Tuesday, April 16, 2024
ComicsComics Corner

Comics Corner – ‘Nether Realms’ is the future of non-binary erotica comics

[Content note: this week’s column contains explicit language and openly discusses sex and sexuality from a non-binary perspective. However, all images are non-explicit, and broadly safe for work.]

After taking readers back in time for an anthology of mythologically-themed trans masc erotic comics in 2020’s Ambrosia, and following up with 2021’s Nectar, which explored stories of trans femme sex and sexuality in similarly fantastic settings, it’s off to the furthest fringes of the galaxy for Nether Realms – a science fiction collection of erotica that explores sex beyond any and all gender confines.

Co-edited by Tab Kimpton and The Neon Caster, the upcoming book promises nearly 200 pages of “star-hot sex that explodes beyond our Earthling understanding of body, gender and self-identity”. Boasting 15 stories, Nether Realms sees a host of exciting queer comics talent explore sci-fi’s infinite sub-genres to examine how the future might reduce gender to a thing of the past.

We’re delighted to welcome Tab Kimpton back to Comics Corner to discuss the creation of the latest anthology, the increasing challenges of putting together and promoting erotic comics, the perils of filtering the internet’s kinks into a single book.

(Image courtesy Tab Kimpton)
Gayming Magazine: Nether Realms is the fourth of these delightfully smutty anthologies you’ve done, and the third we’ve covered here on Gayming – do you feel like you have some momentum on these sorts of projects now?

Tab Kimpton: It’s definitely easier on the production side: I just open templates and rename Nectar to Nether Realms! (Although side note, don’t ever call two projects in a row a name beginning with the same letter – I sent a lot of artists “Acceptance into Nectar Anthology” emails this time; not a great first impression whoops!)

However, when borrowing all the promotional copy and putting together the Kickstarter page, using previous project templates, I couldn’t help but worry that this was just a carbon copy of the last few books. We’re trying to figure out the Future of Gender™ here, so it felt ironic that something that’s supposed to be exploring new worlds got there on the shoulders of historical and mythology based anthologies.

GM: Do you think Nether Realms is intrinsically a harder sell than its predecessors, then?

TK: I actually ran a poll on twitter about that! One assumes that with all the previous backers who know our work and that our back catalogue is expanding (so people will order more books) that this latest Kickstarter would be The Best Yet. But we really struggled after the initial launch day. Ambrosia and Nectar both funded £20K in 10 days, but this one took 18 days to get there, and another 10 days after that to meet it’s £26K goal. It was our closest to the wire one so far, but now it has funded it’s beaten what Ambrosia did.

Cost of living definitely hit our readers, and to be blunt marginalised communities like trans and non binary people are the first to really feel the pinch. We’ve had to raise the paperback price as printing costs have DOUBLED since Nectar in 2021, but tried to compensate by lowering our trans discount PDF option to £7. As much as we want to sell lots of fancy books, making it accessible to read by the community it’s supposed to represent is the number one priority for us, and digital is the way to do that.

I did wonder if people just didn’t like sci-fi that much, though it might be the opposite: there’s a fair few sci fi comics on Kickstarter right now, even erotic ones, so it might just be that people have too much choice! But sci-fi was the most requested option we got on our reader ‘whatdoyawant next’ survey after Nectar, so felt like a sound choice. Sci-fi has always been at the forefront of gender exploration and expansion, so was a perfect fit for the trans masc/femme/nonbinary trifecta of books we’ve made over the past few years.

(Image courtesy Tab Kimpton)
GM: Some of the stories in Ambrosia and Nectar featured non binary characters and encounters – was an all-enby book a response to positive reception for those comics, or was this always the next step after those books?

TK: I think a duology of books that gives the impression of two types of non binary people was always going to sit weirdly with me, even if it’s just the title. The books themselves have a much wider variety of gender expression than just masc vs femme inside them, with trans women appearing in Ambrosia and trans men in Nectar too and non binary people of all types just waltzing around the place.

I suppose the question is why bother labelling masc and femme at all, but we gotta accept that different people are effected by different marginalisations, so the books needed different types of vibes to appeal to particular readerships. Ambrosia was ‘bodies that don’t conform to assigned gender standards that are particularly rigid for women are still sexy’ and Nectar was ‘lots of people fetishise your types of body but never give you personhood or romance’. Nether Realms is ‘uhhhh, fuck these rules, we do what we want, go do what you want, go fuck how and who you want’.

GM: You touched on some of this on Twitter while promoting the book, but given porn as a medium is so heavily gendered – even in trans masc/trans femme contexts, you’re still often bound by A binary understanding or binary extremes – what were you looking for in contributions for Nether Realms that defied that? For that matter, WERE you looking for stories that defied binary understandings, or was it more like a wholesome “fuck around and find out… literally”?

TK: To be absolutely blunt as hell, we got sooooo many submissions which were ‘person with chest scars gets railed by giant alien’, so we had to carefully sort through those and decide which alien was the best and most interesting! I’m sure that would have been a wonderful book, but we definitely wanted to push the space ship out a bit further, you know? Stories that explored what technology might be able to do to gender reassignment in the future with interchangeable parts, robots who don’t even have junk and how they have sex, aliens who find the concept of gender… uhhh, alien. But then we really appreciated stories that did talk about how these values affect our current world, or twisted the expectation. A human who changed their gender presentation, letting an alien know that it could do the same; a non binary character who is just living in a terrible corporation run spaceship and how they escape that; or my story which is about a mech pilot who has no perfect body except their giant mecha.

