“Down on earth, he held her tight, she held her tight, he held him tight; it was morning, and they’d cried all night”
On the back of Virgil is written a tagline: “A queersploitation revenge tale.” In his introduction, David Walker (who’s currently writing Cyborg and wrote Shaft recently), goes into this in more detail, but it’s still the same tagline, basically.
The question is: What is “queersploitation”? Well, Steve Orlando (writer), JD Faith (artist), Chris Beckett (colorist), and Thomas Mauer (letterer) would like to tell you, and Image brings it to you for the low, low price of $9.99. So let’s dive right in!
Virgil is almost surrealistically simplistic – Orlando gives us man, Virgil, his lover, a man named Ervan, and Virgil’s desire to kill everyone who stands between them. Orlando sets the book in Jamaica, which is a clever move as Jamaica has a reputation of one of the most homophobic countries on Earth – homosexuality is severely punished by jail time there (technically, it’s not illegal to be gay in Jamaica, just to engage in “gay stuff”). Moreover, Virgil is a policeman, so we get a nice layer of irony on top of everything. Early in the book, the police discover that Virgil is gay and they raid a dinner party he’s attending, where they kill four people, severely wound Virgil, and take Ervan. Given that this is a revenge tale, they probably should have made sure that Virgil was dead, because of course he survives and goes on a killing spree in order to rescue Ervan. That’s pretty much it.
The possibilities for this kind of story are varied, but Orlando takes advantage of almost none of them. It’s as if he thought making Virgil gay was enough to make the story interesting, but the problem with homaging the kind of Blaxploitation movies we saw in the 1970s (which Virgil clearly does) is that a lot of those movies weren’t any good (go ahead, boo and hiss – I can take it).
Whatever goodness they had usually came from the charisma of the protagonist, and “acting” is one thing that we can’t really get in comics – we have to rely on the words the writer uses and the way the artist draws the character. Virgil can’t add any nuance to his line readings or project a sense of menace – we have to hope that Orlando gives him good lines and Faith can make him menacing. I’ll get to the art, but Orlando doesn’t really do much with Virgil. The fact that he’s a cop adds irony, as I noted, but Virgil is kind of a horrible human being. Yes, he’s in love with Ervan, I suppose, although Ervan is more of a cipher than Virgil is, so we get very little sense of them as people who might love each other – they like to fuck, but that’s about it. Virgil is a crooked cop who has no qualms about beating the shit out of lowlifes, and that doesn’t change just because he’s been wronged. Orlando obviously doesn’t want to have his characters fall into any gay stereotypes, and he succeeds, but at the cost of giving them any depth at all. Ervan is simply a damsel in distress, and it doesn’t matter that he’s a man. Virgil has plenty of anger issues, and just because he’s working them out for a “good” cause doesn’t make him any less despicable. He doesn’t care about the legality of homosexuality in Jamaica, so the book isn’t even politically charged. He seems like the kind of person who would and has beaten up gays in the past, even as he goes home to Ervan and they talk about leaving the country so they can be open about their relationship.
Virgil isn’t even that smart – one would think that he would be careful about his relationship, yet the cops find out when he gets a text from Ervan and leaves his flip-phone open on his desk with the message still on the screen when he’s called into his boss’s office. I mean, really.
Where the book succeeds is with Faith and Beckett’s art, although I’ve seen better from Faith. His work here is less polished than it was on the one issue of San Hannibal he drew, and I don’t know if that’s because he drew this before that (although I doubt that) or if it’s just that he’s using heavier inks and a blockier style to match the brutal simplicity of the story. He does a good job showing both the nice and bleak parts of Jamaica, and he uses blacks really well to set moods when they’re called for. When Virgil enters a bar trying to find information about Ervan, Faith backlights him, so that his shadow falls into the room and creeps toward the men sitting at the bar in one panel, and in another, we see his face and arms only in shadow, making him even more ominous. Faith blurs some things nicely, too, using short, jagged lines instead of computer tricks, so that the flash of a machete seems almost immaterial until it slices through a man’s head, for instance. Faith has to be good at drawing fights, as so much of the comic is Virgil beating the shit out of people, and he does well with that, too. Faith gets close in and shows the combatants using everything they can to do damage, and each fight feels more brutal than the last. The fights are choreographed well, so we can see how Virgil (and others, too, but mostly Virgil) uses the surroundings to help defeat his enemies. Faith also gets to draw a really nice final page, which I won’t spoil but allows him to draw something other than pummeling. Beckett does great work with the colors, keeping things bright a lot to reflect the tropical location even though the subject matter is dark.
It’s a way to set this apart from a standard revenge tale, which are often drenched in darkness. Beckett uses a lot of pastels, and it makes Virgil’s quest stranger, as it plays on the resort-type vibe that Jamaica projects juxtaposed against the ugliness of their penal code. It’s really well done, and it’s too bad that the art and coloring aren’t in service of a better story.
There’s nothing really wrong with Virgil, but there’s nothing really great about it, either. If you like revenge tales, it’s entertaining enough, and while I appreciate Orlando’s resistance to make his character “stereotypical,” he’s still a stereotype, just not a “gay” stereotype. Virgil isn’t a terribly interesting character, and while his orientation makes him marginally more interesting than your typical revenge tale protagonist, it doesn’t rescue the rest of his personality. It’s too bad – the book isn’t very long, and Orlando could have perhaps made it a bit more nuanced to raise it above other revenge stories, but he’s just not interested in that. So it becomes a forgettable story, even with the more unusual elements. It’s a shame.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
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