Friday, September 30, 2016
Agent 73, by Sarah Horrocks and Katie Skelly. Skelly's career breakthrough (after essentially earning her comics Ph.D with Nurse Nurse) was Operation Margarine, a book that saw Skelly finding subject matter that was at once fanciful and personal and that appealed to what she liked drawing most. One thing that I've always liked about her work is that her influences are vastly different from those of most North American cartoonists. Sure, it's not surprising that key manga artists have had an impact on her, but she's just as likely to have been inspired by psychedelic European comics from the late 60s and early 70s, as well as films from that era. Operation Margarine owes a lot to 70s exploitation and revenge films, with a far greater emphasis on the agency, independence and power of women. Skelly is as good a critic as she is a writer, as seen at tcj.com but also in the Trash Twins podcast she co-hosts with writer Sarah Horrocks (a distinctive critic in her own right). I mention that podcast because they are dedicated to appreciating the aesthetic qualities of what is perceived to be "trash" culture, like the aforementioned exploitation films that are often hyperviolent and sexualized.
Operation Margarine and a piece she did for the art-porn anthology Thickness seems to have unlocked a new direction for Skelly. Her sci-fi/porn series Agent 8 (and the subsequent Agent 9 and Agent 10) for Slutist takes some of the tropes she used in Nurse Nurse and takes them to their logical extreme. Then there's the horror-porn My Pretty Vampire, which is going to be collected and published by an alt-comics publisher next year. This is all context for her collaboration with Horrocks, Agent 73, which was written by Horrocks and drawn by Skelly. (I'm guessing the title is a sly reference to the 70s sexploitation film Double Agent 73). At heart, this is a romance comic with sci-fi/mad scientist/spy thriller overtones, as a woman named Dr Paracletus is seen dictating her memoirs to her assistant, Bertrand, in an isolated jungle facility where she is being held prisoner by the government. An assassin, the titular Agent 73, kills everyone in the facility as well as the assistant. That's before she realizes that the assistant was formerly a man, who had been a guard in the hellish facility of Dr Paracelsus. This is a story about revenge, transformation, secrets and abuse that's specifically designed with plot based lacunae that force the reader to fully confront the information at hand instead of being overly concerned with detail. That's an especially effective approach given Skelly's spectacular stylizations and lurid use of color, which was done by hand. The final panel, a sketchy flash-bang effect where Agent 73 pulls the trigger on Dr Paracletus, is especially striking, as the agent's red hair is rendered as splotches that could be seen as blood stains. The missing and irrelevant plot details and background helped keep the comic short, maximizing its impact without running into the common genre problem of diminishing returns when being repeatedly confronted with the same images. Horrocks and Skelly hit hard, hit fast and then quit, the narrative equivalent of only drawing the climax of a story.