By Justin Wood
As a select few of you may remember, I haven't had the best of luck with anthologies as a critic on this site. Often produced cheaply with freely obtained content from enthusiastic artists who see the unpaid labor as simply being 'part of the hustle.' Frequently your indie anthology is a disposably printed black and white magazine packed in with not-quite-there art and cliché choked flashbang stories by writers not yet sophisticated enough to be compelling in a compressed storytelling space. It wouldn't be such a point of frustration to me if it weren't such a staple of small press. But anthologies aren't always like this. During some of my formative artistic years, anthologies were handheld galleries of the diversity in the sequential art landscape. 'Flight,' 'Star Wars Tales,' dozens of styles represented each volume, giving hope to a young person that there wasn't just one-way comics were done, that success didn't mean lashing oneself to some monolithic standard of financially rewarded expression like the Big Two used to represent. Creation had a spectrum.
'My Monster Boyfriend' reminds me of those days. Featuring professionally established creators, some quite well known, and printed richly on clean heavy stock with a cheekily holofoil enhanced cover, it is thick, well edited, and worthy of being owned as physical media (even if my copy didn't survive in collectible condition during its trip due to the packaging). As with any anthology, you have a range of quality and stories that speak to you more directly, but out of all ten stories, not one was found completely lacking. Compiling erotic short stories involving sexual relationships with male non-humans, the stories share a lot of features and even pacing at times, but illustrate the variety of style and creative philosophy that some of our most talented pornographic creators today bring to their process.
The anthology starts off strong with 'Clutch' by Nechama Frier and Dechanique, telling the story of a hunter who has a chance encounter with one of the mysterious harpies that live nearby that develops from friendship to romance. The art is rustic and ornately penned, a notable attention to detail applied to the thick vegetation of the forest, thin pen strokes weaving a dense fabric of brush and bark. The characters are lovingly rendered with personality, with the design of the harpy being something I was particularly fond of, playing the line between anthropomorphic features and bird anatomy. In a book about having sex with non-human things, there sure is a lot of Star Trek alien creature design in play here, staying conservatively to barely tweaked humans rather than branching out, so it was a welcome way to start the anthology off with some more unusual design work. 'Clutch' doesn't have a particularly elaborate plot, more of a simple intimately paced winter romance, and one of the best in the collection as a well-paced bit of adorable sexiness.
'Lonesome Palace' by Leia Weathington and B. Sabo is a bit more of a constructed story, involving a mortally wounded prospector who makes a hasty deal with a mountain spirit to save his life that also imprisons him. Dreamily paced, it works as a strange, creative character study, much of the comic told in a conversation between the prospector and his seeming captor. While well written and one of the more uniquely framed entries, it was also one of the few where the sex seemed the most abruptly included. The story lends itself to the slippery sex it portrays, but for all of its quiet, seductive pacing, the buildup to the first sex scene seems truncated. It's a minor complaint, however, as the resolution of the story is sensual and atmospheric, placing the story high in my personal ranking.
Amanda Lefrenais's 'Face Value' is an interesting mixed bag for me of ideas, design, and tone. The story deals with an Android having second thoughts before his girlfriend installs a new humanoid face for him to replace his low-resolution LCD screen one. The central idea is a pretty great sci-fi concept dealing with identity, but the chipper, conflict-free resolution left the impression that the idea was formed without constructing a narrative to frame or explore the idea. Plug the sex in the appropriate narrative gap, tweaked to a mildly shrill level of twee adorableness, and it results in a story that isn't bad but doesn't service any of its requisite parts particularly well. A final note, the sci-fi design here is great, especially the 'face' under the face of our central Android.
'Pleasure Fix' by Scary-T has a nice conservatively kinky vibe to it but is also by far one of the most forgettable inclusions. After engaging in a traditional supernatural street fight, a monster boy comes back to his apartment for his fussy roommate to chide and nurse him. It's not a bad story and the pacing of the dirtiness unfolding is well accomplished, but it's also an exercise in familiarity. The 'monster' aspect is entirely superficial, the central 'monster' is just a cute guy with bat ears, and the supernatural factor has no real impact on the story. The uke/seme pairing is fun and sexy, but also as familiar to me as if the story had gone with a pizza delivery man with an order of extra sausage. On its own, it's a fun, frivolous bit of pretty-boy play, but in the context of this anthology it stands out as taking the place of something that could have done something more imaginative with the theme.
