Steve Orlando was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about his and J.D. Faith’s Virgil, an original graphic novel that will be published September 9th by Image Comics. Initially funded through Kickstarter and starring an all-black cast, Virgil brings up interesting questions about the state of the industry both in terms of production and diversity. You can pre-order Virgil through your local comic shop until Monday, August 13th.
CB: So how excited are you about Virgil’s mainstream release?
Orlando: I was nervous at first. It’s an edgy book, but so far people seem to be responding well.
CB: I think a lot of people like edgy books, though. So are you thinking edgy in a way that usually people aren’t accustomed to? I read it; I thought it was really great.
Orlando: You know, it’s got it’s violence. It’s got unabashedly gay content. I think now is the right time. Even two years ago when we did the Kickstarter, especially because it doesn’t have any white characters in it, it was sort of a hard thing to peg for a lot of people. But now it is out and there is going to be a new release. I think the industry has changed. The readership has changed. I am excited to be able to put it out right now.
CB: I think a lot of people have noted that we seem to be on the beginning of an upswing when it comes to more perspectives being introduced to the comic book industry mainstream.
Orlando: We are. I think that it is going to keep going and we are the beginning of it. I think that it is a hard thing to peg.
On one hand, you look at a lot of these books that are a part of “diversity” books. They are not doing Batman or Superman numbers. But also the people that they are branding to are not necessarily going to comics stores, so you don’t see the whole picture until things are out of the book market and it’s been collected and things like that. I know the female readership doesn’t really go to comics stores. It’s just a totally different model even of how people produce things. It’s an interesting time.
CB: A lot of people buy more trades and collections in bookstores. I guess that’s why you decided to release Virgil as an original graphic novel instead. Also, it’s only 90 pages, so that probably factored in.
Orlando: Yeah, it would have been a four issue mini-series, but I think in some ways, people want to be able to read it all at one time now. It’s not just comics, but it’s also the binge-watching world as well. We don’t want to wait. Also, they shouldn’t have to.
I like to give things to people in the format they are looking for. I am excited to see how it does. Image has been really behind it. The buzz has been really good. It’s a book that I was very personally into and passionate. So the fact that people so far have been not scared by it is always good.
CB: I know you have done the series Undertow with Artyom Trakhanov for Image before. Is that the reason why you brought Virgil to them?
Orlando: Yeah. When it comes to creator-owned stuff, I always show things to them first just because when it comes to creator-owned stuff, their reach is amazing and it helps you reach more people ultimately. In addition to the fact that we like to eat and things like that, making comics is about reaching people. So I was excited they were on board with it.
The whole reason to do a national release for us is to get this idea and these characters in front of as many eyes as possible. Image has the faculties and the brand recognition. It lets us do that in a way that other publishers are unable. Hopefully, some day those publishers will be, but right now, Image is the best way to get a book that you own in front of as many people as possible. There’s incredible retailers on board. There is incredible media support. They do a great job on a logistics side of getting the book out and making it look great. So when I was thinking about where to go, the fact that they were interested in doing it was what did it for me because it spreads the word in the greatest way possible.
CB: So Virgil came before Undertow, right?
Orlando: Actually, no.
CB: It actually didn’t, okay.
Orlando: Undertow came out last year. It was in production for three years before it was released because it just took awhile to make. We wanted to make sure it shipped on time. It took awhile for us to get enough steam that we could ship on time. That’s why the Virgil on Kickstarter happened before Undertow came out.
But having that, Undertow was the first thing that happened at Image Comics. Virgil was something I got thinking about after, as Undertow was already well on its way with Artyom drawing it. Just to show how long these things take, Undertow was in production at Image for over a year and a half, from development to other behind-the-scenes work. It was almost 3 ½ years before the first issue got to people’s hands.
CB: In terms of Kickstarter, do you think it is really good for people who want to release books that the industry might not necessarily be ready for? Do you think that comics publishers aren’t really looking there to see new creators? How do you think Kickstarter factors in now as opposed to two years ago?
Orlando: Well, I think it is complicated. The first thing is it is good for people who just want to be able to publish their books. It’s a great thing for that. Either you prove your market or you don’t, you know? So if you have an idea in your mind whether it is true or not, it seems like what other publishers would do and you want to bring it to Kickstarter, the proof is there. The proof is if you fund.
Kickstarter is one of the most organic models for comic book publishing and for any type of creative product as well when it comes to getting stuff off the ground. But we are talking about comic books. I think it is great because you get a printed item that you can show to publishers to show what you do. That is, for people who are coming up or want to find more work, the most important thing.
Editors will look at art samples. But books have to be finished to show that not only do you talk a good game, but you can bring a book home to completion and make it look professional. So in that respect, Kickstarter is also great.
