Why am I most excited about InSEXts? That’s actually a tough question. Am I most excited that this is a queer erotic Victorian horror series written by a woman? Am I most excited that this is the second debut from the newly founded Aftershock Comics? Am I most excited that this is writer Marguerite Bennett’s first creator owned comic? They’re all good options.

So what is InSEXts? Well, a year and a bit back I attended a fantastic party in Chicago celebrating the launch of Rachel Deering’s In the Dark horror anthology. It’s a really interesting book and it was capped off by a short from then newcomer Marguerite Bennett entitled “Gestation”. To keep things brief, InSEXts is “Gestation” given the time it needs to complete its metamorphosis.

Rewritten to accommodate the freedoms afforded by an ongoing series and brought to life with gorgeous new art, “Gestation” emerges from its editorial cocoon as a moody little number entitled “Chrysalis”. InSEXts, even more than its predecessor is a sensuous celebration of the baser part of human nature and how it can be used for good. I’d call the narrative hedonistic, but there’s a selfishness in that word that doesn’t suit this story. Instinctive desires like sex, hunger, love, family, violence, and revenge are all championed and all firmly based in empathy and connection rather than self-indulgence or gluttony. It’s very much and very consciously an upending of Victorian mores.

Bennett does a really nice job of imbuing our protagonists, a caged Viscountess and her lady’s maid, with sincere affection. Even more importantly, she’s able to fill the air with just a hint of tension, the kind that makes very clear where a character pauses and just how much venom is in their voice.

Indeed, this strength of tone is essential and the story clearly knows it. There isn’t a lot of factual character building in this issue. There’s a bit of exposition that lays out the scene and there are some little hints of character, but I don’t think you would put this book down able to point to a line of text that clarified the characters half as well as the implications behind it.

Admittedly the conflict is still rather simple. Harry, our lead’s money-hungry serial rapist of a husband, is less a character than a justification for murder. There aren’t many other characters and very few of those there are reach out for something greater than their own circumstances. The one major exception is a scathing monologue from Lady Bertram that dismantles the idea that women are the gentler sex.

It seems obvious to me that these problems are the legacy of the script’s origin. While the straightforward themes made sense in a stand-alone short, it still feels as though this issue is restricted by limitations that no longer apply. However, it is worth noting that the tail end of the story begins to shatter the glass that our insectoid heroines have been pinned behind.

But as a straight horror comic, InSEXts is both classic and effective. Bennett is playing with classic body horror and feminist horror tropes but she distinguishes this story through the guidance, or lack their of, the characters receive. The connection between Mariah and Lady Bertram helps sell their calm, which is essential to the pacing of the issue and would otherwise just have to fall on ‘horror logic’. This really allows Bennett to give the book an understated feel that makes Harry’s arc quietly terrifying and avoids allowing him undeserved sympathy.

It’s also interesting how grounded in real world fears this issue is. Obviously we’re, as a culture, unsettled by women and insects but that’s purely surface level. Bennett toys with pregnancy, sickness, lack of empathy, the simple fear of being outnumbered, and every sort of helplessness.

Especially for the many who have not heard of Ariela Kristantina, myself included, this is quite a stunning way to discover her. Kristantina’s linework is flowing and yet sketchy. Her renderings of hair are especially gorgeous. Her images have a soft, malleable quality. Kristantina’s characters may not strictly stay on model, but they tell the story better and more forcefully for it.

More than just the style, Kristantina’s skill shines through in little choices. Panels like Mariah putting out the light or snuggled up with Lady Bertram speak volumes about her talent as a storyteller.

And then, of course, there’s the sex. Though it’s brief, there’s no denying the power of the book’s first sex scene. Here more than ever, Kristantina’s ability to capture the feeling of a moment is on full display. The art is sensuous but decidedly powerful. Though it doesn’t necessarily depict them you can feel muscles tensing, breath quickening. The lovers’ bodies rise and fall to meet each other, telling you instantly of the love between them and just how they act upon it. Obviously there’s eroticism to it and the aesthetics are beautiful, but, were that not enough, it very much sets the stage for the duo’s relationship and, frankly, it looks like good sex. Admittedly there are some minor anatomical issues, but I didn’t find them distracting and they felt very much more natural than the liberties we often see taken with the female body in comics.

Just as incredible as his collaborator is colorist Bryan Valenza. The colors in this issue are simply gorgeous, filled with deep reds and entrancing blue-greens. The effect is a nearly iridescent quality, one that I imagine was not unintentional. The palette and Valenza’s ability to play with it are stunning, but that’s not his only trick. In an era before electric lighting, warm, gentle lighting effects are essential and thankfully the book delivers. In fact, as obviously beautiful as the more intense shades of this issue are, some of the most important color work lies in the simple gradients of a candle’s light or a character’s skin.

Some Thoughts:

  • Though I think that the relationship between Lady Bertram and Mariah is very sweet, I will admit that there are some weird dynamics between them. I mean, much as there is precedent for it, Mariah is still Lady Bertram’s maid. On the other hand, Mariah clearly takes a very dominant role in their interactions, inducting Lady Bertram into the mysteries of this new world. I mean, there is just an understanding that she can dispose of a body! Add to the fact that, unless I’m mistaken, no one in this story addresses Lady Bertram by her given name, including Mariah, and there’s a lot of baggage there. I wonder how much of this will be explored in future issues. Something to keep an eye on perhaps…
  • It is really fascinating to look at the changes to the script between this issue and “Gestation”. Names are changed, concepts are fleshed out, the ending takes a somewhat different path. Perhaps most interesting of all, in the original version William was named for Dr. William Taylor, Harry’s friend, but this was removed from the Aftershock edition despite an increased relationship between he and Lady Bertram. If you’re interested in reading “Gestation” or otherwise owning a massive tome of horror from some of the industry’s finest writers you can still find copies of In The Dark at a reasonable discount on Amazon.

Grade

B

Conclusion

With a powerful tone and clear emotional resonance, InSEXts is a solid debut that almost conjures up an orchestral composition, fitting for its place in time. Marguerite Bennett brings us a suitably classy Victorian version of an Exploitation story, full of sex; counter culture; and revenge, and Ariela Kristantina and Bryan Valenza see it through with absolutely stunning visuals. The greatest problem is that the plot for this issue is a little light, betraying its one-shot origins. I can’t help but think that next issue will be where we really see what Bennett will bring to the table. Nonetheless, the writing is borne out by its execution and the artwork is not to be missed.