Marguerite Bennett and Ariela Kristantina’s “InSEXts” is one messy, sexy monster book. The first trade, which arrived on August 31, follows Lady and her maid/lover Mariah as they transform into vengeful insect-like creatures and make their own family in Victorian London. It’s a chaotic stew of erotica, body horror, penny dreadful tropes, B-movie monster fights and Victoriana that works for the same reason it sometimes stumbles: its messiness. The occasional jumpy plotting, stilted dialogue and confusing artwork definitely detract from the first few issues, but the book’s other forms of messiness — its mixed genres, the thin line between the erotic and the horrific, the sprawling creatures and crazy page layouts — are so winningly bizarre that I couldn’t help but enjoy them. Readers will gleefully devour this trade.
Lady begins the book in a cold, cruel marriage, but she and Mariah soon find a supernatural escape from the situation. In a languid, luscious sex scene, Mariah suddenly spits an oozing green ball into Lady’s mouth. After Lady swallows it, she is able to rid herself of her husband by using him to produce her and Mariah’s son (in rib-exploding fashion). That initial transformation scene — which slides so quickly from gettin’ freaky to just-plain freaky — is a perfect example of the way “InSEXts” plays with sex and monstrosity. Real-life sex is inevitably a little squicky and plenty of horror films have mined it for material, but what makes “InSEXts” so interesting is that it amps up both the erotica and the body horror. That first sex scene shows no hint of creepy-crawly things — until it’s full-on slime.
This turn is made possible by Ariela Kristantina and colorists Bryan Valenza and Jessica Kholinne. Their artwork is a fascinating concoction of art nouveau, inky horror pieces and pin-up poses. Kristantina’s sex scenes are explicit, sensual and unbounded; I could feel the joy in her roomy, steamy panels. And yet, her monsters aren’t sexy at all. They’re straight out of a horror movie. They eat up the panels with tearing mandibles, gaping maws and all-consuming venus-fly-trap-vulvas. The two modes speak to each other but they don’t meld or bleed, which means you never know when “InSEXts” is going to make the switch.
Valenza and Kholinne keep up that conversation with a palette that avoids “typical” Victorian London drabness. Instead, the backgrounds are often colored in rich, darker shades of maroon or purple that suggest the boudoir as much as a bloodbath. Most scenes also include a tantalizing glimmer of green or gold, calling to mind old-fashioned gold leaf — or chitinous insect hide.
The dialogue can admittedly be rather clunky. Bennett doesn’t have a strong grasp on 19th-century prose yet, and there are some awkward sentences throughout. Similarly, the plot can jump from scene to scene in startling ways that may take readers out of the story. However, the central story and theme of “InSEXts” is strong enough to overcome this. The political metaphor for female sexual agency — especially queer sexual agency — as a monstrosity that can be wielded, rather than something to run from, is put to powerful use. Additionally, Bennett avoids simplicity. There are many types of monsters in “InSEXts,” but some use their monstrosity to hurt others. When monstrosity is a source of power, the real question isn’t whether one is a monster; it’s how and against whom that power is wielded.
In short, “InSEXts” Volume 1 is a wonderful, weird ode to weaponized queer self-love. Bennet and Kristantina’s world is invested in queer women who not only love themselves, but defend themselves — and have great sex while they’re at it.