'Nebula' by Savannah Horrocks is just porn. No plot. No attempt to tie in any grand ideas or developed intimate romances. Just a chubby girl in a cave fucking her big gooey tentacle space ooze 'boy' friend. And it's great. There's a misconception that female sequential pornographers only tell stories that first have to engage in emotional relationship building because sex is 'different' for them and they require context to be aroused. This is true. For some female pornographers. I'm happy for the rise of sex positive and inclusive pornography. It's helped lend an air of progressive legitimacy to an artform that is still consciously dismissed by a prominent portion of society as an exclusively male disease of misogynistic women thrashing for money. It also has led to the prominence and success of stories that have helped reframe what pornography can mean for modern audiences, like Jess Fink's 'Chester XYV 5000', delivering female oriented narratives that treat sex respectfully without diminishing its power to arouse. All of this is good. But I'm also proud of the new environment that lets female creators express themselves just as freely with filthy, irresponsible smut. 'Nebula' isn't particularly aggressive or out of place in this anthology, but it does put the squishy, sweat-slippery fun stuff right up front, unapologetically in a way that is refreshing in among the tidily paced storytelling. It is also the story that goes the farthest with the 'monster' part, anatomically that is. The central creature, Nebula, has a vaguely canine muzzle thrusting out of a dark ooze of limbs and claws, expressing phalluses according to need. Again, in an anthology about monsters, you'd think we'd get a little more in regard to having fun with what that could mean anatomically, but Savannah takes the opportunity and runs with it. It's a wonderful little jam, anchored perfectly in the middle of the anthology.
'Sortuefinde 12, 213-7' ironically by anthology editor C. Spike Trotman and E.K. Weaver seems almost a reverse image of 'Nebula,' being so story driven it seems to forget the themes of the book altogether. The story is narrated by way of a letter sent by a soldier to his beloved during wartime, all the while with us seeing her reaction to the news that he has been killed since. While I can't deal with how the 'monster' comes into play without spoiling further, it is the most tenuously 'monster' related, even more so than 'Face Value' which also stretched the theme. The story is beautifully illustrated (though the colors are a bit uneven and far too dark in places) and contains some powerful imagery, but the pornographic interlude here feels like an awkward interruption of an unrelated story, and the narration leans too heavily on wearisome cliches to enrich the story told by the visuals. It's contradictory a story that is both too weird and not nearly weird enough. An attempt was made to do something beautiful here, which I admire, but the execution left the work feeling somewhat confused and overly familiar.
Unsurprisingly, Jess Fink's 'Thirsty Work' is one of the stronger entries. An author, who writes about mythology and legends, is trapped in his cabin with a mysterious stranger who saved his life from an avalanche that left them snowed in. Unlike most of the stories in the anthology, 'Thirsty Work' utilizes thrifty compressed paneling, letting Fink tell more story in fewer pages, giving the romance more room to breath and grow. There also more emphasis on developing a mythology, creating a fairy tale environment that borrows from existing archetypes but diverges to create its own thing that enriches the eventual love scenes with original kinky creativity. I don't know if there is any plan in place to sequelize 'My Monster Boyfriend' into an ongoing anthology series, but 'Thirsty Work' is the only one of the stories to end on a note that lends itself to continuation. Just saying, I could use more of this.
When reviewing, especially with a large work like an anthology, I usually talk out my thoughts ahead of time on a walk. This means, Monday night if you happened to be awake and wandering the streets of small town Virginia at two in the morning; you could see a bearded, headphone wearing figure, gesturing to nobody while speaking to himself in half volume about the design of robot penises. Part of the reason I do this is to organize my thoughts into what is and isn't a useful criticism, what stuck out most about the book, and what I can remember about it without it sitting open in front of me. The reason I bring it up is, out of all of the stories, the only one of the ten I couldn't remember was Shari He's 'Whitehill House.' The story has a great set up, a young noble inherits his grandfather's vast estate, including an additional secret inheritance, an immortal guardian who serves as an anthropomorphic manifestation of the mansion. The result is a lot of pretty rich boy getting railed by a gargoyle. It's far from terrible, the idea is rich with potential, the sex is fun, and there are underpinnings of a cool mythology in place, but it ends surprisingly abruptly and fails to catch on to some of it's most interesting idea threads. Another critique is this is the only story that has art that does a disservice to the story being told. Artistically, it's clear the artist only has a particular interest in illustrating the figures, leaving background elements as suggestive sketches, forms dictated by color more so than lines. This is by no means a bad way to create, but He doesn't exactly have the command of abstracting forms that an artist like Fiona Staples does, feeling less like a stylistic choice and more like technical laziness. Additionally, the core of the story is the house, this sprawling mansion that the narration keeps describing poetically, and the 'monster' in question is an extension of the house. While considerable scripting is dedicated to describing these cold, empty grounds in poetic terms, the art doesn't carry its side of the workload, leaving this ornate palace as a series of loose quickly realized sketches, disconnected from the drive of the prose. This, unfortunately, doesn't result in richly illustrated human figures either, because, despite the clear preference to drawing them, they are similarly shapelessly lacking in detail and stylistic form. The story has a lot of kinky potentials (especially when you realize the unexplored idea that this guardian has...engaged...with generations of this noble family) but saves for some nice moments of originality it ended up on the cutting room floor of my memory.
