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Two lovers kiss as they are pulled apart by riot police on the cover of Safe Sex #1, Image Comics (2019). Tula Lotay/Image Comics

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Safe Sex is the action-filled story of an anti-sex dystopia, but with heart

The new Image comic is NSFW as heck, but this post is fine

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Safe Sex is a story about its protagonist’s search for both things implied in the title. Sex, yes, but also safety — for herself and her community.

Avery is a former porn director and porn star, who, after a violent government raid on her underground community, decided to try to live by an oppressive society’s rules. But now that she has no choice, she’s being forced to fight back against an overwhelming opponent.

For Tina Horn — writer, podcaster, dominatrix, and erotic filmmaker — Avery’s struggles are outsized, but familiar, and serve as a way to highlight the stories of hardworking and burnt-out folks all through her community. Polygon had a chance to sit down with Horn, literally, on a busy floor of New York Comic Con last month, and ask some questions about what Safe Sex is really all about.

Polygon: Safe Sex takes place in this sort of ... anti-sex dystopia. Where did the idea for that come from?

Tina Horn: The idea came from a dystopian idea I had about an extreme Kafkaesque, over-bureaucratized moral credit system. In Safe Sex, as the story that exists now, that’s called having a purity score. One of the first ideas that I had for building the dystopia was this idea of paperwork. And partially that came out of having student loans and being in debt, and really experiencing the ways that I have been further marginalized in American society than I already am for being a woman, and being queer, and also being out about sex work, and being out about being kinky.

All of these things can marginalize you in society. The extra emotional labor and time that it takes to deal with being in financial debt made me think about the extra time and emotional labor that it takes to be disenfranchised for being who you are. And that, combined with the way that public space is increasingly on online, and discourse and forms of like personal expression are increasingly online, and then those platforms are mediated by corporations, which are then regulated by the government. So —

Also, by the way, this comic is sexy and violent and has lots of explosions and fun interpersonal fights. [laughs] All this political subtext and lots of juicy entertainment.

Avery readies to stab a member of the authorities in the eye with a stiletto heel, in Safe Sex #1, Image Comics (2019). Tina Horn, Michael Dowling/Image Comics

But those anxieties are a pain in the ass, and they also really scare me in terms of how our society is constructed and how fear and pain and suffering is constructed. And then the ways that, sometimes, we eroticize that power. And what it means to try to take the power back by eroticizing it, which is so much of what BDSM culture, personal and professional, has been about for me in my life. So I wanted to tell a scifi story about that.

I came up with this idea of paperwork, and then came up with the idea of technology that is like a personal Fitbit, where the government says everybody has to wear these bracelets called Halos. And everybody has to file paperwork — either digitally if they have a higher purity score or in a DMV-like nightmare spaces called kiosks, if they have a lower purity score. And the lower your purity score, the more of a pain in the ass it is to maintain your purity score. And the higher your purity score is the more ease that you have, which then gives you more privacy and more ability to get around the system — which is something that is very real, based on a lot of different things that are actually actually real in our society.

So, that’s where the idea came from, and then from there I wanted to make characters that would occupy that world. And I very much base them on all of my friends from Bay Area undergrounds and countercultures, and tried to put the kinds of relationships that I’ve had with others and that I see others having. Both loving, joyful, pleasure-based or friendship-based relationships and community; or even artistic collaboration or activist collaboration, people who are building things together. And also conflict; interpersonal conflict, romantic conflict, sexual conflicts, friend conflicts.

I really tried to base those off of people that I know, especially people who I don’t feel like we see enough in media or fiction but who are a part of my world and a part of my life and I feel we deserve to have our stories told.

In the first issue, you kicked off this adventure with the main character having to flee the safe situation she made to protect herself from her oppressive society, when her husband is disappeared for seeing something he shouldn’t have. She has to turn back to her old friends and to an underground world that she finds both very scary and very desirable. Without spoiling anything, can you talk about where we go from here?

There’s something so gratifying about having somebody describe a story back to you in a way that — like the way that you just described it really made me feel like you’re my ideal audience. You understand the themes, but you’re also interested in the suspense and the action adventure, but you totally get the trajectory and, yeah, the themes of safety and danger, which I really want to explore.

Like, what is “safe sex?” What does it mean to be safe? What are people willing to do in order to feel safe — even if that doesn’t actually make them safe, but in order to cope they have to feel safe. So yeah, Avery is our protagonist and she, in an attempt to feel safe — because she spent all of her 20s as a rebel. And know she’s in her mid-30s and she’s tired! [laughs] And that’s definitely something that ... Avery is not me, she’s not a proxy for me...

But it’s a mood.

It’s a mood! [laughs] Fatigue is a mood, for sure, and burnout. And that’s definitely something that I’ve experienced firsthand, and I see in my friends who have to constantly fight for the rights to just exist and express ourselves. I definitely wanted to make a burnt-out protagonist [and show] what happens when you get so burnt out on society that you make choices for self-preservation to create your own safe space.

