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Virgil

Virgil
Written by Steve Orlando, Art by J.D. Faith, and Colors by Chris Beckett
Image Comics, 96 pp.
Rating: Mature Readers

Virgil is a corrupt cop, working the mean streets of Jamaica. With his partner and childhood friend, Omar, and the rest of the force, he shakes down the local criminals, pockets the cash and drugs and leads a pretty good life. However, Virgil’s got a secret, his boyfriend Ervan. When his secret is discovered, Omar and his homophobic friends on the force turn on Virgil. Omar leads an attack on Virgil’s home, killing several of his friends, kidnapping Ervan, and leaving Virgil under a pile of corpses on the beach. Only, Virgil wasn’t dead, and now he’s out for revenge. As he tracks down Omar, Virgil must contend with corrupt, homophobic police and the criminals he once harassed. From writer Steve Orlando, and artist J.D. Faith comes the 2015 graphic novel, Virgil, a brutal tale of love and revenge.

I first heard about Virgil on the old Image Comics podcast, The I Word. Created by Image Comics and hosted by one of their editors, the podcast featured interviews with comic creators whose work was being published by Image, and was meant to help promote their books. The episode with Steve Orlando focused on several comics he had coming out at the time, but the title which really stood out was Virgil. The way Orlando described the one shot graphic novel as an attempt to “give the gay community that type of John Shaft, that type of Foxy Brown hero” really stuck with me, and while I regret that it took me nearly a year to get around to giving the comic a look, I’m very glad I did.

With Virgil, Orlando combines his love of exploitation stories with current day issues faced by the LGBT community to create what he calls a “queersploitation” revenge story. The result is a pulpy, violent read that brings to mind movies like Coffy and I Spit on Your Grave, movies which offered similar stories of bloody revenge undertaken by non-traditional action stars.

While the story itself is a fairly straight forward revenge tale, part of what makes Virgil so noteworthy are the elements and issues it touches upon. Much like the best and most memorable exploitation films, Virgil is rooted in actual issues faced by its protagonist due to his identity. In this case that means a gay, black, Jamaican male. The stress and pressure to perform a type of hypermasculinity forces him to hide his homosexuality and to engage in exaggerated public forms of heterosexuality which seem almost comedic. In one scene he and Omar visit a brothel and are shown engaging in hetereosexual acts while in the same room. Afterwards they each boast of the different women they’ve had over the years and their sexual prowess. Artist J.D. Faith depicts the sequence in an appropriately seedy manner. The room’s wallpaper is peeling, the mattresses are threadbare, and the only sound rendered on the page is Omar’s crude sexual monologue. This is almost immediately contrasted by Virgil’s arrival home where is he greeted by Ervan. The couple’s first on page kiss is framed by a halo of light and, over the course of the next several pages, their lovemaking is depicted in the tender, yet frank way which has traditionally been reserved for heterosexual pairings in R-rated movies. Close ups of the lovers’ entwined limbs, their pleasure and passion are clearly displayed upon their faces. Likewise, their dialogue is in stark contrast to Omar’s bravado in the brothel. Instead they gasp out their affection for each other, urging one another on in between exclamations of how much they’ve missed one another. Faith does as good a job at rendering these more intimate and tender moments as he does with the brutal bloodshed that makes up much of the book.

Speaking of that bloodshed, Virgil is not for the squeamish or overly sensitive. The homophobic vitriol spouted by nearly every antagonist who crosses Virgil’s path is bad enough, but the violence that accompanies it is brutal and sudden. Knives and bullets sever limbs, flesh is burned, heads are removed, and skulls caved in aplenty. While the violence is brutal and graphic at times, it never quite spills into stomach turning territory. It’s fast and sudden, but rarely do Orlando and Faith linger on its after affects in any great detail. Instead it takes on the stylized feel of an action movie, with Virgil decapitating thugs and walking away as a warehouse burns behind him, their corpses lit by the orange flames.

A page from VirgilThe orange of those flames comes courtesy of colorist Chris Beckett. While it’s rare that I take note of the coloring in a comic, unless it is exceptionally bad, Beckett’s work in Virgil is worth mentioning. Not only do the bold, solid colors look good on the page, but there’s something about his color palette gives the book a neon lit feel which fits the grindhouse nature of the book perfectly. Likewise, Beckett’s careful coloring lends the flashback sequences to Virgil and Ervan’s relationship a softness and warmth which contrasts nicely with the hard, bright and colder colors of the present sequences. The intimate moments also serve to give a strong emotional core to Virgil’s violent rampage, making his anger all the more palpable and understandable, deepening reader’s connection and sympathy with a character who’s shown to be a brutal and corrupt police officer.

Thanks in part to Beckett’s coloring, and the book’s subject matter, Virgil is part of the modern revival of the 1980s aesthetic. As a result, it sits in comfortable continuity alongside synthwave revival musical acts like Carpenter Brute, video games like Hotline Miami, and movies like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, all of which display a similar love of bloody violence and neon tinted revenge.

While Virgil might not be offering anything new in terms of narrative or visual stylings, it does provide comics, and arguably pop culture in general, with something it has long seemed to lack. A homosexual action hero. Its story may be formulaic; after all, how many times have we seen a man fighting against the odds to avenge the loss of his wife or to rescue his damsel in distress? But the fact that it’s a gay, black male doing so for his boyfriend lends it a certain weight, and casts the familiar formula and tropes against societal concepts of masculinity, gender and sexual politics, racial concerns, and more. As a result, the classic revenge tale it presents becomes something new, it becomes the story of a gay male coming out of the closet and claiming his sexuality and identity, and the power that comes with it, in a blood-spattered way.

Virgil is available now from Image Comics.

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