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Steve Orlando, writer
J D Faith, artist
Chris Beckett, colorist

virgilimagecover“From you fuck batty den a coppa and lead”
Batty Man Fi Dead – Beenie Man

Jamaica conjures up images of vibrant blue skies and crystal clear waters gently lapping at warm beaches that make for a much needed break from winter or a magical destination wedding location. Bob Marley music playing in the background is optional. Open the colorful cover of the recently released graphic novel Virgil and you’ll discover writer Steve Orlando’s take on a very different Jamaica, an ugly and corrupt Jamaica in which title character Virgil participates in as a police officer. As a symbol of this unscrupulous status quo, he shakes down the local drug lord’s street dealers, some of whom are batty or gay. However, it’s all part of a larger deception by Virgil. Like the batty dealers he shakes down, Virgil is gay and he’s afraid of being found out. To conceal this part of his private life he takes part of the money to spend on beer and prostitutes for himself and a few close cop brothers like Omar whom he’s known since grade school. The rest of the money gets stashed away so that one day he and his secret lover Ervan can realize their dream of freedom. That dream is threatened when Virgil’s secret is discovered and he decides to fight for the most important thing in his life — his relationship with Ervan — instead of taking the easy way out that is dangled in front of him. This is the point in which the story takes a definite unconventional turn and becomes, to use Orlando’s own words, a “queersploitation revenge tale”. At a little over 90 pages, I was drawn into the story as Virgil is beaten, captured, strapped down to a hot engine block, and fights against staggering odds mutltiple times. In overcoming each obstacle Virgil sheds more of his old identity that clung to rigid social ideas while radically transforming himself and ultimately rescuing his sweet, sexy boyfriend.

Masculinity and power are concepts that Orlando explores in Virgil. Throughout the story macho posturing is on display in the behavior of the cops to Bandalu the drug lord, and yes, even Virgil as part of his public persona. Exemplifying this is friend and fellow cop Omar who feels so deeply betrayed by Virgil’s sexuality that he attempts to destroy Virgil’s life. “Was supposed to be you and me. Keys to the kingdom,” Omar says right before shoving a night stick into Virgil’s testicles. “It turn you on? How could you even talk to me with that mouth? Disgusting.” Away from the scrutiny of fellow cops and damning public eye Virgil drops his macho pretense and adopts a gentler, playful attitude in the company of four close friends, a lesbian couple and a gay couple, who together make a chosen family. They are closer to Virgil in reality than is Omar who thought of Virgil like a brother. By revealing that Virgil is a bottom to Ervan’s top, Orlando’s intent is to dispel the myth that that a man penetrated by another man is somehow feminine, an attitudes that underscores misogynistic ideas as well. Most often encountered by LGBT people asking the question “who plays the husband and who plays the wife”. Not content to stop there, Orlando turns the damsel in distress trope on its head by placing Ervan in to the role and then explodes it with a twist that I won’t spoil here.

Praise Jah Orlando decided to use colloquial words and expressions sparingly instead of writing dialog in full on patois! A few words combined with the artist’s skill is a much more effective method to convey a sense of another culture and to pique my curiosity here. My click hole journey included learning some about the Jamaican LGBT community and J-FLAG (an organization wwith a pacifist approach seen in the book), dancehall music and its pervasive homophobia, and colloquial expressions and slurs used in the book and in common usage in everyday life. That song lyric at the top basically condones police killing gay men. And trust me that a little dancehall music goes a very, very long way. The fear of being thought of as gay is so pervasive that a Jamaican man will say “come forward” instead of “come back” because, if I understand correctly, “back” is slang for “butt” and more or less means “give me your ass”. You may find the Jamaican Patwah site useful and interesting as I did. Figuring out the meaning of “chi chi man” isn’t difficult, but there isn’t any context for what “Babylon” means in Jamaican conversation.

Artist J D Faith’s work here is a straightforward and pared down style that reminds me somewhat of Javier Pulido’s Human Target from Vertigo (and not Pulido’s She Hulk, which I thought was still good though different, and don’t roll your eyes at me) and the art style from the Walking Dead art trio. Faith’s style is a perfect match to convey the power and punch of the script and characterization. Faith’s layouts are similarly direct. The lack of chapter breaks, intended I think to make the book flow and feel like — ahem — a balls to the wall action movie, requires a keen sense of pacing and Faith certainly delivers in this regard.

One of the other things Virgil made me curious about were blaxpoitation movie posters, so I looked at some courtesy of Google. Here’s the poster for Ossie Davis’ 1970 film Cotton Comes To Harlem. Now I’ve no idea who designed the poster for the United Artists’ movie release, but I couldn’t help noticing the color palette with its pink, purple, browns, orange, yellow, and blue green all juxtaposed to make every color pop. I notice similar colors with colorist Chris Beckett’s work here in Virgil. Whatever Beckett’s inspiration may have been, his coloring is simply rendered with a flat approach in keeping tone with Faith’s bold line work.
A bit of a disclaimer. Two years ago I took a chance and helped back this story as a Kickstarter. After reading Virgil a few times I’m glad that I took that chance and likewise happy that a wider audience has the opportunity to read it. Come to think about it, this is a graphic novel I’d love to see made into a movie….if any studio has the nerve.

Purchase Virgil from Amazon or check with your local comic shop for a copy.

October 7, 2015
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