Talking Comics with Tim | Steve Orlando on ‘Virgil’
I had just learned about the hate crime-related murder of Dwayne Jones in Jamaica when writer Steve Orlando contacted me about his Kickstarter campaign for Virgil, a crime graphic novel partially aimed at shining a light on anti-gay violence in that country. So his request for an interview was an easy one to grant. Orlando’s Kickstarter, with a goal of $15,000 and an end date of Sept. 11, aims to tell the story of Virgil, an outed cop fighting “his way across Jamaica to save his man and get revenge.” Orlando has also posted a preview of the book.
Tim O’Shea: I know Archie’s Kevin Keller partially inspired Virgil. But I am curious, how did you first learn about anti-gay violence in Jamaica?
Steve Orlando: If you’re going to fight back against the man, you’ve got to go where he lives!
But seriously, research! Once I decided to do a book with a gay couple fighting back against heterosexists and violent homophobes, I consulted Human Rights Watch reports. Originally I planned on setting the book in Africa, also the home of numerous anti-gay atrocities, but the dichotomy of Jamaica was much stronger to me. Jamaica is often seen as a vacation paradise, but for so many residents there that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
My choice was cemented when I found the recent documentary An Abominable Crime, which put a weighty, personal face to the reports I was reading. This is the type of struggle that can be wrapped up in an action narrative and become even more compelling, all the while spreading the information to a new set of readers.
I was honestly shocked to read the statistic (in your Kickstarter material) that “70% of citizens [in Jamaica] don’t think gay men and women deserve basic human rights.” Where did you pull that data point from?
This figure comes from a poll conducted by Bill Johnson in The Gleaner, though I discovered it on the Angus Reid Global Monitor. And this is just one of the tamer quotes. Police chiefs there have been quoted openly saying it is simply not safe for gays and lesbians to live in the open.
Are you concerned that some people will be distracted by your storytelling approach, aiming to tell a story that “As Django was a blaxploitation throwback, this would be exploitation for the LGBTQ community.” In this instance, what do you mean by exploitation?
To me exploitation is working here in the modern, or perhaps post-modern usage. Movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song (one of the first blaxploitation films) were made on a shoestring budget, trying to show a minority hero fighting out against the community’s oppressors. There was an element of camp, but the message was still clear. This idea matured a bit with movies like Shaft and Foxy Brown, which certainly showed the minority taking on the majority, but ALSO didn’t ignore the problems from within (in this case pushers and junkies), and was willing to show cooperation as well. With Django and even Inglourious Basterds, it’s gone mainstream and full on into catharsis. Here, we all agree the villains are the villains, and that opinion has now become the majority, its gone mainstream. To me this is the long run conclusion of where exploitation fiction can go.
In that way I think the storytelling approach is key. We’re not ignoring the crimes going on, but this isn’t a news report. It’s a genre story, a catharsis, and a rallying cry. It’s outreach, and the medium is a classic action story, something everyone can get behind. One man fighting for the one he loves. That’s easier to open, to say yes to, than a news report. That’s how Shaft did it, it’s how Tarantino does it, and how we hope to do it.
Your goal is to raise $15,000. What will that go toward?
The $15,000 will go to cover the production, printing, marketing and distribution of the completed Virgil graphic novel. One of the most important things to me with this project is to not only create the story, but the create a package that is on par with anything you could get from a working publisher today. i want to to be able to sit on the shelf next to books from First Second, Humanoids, Image, DC or Marvel or whatnot, and look like it belongs there. This increases the production values, it increases the demands on the creative team, and also the efficiency needed to bring the project home. Having self-published before with Octobriana, I know what it takes to make a book happen professionally, and we set a goal that would let us pack a lot into the final product and ensure its one of the best looking books out there.
How hard is it to create comics that aim to inform people, while still entertaining them at the same time?
I’ll let you know once I’ve done it! Actually, though, I think it’s not that hard at all. The goal is the synthesize the information with the entertainment. Vertigo did a similar thing with African poverty in The Unknown Soldier. Mad Men does it with alcoholism and sexism. You can’t dress up the issues, you bring them into the story and maybe make them a driving factor, but you can’t make an expose. You make an exciting story first, and keep the issues frankly depicted and real. When they’re all part of the greater picture, you don’t lose sight of the goal — a great story.
Part of your pitch includes the observation “It’s time for LGBTQ literature to grow past black and white.” Just to clarify, do you find the majority of LGBTQ literature to be lacking in that regard?
I don’t think its lacking at all, but I think like an subgroup of literature its time to expand. There have been some great LGBT comics all across the board. And when you’re making a superhero comic its expected to have a large set of archetypes, working in exaggerated characterization. But at the same time, look at things like Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones. One has capital-G Good and capital-E Evil. The other, arguably, has almost no characters that are completely good or completely evil. In today’s world, the latter is more compelling, more relatable. A character can start out selfish, afraid, even in the closet, and still end up a hero by the end of the story.
What made you decide to make Virgil a cop?
To me making Virgil a cop only increases his pathos and symbolic power. As a policeman he’s the epitome of masculinity, and an enforcer of the status quo. He is in many ways the symbol of his own oppression. It’s all a show, and completely ironic, since he’s actually living in fear. Fear of the very system he works for! But of course that all changes once his partner’s life is on the line, and he finally gets to activate his potential to be a real badass, a real hero, and actually fight for justice for the first time in his life. He has to be betrayed by the law to finally act like a protector.
Also its a great way to examine relationships, as we see his police partner, and how they react to each other. And then we see his life partner, and how they relate. They’re both called partners, and its fun to put them both int he story, see the expectations of those relationships, and see where they take the characters. What does it mean, in both cases, to be a partner?
When did you realize you wanted JD Faith to be the artist on this project?
I had been wanting to work with JD on SOMETHING since we both appeared in the Nobodies V.2 anthology last year from Drawmore, Inc. We had gone back and forth about different genres and stories, but nothing really gelled completely until I told him about Virgil and he told ME about his love of the crime genre. He had instant vision. it was the perfect combination for the book, with his goal to make a stylized action story, and work his own lineart in a timeless, Mazzucchelli influenced way. Suddenly the book had a look, and an artistic goal, and drove the staging from that moment on.
Do you hope for Virgil to be a conversation starter?
First of all, I hope it’s just a great crime noir story. But, yes, every time I tell people about the location and the anti-gay statistics, they’re surprised. Hopefully it’s gripping and eye-opening. But also shows that there are good people and strong allies doing what they can on behalf of the community as well. Hopefully people will be talking about it, about the bad things that happen there, but also power of will that people are still fighting the good fight.
What am I forgetting to ask about?
The amazing team and the amazing supporters! Already the book has seen some great support from industry creators as well as readers, and I can’t say how touching and amazing it is. People have been excited to see a book like this happen. And besides JD, colorist Chris Beckett and letterer/designer Victor Ochoa has done something really special with their work. Beyond that I couldn’t be more excited to offer prints from Jon Cairns (also a friend from Nobodies), Tony Gregori (artist of an upcoming series from 215 Ink), TJ Kirsch (fellow Albany native and artist), Chris Batista (from DC’s Legion of Superheroes) and my Octobriana collaborator and Animal Man artist Chaz Truog.
But also the interesting thing is that this is truly a second-generation Kickstarter project. This team couldn’t have met to create this book without the successfully funded Nobodies anthology, which happened on Kickstarter last year. It’s really fascinating to think how the service has enabled new creative pairings, that are now starting to self aggregate. It’s a whole new thing, and its just going to grow!