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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: The Eerie, Sickly INSEXTS #2

If I had to describe Insexts, one of the premiere titles from newly-formed Aftershock Comics, in three words, I'd probably say, "David Cronenberg's Fingersmith." Unfortunately, I'm a professio-- wait, no I'm not. No one pays me for this. I could literally just leave it there and none of you could stop me. "David Cronenberg's Fingersmith." There. You know if that's your jam.

But if I left it there, how would I be able to absolutely rave about artist Ariela Kristantina's absolutely gorgeous work? Horror and romance are a difficult combination to pull off, particularly in comics form, where jump scares don't work and are largely replaced by grotesque design, but Kristantina can shift tones quickly and comfortably. One page finds a pair in an intense, erotic embrace; two pages later, one is transforming monstrously, insectoid legs sprouting from her back. The same character, ruffled costume reimagined entirely to set the tone of the moment - and a third time, three pages later, when the character is removed from both romantic and monstrous contexts. Only the occasional issue with space holds her work back from time to time - a teapot that vanishes and reappears between panels, or a cut to a character standing... somewhere and watching... something, neither of which are entirely clear.

Colorist Bryan Valenza suits her work well. Setting this issue at a garden party was a brilliant idea, and Valenza fills the page with sickly greens that match Lady Bertram's insectoid form. There's a pallor to his work that makes everything feel just a little dirty, just a bit unhealthy, which helps set the tone wonderfully. It's well-contrasted with the book's only real warmth: The bodies of Lady Bertram and Mariah, which are warm, flush with life. London is slowly dying around them, but when the two lovers are together, they can't feel it.

And I don't intend to leave out the work of Marguerite Bennett, too. Bennett has a talent for evocative language, a talent she puts to good use in a flirty scene early in the book and even better, more offputting use in a disgusting one near the end. She largely eschews narration here, which is a smart choice: This story lives and dies on the audience buying these relationships. The banter-heavy patter between our two leads is warm and endearing, a confident portrayal of the first flush of love that's far more effective than a narration box telling us how they feel.

Unfortunately, when the story isn't actively doing romance or horror, the writing often slips into the dreaded Exposition Hole, particularly in an extended conversation between George and Sylvia, a pair of newly-introduced villains who are introduced here in a page-long conversation that tells us exactly who they are, how they feel about the lead, what her background is, and what their family's standing in society and financial situation is like. It's a lot of information, but it's very, very little character, and it's not the only time in this issue. Sylvia, at least, gets a bit more characterization in her truly, spectacularly vulgar monologue at the end of the issue, but until then, it was another symptom of something that concerns me a bit with Insexts: The tendency to rush character work, to tell us about these relationships rather than finding a way to demonstrate them. Bennett is incredibly patient in building out her world, refusing to explain the slowly expanding supernatural scene brewing in London, and she displays a sharp eye for small details, two traits that I wouldn't mind seeing expanded to the character work.

So, in summation, my entire first paragraph was a waste of your time and I will definitely continue to work my day job. But, while I do, I'll be eagerly awaiting more Insexts. There's no shortage of horror books on the comic shop shelves these days, but few manage to be as sophisticated or as sensual of this one. Marguerite Bennett, Ariela Kristantina, and Bryan Valenza have crafted an indelibly odd story that can shift comfortably from tender romance to impeccably-designed body horror. While I think there's room for growth, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm more than intrigued enough to give it time to find its feet. Where else am I going to find Victorian lesbian body horror half so creepy and confident?

Insexts #2 was illustrated by Ariela Kristantina, lettered by A Larger World, written & created by Marguerite Bennett, and colored by Bryan Valenza. Published by Aftershock, Insexts #2 costs $3.99, and was published on January 13th, 2016.
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