Kyle Starks is a cartoonist who wears his love on his sleeve. His comics revel in what he dubs “Idiotic Romances” — wrestling, monster movies, martial-arts films. This love is abundantly evident in Sexcastle, a cartooning epic that features variations on ‘80s action stars meeting in a truly epic battle royale. Though the book stands on a meta-story, the abundance of pop-culture references is buoyed by an idiosyncratic sense of humor and fine attention to character detail.
Where another creator might get lost in all the nostalgia, Starks maintains an adult’s eye when picking up his childhood playthings. His affection for the emotionally stunted assassins that make up the cast of Sexcastle is clear, but that love accompanies a critical assessment of what kind of story would cast these men as heroes in the first place.
I spent a weekend tabling next to Starks at last year’s Small Press Expo, and I have to say, the energy that exists on the page of Sexcastle is clearly evident in the man. Sexcastle was the funniest book I took home from SPX, and I’m overjoyed that Image is publishing a new edition so that more people can experience Starks’ unique take on a man who battles his way through a gauntlet of assassins.
Also, there’s a polar bear. Can’t forget the polar bear.
Sexcastle is a great title. Where did that name come from?
Kyle Starks: Ha, well. The pro-wrestler Edge was some influence on the visual appearance of Shane Sexcastle and his independent wrestling name was Sexton Hardcastle, which I think is the best name for anything ever. So Edge was an influence in a couple ways on the main character’s development.
Sexcastle is clearly a love-letter to action films of the ‘80s, but it is also critical of those films’ tropes and the way they frame these clearly damaged protagonists as heroes. Was that the goal from the start, or did it come out in the writing?
Starks: I’m not sure if from the very start that was the goal — but while I was working on the book, I was seeing a lot of subpar parenting, really disappointing stuff, and that was an influence for sure, and it turned quickly into how parenting affects our development and how our relationships affect who we are and who we become. So not at the very start, but definitely right after the starting pistol went off. I never wanted to just tell an action movie story, I wanted something with heart that was at least insinuating something, if not saying something, so it came together very quickly.
Paste: A recurring motif in your work is men who have trouble handling the reality of their lives. This shows up in Sexcastle and Legend of Ricky Thunder—and even to a certain degree, your Frankenstein comic, Rescue From Ghost Planet X. What draws you to exploring this sort of delusion?
Starks: Don’t we all have trouble dealing with the reality of our lives? All of my characters are in moments of acquiring insight into who and what they are and I don’t think you can really acquire that without questioning your personal reality. I think it is truly an important part of a successful human existence.
Paste: Is some of it, at least in Sexcastle’s case, related to the poor parenting angle? These men who are under the delusion their lives are unchanged, despite being fathers?
Starks: I think this is definitely true of the villians. You’d have to be a real life true villain to become a father and not see it for what it is.
Paste: Another recurring element is that you have your characters deal with the repercussions of their actions, especially in terms of violence. Isn’t that an odd tactic to take in an action-comedy book?
Starks: I don’t think that all the parts of intense physical violence are really considered by popular media. I think consumers are just happy to get an awesome fight. And I’m not denigrating anyone—I know I am always happy to see an awesome fight.
Is your story hitting a slow spot? Put a fight in it.
But I spend a lot of time considering the depiction of violence and traditional masculinity in media. I tell stories with a lot of fighting in them. I have a lot of questions about fighting and the type of people who would happily, and without thought, participate in it, and I try to at least address them. I could talk about this and my approach to it for a long time, but I think it comes across in my work. I try to be very reasonable about why they would happen, how they would start, why the characters would be participating and what happens afterwards.
Paste: One of the things I like about Sexcastle is the combination of very sophisticated storytelling techniques—your switch to Sexcastle’s POV midway through was particularly effective—with your cartoony style. What was it about this story that made you want to experiment in that way?
Starks: It’s a dumb answer, but I didn’t think anything past it’s my book and I can do whatever I want with it. I’ve been wanting to do POV stuff for a long time, and I just felt for the pacing and tone of that segment, it fit.