As if publishers are looking there or not, I think it depends. In the case of Virgil, we had one extremely generous backer, so there was not much audience dilution. Sometimes I think that there is fear with the publishers if you already hand out five or six hundred books, those are books they could be selling. It’s another reason to have an idea of how you could maybe make different editions if you want to go with a wide release as well.
But at the same time, you can do things on there and publishers can take notice. Wild Blue Yonder [created by Zach Howard, Mike Raicht, and Austin Harrison] of IDW was funded by Kickstarter and put out by IDW. Obviously Virgil is an Image. Five Ghosts [created by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham] had its first issue done on Kickstarter. The thing with those other books (we are not going to talk about my books much) is even though it was essentially independently published, the people making it really put the work into it. Kickstarter lets you do that if you build your budget right and really get something you can punch up with heavyweights that you are trying to sell against. I think it is kind of amazing and didn’t really exist before it gave creators that opportunity.
CB: Right. Beforehand it was just kind of like you stapled together whatever you might have been able to create.
Orlando: Not all of us have the thousands of dollars sitting around that it takes to publish a book. I certainly don’t. It is a game changer because if you have the know how or the patience to deal with a publisher and to really get something that is print ready and you know how to budget, you can do something that looks just like it came from one of the major publishers in the industry.
CB: Cool, cool. So tell me a little about Virgil. I know that you promoted it as Django Unchained, but gay at the Image Expo. What was the moment that you really started to want to embark on this project?
Orlando: When it comes to Virgil, I was in an anthology adjacent to, but not with, J.D. Faith for a smaller publisher called DrawMore. We both had entries in the anthology. When we got our comp copies, we saw this would be good. We would like to work together. The point of bringing the book together was the creative team.
J.D. is a huge fan of noirs. We knew we wanted to do noir content. But I wasn’t sure how to make it stand out or how to make it unique. And then I went to go see Django Unchained.
I enjoyed it as a piece of exploitation cinema. At the same time, the marketing and all of the commentaries about it talked about it being an edgy film, which I found kind of ridiculous. This was made four years ago or whatever, but it is past 2010. Saying that racism is bad is not like a vulgar, edgy idea; anyone who disagrees with that is a complete jackass. So it didn’t seem edgy to me. I walked out and I was like if Tarantino was ballsy, he would have made Django gay because not everyone would agree with that. It’s still a controversial topic. At the time, it just clicked.
I figured Why should I wait for someone else to do this? How about I just do it myself? That’s how Virgil came together. That was the kernel of the idea, doing gay crime noir with a gay lead. It did land in Jamaica, so I did a little more research and sort of see where we can set the book again to again do something different.
I came across a Time magazine article for a place in Jamaica called the most homophobic place in the planet. The article had come out in 2006. It was already old. I thought, ‘Surely things have changed. Let me look into it now.’ I did and nothing had changed. It was shocking; the crimes, the aggression taking place, especially for an area that a lot of people, as we sit in our suburban and downtown towers, sort of think of as a vacation hotspot. For many people, it’s something totally different. I decided I was going to find out everything I could can about it and try to sort of do a book that spreads the word about that in a narrative, exciting way.
That’s really when Virgil came together. Not only doing gay crime noir, but it is going to be exploitation. It is going to be telling a story and it is going to spreading the word about a real life struggle. Using action as a medium, but for readers that probably didn’t know that this plight was going on.
CB: A lot of people who will pick it up would have no idea before reading it; I certainly didn’t. It’s kind of amazing that things still haven’t changed. Have you kept up to date on that? Isn’t there a humans right watch organization in that country?
Orlando: There are a lot of people trying to make change happen, but it has been extremely slow going. JFLAG does have people who have gone abroad to gain the economic and legal skills to try to fight the laws that are enabling this type of aggression. There is still an anti-sodomy law; an anti-buggering law, it is actually called.
CB: Oh, my god.
Orlando: It’s fifty years old and still on the books. There’s a lot of people there trying to make change. You might have seen that Ellen Page just went to the flash Pride parade. It’s great that they had the parade. But it also speaks to the situation because in Jamaica you can’t have a planned Pride parade because people will be there to hurt you. It had to be a flash mob, which weren’t even said in the article.
For us living at least in the United States, it is shocking. If you go on YouTube, there’s a 25-minute documentary. It kind of sums it up and informed a lot of what I dug into when I was researching. It’s called “Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens.” You go and you see a large percentage of the community is homeless. And a large percentage of the community is actually living in what they call the gully, but it is a storm drain. They are actually living in a storm drain. So it is just a shocking situation.
