I often feel like an outsider to the conversations from friends in the United States. Although they’re super smart people, my self-imposed exclusion has never been to ignorance to the issues they’re faced with everyday as citizens of the United States. More than anything, it’s that their issues seem like less hostile versions of the ones experienced by people in other parts of the world, namely my own home country Belize. In the case of LGBTQ issues, Belize like other Central American or Caribbean countries is far behind where we ought to be, and threat of violence continues to be a source of fear and frustration for LGBTQ people in the country. Although not a Jamaican himself, Steve Orlando recognizes the violence faced by people of queer identities in that country and along with artist JD Faith has crafted a narrative in Virgil that’s astonishing in not only its brutal depiction of violence, but also for making me realize that it’s a comic I had been craving for many years. Virigl follows the titular character, a cop that walks the streets and happily shakes down gangstas with the rest of his crew. In secret, he meets with his long-term partner and talks over for the umpteenth time their plan to eventually escape the country for a safer, more open life elsewhere. Their plans are screwed with once the cops figure out Virgil’s secret, killing his small group of LGBT friends and kidnapping his partner. The rest of the comic covers Virgil’s quest to recover his partner, and deliver violent justice to any cop or criminal on his path.
One of the best aspects of Virgil is how well the book captures the look of Jamaica. JD Faith illustrates a type of city rarely seen in comics, neither a bustling metropolis nor a rural small town but a city with a high population of low income families living in shanty homes bullied by both the police and gangs. The architecture and landscape Faith pulls off serves as a constant reminder of how geographically removed this story is from the life of LGBTQ Americans who have made remarkable strides in their own right over the past few decades. And yet despite the creeping decrepitude of the setting, Faith gives it a bold neon coloring that provides a lasting energy to the book.
Seeing as Virgil promises to be an all out action tale, a ‘queerspolitation’ story according to Orlando, much of the book hinges on whether the action is riveting throughout. Fortunately, Orlando and Faith manage to keep things fresh through a combination of changing locales and placing Virgil in increasingly desperate situations where he seems to make it out thanks to more than his fair share of luck (although given his circumstances, it’s well earned luck). Initially, I was taken aback at the mercilessness with which Virgil enacts his revenge, indiscriminately offing just about anyone hindering his quest. However, it becomes apparent over the course of the book that Orlando’s Virgil is finally lashing back out at a society that has bred shame in him for his sexuality. As a result, each blow he delivers or bullet he fires feels like a necessary scream into the abyss to not fuck with people.
Virgil doesn’t feature lengthy monologues about the history of homophobia in Jamaica, but it’s actions say volumes about the oppressive forces faced by people there. Ending on a quiet note that would probably be unlikely in a real world setting, Virgil provides a hero for a heavily marginalized group and brings light to the fact that we have so much further to go.