GREG ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Welcome to (Heard it Thru) The Griot Vine, Steve Orlando! Our first guest! How are you today?
STEVE ORLANDO: I'm well! Working right now on the final edits for VIRGIL, my next book out from Image Comics, as well as the next DC Entertainment scripts for Midnighter, Batman and Robin Eternal and Justice League: Gods and Men. It has been a CRAZY month! A crazy year! But in between writing, still finding important sanity time for Corgis, Scotch, and chilled wines. It is, after all, almost August. And we need to have priorities.
GREG: But of course! Now to those who aren't hip, can you tell us about yourself?
STEVE: Single Malt Nerd. Wine Nerd. Comics Nerd. I'm a sixteen-year overnight success that decided he wanted to make comics in 5th grade when I wrote and drew a comic book on Xerox paper -- it starred a generic version of the Pillsbury Doughboy named Clone Dough, for trademark purposes. After reading an editorial about the Electric Blue Superman, I decided to get serious. I started going to comic conventions and trying to get work when I was fourteen. Now, dawning on my thirtieth birthday, those fruits have finally ripened. It's been a long road, and I've had a lot of encouragement and mentoring from great people like Steven T. Seagle and Will Dennis, not to mention very patient people living near by who would sit up with me drinking coffee all night at Denny's and kvetch about comics. But like many who make comics, I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I never stopped.
And the reward? I was able to launch a book that is the first of its kind at Marvel or DC, a book led by a gay male superhero. I was able to make a book with my good friend who I'm connected to by the Internet, from Russia. And I was able to create VIRGIL and bring queersploitation to comics.
GREG: Now you're currently doing press for VIRGIL, which is actually a reprint and as stated previously will be released by Image Comics.
STEVE: VIRGIL isn't just a reprint - it's a revisitation, and an examination of a work over time. The book we created two years ago HAS to change, evolve, as more conversations happen, as ongoing research develops, and as more and more stories come to light. And so the VIRGIL hardcover is a personal event for our backers, and this year, we've been lucky enough to return to the book, refine it, and bring it to the national readership. A different cover, a different format, each is wonderful and unique.
GREG: What's the writer's scoop?
STEVE: Well VIRGIL is a queersploitation graphic novel -- it's a gay revenge book, a gay action book that bucks normal action fiction trends of masculinity and gender roles as an outed cop fights his way across Jamaica to rescue his man.
It's raw, primal unrest fiction, like blaxploitation before it. Unashamed, not holding anything back. It's powerful. And why can't we have a gay action hero? Why can't Django or John McClane be fighting for their husband? Now he can. In VIRGIL, we meet a new, bold, take no prisoner gay hero.
GREG: Reading the hardcover I picked up, it's pretty damn bold. It's not too often you find an unfiltered gay protagonist like Virgil, all the while seeing those tender moments with his lover. Were you at all conflicted in doing this book, given how general readers may react to seeing gay love scenes showcased exactly how a hetero love scene would be?
STEVE: Not at all! It wouldn't be queersploitation if I was! Presentation and frank presentation of sex and violence is part of the genre. And so in owning that for a gay male lead, we have to be unashamed, unconflicted about our depiction. In fact, the revised version has dialog that is in some ways MORE explicit when it comes to some of the sex, but it's also more real. It's little things that get said in gay sex that maybe don't in straight sex. It's bold, it's not afraid; rather it's proud of what it is. This is the new masculinity, more complex, less beholden to tropes and more interested in nuance. Virgil is a tough hero, he's a bottom, he's afraid, and he's strong. He's honest and he's human. That's what it's all about.
GREG: Continuing on with readers' perception, there's been a bit of controversy lately when it comes to white writers attempting to write stories seen from the black experience. Most recently: Mark Waid's Strange Fruit. As Virgil takes place in Jamaica. Did you consider possible backlash writing this piece, especially maybe from black readers who may be rather homophobic, Jamaica being one of the most homophobic countries in the world?
STEVE: If they're homophobic, let them be pissed off. In that respect, I hope they are.
Melvin Van Peebles wasn't worried about racist reactions when he made Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song. And that's the correct approach when it comes to incendiary fiction and those types of hate driven views.
On the topic of white creators dealing with stories seen from the black experience, the book is also being created by a team with queer creators, myself included, but I am not the only one on the team, and dealing with the queer experience.
And as a bisexual creator working in comics, I understand the call for authenticity. The desire to have people from a given community writing about that community. It comes from a history of often being let down with representations, from getting caricatures when you want -- no, demand characters. And in my experience with that, I've been the person reading a book by straight creators who treated minority characters with nuance and respect. And I've been the person reading a book lamenting how obviously it was written by uninformed straight guys. In fact, when I was announced on Midnighter, the reality was never more stark. People would contact me privately to make sure I was queer, in order to buy the book. But with Midnighter, he is a character created by two straight men that treated him and his relationship with passion, research and respect. And it was wonderful.
And that's the key to this argument. I vehemently do not believe in stories a creator "shouldn't" or "cannot" tell. But what goes along with this is something that I consider a creator's responsibility -- respect and research. So was I worried about tackling a book with Caribbean characters of Color? Not at all, because I put in months of research reading personal accounts, news articles, documentaries (A great place to start is VICE Media's Young and Gay: Jamaica's Gully Queens). Watching stories develop on social media. Reading travelogues for architectural reference. I went to college and was on the swim team with two swimmers from the Jamaican National Team, so I already had experience with slang, but I researched it further -- and used it sparingly so it didn't become parody. And as the book developed between the Kickstarter campaign and the wide release, I interacted with people who had read the book, and used our conversations to further develop the final product based on their experiences. In fact, our afterword is written by a gay man on the ground in Jamaica, living the life, and I couldn't be prouder.
