One of the ways I’ve seen Steve Orlando and J.D. Faith’s “Virgil” graphic novel described is as “a gay ‘Django Unchained,'” and it’s actually a surprisingly accurate description. The two works only really have two elements in common, though. First, both have a protagonist trying to rescue a loved one. Second, both stories work because of the strong emotional drive of the protagonist to succeed despite the odds.
“Virgil” is set in Kingston, Jamaica, where Virgil is a police officer hiding that he’s gay and in a committed relationship from the world at large. He and his partner Ervan know the dangers of the deeply homophobic society of Jamaica — to say nothing of Virgil’s fellow police officers — and that their only hope is to continue to save up enough money to one day emigrate to Toronto. When an accidental slip up lets Virgil’s secret out of the bag, though, a vicious attack leaves Ervan missing and Virgil and several of his friends left for dead. That’s where everything kicks into high gear, as Virgil goes on what feels like a suicide run as he tries to find and rescue Ervan.
“Virgil” wouldn’t be half as effective if it wasn’t for the characterization brought to life by Orlando. Orlando paces the roll-out perfectly here. First, we see Virgil’s closeted life, working with corrupt cops and doing whatever he has to do to not be discovered. Then, we see Virgil’s real personality; his time with Ervan and his closest circle of friends in the know gives us a different person, one with tenderness and frustration, hopes and fears. You get a glimpse here of what life for him and Ervan could be like in a country more accepting of LGBT citizens, rather than Jamaica. Finally, of course, when Virgil is pushed to the brink by his enemies, he becomes a man transformed. Watching him fight and claw his way from one confrontation to the next wouldn’t have half of the impact if we hadn’t seen the sort of person that he normally is. “Virgil” isn’t the story of a violent man seeking revenge, but rather a man driven to the edge by horrible people, now forced to fight back to save not only the love of his life but his own sanity.
Along those lines, the progression of foes that Virgil faces works well here. He moves his way along the food chain, with the most awful people saved for the end as the trail leads all the way to people he once trusted. Orlando and Faith are careful to not make Virgil’s progress look easy; instead, it’s a combination of sheer force of will and a tiny bit of luck that allows him to survive, even as he’s perpetually beaten down and new obstacles are thrown in his path. “Virgil” wouldn’t work if this was a cakewalk for our hero. Instead, the struggle makes Virgil come across that much stronger, because these are odds that he shouldn’t be able to beat.
Faith and colorist Chris Beckett create nice artwork for “Virgil,” with pages drawn in a slightly blocky style that reminds me of artists like Dean Haspiel and Howard Chaykin, while still carving out their own particular look. The characters are a little shadowy but expressive; the scene with Virgil and Ervan in bed together is a prime example, with the body language and the glimpses we get of their faces telling us everything we need to know about them. While the early fight (as Virgil, Ervan and their friends are assaulted) seems a little comical in places, that’s not true by the time Virgil fights Bandulu. Virgil’s crouch as he gets ready to attack, the way their fists connect, the headlocks and grappling… it’s vicious and gripping material. Faith’s control of the motion works well here, and Beckett uses dark, deep colors to accentuate the mood and the line work to great effect.
I’m glad that “Virgil” will be published after Orlando has started to get some attention for his work on “Midnighter,” because hopefully that will mean a larger audience for “Virgil.” This is a strong, emotionally powerful graphic novel that accomplishes everything Orlando and Faith set out to do. When you get to that final scene, you’ll let out the breath that you didn’t even know you were holding. An excellent job by all parties involved.