Tina Horn is a journalist and podcaster perhaps best known for her podcast Why Are People Into That?! and her book Love Not Given Lightly, but this year she made a splash with the comic SFSX (Safe Sex) which she co-created and wrote. The book is set in the near future at a time when The Party has taken control of the United States, imposing a puritanical, high tech, capitalist order that sounds a lot like how many politicians, cultural figures and tech leaders talk.

The book, which features people trying to find personal expression after having lost the war, would have fit right in with the Vertigo line, which is where Horn developed the book before the imprint was shuttered, and it landed at Image Comics. In the course of the first two issues, Horn has shown herself to be a writer who has taken to comics incredibly well, adept at both writing visually but also has brilliant dense prose and dialogue which contribute to incredibly vivid worldbuilding and the feeling that the book takes place just the day after tomorrow.

I’ve been a listener of Horn’s podcast for a long time, where she’s talked with people about a wide variety of topics. I spoke with Tina Horn recently about SFSX, what readers can look forward to in the series, some of her influences in putting the book together, and learning to think more visually.

Tina HornAlex Dueben:  Tina, how did you come to comics? What’s your comics origin story?

Tina Horn:  The origin story of me as comics fan is that my parents would bring me Tales From the Crypt and other horror comics when I was home sick as a kid. Which led to a teenage obsession with Gaiman, Moore, Morrison, and then weirdo underground and indie stuff like RAW, Gloeckner, Burns, DiMassa. Later, I got very into erotic comics from Manara to Colleen Coover. So, it’s been a lifelong obsession! I even wrote my modern lit BA thesis on semiotics in comics. I guess comics across genres have always had, for me, a rock ‘n’ roll vitality, something transporting, something that speaks the unspeakable. 

I never really seriously considered that I could make one, especially not on the scale of mainstream science fiction. But then a queer editor who had listened to my sex culture podcast Why Are People Into That?! took a chance by reaching out to me and asking if I would be interested in developing a series. I think he was intuitive enough to realise I was bringing that punk DIY spirit to radio and nonfiction, which could be translated into writing sequential fiction narratives with some guidance. 

So SFSX is my first foray into the medium as series creator and writer, and I also have a short story in the horror anthology Theater of Terror. And I hope this is just the beginning of a long career! I want to collaborate with all my favorite artists, write SFSX for a long time, and start other new creator-owned sci-fi, horror, romance, and crime series, and maybe some sex education and journalism comics. And I have a ridiculously deep affinity for plenty of existing IP, so get at me with those work for hire gigs! 

Dueben: I’m curious about the process of making SFSX because it is a different kind of writing for you. When you strip the story down – no pun intended – this is a queer, sci-fi thriller.

Horn: Sci-fi is my favorite genre, and I think that’s because it combines all the twisted mindfucks you want from entertaining stories with an imperative to make a strong statement on social themes.  So you get the politics with the melodrama, the theory with the body horror, the high brow with the low brow. I knew I wanted to take a lot of the social and political themes of my nonfiction work into this adventure series. And I wanted to challenge myself to write action, to build tension, to create mystery and intrigue. You can vary a lot in tone from humor to erotics to weirdness with sci-fi, so it gave me a chance to flex my versatility.

And it was nice, too, because I’d write a script that was very dialog and concept driven, and get notes back like, “But what if more smashing?!” And then I’d watch my favorite action, sci-fi, and horror shows, like Orphan Black and even going back to Buffy and X-Files, and re-read Hellblazer or Saga, and I’d realize, oh shit, yeah, I didn’t even remember that the reason I cared so much about this moment was because of this big fight scene. Action in a comics story, I’m learning, is like concrete detail in prose: you don’t notice it when it’s done well, it just makes you feel closer to the characters, more invested in the world, engrossed in the story. As a painfully conceptual-focused person I’ve had to make that adjustment, and it’s been a rewarding growing edge as I learn to write fiction.  

Tina HornDueben: Did you have a model for what you were trying to do with SFSX? I kept thinking, this fits in the tradition of Vertigo comics and other comics like V for Vendetta, How Loathsome, Rent Girl. Like a lot of people, I thought about 1984 and other dystopian thrillers. But I also kept thinking about Christopher Isherwood, Aya de León, the great Sarah Schulman. What were the works you loved that were on your mind?

