Come March, Vertigo will publish Steven T. Seagle’s American Virgin, an uplifting story about a Christian youth activist who quickly finds himself immersed in the world of sexual fetishism. If that’s not a can’t-miss comic, I don’t know what is. As the author of House of Secrets, the book that first drew me into “mature readers” comics, I was very eager to get the scoop on Mr. Seagle’s latest venture, and to find out a bit more about his controversial play currently touring America.
Shaun Manning: First off, the new series. American Virgin is quite the provocative title. How would you describe this book? What sort of characters and themes do you hope to explore?
Steven T. Seagle: American Virgin is a book about sex and death and what happens to a young man when the two become inextricably linked in his world. Adam Chamberlain is a Christian youth minister (and no, he doesn’t become a Satanist by issue 2 just because this is Vertigo!) who has a national platform of saving yourself sexually until marriage. And he’s the poster-boy – holding out for his one true love, Cassie. God has spoken directly to Adam and told him Cassie is the only woman he will ever be with. But reality conspires against that union and adrift in the world, Adam finds his vow put to the ultimate test. American Virgin ‘s territory is sexual fetish, sexual norms, sex rituals, fundamentalism, love, faith, the Word of God, celebrity and family all played out against globe-hopping adventure. The immediate cast is Adam, his step-sister Cyndi – who seems like white trash out of the gate, but there’s a lot more to her than that, Mamie & Earl – Adam’s Miami society mother and Chalice Channel president step-father, and Mel – an extremely complicated Australian national mercenary for hire.
SM: Another work of yours with a provocative title, your play had a successful debut and is now making the rounds on tour. Are there plans to keep the tour going beyond the announced dates? For those of us who can’t make it to a show, what can you tell us about the play?
STS: It’s great fun. The actual title is: N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk (Speak Theatre Arts) – which could stand for anything….but doesn’t! The show has this awesome transformative power over audiences – I know, because I’m in that audience every show! It’s such subversive material, and so potentially divisive, but the actors really do a number on the idea of race in America and by the end, it’s impossible not to be with them 100%. It’s been called the first show about race that doesn’t make you feel bad and I’d have to agree. We are signed to tour with our management company, DL Artists (www.dlartists.com) for two years, and we’re in good company – they also represent Tim Robbins’s Actor’s Gang, Diavolo Dance Theater, Circle in the Square, Merce Cunningham, and they just signed The Kronos Quartet. Our next dates are in the spring. We’ll be in Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinatti, Oxford (OH), and Los Angeles.
SM: House of Secrets, which you worked on with Teddy Kristiansen, was the first “mature readers” title I read (when I was probably a bit too young to be reading it), and I remember that series as being incredibly charged with emotion and this idea of flawed humanity. Yet there was also a sense (or at least a hope) of redemption. It’s a Bird…, which you also did with Mr. Kristiansen, worked on a similar level, though there was a bit of metatextuality added in to the mix. American Virgin, this time with artist Becky Cloonan, looks like it will once again take up some seedy topics.
STS: Seedy topics is our market niche. I find it odd that after all these years of Vertigo, no book has ever carved out deviant sexuality as its niche. Well Becky and I claim that! Of course, part of the story of American Virgin will be to ask whether it’s fair to equate “non-westernized” with “deviant”. Currently we do, but as our lead character Adam Chamberlain will find, that’s a pretty self-serving and narrow mindset.
SM: Despite the “seediness,” your work has never been “gritty” in the way that similar titles might be—I don’t see these characters reveling in their debauchery. What is it that you find appealing about turning over and picking apart human frailty, and what would you say is the strength that allows your characters to pull through? In short, are you an optimistic pessimist. or a pessimistic optimist? ☺
STS: I like characters who are put up against challenges that are clearly beyond them. Because then the question turns from the overly-used “how will they meet the challenge?” to the more intriguing (to me at least) “How much of the challenge will they meet? And what’s the consequence of the part they can’t meet?” In the super-hero world of stories, winning is getting it all. In the world of the kinds of stories I like, winning isn’t getting it all, it’s getting what matters most. I’m an optimist when it comes to characters. I think they will survive…but just barely.
SM: Much of your comic work has been through Vertigo. How would you describe the Vertigo aesthetic? What do you think your stories contribute to the loosely-organized Vertigo universe?
STS: I think the Vertigo aesthetic has really grown in recent times. What started as super-hero horror, and evolved to dark fantasy has really become the comics equivalent of HBO. Meaning, the imprint is open to numerous genres – horror, crime, thriller, political intrigue, memoir, fantasy, western – that are all handled in more long-form stories with mature themes, visuals, and language. What I bring is a willingness to play with structure (I still stand by House of Secrets as one of the most wildly-structured monthlies ever to come out of comics) and a tendency to mix genres in odd new ways – Sandman Mystery Theater was a period crime superhero book – House was a supernatural court drama – and now American Virgin is a sex and terrorism book.
SM: You’ve also done some superhero work on X-Men and Superman. Are there any other characters you would like to tackle?
STS: I’ve always wanted to take a crack at Daredevil, but I just read Bendis’ run, and it was too good to follow. I’d do something with Dr. Strange or Moon Knight some day. But my real interests are in creating new concepts. I have thousands of ideas, it’s just hard to get to them all.
SM: Any plans to return to House of Secrets?
STS: My House of Secrets co-conspirator Teddy Kristiansen worked with me on a graphic novel called It’s A Bird… which wound up being well received outside of traditional comics channels – we were the editor’s pick in the book section of Entertainment Weekly, well reviewed in The New Yorker, Newsday, USA Today, People, NPR’s “Talk of the Nation and “Fresh Air with Teri Gross”, so Teddy and I have decided to forge ahead on that path. We’re starting a new original graphic novel together that will be all new material building on what we did in It’s A Bird….
SM: What other projects do you have coming up? Comics, theatre, novels, TV?
STS: My play continues to tour this year. We’re also finishing two new plays that should premiere this year. The cartoon my buddies at MAN OF ACTION STUDIOS (Man of Action) and I created for Cartoon Network, BEN 10, just premiered last week, and we still have work to do for that project as it’s going into additional seasons already. MAN OF ACTION has a number of new shows we’re taking out to pitch. I have a new graphic novel with Tara McPherson that I just started, the new graphic novel with Teddy Kristiansen, remastered editions of my previous books The Amazon (with Tim Sale) and Kafka (with Stefano Gaudiano). And hopefully somewhere in there I’ll find time to paint my house! And sleep. Sleep would be good right about now!