MIDNIGHTER Writer Creates 'Queersploitation' Hero in VIRGIL

"Virgil" preview
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

They bashed him. They banished him. Now, this gay cop is about to set his homophobic squad straight….straight to hell.

Old-school grindhouse exploitation gets a new twist in Virgil, a graphic novel from Midnighter writer Steve Orlando and collaborators JD Faith, Christ Beckett and Thomas Mauer. Funded last year in a Kickstarter that raised more than $17,000, this action-packed tale of love and vengeance was picked up by Image Comics for a wide release this September.

With Virgil due out September 9, Newsarama talked with Orlando, JD Faith (with a few pop-ins from their collaborators) about this unique take on an old-fashioned tale, the changing face of homosexuality in popular culture, and more.

Newsrama: Steve, tell us about Virgil -- the character and the book.

Steve Orlando: Virgil is about an outed cop, fighting his way across Jamaica to rescue his man.

It’s about power, our assumptions about it, and where it actually comes from. It’s a queersploitation revenge comic, with a powerful gay male lead following in the footsteps of John Shaft, Jackie Brown and Django.

It’s a hard-hitting, high-action book first, which embraces a lead coming from queer culture. It does the work of exploitation fiction, speaking about the struggle of the queer community in general, and spreading a word about its fight in Jamaica in particular.

Virgil himself is a man living two lives – he’s a cop by day, and a sensitive gay man by night. For all the power the badge and gun give him, he can’t truly be himself. He’s caught in the life trap.

Credit: Image Comics

But when his own squad turns on him, Virgil is finally able to be a true, pure version of himself. He has no choice. And that raw version of himself gives him power. He’s bean trapped by fear, he’s been trapped by weakness, but with his man’s life on the line, he’s breaking free.

Nrama: What was the initial inspiration for this story?

Orlando: It was seeing Django Unchained! Watching it, the marketing and commentary was about it being edgy, about it saying something. But really, I thought, if Quentin Tarantino wanted to be bold, if he had balls, he’d have made Django gay.

No one that’s not a complete idiot would disagree that racism is bad, that’s not a risky statement. But with the struggles of the gay community coming to the forefront, I wanted to give them a romantic action movie.

Why couldn’t a gay man own this type of story? There was no reason. I knew it had to happen.

Nrama: What is compelling to you about the setting of Jamaica? I can't think of a lot of mysteries and thrillers set in this area, aside from the film The Mighty Quinn with Denzel Washington.

Orlando: That is part of the reason! That’s what comics can do – there’s no budget, and they can go wherever they want. They can explore wherever they want and take readers to new places they’ve never seen before.

 So even if you’ve seen Jamaica in comics, you can see it in a new light.

And Jamaica is a beautiful place, (but) it’s also a tough place for many people. We often think of it as a vacation hotspot. But there are people there living real lives. There are people there living and dying. And that’s the work of exploitation comics in particular. It’s about spreading the word, changing minds and opening eyes.

Why Jamaica? It’s a battleground for the queer community. There, the queer community in many cases actually lives in storm drains. But there are courageous people standing up for the community as well, saying this won’t stand.

It’s a powder keg, and that’s the type of place where action fiction can explode and change minds at the same time.

Credit: Image Comics

JD Faith: Since the story was already in place when I came on, I wanted to bring my interests into the mix and give the book some visual flair. 

Virgil is as much noir and crime fiction as it is anything, but it's also set in a country that's typically depicted as very bright and colorful, which meant the usual desaturated moodiness wasn't going to work. Instead, I looked to Nicholas Winding Refn films like Drive and Bronson — movies that marry violence to lurid color, both complimenting the other. 

Steve had a great idea, and I wanted to make it as enticing a package as possible.

Nrama: What sort of research did you have to do for this story?

Orlando: When it comes to presenting a community you’re not part of completely, the key is respect, passion and research. So being bisexual, I connected with Virgil’s struggle in some ways, but not in all.

