Tom Morello’s best known for his work as a guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, but this fall, he’s debuting in a new medium with the release of his comic book Orchid. Set in a dystopian future where the devastating effects of global warming have ravaged society and ushered in a brutally divided class system where the rich own the poor as slaves, and everyone’s at risk from newly-risen dinosaur-like monsters. The title character, Orchid, is a teenaged prostitute with “Property” tattooed across her chest and “Know Your Role” branded into her forearm. In the first issue, which was released on Oct. 12, Orchid is arrested for skimming profits from her pimp to support her family — and thrown into a paddy wagon with the leader of a small resistance movement. I spoke with Morello at New York Comic Con about the perils of drawing “empowered” female characters who exist for male gratification; his experiences with sex workers in Los Angeles; and the meaning of Occupy Wall Street and Wisconsin. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I was curious how you got the idea for the strip in the first place. Had you been wanting to do something about sex workers for a while?
Yeah. About 3 years ago I had a story in my head. I wanted to do something that combined the epic sweep of stories like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars but that combined class politics of movies like the Battle of Algiers, or my own worldview. That’s one thing I thought was missing from Dune or whatever. It’s always getting the king back on the throne, and the princess back into the castle, and I’m not into that.
There’s a lot of race and gender but not a lot of class in fantasy.
Yes, exactly. That’s one of the things about the world of Orchid, it’s absolutely race-neutral. So it was very important to me with this story for there to be epic battles, and cool monsters, and narrow escapes, but to have a class politics to it that is sorely missed in a lot of other work.
So how did you decide to have Orchid be someone be someone who was doing sex work?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was not accepted in the rock community. I wasn’t the right color, I didn’t have the right length of hair. This was like the mid-’80s. And the first LA community that accepted me was the East Hollywood underground rock community where there were a lot of drug addicts and prostitutes. And Orchid’s based on people that I knew who were very hard in some ways, but had huge hearts and were very generous people…They’re composites.
I’m curious. Did you do any research on sex work more generally?
The research I did was first-hand. I also, not that that I need to trumpet it, but I used to be an exotic dancer myself, but that’s not exactly the sex trade, but it borders on it. I would not say I drew on that experience writing Orchid, just to be perfectly clear, but full disclosure. It was a long time ago.
One of the big problems in comics is women who are empowered for somebody else’s pleasure. When you were thinking about how she was going to dress, how she was going to act, how did you work through that?
In creating the world, I wanted to explore what it was like to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder. To be a woman. To be a teenager. To be a sex trade worker. And really reflecting on some of my own experiences with people who were like that, and really putting that personality into this post-Noah’s Ark world…I wanted to both have there be familiarity with sex trade workers of 2011, but also have it feel differently. They all wear those horse mane things made from different grasses to identify them as prostitutes. And they can’t get beyond that.
Reading the first volume, Orchid’s kind of unpleasant when you meet her.
She remains unpleasant for some time.
But what’s her process of coming to consciousness?
We’re only at issue one. One of the biggest challenges is this was written as a graphic novel, and making it episodic was a big challenge, and making each issue self-contained. People ask questions, and Issue 2’s coming, Issue 3’s coming. There will soon be a group of comrades who figure it out together and learn from each other.
Her mother doesn’t seem totally freaked out by the idea that she’s a prostitute. Does her mother know?
Absolutely. It’s totally accepted. Their family lives better than others because she’s able to skim off the top. Not because she’s a prostitute. Prostitutes make zero. But she’s skimming off the top.
You’re saying that prostitution’s accepted. But where are pimps in the social hierarchy?
Pimps do very well for themselves in this hierarchy as we’ll see in future issues. Orchid’s pimp brings all his money, brings his riches to another place where we end up, and we get a better sense of what his life is like…Those girls are his property. Literal property. Not figurative property. And it’s important to them…how Orchid has gotten where she is, the Queen Bee of the 16-year-old prostitutes is she knows her role.
Is the know your role brand something she chose?
I don’t know that I’m at liberty to tell! It doesn’t go away. There’s more coming on that front. It’s important that one of them is a tattoo and one of them is a brand. Her personal mantra is not I am property. It’s know your role. That role may change over time. It’s hard to say.
I know you were down at Occupy Wall Street this morning. Is it a nice coincidence that the comic’s coming out at the same time?
The fact that I have a Nightwatchmen record called World Wide Rebel Song, I have a class-conscious comic coming out, and the world is being occupied is a fine coincidence.
What was your experience at Occupy Wall Street like?
I played at Occupy LA on Saturday and it was very similar. I’ve been to hundreds of protests and demonstrations. But between what went on in Madison last February when there were 100,000 people in the streets protesting anti-union legislation, and now the Occupy movement that’s now in 1,300 cities, it’s really the first time in my lifetime when there’s been a large, massive, class-based protest. This is not an anti-war protest. This is not a general sort of umbrella. We’ve identified the 1 percent of the problem. So get those sons of bitches.
Do you think the 99 percent obscures class distinctions to a certain extent? Obviously there’s a difference between being in the top 5 percent of the 99 percent and being in the bottom 5.
I think the 99 percent is very, very key. One of the things that has made this movement successful is the inclusion. It’s really the .001 percent that are calling the shots. But we’ll round up. But 99 percent to 1, I like those odds.
Do you think art can play a role in the conversations among the 99 percent? Solidarity is awesome, but the people at the upper stratum of the 99 percent need to learn more about what it’s like to be at the bottom.
Well, there’s never been, in the United States, a progressive, radical, or revolutionary movement that hasn’t had a great soundtrack. The Civil Rights movement, the workers’ rights movement, the anti-war movement —
And the Spanish Civil War!
You’ve gotta have jams. You’ve gotta have righteous jams in order to win. Maybe righteous comic books as well.
This is your first foray into comic books. Were there comics that were an inspiration?
I collected comic books up until I started playing guitar, when I was 16 or 17.
Guitars are more expensive than comics!
My first one was not that much more expensive than some books that you can buy here today. But it was also when I became politically aware. I was a fan of escapist music and escapist comics. I put those down for rock and politics at the time. But in those intervening years, comics have come a long way. The comics that I grew up with, that I liked very much, were Weird Tales, and Kamandi and all the Marvel rock-’em-sock-’em stuff, the Avengers, X-Men. But the comics that brought me back in were V for Vendetta, Red Star, they made me realize oh, my ideas can exist in this world as well. I didn’t want to compromise in any way, shape, or form, on the exciting world…but there’s going to be a good dose of politics.
And there’s a good deal of global warming politics as well as class. How do you see those two interacting?
We’re now living in a world where the seas are once again receding and this is what we’re left with. The apocalypse has gone down, and now we gotta kind of make up our mind what we’re going to do with it. The inspiration for that was I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s book, The Stand, where there’s this disease that is the Apocalypse, and that just shatters society, and it opens the door for something worse than the disease.