It’s not a spoiler to say the very first thing we see Avery do [in the first issue] is bail on her friends and her community that has meant so much to her in an attempt to live an assimilationist, conformist life, which she has enough social mobility to do. And some of her friends — in subsequent issues we’ll see more of their stories and their experiences — maybe don’t have as much ability as she has to choose whether or not to sell out and be safe.

As Avery and her boyfriend George run through the underground sex club Dirty Mind, fleeing from fascist cops, all she can think of is how scared she is and how much she wants to be safe, in Safe Sex #1, Image Comics (2019). Tina Horn, Michael Dowlin/Image Comics

So through a series of events of just her and her husband George not actually doing a very good job of assimilating into this new conservative society, George sees something that he’s not supposed to see. And by the end of issue one, we just know that he’s been arrested. George’s fate will be revealed. It’s not pretty, I’ll say that. And then there’s another character, Jones, who was the leader of the Dirty Mind, which is the underground collective that Avery came up in, and she has been arrested and disappeared by the government like three years before.

That’s where we leave our heroes at the end of issue one, without giving too much away. Some of their closest friends and loved ones have been arrested by the government and they don’t know if they’re being detained at the Pleasure Center, which is a sort of Orwellian bureaucratic center where the Dirty Mind used to be, that was taken over by the government and transformed into their worst nightmare.

They don’t know if their friends are being detained there, if they’re being detained, they don’t know what their conditions are like, or maybe they’re dead. Or maybe it’s worse. The first story arc of Safe Sex, which will eventually be the first trade, called Protection, is really an arc about them trying to figure out what happened to their friends.

So there’s a little bit of a heist/jailbreak plot going on. And then what happens when people who have taken different directions in trying to cope with this shitty world, what happens when they have to turn to one another in order to try to make things right. And then when they’re trying to like look out for their loved ones and one another, does that put them in a position to actually really fight the power and bring it down from the inside and find out like what they’re really up to, which is even scarier than it looks.

What was your path to comics? Why was Safe Sex a comics story?

I grew up on comics. When I was a kid, when I was sick, my parents would bring me Tales From the Crypt. That probably explains a lot about my twisted imagination. Then when I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Vertigo, Marvel, DC, superhero stuff. Then in college I got into more indie and underground comics. But then my career led me to a lot of nonfiction work, as well as being professional dominatrix and erotic filmmaker. And then in my 30s there’s been a lot of focus on nonfiction media-making, I do a podcast called Why Are People Into That? that’s all about queer and kinky sexuality. Comics and genre fiction was the one last thing that I was just a fan of, [jokingly] something that brought me pleasure that I had not professionalized.

And then a queer editor who had listened to my podcast for years asked me if I would be interested in writing comics. And I was like, that’s so interesting, because nothing about my work would reveal how much I love comics, but he just had that intuition. And he was totally right. I got this crash course in how to write fiction, how to write comics, how to navigate the comics business and medium.

All the artists that I’ve worked with have taught me so much about sequential art and visual storytelling. All the editors and designers I’ve worked with have taught me so much. I know all of these political themes have a lot of vitality and emotion and meaning to them, and I know how to write dialogue from doing radio, but then I need to also make sure that windows get smashed and people get mutilated and people have to die, there’s got to be stakes. There needs to be punching and exploding.

And that made me realize, “Oh yeah, when I think about the comics that I love, that’s not the first thing that I remember. Oh, I loved that one fight scene.” But I actually do really love those, so I had to be very meticulous about learning how to pace an action sequence and build suspense and all that stuff. I have had so much amazing support.

I love that comics is such a collaborative medium because a lot of the work that I’ve done has been very isolated and it feels really good to work with people and to continue to learn. And to have people check you on your biases, or to stay in your lane, or things you might not know how to do as well as they. And also to know when to be like, “No, no, this is how this is going to be, I’m going to die on this hill.”

It’s been really great and I have to say being at New York Comic Con, going to Flame Con, which is an awesome queer comic con here in New York ... I just love being around comics people, both fans and creators — and business people, now that I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the booth. And even the fact that here at the con there’s also stuff about the kinds of movies and TV and literature that I love. I’m just so happy to be working in this world.

Safe Sex was initially going to run under DC Comics’ recently shuttered Vertigo line, and has since found a home at Image. Is there anything you’d like to share about that transition?

The people that I worked with when this book was in development at DC gave me so much support. I am so grateful to them, and there were also a lot of people just in the comics business in general, all over the place, who were really supportive of me; giving me so much advice about where to take it when DC decided not to publish it. Image completely welcomed me with open arms, and like I said, I love Vertigo books, I grew up on them. And in reality, the books that have that are the most exciting to me right now — Bitch Planet, The Wicked + The Divine, Saga, Paper Girls — not to just list Brian K. Vaughan books, but — those books that are fucking weird and gory and sexually explicit and just, like, adult, and not to mention queer, and not to mention really interesting art really interesting world building. They’re all Image books. So I really think that I’m in the right place.

Safe Sex #1 came out on Sept. 25, 2019, and #2 hits shelves this week.