Writer Marguerite Bennett’s profile has been steadily rising over the last three years, and she’s been sharpening her craft and building a fan base by working within the confines of superhero and licensed comics. InSeXts is Bennett’s first creator-owned project, and she wastes no time taking advantage of her new creative freedom to do things that wouldn’t have been possible in her Marvel and DC stories. Namely, lots of steamy lesbian sex.
InSeXts Vol. 1 (Aftershock) tells an erotic horror story about two Victorian lesbian lovers who become major players in a supernatural battle, one that ends with them facing the physical manifestation of society’s hatred toward women. The book traffics in many of the themes that have defined Bennett’s work on titles like DC Bombshells and Angela: Asgard’s Assassin/Angela: Queen Of Hel—intimacy between women, patriarchal oppression, the reclamation of female sexuality—but she’s able to tackle them more forcefully than ever before in these pages.
The intimacy between women is explicitly erotic in InSeXts, which begins with Lady Lalita Bertram and her maid/lover Mariah getting naked and pleasuring each other before procreating. It’s a scene that starts with titillation, but builds to a moment of unsettling body horror when a slimy green sac is spit out of Mariah’s mouth and into Lady’s, the first step in a reproductive process that ultimately ends with the sac passed to Lady’s husband, who hatches an egg from his exploded gut. With a newborn child and a dead spouse, Lady and Mariah finally have the family they want, and the rest of the story is spent protecting that family from forces that want to tear it apart.
Artist Ariela Kristantina incorporates the more disturbing visual elements without diminishing the women’s orgasmic delight, and she has a clear appreciation for the sex scenes in this series, as those are the pages where her figure drawing is strongest. The care she puts into the visuals makes these love scenes passionate but also tender, capturing a genuine sense of affection that makes the sex an important building block in the emotional foundation of their relationship. While there are occasional moments when the character details get a bit muddy, Kristantina does generally impressive work throughout, blending elements of manga, art nouveau, and gothic horror in her linework and compositions to give the book a distinct aesthetic.
Colorists Bryan Valenza and Jessica Kholine heighten the fantasy with a vivid palette that includes unconventional neon and pastel shades, giving this version of Victorian London a different flavor from other comic-book interpretations (of which there are many). Like the characters, the visuals hide gruesome terrors under a deceptively lovely surface, and the final chapters set these terrors loose in bold, bloody action sequences that spotlight Kristantina’s talent for unsettling monster design. The splash page revealing the final stage of Lady’s metamorphosis is the most striking image of the entire book, and the design combines elements of a human, butterfly, and praying mantis with a giant orifice down the center of the body that is a vagina mixed with a Venus flytrap mixed with a centipede. That might sound disgusting, but there’s power and beauty in how the art team depicts Lady’s final form, turning this monstrous reveal into a moment of triumph. [Oliver Sava]
If a comic could encapsulate an experience, Monster Pulse (webcomic) feels like an afternoon of watching Digimon after finally getting free of class at middle school. Like a lot of the very best kids’ programming, it’s full of sweetness without being cloying or unbelievable, and the lessons it tries to teach feel important without being heavy handed.
Starring four kids pulled together by a shared not-quite-tragedy, Monster Pulse is about their experiences and their struggle to get control of their lives again. A corporation called Shell unwittingly released technology into the world that takes organs out of people and turns them into monsters. Bina, Julie, Abel, and West become friends mostly because they were all caught in the crossfire and ended up with their own monsters: heart, hair, eye, and stomach respectively. Writer and artist Magnolia Porter has created a world that has some serious depth and reality to it, despite the supernatural foundation of the plot. Each of the kids’ monsters correlates to some part of their personality, and it’s fascinating to watch what happens as they grow into young adulthood and stare down the barrel of puberty and all that it entails.
Porter is certainly not an unknown name to people who follow webcomics avidly. She’s worked on previous comics like Bobwhite and written for video games, but Monster Pulse is clearly her passion project. It’s nostalgic in the best sense of the word, evoking an experience and a time without condescending to the audience. Her characters are complex and vibrant people, even outside of the fact that their organs have turned into monsters capable of fighting one another. Porter also avoids one of the most common pitfalls of stories about kids by making her adult characters just as nuanced and complicated as the younger ones are. Julie’s sometimes exuberance neatly fits with the way her mother and siblings treat her, indulgent but deeply caring; her family is the first to know about the whole monster situation, and her mother in particular helps to guide other parents through the shock of discovering what’s happened to their children.
Each character feels like a real person with intersecting loyalties and needs that pull them in different directions. Gray moral choices are grappled with at every turn, to varying degrees of success. Fortunately, Porter never makes the mistake of making the antagonists of her story the absolute center of it, allowing the foursome to be the best part of her story even if readers can empathize with the bad guys.
The comic is already well underway, with 25 chapters that range from 30 to 50 pages apiece. The individual chapters are easily bingeable, and what’s particularly gratifying is watching Porter’s art grow and chance since she began Monster Pulse in 2011. Her style was for a long time sharp and sketchy, with loose lines and almost exclusively drawn in black and white. In later years, the linework has become firmer and smoother, and Porter has added moody color to her panels. The character designs are consistent even as the kids continue to grow, but it feels now like her art is just as confident and perfectly suited to the story as her sense of humor has always been. Monster Pulse continues to be a joy to read. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Terrorism is “the American way” in The Omega Men (DC Comics). The book centers on the titular Omega Men—spacefaring freedom fighters—who have kidnapped Kyle Rayner (former Green Lantern and current White Lantern) in the hopes that he will aid their cause. But faced with the choice between fighting for them or for their enemy, he follows “another way. A third way… The American way.” That third way, however, includes throwing a star system into bloody war that lasts precisely 192 days.