(Image courtesy Tab Kimpton)
GM: As an editor on a project like this, and wanting to be open about sex being whatever the participants want it to be, was there still anything you turned down or asked for revisions on?

TK: Most of my editing is the “you have 13 pages, there’s no way this much text is gonna fit” variety, even on my own comic! I try to be open as possible and include lots of stuff that’s Not My Thing in every anthology, but this time I had to turn down some stories about clone fucking because apparently that’s something I won’t even look at (probably because my mum’s an identical twin!). I can see lots of interesting things that type of story would explore so felt a shame to say no because of my own squicks, but I sent them a clear ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ apology message.

GM: Has this anthology in particular exposed you to the, uh, darker sides of the internet?

TK: Oh yeah, there’s definitely submissions I’ll never be able to get out of my brain – I am but a giant filter for the detritus of dirty gender comics. A side note on that though is how weird it feels to be in charge of picking who’s going to be in an anthology – it’s why I always run submissions over with a co-editor and a third tie-breaker artist to try and make sure I’m not bringing any unconscious bias to the table. That’s because I do have an agenda, and that is often about favouring comics which might make people think a bit more, or touch them in a deeper emotional place than ones that just… touch them in other deep places.

(Image courtesy Tab Kimpton)
GM: In your own story ‘Not’re Dame’, you’re exploring notions of ‘ugly sexy’ and how porn – and society – usually only depicts contemporaneous social standards of beauty. You said on Twitter that you’re “trying to re-centre sex acts to sensations that feel good, instead of ones that just look it. And creating art, and erotica, that takes as much care to depict the ugly as it does the beautiful.” All of which is a lot of pre-amble to get to: since comics IS a visual medium, what was your approach to making ‘ugly’ sex look good/alluring/hot?

TK: Ha, you tell me! It’s tricky as making this anthology came at a time where I’ve had the most burn out (and health related problems associated with said burn out) in the past 5 years. I suppose ugly sex is about ultimate realism and making work that invokes the sensations of sex more than an airbrushed idealised one. Getting down and a bit gritty, making dirty comics dirty again. Arousal is such a mixed bag of feelings and often one of them is disgust, but that becomes empowering when shared with people you trust who also want to do said disgusting things with you. Now that’s connection – and we can create that connection with readers too.

GM: I want to docus on one of the other entries too – there’s a great bit in in ‘Be Gay, Do Crime’ by Quenby and Azzie where space pirates Moby and Crime are smuggling “illegal gender” components. The fascist, very subtly named Captain Acab has them trapped in a debris field and comments that the “depraved criminals” will “run out of ideas” – which is immediately juxtaposed by Crime looking at Moby kitted out with a bunch of, let’s say, ‘accoutrements’, and beaming “I have so many ideas!” Without wanting to be reductive or fetishistic, do you see Nether Realms as challenging or educating people that sex outside of binaries can be exciting and creative?

TK: That’s actually the story we’re ending on because it summed up the vibe of the book – if people have finished reading it with anything new they want to try with either sex or gender I’d be absolutely delighted. When we talk about gender roles, it’s not just non binary people banging at the walls of them. I think they’re super restrictive to everyone, and sex is a time when all that baggage comes in to ruin the fun. So much ‘should’ and ‘what’s normal’, even among queer people. Sex is a time where you can literally be anything you want, do anything you want (consensually, obviously). Bring your everyday gender in for some fun or just discard that and play with something new. We’ve spent a long time educating people that sexuality is different to gender that we’ve lost the nuance that these things do blur and overlap. Which whoops we’re back around to binary style thinking again…

(Image courtesy Tab Kimpton)
GM: How is the market looking for erotica nowadays? We talked about this when we discussed the Ambrosia anthology back in 2020, in the wake of the Tumblr porn ban. At the time you were sceptical that things would improve given payment processors and hosting companies increasingly don’t want to deal with adult material, even consensual, legal, positive content – have things improved, worsened, or about where you thought they’d be by now?

TK: Well one of my top answers to the twitter poll was ‘wait what anthology’, which is a damning indictment of how much social media companies are suppressing our posts (because believe me, I’d been banging at that Twitter drum loud and often). I can’t believe it’s 2022 and you can’t even get porn on the internet, what is society coming to?!

I spoke briefly to some fellow creators of consensual/body positive porn comics during the darker first days of slow pledges on the Kickstarter, and it’s down all around, with a lot of them struggling. Finding that out made me feel slightly better because it’s not just me, but also slightly worse because oh, it’s not just me.

GM: Between the spiked production costs and the difficulty in reaching readers due to sexually squeamish platforms, do you see further productions being tougher to put together, or having to change how you produce and distribute queer comics in future?

TK: Well I’m definitely taking a break after this, and probably running the next one in 2024 when maybe paper prices have levelled out a bit more! I might consider moving to something all digital, trying black and white only, or switching to trade paperback quality. This definitely isn’t the last hurrah, but Nether Realms is going to be the nicest book we can afford to do for the next few years.

GM: Despite the early challenges, the Kickstarter was thankfully successful, ending well above the target. Where can people who missed out on the campaign pick up Nether Realms for their smutty queer comics fix?

TK: Preorders are open at Etsy, here!

Nether Realms is due to be published late October 2022.

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.