Steve Orlando’s Virgil is a brightly-colored revenge story about a closeted gay cop in Kingston, Jamaica. Produced with artist JD Faith, the comic depicts what happens when a gang kills the titular character’s friends and kidnaps his lover.
Orlando says that with Virgil he was inspired by blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and Across 110th Street, as well as more recent Tarantino films. Initially financed by a Kickstarter project, Virgil is full of rage, action and a hefty body count that belies the comic’s hundred fast-moving pages. Image Comics released Virgil earlier this month.
Many people imagine Jamaica to be a tropical paradise full of laid-back stoners, reggae lovers, gorgeous beaches, and amazingly fast runners. At the same time, the country has the world’s third-highest murder rate, and queers are particularly endangered. In 2006, Time called the nation the most homophobic place on Earth, and a variety of cultural and religious factors have led queers, particularly gay men, into hiding. Police, schools, and hospitals all openly discriminate against queers.
At the same time, things might slowly starting to get just a little bit better. Very, very slowly. Earlier this year lesbian human rights activist Angeline Jackson wrote in Time that “against this grim backdrop, there is hope.” The vogue for so-called “murder music” — dancehall songs calling for the death of gay men — seems to have passed after several reggae performers were denied visas to perform in other countries because of hate speech. And the country held the Caribbean’s first ever pride parade last month.
But back to Virgil. We spoke to the queer Albany-based writer the other dray as he drove across upstate New York.
Unicorn Booty: Tell me about the genesis of Virgil.
Steve Orlando: I was in an anthology, Nobodies Vol. 2, and that’s how I first met JD Faith, who was also in the anthology. This was three or four years ago, and we decided that we wanted to work together. We knew we wanted to do a bright neon noir, but at first we didn’t know what we wanted it to be. Then I saw Django Unchained, and I realized I wanted an edgier take on that type of story. I thought if Tarantino had real balls instead of safe balls, he would have put a gay male in the lead.
Comics should take you somewhere else. Comics are a platform to show things that we’ve never seen before. Fifty percent of comics released today take place in either Los Angeles or New York because that’s where the creators live. But they don’t have to. There was that Time article in 2006, but when most people think of Jamaica, they picture the vacation shots. But a majority of gay men in Jamaica live homeless in storm drains, and I wanted to spread the word about that.
How did you conduct your research?
Independent comics don’t really allow for travel budgets, so we couldn’t actually go to Jamaica. But there’s certainly no excuse in this age to restrict yourself to books and magazines. We looked at reports, statistics, and first-hand accounts that were written on social media. Written under the veil of anonymity, of course. There’s also a Vice documentary that explores the scary queens and the rich queens, the two castes of queers in Jamaica.
Have you worked directly with anyone in Jamaica on the story?
I was able to connect with people through Kickstarter, so there was direct contact and visual research. I sent copies in progress to readers in Jamaica. Someone wasn’t home once to accept the FedEx delivery, and they worried that people at the FedEx facility might open the package and see what was inside. It’s still shocking how base the dangers are there.
Speaking of your Kickstarter, I wonder who initially backed your project. Was it primarily people from the queer community or people from the comics world?
The reality is that most support came from the comics industry. I certainly had queer backers at the end of the project, but a majority of the backers came from the comics community. At the time I reached out to queer media outlets and no one wanted to hear about Virgil. Now, that could just be a symptom of the fact that Kickstarter projects aren’t necessarily news, but just within the past few years there’s been a change where different types of queer media are changing their attitude toward comics.
It certainly seems like queers are becoming more visible in comics.
The metrics are interesting. People want hard numbers about how many queers are working in comics, but I know a number of queer people that don’t want to live publicly because they don’t want to be public figures if they come out. Nobody wants to live under a spotlight with someone standing next to them saying “Look look look! Look how normal he is.” If people want their privacy, they should have it. But it’s an interesting quandry.
You’re also writing Midnighter, with a gay superhero, for DC Comics. io9 actually calls it “the best portrayal of a gay superhero in mainstream comics.”
When Midnighter was announced I got a lot of messages from people asking if I was gay, and telling me that they were only buying the comic because I was gay. [Orlando is actually bisexual.]
There are sex scenes in Virgil. Are they an important part of the story, or is that just the fun stuff to contrast with all the grim violence in the rest of the comic?
If this were a straight comic I wouldn’t be asked that question. This story is an unapologetic look at both sex and violence. In 2015 it’s not disruptive to acknowledge that gay people exist, if they’re neutered. Modern Family has been on for years now. But gay people with sex lives, that’s vitally important. Sex is an important part of their life. We’ve been told that there are certain roles that queer characters can fill, and that they can’t do anyhting too gay. So if the characters are having gay sex, readers can feel the push forward. The book demanded it.
How’s the reaction to Virgil been so far?
I expected outrage and it didn’t happen. So far it’s been almost universally positive, I think because it’s an action book that treats gay subjects as humans. It’s not murder fantasy fiction. The story is relatable rather than threatening. People are happy that we have gay characters and that it’s not set in America. If you look at the public reaction to something like the first season of Looking, it’s clear that not every gay person is a white male living in San Francisco.
That brings up another question. All sorts of queer characters mingle together at the beginning of the story, before the attack that launches Virgil’s transformation. Do you think that’s an accurate depiction of queer Jamaican life, gay men and lesbians socializing privately?
People are looking for community and you can see the characters clinging to each other. In my experience it’s not accurate that certain types of queer people only associate with each other. They regularly associate with different types of queer people.
Last question: I noticed in your original Kickstarter that one of the backer rewards was a Caribbean meal. Is Jamaican food a passion of yours?
I do really like Caribbean food, and there are really good Caribbean restaurants where I live. I also include food details in all of my work. There isn’t any excuse for comic artists to take a pass when it comes to food details. I’m partial to saltfish and ackee, which is a creamy avocado-esque hanging fruit that’s actually poisonous on the vine. You can only get it canned around here, but that’s okay because it ensures that it’s safe to eat. Sadly, no one took me up on that reward and I didn’t get to cook for anyone.
Here’s four pages from the comic below:
(all images via Steve Orlando)