People are definitely trying, but there is so much to fight against. Just in the way it is not safe for extreme anti-gay Christian groups in the United States to sort of push their propaganda here anymore, all they’ve done is outsource it. It’s a big fight. But certainly there are a lot of great people fighting it. I definitely get excited every time I see new positive news coming out in America.
CB: Do you talk to anyone from Jamaica that have experienced some of the stuff that Virgil has?
Orlando: Some of the people that took part in the Kickstarter book were on the ground and living it there. Actually one of the gentleman ended up being kind enough to write an afterword for me on the book. Talking to people who were there, living it day to day on the ground.
The challenging thing to me is one of the guys that reached out to me said, “This is what I am going through. I acknowledge this violence is happening, but I haven’t experienced any of it myself.” We went back and forth and talked a lot about the book. Actually a lot of what he said informed a lot of our “director’s” read out that we did for Image. But in the week and a half that we talked, two of his friends were attacked. So he went from having no personal experience to it being right on his doorstep in a little as a week’s time. Not only was his input and the input of these people invaluable to me, but also it hits home even more how fast it can happen and how it really can happen to anybody.
CB: Right. I like how this book is noir. I think a big association with noir, especially film noir, which was so big in the 1940s and 50s, is that it’s usually very white. I think you using a genre that doesn’t usually have people of color as its main characters kind of brings a lot more importance or creativity to it.
Orlando: I hope so. That’s just the thing. Another one of the inspirations for Virgil perhaps surprisingly, or at least not immediately intuitively, was Kevin Keller going into Archie.
That may seem strange, but to me I saw Kevin Keller and I was like, “What is more dogmatic than Archie?” And this was like three years ago before they diversify the line. Here you have what is predominately white, straight narrative that is infused into this gay character and gay beats. And it works. And there is not banter about it. It doesn’t stigmatize it. I thought it was a great thing.
That was another thing going in about how we decided to do noir or crime. I said, “What genre can we do? I can’t be writing about who is picking up the cake from the bakery. That is not a book I can write. But I can write about punching.” So I was thinking, ‘What type of genres can we do and infuse these types of themes and these types of representation into it without sensationalizing it and without putting a spotlight on it? But just doing it as if it is no big deal and doing it for things that need to be done because it is.’
That’s where we came to this type of crime. Because you are right; it’s not something that is seen as much, except of course with Blaxploitation cinema. But even that was this round up, sort of low vibe of taking back these types of sexy, punchy type movies that didn’t traditionally star people of color.
CB: When it comes to Blaxploitation, we are hearing that word a lot lately. Not just with you, but with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro’s Bitch Planet. There is an upward trend of subversion, especially if you come to Image Comics. Is subversion something you are particularly interested in, or are you more of a straight shooter when it comes to action comics and such like that?
Orlando: The thing about them is I hesitate to say I am a straight shooter, but also saying that you are into and going out to do subversion seems a little too… It seems to me like something that if you think about it, it doesn’t work out as well as if it just happens. I sure other people would disagree with me. I think also to do something maybe not subversion but provocative you have to really fully understand a genre and then change things to make waves.
So in the case of Bitch Planet, which definitely is inspired by Blaxploitation and inspired by Grindhouse same as us, you make waves by subverting the expectation. But the real answer is to be disruptive, to make great stories that raises eyebrows and gets people to turn around, you have to be provocative. You have to be subversive because you have to show people why, when there has been a thousand different books that hypothetically look just like yours on the cover, why they should pick it up this time and why this one is going to be different.
And why this is going to be different as well is an important concept when it comes to community representation because of course half the reason a lot of people are gun shy about these large companies going at these topics is because they’ve been let down before. And they’ve been let down before for a number of reasons. Again, you have to not only show them that we are doing it and we are putting new faces on the page and as much as possible everywhere in the industry, but we also have to say it is going to be different this time. We have to give them a reason to think that the book is going to be done in the nuance that it deserves. And you can’t do that without, I guess you could say, subverting what people have done before.
CB: Going back to Kickstarter: what would you say you learned about comics and the comics community while you were doing that campaign?
Orlando: What I learned about the comics community? Honestly, the thing I learned most about comics is the backend portion of it.
It’s not just having an idea, writing it, sending it to an artist somewhere that then turns it into a book, but really doing everything. The buck stops with you when you do a Kickstarter. You are the delivery service. You are shipping these to backers, people who supported the book. You are producing it. You are liaising with printers. All of these things that you never get a chance you do if you are largely working in the mainstream. In the mainstream, publishers take care of those things for you. They deal with printing and getting it to people.
