Review: The epistemology of the un-closet

Artist(s): Fernando Blanco, J. D. Faith, Steve Orlando.

Nice title, uh? Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to quote Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick at you. What I’m going to do is write a little something about two very good works written by the same person, enabling me to highlight their common features and their differences. And yes, I know I’d said I wouldn’t write here anymore. Well, Steve Orlando made me change my mind.

The writer, with whom I’d done an interview a couple of years ago, mentioned there one of this then-upcoming project, Virgil, drawn by artist J. D. Faith. Published a few months later by Image Comics, that graphic novel tells the story of Virgil, a Jamaican closeted cop who sees his friends killed and his lover Ervan kidnapped. Soon realizing the culprits are men from his own squad, the cop decides to rescue his lover, by any means necessary.

Cover for the first issue

Orlando has since then written for DC a 12-issues series of Midnighter, the main gay superhero published by DC (see here for his history), alongside Apollo, his boyfriend (and husband in a former continuity, don’t ask, that’s superheroes for you). In the just finished follow-up, entitled Midnighter and Apollo1, Apollo, a sun-powered superhero, is killed and his soul held captive in hell. Midnighter sets out to rescue him.

While both books feature a Love Torn Asunder story among gay men, something which could still be seen as a subversion of classic tropes (however unfortunate one might find it that this needs to be pointed out even now), they also present an even more intriguing subversion, that of masculinist codes. Midnighter and Virgil are seemingly classic tough guys, and considering they way they’re portrayed, some readers, whether gay or straight, might expect them to be the top during sex. Orlando obviously makes a point of showing both Midnighter and Virgil enjoying being the bottom (not to the exclusion of other pleasures, one might add).

Midnighter and Apollo enjoying an evening together

Of course, in the case of Midnighter and Apollo, the biggest subversion might be the simple fact of showing two men having sex in a mainstream comic whose characters are owned by DC (Virgil is published by a non-corporate publisher and is creator-owned).

Virgil has a dense and simple story arc, which also means that apart from Virgil himself, other characters don’t have much room for development. Ervan, for example, is sketched more than anything else. This is not necessarily a criticism, since that also follows the format of exploitation films (Virgil is actually more thoughtful than most, it seems to me), but it means that Ervan doesn’t get much to do once he’s been kidnapped, apart from a sweet final scene that I won’t spoil for you.
On the other hand, Midnighter and Apollo, which is a (complete) chapter from an open-ended storyline, handles Apollo in a more realized way: far from being only a victim kept in hell, the blond hero gets to show his mettle, both physically and intellectually (not a small feat against a lord of hell). Virgil plays the damsel-in-distress trope to the hilt, while Midnighter and Apollo plays with it.

Both books are very violent, but the violence shown in not of the same nature: The superhero action is larger-than-life to the point of being cartoony (entirely in keeping with the usual depiction of violence in other Midnighter comics), while Virgil has been described as “queersploitation” by its authors, in a clear allusion to blaxploitation. Virgil blends real-life concerns–homophobic violence in Jamaica–with an explicit violence that has consequences: Virgil’s friends don’t recover from being beaten to death and Virgil finds no pity for their persecutors.

An impressive fight sequence by J. D. Faith from Virgil

Over-the-top violence by Fernando Blanco

A few words about the art: the styles of J. D. Faith and Fernando Blanco couldn’t be more different, but are well suited to the stories. Faith’s solid lines and noir influences were made for the realistic settings of Virgil, while Blanco is as at ease illustrating domestic life as well as manic fight sequences.

You might wonder about the title of this article. I did have something to point out, namely the differences in addressing the closet question. In Midnighter and Apollo, Orlando writes main characters who couldn’t be more out of the closet. Everybody they meet, both friends and foe, are aware of their being gay and together. Contrary to what was done with previous incarnations of the characters (they were created in 1998 and have seen some sub-par writing in their years), none of their adversaries are homophobic, not even the denizens of Hell, a welcome departure from tired clichés, which some readers might find naive or unrealistic–but then, this is a story about a Batman analogue with a fight computer in his brain and his Superman-inspired boyfriend fighting against demons and runaway technology.

In Virgil, the real world dictates that the lives of the characters are lived in the shadows, with Virgil himself being very deep in the closet, for his and his lover’s safety. Orlando shows that love and friendship are not absent, but the cost is high, and the threat to their lives has a simple cause: homophobia. Orlando does go beyond a mere observation of the reality of homophobia in Jamaica (he might have set his story in Chechnya if he’d written it now), by having his character stating how stronger he feels after his forced outing. This statement, from a scene where the character is at his lowest, encapsulates the thinking behind the whole book, it seems to me: showing gay people taking control of their lives.

While the portrayal of a queer group of friends is present in both books, its role and depiction are not the same in the two narratives: From an endangered island of human warmth in Virgil to a support system and chosen family in Midnighter and Apollo, the sense of community is equally strong. If I may get all geeky for a moment, Orlando also does something completely unexpected in his superhero story by reclaiming a largely-forgotten gay hero: introduced back in 1998, the magician Extraño was a walking, living stereotype as well as one of the earliest gay characters in mainstream comics. Unused for a couple of decades, the character appears for the first time in the new DC continuity as a handsome, older gay man confident in his abilities and willing to help Midnighter enter the gates of Hell to reach his imprisoned lover. Orlando manages to give both older fans and newer readers something to be happy with, building upon past times while updating characters for a more enlightened era.

The original Extraño, art by Joe Staton (I think)

The new Extraño, art by Fernando Blanco

Virgil and Midnighter and Apollo are clearly two faces of the same coin: Steve Orlando and his collaborators give gay readers new stories to engage with, stories which recognize the specificity of gay relationships while being in keeping with narrative tropes familiar to all readers. They’re not the first ones to do so, but they are excellent examples of what can be done in the hands of talented creators.


Notes:
  1. The Midnighter and Apollo mini-series will be collected in July, while the Midnighter series has been collected in volumes 1 and 2.

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