Now, I've been critical so far of a couple of stories, but I should be clear, despite perceived shortcomings I did not dislike any of them. While not all of them are equally as impressive, the offerings of this book are considerable, and the weakest stories here are still head and shoulders above most of what I read in less professionally presented anthologies. No, there was only one story that skirted the edge of being what I would label actually bad, and amusingly enough, it ended up being the story by the creative team I bought the book for in the first place.
'Spoilsport' is by Gail Simone and Trudy Cooper. If you read comics, you know who Gail Simone is. If you read dirty comics, you know Trudy Cooper's work. The story is a subversion of the Little Red Riding Hood story, about a vampire that gets a little more than he expected when he ambushes a woman walking alone through the park at night. I'm not a fan of Gail Simone, though I haven't read any sequential work by her so far that I don't appreciate, and a big draw for me was seeing what she would write in terms of erotica, especially paired off with Cooper. Cooper, despite to me primarily being a comedic artist rather than primarily an erotic one, has never let that stop her from drawing very sexy funny art. There's an unrestrained joy to how she draws cocks, pussies, and cum in a seemingly unlimited variety of combinations in her co-owned webcomic 'Oglaf,' a ridiculous celebration of sex as, first and foremost, fun. Cooper's art is undeniably on point, the painful truth of this comic is that it is somewhat wasted here. Let me rephrase. Wasted would suggest that this comic doesn't fit her forte, and that couldn't be further from the truth. 'Spoilsport' is very much in the vein of 'Oglaf,' feeling like a one or two-page installment of the webcomic, only stretched out unhelpfully over nine. More appropriately, Cooper isn't so much wasted as much as never called upon to draw very much that is particularly interesting. To put it bluntly, 'Spoilsport' is the only comic here that isn't the slightest bit sexy, not even with Cooper's help. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be. There's a predictable Simone reinterpretation of the victim/predator horror story archetype, but in the resolution, it wasn't clear to me how we were supposed to read the outcome. Spoilers ahead, so skip if you plan to read this anthology (more spoilers: you should), but the woman in the woods seduces the vampire into a long-term relationship and then subjects him to mundane white girl cliches and vaguely racial objectification until he kills himself, comedically. How was I supposed to read this? It's a weirdly crass joke that seems wildly out of character for Simone, especially in an anthology clearly dedicated to healthy, diverse expressions, coming off sourly more than a little misogynistic. Does it work as a comedy? Not really. Does it work as politics? Surprisingly, I can't tell if it was supposed to. Doesn't harm my image of them as creators, I'm just surprised these two made something this unlikable together.
Finally, we get to 'A Winged Man Flew Into the Shed' by Noora Heikkilä, the only story in this monster anthology to take a bit of a horror angle on the tone. A woman goes to tidy up the shed of the small rural house she lives in with her family, only to find a massive black feathered creature inside that has a powerful command over her attention. It's glacially paced erotica, but powerfully scripted and illustrated, using very simple subtle use of dialogue and framing to paint a world for us. There are an atmosphere and direction that comes off surprisingly cinematic, the lines unrefined but elegantly chosen, the gestural sophistication that I found so lacking in 'Whitehill House.' It's moody, creepy, sensual, and tonally unique in the anthology, ending the book out on a potent note. Of all of the creators, I was previously unfamiliar with, Heikkilä may have left the most intriguing lasting impression.
Critiques aside, this is what I look for in an anthology. Talent I was unaware of, stories from across the emotional spectrum, balancing each other with editorial confidence. It brings me back to those good old days, seeing just what a sea of imagination we live in, with creators bringing us the best of what they love.
Only, you know. With more frottage.
My Monster Boyfriend
Publisher: Smut Peddler