Written by Steve Orlando
Art by JD Faith
Colors by Chris Beckett
Letters by Thomas Mauer
Cover by Artyom Trakhanov
Published by Image Comics
Virgil’s marketing description had me at “queersploitation.” I’m a casual buff of exploitation film history and genre–see Bitch Planet’s upending of the women-in-prison exploitation tropes–and thought Virgil bringing the genre to issues of queerness was an apt marriage for 2015. The comic is executed with a sincere and serious commitment to its parent genre and sensitivity to the subject matter, but lacks the campy sense of fun that many contemporary exploitation texts have.
The opening pages establish the grim, unforgiving atmosphere of Kingston, Jamaica. This is a city of drug lords, street gangs, police violence, and homophobia. Virgil is a man of this setting, a cop full of violent and sexualized bravado, or so he’d have his fellow officers and community believe. He’s a hero on the force for standing up to “King Bandulu”, the drug kingpin of the neighborhood.
This Virgil is not the real Virgil, a man who comes out in the company of Ervan, his beloved. The two must meet only in secret, keeping their time together quite literally in the dark. Ervan is a loving and supportive partner, and their relationship is portrayed as both sweet and sexy. The two dream of moving to Toronto, Canada, where they can be together in the open without the threat of violence. Virgil and Ervan are closeted homosexuals living in a city where the police will hang a gay teen at a father’s request. They are living under a dangerous lie.
A text message from Ervan to Virgil gets noticed by Omar, Virgil’s partner on the police force. Homophobic rage mixed with betrayal causes Omar to lead the police force to attack Virgil and his gay friends. They beat the others to death and kidnap Ervan. At this point Virgil’s two personas–violent bringer of justice and supportive lover of Ervan–come together in a rebirth scene on the Jamaican beach where he has been dumped in a pile with the corpses of his friends. He vows to find Ervan and the avenging hero is born.
As Virgil follows the clues to Ervan, he finds he’s been outed in the newspapers and is now a target for hatred in the community. He is taken in by a group who help homosexuals get out of Kingston. Virgil is offered a plane ticket to Canada. He tells the group he’ll be back, but to print another ticket–he won’t be alone.
Orlando intermixes the violent, bloody path towards Ervan with flashbacks to the couple’s formative moments together. These memories reveal Ervan has made Virgil a better, more loving man, and Virgil doesn’t want to lose who he has become or the man who made him. Ironically, being the hyper-masculine cop is the only way he can save Ervan and himself.
To win, Virgil has to take on all of his enemies: the police force, King Bandulu, and then former best friend, Omar. It is not easy. But it is gripping. These men don’t pull punches. They taunt, torture, and terrorize. And like all revenge stories, from Hamlet to Taken, there is a satisfaction in the body count. These men deserve their fates.
J.D. Faith’s art is boldly lined and colored. It struck me as a mix of Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence and the anime Cowboy Bebop. Chris Beckett’s coloring, especially of blood, call back to the saturation of 60’s and 70’s exploitation films.
However, this is not Tarantino. The exploitation genre here is executed with earnest sincerity, no hint of camp or humor. At times, I wanted the ability to release emotional tension with a bit of laughter. Instead, the levity comes only from the sweet scenes of Virgil and Ervan together, and then serves only to twist the knife as Virgil fights his way back to him.