rate at which you want it, but you find it out at the rate at which it’s organic to the story, which happened in Undertow as well. That’s what happens in real life. Unless you give someone a questionnaire when you first sit down with them, you don’t find out everything at once. It’s about trusting JD and the art team, and trusting the reader to take the nuggets we put out in conversation and action and sort of let their understanding of the characters grow in a more organic fashion.

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Virgil Interior Art by JD Faith

Paste: JD, as an artist, how do you choreograph these chaotic multi-person brawls and vicious beatdowns? Did you pull from cinematic sources? Do you have countless photo reference shots of yourself shadowboxing?
Faith: Sooo many reference photos. I’ll publish them into a book that nobody wants.

I’m not going to pretend to know anything about real fighting, but I took the choreography really seriously. It didn’t have to work 100 percent true to reality, but everything had to be spatially consistent—believable, if not realistic. I drew maps and diagrams, marked parts of the environment that Virgil would be interacting with.

The commentary track on the Die Hard Blu-ray is what really stuck with me. Here you have this crazy action movie, and the whole of the commentary is them talking about geography, architecture, tone…it showed me that attention to unexpected detail is what can ground a genre piece with big bloody brawls and really make it work.

Paste: The original Kickstarter hit its funding goal two years ago this week. JD, were you tempted to make any changes before Image sent the new edition to print?
Faith: It’s always tempting, sure. No matter which craft you practice, you’ll always want to redraw a face, rewrite that one liner, whatever. The only way I can finish a page is by accepting that done is done, which is a principle that carried over to the full book. I admire the improvements that Steve made to the script in the Image edition, but that path leads to me, personally, never finishing anything.

Paste: Virgil is a startling exercise in the “neon noir” aesthetic. What sort of inspirations fed into the look for the series? Why neon noir as opposed to more traditional gritty black-and-white or sepia of typical noir comics?
Faith: My projects are always halfway between a carefully tailored concoction of influences and a smashed-up mess of whatever I like that week. Drive and Batman: Year One were my primary influences and the ones I made sure to get across to Chris. The blend of heavy shadow and bright colors grafted very easily onto Jamaica as a setting.

Really, though? I like bright colors and I like crime fiction. I’ll take any excuse to blend the two.

Orlando: It’s no spoiler that the creative team came together before the idea of Virgil. JD and I met through an anthology that we both took part in but not together, and when we got the comps we saw each other’s stories and thought we should really do something. We decided it should be crime noir, JD’s favorite genre, and I pushed further and decided it should be queer noir, something different that comics hadn’t seen before.

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Virgil Interior Art by JD Faith

We brought Chris in, who I met through some people I knew at Vertigo because he was a former DC employee and a colorist on Smallville. We brought the team together knowing it was going to have a distinct visual style. JD wanted to do a book that was noir and grindhouse, but at the same time was bright and totally unlike the drab noir palates that you were so used to. The neon colors were enlivened when we decided it was going to be in Jamaica, a tropical place where those colors are even more expected. I tried to have as little input into it as possible, because it is a collaboration. I’m not a project manager. As a writer, you end up being the de facto editor for the book, but at the same time, you have to let people do their thing and bring their piece into the final product. The look of Virgil is wholly JD’s and wholly Chris’, and I was happy to be a part of bringing it to life.

Faith: I gave guidelines and nudges at the beginning of the process, but Chris really made the aesthetic his own. I was super excited to get pages back because they always came dripping with tone. It was the sort of collaboration I really enjoy: a lot of back and forth, an evolution through the process. More like a phone call and less like snail mail.

Paste: Steve, with Virgil and Midnighter, you’ve certainly carved out a niche of hyper-violent gay stories with nuanced characterization. Now that you’re working steadily at Image and DC, how do you balance any responsibility you may feel to introduce queer stories with not wanting to be pigeonholed as “The Guy Who Writes Gay Dudes”?
Orlando: My next pitch only has hugging in it. It’s a reboot of Deathlok. [Laughs] I want to keep writing queer characters, obviously, but I think the approach we take to having these queer themes is very well received. Virgil is a grindhouse revenge story that is unashamed to feature a gay male. Midnighter is a relatively standard superhero book that is unashamed to feature a gay male lead. We don’t stop the story to point a spotlight and say, “Look how gay this book is, look how good we are for doing it.”

Going forward in Midnighter, we’re going to be featuring, whenever we can, the different ages of the gay community, the different faces of the gay community, the different abilities of the gay community. That’s all important to me, but it’s also important not to fetishize it. That means in other books I do, queer characters will be there too, and even if they’re not the focus, they’ll be there and they’ll be nonchalant. We want the story not to make a big deal about having gay or lesbian or queer or transgender characters because we, as people, don’t always want to be made a big deal of, or made to be stared at. That’s always my approach to it, and people seem to be on board with it. Not all of my books will be violent, not all of my books will star a gay character, because yeah, I don’t want to be pigeonholed about those things, but at the same time, my writing will approach all of these things to create the tapestry of the world that I want to see, the tapestry of the world as we want it to be.

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