Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Kyle Starks
Artist: Kyle Starks
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Before we go further, let me just lay this out: Sexcastle is not for everyone. I really liked Sexcastle. I thought it was very good, as the four-star rating can attest. I laughed like crazy, and I think there’s a lot about it that is genuinely well-written. But it’s a question of knowing what you like. If you think you’re the kind of person who will also like Sexcastle, you’re probably right. If you think something called Sexcastle is not a book you want to read, you are also probably right.
Sexcastle stars professional killer Shane Sexcastle. He’s deadly with just about every weapon imaginable: knives, nunchuks, swords, guns. When the book opens, Sexcastle is released from prison and tells the President he’s done killing. He goes to a small, nondescript town in no particular state and gets a job at a flower shop. It turns out this town is run by a megalomaniacal crime boss named Bradley, and Bradley’s presence keeps Sexcastle in the world of mindless, wanton violence he thinks he wants to leave behind.
On the surface, this is a generic 80s action movie plot. This becomes something different when a work like Sexcastle wears that influence on its sleeve and shouts it over the din of a symphony of pyrotechnics. Sexcastle is part parody of and part homage to any and all action movies made during the 80s, and Starks had his work cut out for him. I think it’s easy to make art that only makes fun of other art, and irony is an oh-so tricky form of comedy that’s very easy to get wrong. Loving irony is even more difficult – making fun of art because you love it, pointing out its foibles while respecting it and admitting to a deep love for it.
Starks nails it. Most of the notes I took on Sexcastle are just the lines I laughed at, and if I thought I could get away with a review that’s nothing but quoting those, I’d probably do it, because really, I think that would be enough to sell this book to somebody. There’s some cruder humor, like Sexcastle’s penchant for giving people the finger, some sexual antics, and of course plenty of swearing. I say “crude,” but that’s not to imply it’s a bad thing. It’s part of a wide spectrum of humor in the graphic novel. Sometimes it’s one-liners, which go so far overboard with how ridiculous they are that they’re funny because they’re funny, not because they’re terrible. One example stands out above all others: one of Bradley’s men brings up the old “bring a knife to a gun fight” saying. Sexcastle replies, “This is worse than that. You brought a YOU to a ME fight.”
And here, I think, is the core of the humor at work in Sexcastle. It’s the reason why Sexcastle’s humor works. The self-awareness goes beyond just making an action movie that’s aware it’s a bad action movie. Those movies say, “We’re trying to be bad on purpose, teehee isn’t that so funny?” They call attention to it. Starks plays that line completely straight, but he knows when to call attention to what’s ridiculous in the story. Starks’ sense of timing and the delivery are almost always on-point. We get names like “Dutch Matrix” and “Spartan Cobretti” without anyone batting an eye, but we also get exchanges like “Mr.?” “Sexcastle.” “Seriously?” Bradley plays the generic 80s villain with lines like “This town isn’t big enough for both of us.” Sexcastle doesn’t play with that. He faces it with straight-laced indifference and open ridicule without lampshading the clichés with a line like, “All you guys say that,” or something similar. Bradley calls B.S. when he sees Sexcastle cut a missile in half with a sword, and he does it again later when Sexcastle hypnotizes a polar bear to sleep.
I’ve talked a lot about the humor so far without mentioning much about the art. I think the art is just as essential in creating the tone the book needed. Ideally, this is true of any comic, but it’s pronounced here in Sexcastle. The art is stylized and cartoonish, which complicates the edge of the positively brutal violence. Someone loses his jaw. Someone’s head is practically cut in half with a bullet. Sexcastle gets stabby and things get bloody. I say the art style complicates the edge the violence has. It doesn’t take it away. The energy in the art, the rough lines and the letters with just the right amount of grit, sell that terrible violence is happening. But this is another instance of something going so far past the borders of the ridiculous that it becomes funny, even if you feel bad about laughing.
There aren’t many experiments with the art, but when they appeared, I was always very impressed by them. There’s one chapter viewed from Sexcastle’s first-person perspective. It’s brief, but it’s incredibly interesting and different from other times I’ve seen the first person used in comic books, probably because it opens with a three-panel sequence of Sexcastle doing a hundredth push-up with one finger. It took me a moment to puzzle out what was going on there, and I thought it was brilliant. Bradley’s facial features are slightly more realistic than everyone else’s, and some of the action hero look-alikes who appear get that same treatment. Finally, there’s this scene where God appears as a bipedal creature of divine geometry and a “head” of flames that was difficult to wrap my head around because it fit so well into the style.
If I have a complaint about Sexcastle, it’s through no fault of its own. Like in an 80s action movie, I found myself thinking things were becoming incredibly silly, even by the book’s standards. It usually wasn’t even the ridiculous stuff. These moments happened when an aspect of the story was pulled almost wholesale from the genre, without any embellishments of homage or parody. There’s only so much that can be done when you’re working from some of the less good material. That said, the writing was brilliantly tight. Things that seem like small details become important. Starks doesn’t forget anything. And the ending is very well-executed in that not only does it examine the implications of trying to be “good” and then performing all of these horrendous acts, but it also offers a possible solution to that. It culminates in an interesting and amusing subversion that I don’t want to spoil here.
If you love the action movies of the 80s, read Sexcastle. If you don’t shy away from violence, sex, and swearing in fiction, and in fact revel in it on occasion, read Sexcastle. Like I said at the beginning, it isn’t for everyone. But the people it’s for will love it.