Sexcastle, now available as a TPB from Image Comics, is the best action film never made in the 80s. It’s Big Trouble in Little China meets Kill Bill, combining the best elements of both. The dialogue is absolutely razor sharp, with wit and one-liners to spare, and the art is simple but endearing, and grows on the reader as the story progresses. It’s certainly note some sort of self-conscious deconstruction of the action genre (although creator Kyle Starks is an obvious expert in it), but rather a celebration of all that was fun and “awesome” about action movies in their heyday.
Full disclosure: I was not then, and am not really now, a fan of action movies. That this book appealed to me so much is a real testament to its quality. It’s just plain, flat-out fun in a way that only Chrononauts and Rat Queens are matching in current comics. One big difference between this book and those other two is that they read as big-budget, beautifully rendered full-colour presentations: real blockbusters. While Sexcastle is in black and white with just enough detail in the art to get the story across. It’s Clerks vs The Avengers, and the amazing thing is that they’re all great, and they cover astonishingly similar ground, with similar wit and violence.
Oh yes, there’s quite a bit of violence here, but the deliberately cartoony art style (reminiscent of “Spy vs Spy”) helps mollify that a great deal. There’s even a bit of sex here, with repeated panels of underwear flying into the air. But it’s all part of the pervasive sense of cartoonish fun created by Starks throughout.
Right from the first scene, we know we’re deep in John Carpenter/ Kurt Russell territory when the titular character, Shane Sexcastle, is being released from prison. Sporting stubble and an eye patch to go along with his action hero name (it’s right up there with Snake Plisskin), Sexcastle is met at the prison gates by no less than the President. (“Whoopdie doo,” Sexcastle growls, just as this kind of action hero would.) The President reminds our hero that he’s now the former President and that Sexcastle was in prison for killing the Vice-President. As a hired gun, Sexcastle worked for the best and the former President tries to recruit him back into the fold. But he’s having none of it, pledged to never kill again. As he boards a bus to head back into the world, the former President intones, “May God have mercy on his soul.” In a film, we would now cut to credits, but the storytelling efficiency shouldn’t be overlooked: we know, fifteen pages into a 200-page TPB, exactly what kind of story this is going to be and exactly what sort of character we’re dealing with. A great opening, and Starks keeps up the quality for the rest of the book.
Sexcastle immediately wanders into a flower shop (he’s trying to go straight, don’t you know) and gruffly presents his credentials to the proprietor, Jo, a single mom with a young son, Max. Sexcastle gives a great piece of advice to the crying Max, as threatening men pull up to the store: “There’s only two times a man should ever cry. One, his Momma died. Two, his dick’s got real messed up. Like by a bear attack.” That’s Ron Swanson-quality uber-masculine American. He soon finds himself defending Jo and Max from rapacious loan sharks (“Dicks. Itty bitty dicks,” as Sexcastle describes them), using only his fists, having resolved not to kill again.
Sexcastle’s favourite weapon is the Nunchuck. Of course. It has to be the weapon of every wannabe Samurai in America. Starks gets some great mileage out of that, showing Sexcastle practicing with his nunchucks and impressing Max with tales of how he learned his skills “In Hell, from the Devil himself.” That’s not the first nor the last time this book wanders into Samurai movie territory, with flashbacks revealing a long training sequence, a “You killed my Master” moment and old vendettas.
The rogues gallery of villains is no less over the top, and no less wonderful, featuring a cavalcade of thinly-disguised stars from the 1980s and 90s, including Stallone (“Spartan Cobretti”), Clint Eastwood (“The Old Man”), Wesley Snipes (“Sidney Phoenix”), Hulk Hogan, (“Thunderbutt”) and Mr. T (“Clubber Samson”). There’s even a very large, French-speaking wrestler with curly hair who appears later. When they kidnap Jo and Max, under the direction of an evil man with a white cat, and kill Sexcastle’s Asian love interest, that’s when he finally breaks down and chooses to kill again.
Revealing some aspects of the plot doesn’t hurt this book one bit. On the contrary, the plot is lifted whole from every action movie ever made, and that’s part of the fun. The last third of the book is essentially a series of elaborate fight scenes, which is appropriate to the genre, presented with the classic action hero wise guy moments. (When Sexcastle dispatches one opponent with a pair of scissors, he quips, “I guess you didn’t make the cut.”) A final insult, the destruction of the flower shop, sends Sexcastle looking for his secret weapon, given to him by the President in the first scene and subsequently buried in the backyard, out of sight and out of mind. The exact nature of that weapon is something I wouldn’t reveal here, but the name and the concept had me laughing out loud. It’s perfect.
Even then, when many lesser writers would have ended things with the reveal of the big secret weapon and the decimation, Western-style, of a gang of fighters in the middle of the street. But Starks has to add one more sequence to the grand finale. It wouldn’t be Sexcastle if the ending didn’t involve a giant Polar Bear and helicopters with rocket launchers.
Sexcastle is the kind of TPB that you can read in about the time it would take to watch a good action movie, but it’s far smarter and funnier than most. Even when the character seems to take a dramatic left-turn in the final sequence, popping some of the major character tension of the book with a throwaway line and sudden decision, it’s all part of the fun. We watch these movies for the “cool” weapons, the elaborate fights, the wit and the way they send-up American masculinity. Sexcastle isn’t a parody, or at least it’s not a mean-spirited parody. It falls more into the category of wonderful, loving homage. Light on its feet and very quick, this one’s a real gem.