When tackling these things, the key is about respect. That is the true job of a creator, something we should all take seriously. If you're going to engage a new culture, if you're going to spread the word about their struggle, it's your obligation to not treat it lightly - show your passion, research their lives, and respect their fight.
GREG: Bravo to you with all that said, Steve. Have you gotten any statements or inbox messages by people who've read and been inspired by your work? As I told you prior to this interview, I can see this book as being very cathartic despite all the violence involved, Virgil fighting for his lover and releasing his frustrations of being bigoted against. And its not often at all you get a black queer character like Virgil.
STEVE: I have! One of the first people to reach out to me was the gentleman who wrote our afterword, Anthony. He is living on site right now in Jamaica, and I found his reaction to the book moving. And from the greater queer community the reaction has been similar. As you said, cathartic. That journey you yourself took with the book is, I think, the archetypal journey with exploitation fiction. Yes, it's bold, it can be jarring, unapologetic. But it has to be, because it's an emotional reaction, not even really a logical one or a refined one. And I think that's why it can be cathartic as well. We have decades of unrest, of inequality, and certainly everyone has moments when they want to lash out -- want to scream. So seeing that play out, even in fiction, can be a brief exciting moment.
And between this and Midnighter, I hope people become even more confident in putting queer characters and underrepresented characters in general to the forefront. The time is right, and everyone deserves that Peter Parker, that Barbara Gordon moment of "Hey! That hero is just like me." It's what comics has to do.
GREG: And I do believe queer representation is in fact getting better in comics. I just wish the readership were as progressive as some of the creators have been with the recent crop of representation.
STEVE: I think it's coming along, and I'm even more positive for the future. The development of the readership comes in the same way the development of people's real life views happen - by humanizing something that they may not have much experience with. And so the more and more we present multi-faceted, rich, honest depictions of any under represented group, the more people will come to see them as characters first, instead of punch lines and caricatures. We take away the lack of experience and replace it with understanding.
GREG: You touched on a bit about some of the updates on the book, can you give us a bit more info about what some of the changes and additions are to the book and story?
STEVE: Not TOO much, because that spoils things. But in general we've refreshed and unified the coloring. We have a new design theme for the book; we have a new cover and inside front cover art. We've refreshed the script and motivations, and we have a brand new foreword from Cyborg and Shaft writer David Walker, as well as the afterword from [our] gay Jamaican reader, Anthony.
GREG: Do you see yourself revisiting and adding more to Virgil's story, ie: sequel? Or do you see yourself doing another exploitation-like book but with a different lead?
STEVE: It has certainly crossed my mind. A sequel to VIRGIL would be spiritual in nature, taking the idea of queersploitation and moving it to another unique setting. Virgil himself deserves rest by the end of the story. And I like stories with endings. But that doesn't mean we can't continue to play with the tropes of VIRGIL, the themes and the aggressive tone. For that, there's no limit! And there's no shortage of places in the works to explore.
GREG: What else is on Steve Orlando's platter when it comes to Creator Owned work?
STEVE: Hopefully more! VIRGIL hits in September, and also right now I am working on a great cosmic horror story with Yaroslav Astapeev for the Broken Frontier Anthology. That, along with Batman and Robin Eternal and Justice League: Gods and Men, are what's next!
GREG: Very nice! Congratulations on all that great news!
STEVE: Thank you! It has been an insane year! For a kid who was picking up the Clone Saga at age seven to now be writing a location caption that reads "The Batcave" is a crazy, crazy thought.
GREG: What advice can you give for anyone out there struggling out there with his or her sexuality or in a place similar like Virgil?
STEVE: That is a loaded question. In general, my advice is always to be brave, and know that in the end you don't owe anyone anything but yourself. Being true to yourself is all that matters - not social expectations, not parents, not friends. Those things? The connections like that that are real, they will stay with you, even if they struggle at first.
And for people living in hostile areas, you're not alone. There are ally groups, activists groups, shelters. In Jamaica, JFLAG is fighting for your cause. There are people on your side, and more and more abroad.
And for people struggling with sexuality itself, the most important thing I'd say is you never have to "choose." If you're predominantly into men, predominantly into women, that's great! But if you're somewhere in between, there is sometimes a social pressure to "pick a side" so to speak. Being bisexual myself, I was told this so many times by camps on either side. And the fact is, you never have to choose, you never have to define your sexuality beyond interest in a specific person in a specific time.
GREG: Any advice for aspiring writers and artists?
STEVE: Make comics! When I was fourteen, my mentors told me "if you treat comics like a hobby, it will always be one." And that may sound harsh, but it's also true! If you want to make comics, then it has to be part of your routine, no matter what you do. Do you write? Then write every day. Do you draw? Then draw every day. The same goes for lettering and design. For coloring. Never let there be a "but" about your work - ie "I have a great script but I'm just waiting for an artist." Nope, find one. Let your passion come through and SHOW people, instead of waiting for them to find you. SHOW them you can make a comic a reality.
GREG: You hear that, folks?! Can we get a revisitation of Clone Dough while we're at it?
STEVE: HA! Have someone draw me up a contract.
GREG: Haha. Steve, where can we find you on social media?
GREG: Thanks for stopping by, Steve!
STEVE: It was my pleasure!