And so I follow social media accounts from people on the ground, living the struggle day to day. I read report after report about crimes committed against the queer community in Jamaica, I read feature after feature about the state of the community, statistics (often low) about support for the community on the ground. And there is no shortage – social media and the internet make it easy to find personal accounts from people’s lives.

It’s so easy to connect to people and their stories if you take the time. On top of that, one of the major driving forces for the book as it developed, after the core idea, was the short documentary Gully Queens:

Which is a vivid look at the violence involved in the everyday lives of Jamaic’a queer community.

Nrama: For that matter, I'm intrigued by the concept of "queersploitation" -- in so much of media, homosexuality is portrayed as the antithesis of "macho," sort of like how they'd put Peter Lorre against Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon to make Sam Spade seem that much tougher against the leering, effeminate type.

Even today, there's still a lot of films, TV shows and more where gay panic or the threat of everything from being seen as "gay" to prison rape is often used to express masculine insecurity. What are your feelings on those types of jokes/portrayals, and how does Virgil-the-character go against them?

Orlando: Well, the first thing to say is that in creating a queersploitation hero, we won’t just be butching him up. Virgil is hard at times, but sensitive. Hurt and vulnerable. Tough, and caring.

Coded portrayals like those above don’t further the idea that “gay”   – or let’s say “queer” –  to be more inclusive can be anyone. There is no one look, no one way.

And yes, that idea is threatening to traditional masculinity because so much of it is connection to traditional gender roles. To sexual virility. To chauvinism in extreme cases. It’s the idea that “To be a man, you have to act this way.” And anything else threatens that physical masculinity.

In the case of gay sexuality, penetration, “bottoming, “ is in many ways the chief inversion of the masculine paradigm. Again it’s a fragile state, and the idea that someone could receive a penis, and still be masculine, that threatens that well constructed framework of masculinity.

But anyone can be a bottom. It doesn’t make you any less a “man,” so to speak.

And that’s how Virgil challenges that. He’s a powerful gay man that owns a lot of those activities, but frames them with the heroic struggle to protect his boyfriend. And he proudly proclaims that, as the story goes on.

Virgil is a strong statement of security. A gay man can be the hero. He can be the one punching against the system. And he can do it all while being gay.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: Let's bring in letterer Thomas Mauer, talking about his role in the book and what issues it raised for him.

Thomas Mauer: While doing lettering corrections for the Image release, I was struck once again by how Virgil's public and private persona break the norm of trope reversal strategies. He's not just your regular angry, tough character--who happens to be gay.

By using Ervan and Omar as his foils, we get to know Virgil as a complex person in a relatively small amount of space mostly dedicated to action, rage, and violence. I'm looking forward to what kinds of discussions the book is going to start upon release, what people will make of Omar, and especially Ervan.

Faith: As a not-terribly-masculine fan of genre fiction, its connection to misogyny and dick swinging has always proved problematic.

Virgil is good at punching people, but he's not a kneejerk reaction to effeminate gay stereotypes – that's fighting stereotypes with other stereotypes. He bleeds. He's a person, and that's more powerful. 

Nrama: For that matter -- name some of your favorite exploitation/grindhouse movies.

Orlando: To me the films that inspired this book are classics like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Across 110th Street, and Coffy, Of course Shaft needs to be mentioned too, a character that still perseveres today.

Credit: Image Comics

To me the appeal is the raw, inspiring need to tell the story. They come from a place of anger, unrest. And they’re not worried about frills. It’s aggressive. Uncouth in the best way, because it’s emotional and true.

Faith: I'm a terrible person who isn't well versed in the genre, but you can be sure that I'll be watching everything Steve listed! I feel like I need to repent for not seeing Shaft.

Nrama: Why did you initially go with Kickstarter to fund this, and what led to your going with Image as the mass-market publisher?

Orlando: Kickstarter was a great way to make production on the book possible. It was also a great way to create a sense of community around the book, with people who believed in Virgil’s story and what he represents.

And with Image, it was an opportunity to spread Virgil’s story to more people than ever before. Theirs is the biggest platform for creator owned stories right now, and they’re happy to nurture and get out of the way of creators. For a story that’s aggressive with violence, and aggressive with gay sexuality, Image became the perfect home.