Horn: You have picked up on some extremely important influences for me! 

Thanks for bringing up Aya de León, a friend of mine who writes this outstanding crime series called Justice Hustlers. I for sure owe it to her for blazing a trail in genre fiction with well-rounded sex worker ensemble protagonists. Her book Uptown Thief really proves that sex workers are inherently real life superheroes with skills of intrigue and nerves of steel. 

Sarah Schulman has definitely influenced me as a cultural theorist, and during the time I was first writing SFSX, I was asked to talk on a panel at The Strand in NYC about her novel After Dolores. Returning to that book and hearing other brilliant minds speak on it definitely emboldened me to write some violent upsetting scenes of a certain character who becomes essentially a misguided dyke with the blunt instrument of a gun. Schulman’s work reminded me that there’s something special about dykes writing dykes and we don’t have to be nice about it. 

How Loathsome was created by Tristan Crane, who went on to become a photographer/filmmaker who I worked with in my queer porn days, so it’s nice to be in that lineage! Rent Girl also very much emerges from the Bay Area queer sex work indie lit culture that turned me out, and having Laurenn McCubbin as my designer now makes that even more exciting. And Isherwood, I mean, Berlin Stories, c’mon! Sally Bowles my forever human mood board. 

Dueben: How did you decide that Avory and her point of view would be a good entry point into this world for readers?

Horn: Earlier today a dear old friend of mine was on my couch reading issue #2, and she said, “Everyone really hates Avory, huh? So is she an antihero?” It made me reflect that I didn’t set out to make Avory an anti-hero, as in: Ooooh I am excited to write an un-likable lady! What I knew I wanted with Avory was to show how society could lead to someone to believe that the worst possible mistakes in terms of emotional intelligence would be the way to protect her loved ones, herself, her way of life.  

In a sense, Avory behaves exactly like the villains of the Protection arc, Boreman and Powell – self-interest at the expense of people who could be their allies. Avory’s greatest superpower ends up being her inability to conform even when she thinks she might want to. Maybe that’s the one wish-fulfillment part of her I wrote: when I’m frustrated that I’m not blending into the comforts of society, I’d like to think, indignantly, that my indomitable punkass scumbag nature is what makes me powerful and lovable.

Dueben:  What was it like working with Michael Dowling? Because you two made a very good first issue. And a lot of that was the balance of exposition and detail and world-building and then say, the chase scene, letting the story breathe, let the action dictate the flow. A lot of that I would guess was the two of you working together.

Horn: I remembered something I read back in the day about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – in the script, for every fight scene, it just says: THEY FIGHT. This speaks to the trust the writer has for the choreographer, to tell the story of the characters’ conflicts, strengths, Achilles heels, styles, etc. I think a comics artist is kinda like a choreographer. It’s my job as the writer to set up the psychological subtext of an action sequence, and then trust my visual collaborator to use their skills of acting, pacing, form, symbolism, and their understanding of the physical impact of awe and fuckin’ coolness. 

Dueben: How hard was it getting into a different mindset of thinking in terms of visual storytelling. Because besides portraying the city, there are a lot of subtle elements that I’m sure many people won’t pick up.

Horn: There’s so much about San Francisco queer and sex work culture in this book. I think it was simple to do it lovingly, with a big of nostalgia, because the Bay Area was so important to my artistic and sexual identity, but I moved away almost a decade ago. So I was very specific about sending Tula and Michael and other artists photo references of the Sutro Baths, the Armory, etc. Not to mention sartorial symbols, messages in the graffiti, the design of the sex toys and gear, all kinds of stuff. I was pretty meticulous.

Dueben: You talked in one episode of your podcast about feeling alienated from fashion and only more recently becoming more aware and conscious of it and I’m curious about how that played a role in writing the comic and thinking visually.

Horn: I’m super versed in pop culture short-hand – I respond very well to editorial feedback like “Make this part like a Funkadelic jam!” or my all-time fave “Make the failure interesting, like in Fargo!” – but I am way less educated in visual storytelling and sartorial symbolism.

