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"99 Percent to 1, I Like Those Odds": Tom Morello on Protest Music, Occupy Wall Street, and Bringing Class Politics to Comic Books

The former Rage Against the Machine guitarist has a new album, a new comic book about environmental and class politics, and has been visiting protests around the US.

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 different. They all wear those horse mane things made from different grasses to identify them as prostitutes. And they can’t get beyond that.