While the fact that “the American way,” however that illusive term may be defined, does precipitate, exacerbate, and prolong terrorist insurgencies, it’s unclear if that is what authors Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda were attempting to argue, and they ascribe Kyle Rayner, the mouthpiece of this particular postulation, incredible naivety. His “rah, rah, America!” attempt to lead the character’s down a third path, one that positions itself as a morally superior one, is foolhardy. “Everyone has to finally understand,” one character says. “There is alpha and there is omega.” Rayner’s attempt to step outside of that binary is met by immense and immediate failure, and it merely prolongs the inevitable bloodshed. But only after accepting that dichotomy can Rayner reclaim his power ring, which was taken from him prior to the story, and become the messianic White Lantern once more. As a result, this clear attempt to excoriate a kind of “America number one!” rhetoric instead posits that there is no third path, there is no better way. It undermines itself, rhetorically mocking but thematically justifying what the book itself frames as a metaphor for post-war Western foreign policy. It reads like apologia for the United States’ failure to live up to its idealistic underpinnings, an excuse for its dirty dealings, because it offers a world in which Kyle Rayner (the United States) has no choice but to side with one of two evils.
The Omega Men stumbles with this thematic quagmire, though it is far from the book’s only storytelling mistake. Precisely and rigidly structured, save for an issue drawn by Toby Cypress, which doesn’t adhere to this structure at all, its pages are built on a nine-panel grid. There are some deviations from this grid, though they rarely extend beyond combining two panels on a tier into a single panel. But even the few major deviations from that structure have a pattern of their own: chiastic 18-panel spreads with three-panel columns on the far left and the far right and a splash image running across both pages. This grid slows down time and forces the reader to linger, which may be good—in fact, King and Bagenda use it to incredible effect in more than a few scenes—but when it’s loaded down with expository dialogue and captions, it can make reading the page laborious, and, alternatively, its rhythm may slow fight sequences down to a crawl.
These problematic thematic missteps and this lopsided pacing—some beats, scenes, or sequences feel perfectly paced; others feel much too long; and others incredibly rushed—unfortunately extends to the entirety of the narrative. So while the book often looks striking and dynamic—Bagenda’s inks and Romulo Fajardo’s colors, in particular, lend the book a clean look that’s not overly smooth—it is too frequently relegated to sound and fury, signifying little. [Shea Hennum]
As DC’s Rebirth soft reboot grinds on through the summer, it’s been easy to devise a rubric by which to judge the relaunches. The best Rebirth books—like last month’s Nightwing—manage to meet the challenge of carrying over what worked from the New 52, while jettisoning what didn’t in favor of returning the characters and concepts back to a more familiar shape. Nowhere was this more necessary than in the case of John Constantine. Vertigo’s long-running de facto flagship Hellblazer was canceled in 2013 to enable the company to smuggle the character back into the DC Universe proper after a couple decades’ spent exiled to the Mature Readers line. The problem was that the character really works so much better on his own, or at most tangentially connected, to any larger universe.
Putting John back in the mainstream DCU added nothing to the character and actually cheapened him considerably by putting him through a series of adventures for which he was simply unsuited. During the New 52, John went to Earth 2 and fought Darkseid, which is pretty far afield from London, and marked a low point in terms of being the least John Constantine thing John Constantine has ever done. The series got better before an attempt at a relaunch was canceled in the lead up to Rebirth, but it was still obvious that the remit of trying to change John to make him more copacetic to mainstream superhero comics was an enterprise doomed to failure.
Rather than sweeping the last volume under the rug with the relaunch, however, John introduces a flashback to that time by saying that it was “one of those times in your life where it was almost like being a different person entirely.” New 52 John Constantine was younger, had a more fashionable haircut, and wore skinny jeans. He was also a bit more overtly queer, which marked a significant change after years of playing coy with readers regarding the character’s fluid sexuality. (That bit, at least, seems to have stuck through Rebirth.) Old John—and now, again, the present John—is an early middle-aged man who can never remember to shave and goes disconcertingly long periods of time without seeing a barber. That guy’s back in The Hellblazer #1, and once again all is right in the world.
Simon Oliver is no stranger to the character, having already written him for a mini-series in 2008. He is joined by Moritat, whose European sensibility marks a welcome return after the stylistically problematic years of John’s ”makeover.” The story itself is nothing as of yet—there’s a bit of exposition with some kind of immortal race deciding the time is right to rise up and rule humanity, that kind of thing. The real attraction is seeing John back in action, as himself and interacting with his old “pal” Swamp Thing. Swampy arrives with unseemly continuity baggage tying into Alec Holland’s status in the New 52 universe and the whereabouts of the first Swamp Thing, the planet elemental who believed himself to be Alec Holland—perhaps that’s a clue that more continuity is being slowly altered behind the scenes, or perhaps it’s just a simple mistake. Either way, musing about a possible continuity error in this book is still more interesting than the sum total of New 52 Constantine’s adventures, so this launch certainly qualifies as a welcome success. [Tim O’Neil]