A Real Bad Time: Bad Religion once sang, “How can hell be any worse when life alone is such a curse?” And to that I’d respond, “Aww, that’s so quaint — you thought Ronald Reagan was the Ultimate Evil?” We now live in the absolute worst timeline, and the Trump administration has stirred up our latent greed, stupidity, and rage to drive us into this nightmarish hellscape (Slurpees sometimes help).
As such, it’s been a real struggle to try and tackle dystopian fiction in recent years. Like, who cares about aliens and robots from 2378 when fascism’s now as popular as Hydro Flasks.
But then I read SfSx, and I somehow feel OK(?).
Meat & Potatoes, Twig & Berries: Published by Image Comics, SfSx is written by journalist/educator Tina Horn and drawn and colored by Michael Dowling (Black Cat, Unfollow). There’s no zombie plague or mass extinction; just a draconian government called The Party that hasn’t so much outlawed sex but bureaucratized it to the Nth degree in the hopes of promoting “purity.” A rag-tag group of sex workers, led by Avory Horowitz, hope to use the shuttered Dirty Mind sex club/bastion of personal freedom to stage a rebellion and dismantle The Party. You may have seen the book previewed for Vertigo, but Horn and Dowling jumped ship before the beloved imprint closed down.
A World Like Ours: Perhaps you’ve already asked yourself, “Chris, why on Earth would Sex Hell make you feel OK?” And it’s simple: this could totally happen. With everything our current government is pushing, from stripping reproductive rights to promoting a faux Christian agenda, we’re one bad week away from SfSx.
If the planet’s become a particular sort of nuclear nightmare, seeing that reflected back in fiction is both a comforting salve and more likely to grain traction in the ol’ brainpan. What Horn-Dowling have wrought is terrifying because the world isn’t overly different, but just different enough in all the right ways to be deeply effective. It’s a “this porridge is just right” situation, and it’s easy to be afraid as your brain takes this book and wraps it up in a mound of facts and real-world fears. Also, bureaucracy is straight terrifying; it’s not as inherently evil as, say, a snake monster, but it tries to hide the darkness of the world in huge stacks of paper. And it’s not demons that will end us, but the rights we willingly sign away.
Getting Kinky to Get Close: SfSx brilliantly focuses its spotlight/microscope not on civil rights or economics (at least, not directly), but our sexual identities and expressions. I think that’s smart for two reasons: 1) sex is a major segment of life, and it transects everything from friendship and art to commerce and 2) sex makes loads of people uncomfortable, and it’s a great way to poke at someone’s sensibilities. The series is ultimately uber sex-friendly, trying to demonstrate that these expressions, regardless of their form or their participants, are healthy and natural. But it never steers away from portraying detail and depth visually, and through that recognizes that this is a thing people should react to strongly.
Without that jarring approach, people may be liable to turn away, and that’s a larger commentary on how things like filing your every sexual encounter could totes happen. Sex is something we all have thoughts on (one way or another), and SfSx relies on that to get people to consider consent, human dynamics, the influence of politics, the government’s role in our lives, and much, much more. Confronting people is effective if you want them to better understand why they’re for or against a Thing, and what that ultimately means.
Man Up: Here’s a thing that happened before I read the book. I looked over press materials and thought, “Hey, signing a few documents isn’t sooo bad, right?” And then I read the book and was totally ashamed of ever entertaining such thoughts. Because it’s not just filling out form J-508; it’s an entire commodification of our bodily sovereignty. And that’s what that book does really well — tackling ideas not just of sex but larger culture and politics, and making us really mull over assumptions or even deficiencies. A huge thread within this first issue lays the groundwork for how The Party blames women for tricking men with sexuality, and how that created the toxic masculinity that once plagued society. Similarly, the book takes a hard aim at the “failings” of white feminism and even the larger queer culture, which complicates the narrative (in the best way) with added notions of inclusivity and normativity.
It’s not intended solely for this group, but the series invites hetero white dudes like myself to contemplate these issues and larger life lessons. SfSx shows us so succinctly how dearly women and queer people (especially those of color) pay for issues my ilk just don’t want to face. And that’s the way you forge great cultural criticism: use satire and creative extremes to highlight such a profound message and cut through the endless spin.
More Than Just a Good Time: I think it’d be easy to get bogged down in the book’s tantalizing politics. But you know what else is great? Avory — not only is she smart and thoughtful, but a genuine badass who uses her sex worker skills like a kinky Batman. And there’s more, too: the terse relationship between Avory and her friends/Dirty Mind cohorts; George’s role as both Avory’s hubby and drone at the Pleasure Center (like the sex DMV); something nefarious surrounding The Party’s media services department; the fate of The Dirty Mind’s founder, Jones; and the mystery of the room George inadvertently peaked into.
So, yes, there’s a lot of great subtext, but it’s also just a damn fine (early) story. A tale that ultimately feels like it’ll be about personal freedom and fighting for beliefs/genuine expression as the hallmark of a safe and prosperous society. Even if sex makes you uncomfortable, a world where this book couldn’t exist is far more terrifying.
The Wrap-Up: In honor of this sex-positive book, I’m re-purposing old jokey condom slogans for a closing thought: “If you love thoughtful, socially conscious lit-er-a-ture, pick up this book of pic-a-tures!”
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