Faith: Kickstarter was a good way to secure a page rate -- Virgil needed to happen, but I also needed the time and money to focus on making it as visually strong as I could.

As I drew the book, seeing the support from the Kickstarter community was super inspiring and uplifting. Hearing that we were about to reach an even larger audience with Image was just the cherry on top.

The fact that we were able to give Image a story like Virgil and have it published with no interference whatsoever is huge, and I'm really thankful for the opportunity.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: And heap some praise on your creative team.

Orlando: There’s no limit to what I could say! JD has been fearless with the story – bringing an amazing Drive inspired vibe to the book. That was his starting point, taking a noir story and creating a unique visual style.

And he did that with his weighty, gritty designs and architectural work. He helped by digging in to reference and making the setting feel like a real, tangible place. JD is indispensable, and Virgil would not be what it is without his input and collaboration.

And on the topic of collaboration, JD worked wonderfully with Chris Beckett, late of DC’s Smaillville: Season 11, to create the book’s unique coloring style and color palette. It’s something they developed together. And that’s what makes comics special, people working together to make each other better, to make the final product better.

And Thomas Mauer as well came in to letter and design the final book. Thomas has known me for a while, he knows my crazy, and often knows what I’m going for better than I do at first. Thomas keeps me honest, and pulled the collected edition together in an amazing way.

Faith: Steve took a story that could have been 12 issues and sheared it down to the basics, the stuff that will affect people and make his point. It's free of clutter, free of pretension and free of anxiety. It was a fantastic script and I feel privileged to have drawn it, especially with his star on the rise at DC.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: So, big picture -- what is Virgil?

Orlando: Virgil is the knuckle-busting queer action book you didn’t know you needed! It’s a book the industry needs too – infusing a genre with diversity and kicking every ass as it does so.

Nrama: Before we go, what are some other comic books and creators you're enjoying these days?

Orlando:Right now I am loving David Walker’s Shaft, Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo’s Rasputin, Frank Barbiere and Chris Peterson’s Broken World, Rob Williams and Eddy Barrows on Martian Manhunter, and Fabian Rangel Jr and Alexis Zirrit’s Space Riders!

Faith: Whew! I'm (im)patiently waiting to get some more volumes of translated Last Man from FirstSecond. Southern Bastards and Saga are my lifeblood. Waid and Samnee are really impressing me with their craftsmanship and sensitive portrayal of depression on Daredevil -- sad to see that ending.

Also been burning through the Tezuka backlog, Ode to Kirihito being the highlight. Guy drew so much that I'll be at it awhile. I'll also buy anything that Bryan Lee O'Malley makes forever.

Nrama: What's next for you two?

Orlando: More creator-owned work, I hope! I am figuring out what my next original project would be as we speak.

And at the same time, on my desk is the next issue of Midnighter, along with Batman and Robin Eternal and Justice League: Gods and Men from DC Entertainment.

Along with VirgilMidnighter is one of my proudest moments in comic books, being able to create a first of its kind queer focused book at the Big Two. Top to bottom I feel like one of the luckiest people in comics right now.

Faith: Some auteur work, I'm hoping! I'd really like to write a horror book. I have some pitches going around that I'm hoping pick up traction. Otherwise, Just Another Sheep, a book I drew over the last four years (!) or so will be releasing from Action Lab really soon. I've been taking it easy after finishing Virgil, but that's just about over now.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Orlando: When it comes to comics, we’re in a time when more than ever we’re getting closer to doing the work that comics should do. The idea of diversity, of representation in comics. Giving everyone their own “wow” moment where they see a character and say “that guy is just like me!” It’s the Peter Parker moment. The Barbara Gordon moment.

And there’s a long way to go, and we’re going to get there as quickly as possible. Because people are hungry. They’re sick of being othered. Everyone deserves that moment when they pick up a book, and I’m excited to be part of that.

And to keep it up, we need to bring more voices into comics, more faces on the pages, and make sure when anyone picks up a book, they can find their own personal myth. Their own amazing comics moment.

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