I went to a great panel at Flame Con a few years back called “Sailor Moon Made Me Gay,” where some of the panelists discussed the haute couture references behind anime fashion, and I realized I needed to pay much closer attention to what a character’s outfits mean. Plus, cosplay is such a beautiful way that fans can become a part of a story, so I made sure to work with my art team to design characters that fans would want to embody.

One more thing: people get fetish gear wrong in illustration all the time, especially femme and queer outfits, so I was very particular that we get those details right. I want people who love leather and latex and heels and harnesses and punk glam to see SFSX style as something they can relate to the pleasures of wearing, not just what the male gaze likes to look at. This series is fun to make mood boards for, believe me! 

Dueben: Issue #2 is out now and the next issue is drawn by the fabulous Alejandra Gutiérrez. For those who don’t know her work, she has a radically different style from Michael Dowling. What’s happening in the next issue?

Horn: I love Alejandra! She is just so brilliant at sight gags and pop smut. Issue #3 was created after the entire arc had been written; I wrote this pop-in issue just for Alejandra because I knew I wanted to work with Alejandra. 

So I decided to go back in to the events of Issue 2 and write a parallel story from the perspective of different characters. There’s a bit of a violent confrontation at the end of Issue 2 against Avory and a character we meet in that issue, Nick, her tech bro former client. There’s a bit of property damage, following an upsetting revelation about another main character. Then for Issue 3 we rewind and see things from the perspective of the Dirty Mind. 

Mainly, I took this chance to sneak in something I’d wanted to do the entire time I was writing SfSx: Protection, which was to slow down the momentum of the action and show what the Dirty Mind is really like. What’s going on in all the fetish rooms, what’s the porn archive library like, what’s the bathhouse, what’s the backstage, how does their tech work, how do they sidestep the Party’s surveillance and elude policing? Plus we get to spend some more time with Sylvia, Casey, and Denis where they’re not just foils for Avory’s selfishness. 

Alejandra killed it with this issue, her cartooning is so sexy and funny. I could write something like: “Draw a bathhouse” and she put somebody about to give head while wearing a snorkel! I think the difference in style will totally make sense to fans of the series; it’s delightful and says something about the Dirty Mind underground that no other artist has yet. Plus this is genuinely Alejandra’s world and culture as much as it is mine, and it really shows. 

Dueben: Expanding on that, in moving to Image you had to make a number of changes. One of which I know was to bring in Laurenn McCubbin as editor. Do you want to talk a little about what changed, what’s in store. 

Horn: Laurenn is an invaluable addition to the team. We know each other from the Oakland feminist sex positive scene, and have collaborated on art projects in the past. She designed Bitch Planet and several other Image books: she gives the best advice about both aesthetics of the series and the inside baseball of the industry. She checks my head and is very opinionated, which I love. 

The Protection arc is seven issues, which will be collected in the trade in June 2020. I definitely have an idea for a second arc which we’re planning on getting started on early next year. My concept is that each arc will have a different Big Bad who is in some way a tool of the Party. Maybe we’ll get closer and closer to the real powers behind the system, like in Snowpiercer. Or maybe one day we’ll pull back the curtain and the evil will be faceless – or inside all of us all along. Anyway I’m coming for MRAs and incels next, so brace yourselves!

Dueben: What do you have coming up on your podcast? Because I do listen – and sometimes go, why are people into that?! But beyond just your conversation about comics with Katie Skelly, anyone into SfSx should really check it out. 

Horn: I agree that anyone who is enjoying SFSX would probably enjoy my podcast Why Are People Into That?!. It’s a lot of the same themes of raunchy storytelling and serious social politics explored with real people, and it’s a great chance to get to know me. I’ve been producing and hosting the show independently for almost six years, and it’s where I’m most consistently unfiltered. I just released an episode about gothic queer horror, I’m currently editing an episode about Catholic saodmasochism, as well as a live show I did about BDSM rituals. I guess the show is getting pretty dark these days! Well, dark times, dark sex, dark podcast!

SFSX #3 hits shelves Wednesday, November 20 from Image Comics. To keep up with Tina Horn on social media, follow her on Twitter @tinahornsass.