So the thing I learned the most about comics itself is the more holistic understanding of the whole experience. No matter what sort of job you work in, it is always better to have that information. If you are going to do something, there is no reason not to know everything about it. It’s the reason that I wrote and illustrated my own graphic novel right out of college that was a hundred pages long. It’s really bad; my art is not good. However, I did slug through a hundred pages of inking, lettering, and penciling so that I really could better understand what the art team is going.
In the same way, knowing what the production team is doing helps you be better at your job. It lets you anticipate and makes things easier, and thus more exciting, for them, which makes the product better. So that’s what I learned from that side of Kickstarter.
About the comics medium and the comics community, it is interesting. There was not a huge outpouring of support from queer media, but that answer could also be at the time Undertow wasn’t out. Nothing was out. So they would say, “Who is this guy? Who is this asshole?” And if I did it now, it would probably be different.
The comics community [behind the Kickstarter] actually embraced the idea, which I find very refreshing. It was an idea they were excited about. When I sent them the prize packages, they wanted to talk about it. If you go back, you can see some of the best relationships I’ve made in comics is from Virgil.
Now that I have gone through Undertow and that have gone through Midnighter and now through Virgil and a little bit of the Broken Frontier anthology, there still were people I first met talking about the Virgil Kickstarter. So it has this great sort of seeing people and making those first connections. And again, they make those connections because they like you, but also because they know going through that that you are the real deal; you are going to make the book happen. So it is worth their time to get to know you because you can make comics that are damn good and you are going to be sticking around.
CB: I’ve noticed that myself. Networking works just for meeting people you never would have thought you met and then opportunities definitely open up. I know a lot of people who didn’t know you a year ago who are very excited for this book to come out now.
Orlando: Yeah, it’s been a great synergy between getting Virgil out there and doing superhero books. I think that they are two great tastes that taste different, but they certainly compliment each other. But Virgil is not a superhero. It is a different type of book. He makes mistakes. He is totally human; he’s imperfect.
I don’t want to typecast myself as the guy who only writes about gay people. But at the same time, it’s exciting that we can have this moment and get more exposure and ultimately continue with it. I’m looking forward to when it becomes actually not newsworthy when there is a new book with a gay male lead. It sounds weird perhaps, but that would be a great day because it will be something that is just another part of the publishing evolution.
CB: It would be nice because me and the other critics wouldn’t have to fight for it anymore.
Orlando: Well, there would be something else to fight about, don’t worry.
CB: Oh, yeah. There always is. Another goal as well is to get more black characters up on the shelves. Virgil is one of the few I’ve seen. There’s Wolf right now by Ales Kot, Matt Taylor, and Lee Loughridge. We hopefully will see an uptick in racial diversity as well.
Orlando: You mean at Image?
CB: Not just Image, but in general– at Marvel and DC and IDW, etc.
Orlando: There’s always room for more. My friend David Walker, who’s writing Cyborg has become a headline. And I don’t know anything about it as a creator, but as a fan, I am very excited that Milestone is coming back next year. I think that will be a huge scene change.
Milestone was doing what we want to do now twenty years ago, so it can’t be understated how important it was. People love the characters and I think them coming back is going to be a huge thing, especially in the book market, where people who grew up watching Static Shock are now going to walk in and see that that he is back. Ten years after watching the Justice League cartoons, people are going to see that Icon and Rocket are still around. So we are moving in the right direction. When it comes to any community, there is so much more to do. It is a great bill to work towards and we ought to work towards it. But, yes, there is a lot to get done.
CB: Absolutely. The thought just occurred to me: I wonder if a specifically queer imprint would ever work, based on Milestone working as a black superhero imprint.
Orlando: Well, it does bear mentioning that there is Northwest Press, which is a queer-theme publisher run by my friend Zan Christensen. And in many ways, they are doing that. It is not superheroes and it is definitely not a partnership with Warner Bros like Milestone is. But they are doing it and they deserve a lot more coverage and a lot more credit than they’ve been given. Not by anyone in particular, but it is what I think people have been asking for in many ways. They are in the trenches, going to all of these shows, spreading queer media. And it is not just one guy with a book. There’s trans media. There’s all sorts of different racial communities represented. There’s lesbians. There’s gay content. I think they are doing a great job. But they are not doing superheroes.
That may be a weird thing to say. We of course want books that don’t have superheroes. But also in many ways it is how many people break into comics and then they mature and spread out. So I think it is vitally important that we do have this type of visibility for the community within superhero books and creator-owned books, not one or the other. For many people, superheroes are the gateway books and then they spread out.
A lot of times you need relation to characters to get readers in. Because that is the hit. That’s the moment, the wow moment, of comics. It’s often what sells people on it. Like, “Oh, this is great. This superhero is just like me.” So I think all sides, I love what Northwest Press is doing. But if there was to be more queer superheroes as well, it would be a pretty insane thing, but I think also super useful.