Paste: You’ve talked about how Naoki Urasawa is an influence. Was his Pluto, which is the best Astro Boy episode ever, an inspiration for you to make the best ‘80s action movie ever?
Starks: It wasn’t an influence on the story, but it was definitely an influence on the format. Urasawa definitely showed me that the digest size isn’t a hindrance to the size of the story. Also, I think you should be able to stick a book in your back pocket. I believe you can see the Urasawa influence on my in-panel choices also. I mean, I hope you can? He’s really amazing.
Paste: One of my favorite bits is the origin of Sexcastle’s gun-chucks. Did you ever worry that section, with God’s love of dinosaurs and Nazi scientists, was too over the top?
Starks: I never really thought about what the response was, just that I wanted to do this bit. Gun-chucks were there from the beginning —your ‘80s action movie star needs a weapon that defines his greatness and sets him apart from all other tough guys. Also, I hadn’t seen that bit before which has always been shocking to me. I think maybe I worried a little that some people might think the origin portion of the gun-chucks was weird, but I really like flashbacks as a tool for storytelling and I really like bonkers.
Paste: It’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve heard some criticism of flashbacks as a literary device because it stops the momentum of the story. You avoid that somewhat, with the flashbacks happening right after intense scenes of violence, allowing the reader to catch their breath, but it would be hard to argue that moving the story suddenly to the dawn of time isn’t jarring. What’s so appealing about using flashbacks that it’s worth risking the forward motion of the story?
Starks: I like flashbacks because they show that there’s a real full existence outside of the very specific story that we’re seeing. We all have histories that make us who we are up to this point, and I think touching on them, and showing them, fills out characters and adds meaning to the story.
Paste: As a writer and artist, how did you go about making the book? Did you start with a full script, and draw from that, or do you draw from an outline, writing as you go?
Starks: So with everything I’ve done to date, this is how I make a comic: I come up with the story in my head. I come up with all the little bits and parts and things that amuse me. And then I tell myself the story in my head. And I do this over and over until it’s a story I really like—the way you’d tell someone an amusing anecdote, or maybe do a really in-depth summarization of a movie to a friend. There’s maybe some dialogue here and there. And then I just start drawing the comic. It ends up being more of a detailed outline then any sort of script. But by the time I start drawing, I know the beats and where they go and how to get there and mostly, just have to flesh out the dialogue as I go. But I feel like, for the most part, I’m pretty good at naturalistic dialogue, so it’s not something I really concern myself with going in. And that’s how I’ve made everything I’ve done to date, barring the work I’ve done that other people have drawn.
And it’s being suggested, fairly, from some industry peers, that this is not the best way to do it and they’re probably right. You often hit walls that are a lot of work to get around, especially since it requires redrawing entire pages, but I really like that, for me, it keeps everything fresh and organic.
Paste: You’ve said that Sexcastle used to be much shorter, without the Assassin’s Union and with a less satisfying ending. Was that version of the story in your head, or was it not until you began to draw it that you realized how much bigger the story needed to be?
Starks: When I did this book, I really wanted to make the best ‘80s action movie that was never made. During that planning, it had to have that huge team up of stars. But as it developed, I realized it was adding a lot of unnecessary work. Once all the subtext developed it immediately changed it— I realized that 1. it was a good idea I shouldn’t drop and 2. I needed those characters to tell the real heart of the story. Also, in the original story, Big Sur would’ve been killed and as soon as I drew his first appearance in the book, I knew I loved him too much to ever kill him. No polar bears in that first draft either. You hear a lot about how to successfully tell a story you have to kill your babies, but in Sexcastle I had to do the opposite.
Paste: I am so glad you didn’t kill Big Sur early and brought in the polar bear. You have no idea! One more question: where should I put my Assassin’s Union sticker?
Starks: Don’t put it on your laptop. You’re just begging to get hacked. We have enemies everywhere.