Monstrous Bodies and Forbidden Desires in ‘Insexts’ Vol. 1 [Review]
Insexts is a comic book about monsters. Written by Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Ariela Kristantina, with colors by Bryan Valenza and Jessica Kaoline, it’s a Victorian horror tale with all the classic trappings, but it also incorporates a massive, writhing dose of body horror. It’s also queer and profoundly feminist.
In short, Insexts is doing things with horror the likes of which have never been seen in comics, or perhaps any other medium.
Lady Lalita Bertram, usually called simply Lady, is a Scottish woman of South Asian descent who married a Viscount in Victorian London. It was an arrangement to trade her father’s money for her husband’s title, and love never entered the picture. In fact the Viscount Harry Bertram is an abusive and unfaithful man who offers his wife neither kindness or respect. But Lady does have love in her life, with her devoted maid Mariah. Their relationship is already romantic and sexual as the book opens, but it grows into something even more complex and bizarre.
The first arc of this book is full of transformations, evolutions, and characters who are not what they seem. It’s difficult to summarize, because I don’t want to reveal too much. But if you’ve read a synopsis or seen a cover, you probably already know that Lady and Mariah themselves are the monsters at the heart of Insexts, even as they’re also the protagonists.
Queer women being imagined as monsters is not anything new. In fact Mariah refers to Christabel and Carmilla within the story. But there are important differences that make Insexts stands out. For one thing, Christabel and Carmilla are the creations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sheridan Le Fanu, respectively. They’re queer female monsters as imagined by men. Whereas this book is written by Marguerite Bennett, a queer woman herself, who never positions Lady and Mariah as evil or unsympathetic, even as she explores the full scope of their monstrousness.
That very scope is the other thing that makes this book stand out. The classic queer female monster, especially in Victorian era stories, is an elegant vampire in the Carmilla mold. Lady and Mariah are elegant, but they’re not vampires. Lady is the one whose changes manifest most physically, and her transformations owe more to The Fly than any Victorian works of horror. In moments of distress, her body becomes insectoid, with multiple jointed limbs and sometimes antennae and clawlike mouth pincers.
This is not to say that Lady’s monstrousness is not marked as female. It’s just that this is not the soft and lovely femininity of the Victorian imagination. This monster embodies the abject, messy, physical femininity that still discomforts many people to this day. The femininity that reacts to stimuli by changing shape, by oozing unknown fluids that men fear to touch. Whether we’re talking about cis or trans women, every female body is regarded on a deeply ingrained cultural level as if it’s an unknown country full of unseen terrors. A dark shape on the edge of a map that’s labeled “Here be dragons.” In this book, the dragon is named Lady.
But at the same time, Lady is also a butterfly, literally. She frequently sprouts butterfly wings that enable her to fly, while Mariah follows with dragonfly wings. It’s a reminder that the combination of woman and insect, so unsettling throughout most of the book, is also found in the lovely and delicate image of the fairies that are found throughout folklore, art, and Disney cartoons. Lady and Mariah are not fairies, to be sure, but they’re insect women, and at least visually that turns out to be pretty much the same thing.
Artist Ariela Kristantina does a phenomenal job balancing the beautiful and the monstrous, the alluring and the abject, throughout the book. Her work shines in each of the transformations, none of which look quite the same. Her human characters are distinct and realistic, so that when some of them turn into inhuman creatures they still feel grounded in a world that seems real.
Kristantina, alongside Bennett, also handles the book’s sensual moments perfectly. There are scenes of intimacy between Lady and Mariah, but they never feel gratuitous or pornographic, although they are sexy. These moments grow naturally out of who the characters are, and the story wouldn’t work the same way without them. This is a comic about bodies, after all, and how they respond to emotions and to other people.
And if there’s love and sex in this comic, of course there must also be hatred and violence. Lady and Mariah are sympathetic and likable monsters, but there’s an evil monster at the heart of the story as well. A creature that feeds off of self-loathing and embodies the misogyny that’s rotting this culture (and still threatens our own) from within. She even spells it out as her true form is revealed:
There is such wonder and grace in women. Unless they can be taught to hate themselves and each other, they might overrun the Earth. Hatred of women is the oldest law there has ever been. Fortunately it is a law your kind can be trained to obey.
The words may seem a little on the nose out of context, but coming from an actual Lovecraftian horror the broadness works. It’s telling that this monster is also female. While there are certainly misogynistic men in Insexts (starting with Lady’s quickly dispatched husband), the real problem is never about men being bad (and indeed, the story also features good men); it’s about a whole culture being structured around the marginalization of women.
Ultimately Lady and Mariah are two characters who are able to break free from society’s expectations of them, and that makes them heroic. Presented with the limited options available to human women, they choose not to be human. Like butterflies, they metamorphose and fly away.
Insexts #7, the final issue of the opening story arc discussed here, is available on August 17. The trade paperback collecting the full story comes out August 31 from AfterShock Comics. If you’re looking for a refreshing comic about monsters, women, and monstrous women, I recommend seeking out a copy.