By Zack Quaintance — Safe Sex took a long time coming….oh my god! That’s not what I meant! Jokes aside (very very bad jokes, at that), this book does have a long and interesting pre-publication history. Written by Tina Horn, and drawn and colored by Mike Dowling (with covers by Tula Lotay and letters by Steve Wands), SFSX (Safe Sex) #1 was originally announced as part of the ill-fated and now-defunct Vertigo Rebirth, which basically both started and fizzled in 2018, before this comic could even be solicited.
Part of what seemed to ultimately lead to Vertigo’s demise, is that in the wake of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, parent company DC Comics’ corporate leadership swung in a more prurient and conservative direction, at least with the content they were willing to publish. It started when the first book for DC Black Label — which was first marketed as an adult imprint on which creators could really go wild — showed Batman with frontal nudity, and the company swiftly responded by removing that image, cancelling any reprints, and pushing back future issues to make way for changes.
Soon after, Second Coming was removed from Vertigo, and then soon after that (really, before anyone even had a chance to so much as remember Safe Sex from the original new Vertigo announcement), the entire imprint was dead. SFSX (Safe Sex) popped up next on the publishing schedule for Image Comics, and here we are today.
Publication history aside, the question becomes — is SFSX (Safe Sex) #1 any good? First things first, it’s certainly well-executed. Writer Tina Horn is a creative who before reading this comic was entirely unknown to me. A quick Google finds that Horn’s personal website brands Horn as “a nonfiction writer and journalist” first, “an educator” second, and a “versatile media-maker” third. Comics, I suppose, fall into that third bucket. My point in this all, however, is to establish that I was surprised to learn this was likely Horn’s first time writing comics. The script — from the dialogue to the big ideas to the pacing — is polished and smoothed. I was also impressed at how immersive the world Horn has written here felt, predicated as heavily as it is on extrapolating the way dabbling in sexual choices can give way to extremism, can ultimately lead to a chilling effect on society. It’s all smart and thoughtful, as near-future sci-fi must be to the extreme, and Horn deserves quite a bit of kudos.
Dowling’s artwork is unsurprisingly stunning. I’ve been a fan of his work for some time, and I continue to increasingly think of him as a go to choice for sequential artist capable of contemplating the most pressing matters of our times in really intelligent ways...without sacrificing even a little bit of entertainment within his stories. This book certainly qualifies for all that, much like his last comic (to my knowledge, anyway), the supremely underrated, Rob Williams collaboration, Unfollow.
In terms of the big ideas in SFSX, I don’t actually think this book is doing anything groundbreaking with its commentary, and that’s just fine. It’s thought-provoking in a really subtle way. It’s not introducing new cautions (the idea that government dabbling in private citizens sexual lives is at this point in the culture discourse time tested), but what it is doing is reminding us that society is maybe not as sexually unrestrained as many of us would like to believe.
It modernizes familiar ideas a bit, using current sentiments and concepts in its dialogue to show how they might be corrupted. And that’s very scary. The horror in the whole way society has evolved here is palpable pretty much throughout. More importantly, however, this comic draws a story of governmental overreach in an entertaining way that seems to say, I know we’ve talked about all of this before, but it’s time to update the conversation. And I’m definitely ready for all of that.
Overall: A smart and entertaining comic that deals with familiar ideas — government control of private sex lives (even a little bit) should always be met with a firm NO — updated in for our times 9.0/10
SFSX (Safe Sex) #1
Writer: Tina Horn
Art and Colors: Mike Dowling
Letterer: Steve Wands
Publisher: Image Comics
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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as Comics Bookcase.