Marguerite Bennett’s InSEXts, published by AfterShock Comics, begins with a secret romance and a quiet conspiracy, and then rapidly ventures into developments far more horrific and surreal. The plot balances the romantic relationship between Lady and Mariah, two Victorian-era protagonists, with the pair’s plan to murder Lady’s controlling, abusive husband. Bennett soon warps the period piece with a healthy dose of Cronenberg-era body-horror before enveloping readers in an onslaught of insectoid transformations, secret societies and unsettling violence, rendered with visceral abandon by Ariela Kristantina.
But Bennett’s comics rarely go to places readers might expect. Her new series with artist Rafael de Latorre, Animosity, takes place in a near future where animals have gained intelligence and the ability to speak, which doesn’t bode terribly well for humanity. The first issue just sold out of its first two printings. Her work on DC Comics Bombshells reimagines many of the publisher’s prominent female characters in the context of ‘40s WWII culture. Thus far, she’s demonstrated an impressive range of styles and tones, and we’d suspect she’s just getting started. Paste emailed with Bennett to unpack the parade of influences behind InSEXts, how her stories subvert historical expectations and Victorian literature.
Paste: Both InSEXts and Bombshells are set in very particular historical periods. What appealed to you about each, and how do you balance giving the reader a sense of history with critiquing the more reactionary aspects of those points in time?
Marguerite Bennett: Good questions! The answer genuinely goes issue by issue. The art and action of those eras—the global conflicts, the empires, the social changes for each echelon and community, the aesthetic, the fashion, the values, the relationships to sexuality, race, gender and technology—are vibrant and distinct (though, I suppose, this can be said of any era). In InSEXts, I wanted to specifically tell a story that didn’t look like Masterpiece Theatre. London in the Victorian era was a tremendously diverse place, and queer people were not invented in the 1980s. I wanted to corrupt the imperialist narrative.
InSEXts #7 Cover Art by Ariela Kristantina
Paste: Initially, the transformations that Mariah and Lady undergo in InSEXts appear to be the comic’s one shift away from a realistic period piece, but additional issues bring in other supernatural elements. Do you have a sense of how great of an extent this 1894 differs from the historical record?
Bennett: The supernatural exists. That’s our main conceit—there are other monsters in the world, monsters with their own history and mythology, but Lady and Mariah are new creatures. There are no legends that describe them. They cannot see themselves in any text or work or art, even a horror story. They are uncertain of their powers and weaknesses, discovering their strengths and vulnerabilities and growing with them just as they develop through their relationship and their roles as mothers. They are writing their own stories and legends.
Paste: Your background is in [prose] writing, and your page on Patreon mentions nonfiction and short stories that are in the works. Have you found that writing comics has had an effect on the other forms of writing that you do, or are they fairly distinct?
Bennett: Form follows function, so there have been stories that I’ve wanted to tell that I realize only work as prose or only work as comics or only work as film or something else altogether. Comics has been an influence in making me carefully consider what medium serves a story best.
Let’s talk about that for a second, actually, and use horror as an example. If you are doing, say, a monster story where the look of the critter is one of the most interesting things about the critter—X feet tall with Y tentacles and Z teeth and all these colors and eyes and poisons etc., etc.—a visual medium is going to likely be most effective. Otherwise your reader is going to be sitting there with paragraph after paragraph of description, and the gutpunch shock of the critter’s appearance will be lost in a clinical discussion of the shape of its teeth and the color of its pupils.
Conversely, horror that is sensational or cosmic can be helped by prose, in what you do NOT have to show. Cthulhu is horrifying by the sheer fact of existence, not his appearance. If he exists, then the fantasy of God and heaven and mercy is dead and the universe is all chaos and pain, and we are all plummeting without hope of salvation through a world of madness and suffering. Cthulhu does not need to be visually depicted to find ways to engender a deep horror of him—indeed, you can get used to a visual depiction and it can lose its sense of wonder and horror. Whatever you were afraid of under the bed as a child is far more terrifying than what the thing could ultimately be. Ambiguity—which can be aided by prose, which keeps visual close to the chest—is useful here.
None of this is to say that these examples can’t exist in other mediums! Every rule of writing can be broken and broken well in some example or another. But this is to say that they might be more effective in a place other than that in which they were originally conceived—and comics has broadened my awareness of where medium can best work as a vessel for story.
InSEXts #7 Interior Art by Ariela Kristantina
Paste: A running theme in the first arc of InSEXts involves Lady finding a balance between her human and inhuman aspects. Reading Animosity, it seems like you’re exploring a different aspects of those same themes.
Bennett: If you live your entire life being told that you are a second-class citizen, that you are worth less, that you are stupider, vainer, greedier, weaker, less useful, less wanted, less valuable than other members of your community—if you grow up seeing your demographic constrained by a tight set of rules where you are punished brutally for transgressions as simple as having a body that does not match the expectations of strangers—if you are told that by virtue of your birth, you must offer your body and heart and compliance and emotional labor in the service of others and be grateful for the chance to be subservient to someone your society actually values and reflects in stories of heroism—you are going, very much, to be consumed by the ideas of monsters with power instead of human beings without it.
Paste: Lady’s transformations vary depending on the circumstances. How do you and Ariela Kristantina work to create the look of each of these changes?
Bennett: I trust Ariela implicitly. I had been dying to work with her, well before the project took off, and I had been very picky about an artist that could execute monstrosity and tenderness and sexuality without exploitativeness. Ariela could bring grandeur, horror, sensuality and sincerity in droves. As to the creature designs, I might write things like “insectile limbs explode from Lady’s chest,” but it is up to Ariela how many, how large, what they look like, what influences them, etc.—her brilliant artwork is all her own, heightened by Bryan [Valenza] and Jessica [Kholine]’s phenomenal colors.
Paste: There’s a brief conversation in the fourth issue between William and Mariah about literature, referencing books from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. Were there specific works of Victorian literature that you were looking towards as you began writing this series?
Bennett: My concentration in undergrad was in Victorian literature, and it’s a period and (dare I say) genre that I dearly love. I wasn’t looking towards any one book—but the idea of a canon, of that you can see yourself reflected in certain works, and that there are works of literature that surround you and define your culture and yet never once express an interest in your own life and experiences. All the stories you grow up with depict heroes and heroines of certain values and backgrounds and behaviors that are not your own—you feel invisible. You have nothing to consult, nothing to inform your prospects, let alone where you may end, and if you are happy there.
Also, they’re just fun, bonkers novels.
Animosity #1 Cover Art by Rafael de Latorre
Paste: Have you found that there’s an overlap between your creator-owned work and the work you’ve done for DC and Marvel?
Bennett: There are definitely things I enjoy—namely, complicated heroines, body horror, historical fiction and queer romance. If I get to splash around in those things forever, I will be a happy camper.
Paste: Some of the work you’ve done in the past has been in collaboration with other writers: G. Willow Wilson and Kieron Gillen both come to mind. Was there anything from the experience of collaboration that’s influenced the solo work you’ve done since then?
Bennett: Kieron Gillen, absolutely. Working on Angela (both Asgard’s Assassin and 1602) with him made me a better writer. The experience made me sharper, wittier, funnier, more irreverent. He’s one of my dearest. If I really want to be my own worst enemy and sharpest critic, I imagine sending a script to Kieron—and then scramble back to edit and make sure it shines.