Jillian Tamaki’s Sex Coven Is Back in Print: Go Buy It! [Review]
Youth In Decline
Late last year the Loser City crew invited me to participate in making a giant list of comics that don’t suck. I wrote several blurbs for their The 100 Best Comics of the First Half of the 2010s, including one on Jillian Tamaki’s Sex Coven. So, between that information and the title of this piece, you can probably tell that I like it.
The comic is issue #7 of Youth In Decline’s Frontier, a series of short, standalone comics by some of the best “indie” cartoonists currently working. Each issue is by a different cartoonist. This year we’ll see comics from Eleanor Davis, Kelly Kwang, Richie Pope, and Rebecca Sugar. The Eleanor Davis issue, Frontier #11: BDSM, dropped in February and was reviewed here.
Sex Coven is a snippet of fictional documentary, a look back on a ’90s cultural event, a single track spread at first slowly and then like lightning across a file sharing network—definitely not Napster—something that only teens can only understand. Sex Coven is not a song exactly; it’s a musically effective tone in a register that people over 30 can’t hear in all its depth. The track inspires deep reactions in listeners; they take up Coven Crawls, night walks with closed eyes and headphones blaring; they have sex, a lot of it; they worry their parents. As a broad social phenomenon, Sex Coven worries parents, but is, for most teens, a passing fad. Something they look back on fondly as adults.
But for a smaller group who call themselves The Tech, build their lives around it, setting up a commune in Joshua Tree National Park in California. Sex Coven the fake documentary comic looks at the wider historical, cultural context, and this group too, searching for the numinous while making hemp friendship bracelets and handling intra-group personality conflicts. Sex Coven’s spread and the formation of The Tech is a ’90s phenomenon, built on early file-sharing technologies and the growth of cooperative fandom on the internet. The Tech work together to decode Sex Coven, building new hardware, software and collaboration techniques in order to better understand the tone. This phenomenon, the development of technology through hobbyist pursuits, mirrors aspects of the real life rise of home computing, which alongside government funded projects with military applications, determined much about the internet we have today—including the idea that information wants to be free.
And the way that The Tech functions as online fan community, marshaling huge resources to collaboratively create on the fringe, inspired by a mass phenomenon, is the essence of fandom and how transporting both the experience of the object of fandom—in this case Sex Coven—and the community built around it can be. After the filthy casuals move on to other passions, The Tech keep going; they are too into it, without chill, unwilling to move on and out. They do seem a bit silly, a bit cultish, convinced that Sex Coven and the world they’ve built in the desert is “real” while everything else, the world not determined by Sex Coven, is a lie. Even as they continue to build a little world of their own based on their discoveries of Sex Coven—for example, that Sex Coven wants them to have no holds barred orgies—their world is constantly disrupted by the concerns of that other more mundane world. There are shipping schedules to keep up, laundry to do, and hurt feelings that can’t be unhurt.
That The Tech have tipped over into sex-and-hemp cultishness isn’t a judgement on fandom or passion. They, and every other teen who listened to and were moved by Sex Coven, are just people, never demonized, sometimes sweet, sometimes foolish, and their experience of passion—sexual, musical, emotional—is real and valuable. Less sympathetic are The Tech’s orgies, which the group call Meetings or Beaconings. It’s not that orgies themselves are bad, but that The Tech’s orgies are devoid of feeling and agency, required by the Data that The Tech decoded from Sex Coven. The track’s metadata apparently wants them to have sex, and so they do. The documentary filmmaker (a student), interviewing Raven (seen in the above page) asks about them:
“And the Meeting consisted of?”
“Uh, we’d vote on Ranch stuff. Site updates, though I guess by the end there wasn’t much to report. One time someone made a board game based on The Data. It kinda sucked. Ha.”
“The Meeting also involved what was called “Beaconing”?”
“…we’re talking about sex. Group sex.”
“Yeah. Everyone’s really interesting in the Beaconing. But it was only one aspect of the Meeting. I mean, I get it. It sounds titillating or whatever. But it was mostly just physically tiring. But it’s what the Data demanded, so.”
The leaders of The Tech found instructions in the metadata that they should a) set up a kind of commune in Joshua Tree and b) have orgies in order to, one assumes, be Beacons of embodied Sex Coven. Well, it sounds spiritual, but systematized and made permanent, Sex Coven is much less transporting, much more mundane. The ugly, boring, mundane work required to keep the Ranch running, the money flowing, and the orgies going, sours the experience; cultic life itself sours the experience, and power and in-group policing becoming bigger factors in their daily lives. The Tech aren’t having fun anymore.
The filmmaker who frames Sex Coven is straight edge. He’s never listened to the track and for him, it’s all an anthropological phenomenon: a wild teen craze that burned hot and quick; the weird embers of The Tech, living out the instructions of Sex Coven, until they dwindle, members slowly aging out, moving out, moving on. For him, Sex Coven is just a school assignment. He’ll produce his short film on a teen experience he never had and that will be that.
For Raven, his primary source on The Tech, Sex Coven will always be there for her, even after leaving The Tech (if you couldn’t guess she’d get tired of making those bracelets…). The comic closes with her challenging a mall patio’s no smoking policy, but eventually butting out, the smoke from her cigarette looking much like Sex Coven without colour depth, until it’s gone. Does Raven, in that moment, give up on “teen rebellion?” Well, not exactly. Raven, by then, is no longer a teen and her rebellion isn’t teen; her tonal transportation by way of Sex Coven isn’t teen, but neither is it fully nostalgic. She bends, doesn’t break, remains vital, moves forward and keeps the things she loves that she can keep. Non-cult adulthood comes with certain responsibilities.
Sex Coven is about the holding tank of teen-ness, a time that we all (for as long as we’ve had the category of people called teenagers—a hundred years or so) pass through, but which seems mysterious to both children and adults. Teens are weird, with wild and sometimes dangerous passions that neither adults nor children can quite understand. Sometimes teen fads are, frankly, ridiculous, made more ridiculous by the label of “teen”—the fads of children and adults can be just as bizarre, but there’s something about the space teens are given to occupy, the “they’ll grow out of it,” “they’ll learn better soon,” “they’ll dim like we have, soon enough,” of it, absent the charming innocence we ascribe to kids. Teens are adults-in-process, without mortgages or car payments and possessed of disposable income, a frivolous, but trend-driving market.
Sex Coven t-shirts no longer sell; the market has been saturated and new experiential products have taken its place. Will Sex Coven, the non-commercial object now moving into nostalgia, still be Sex Coven after every ’80s and ’90s kid grows up? Sex Coven the auditory object will, but Sex Coven the the phenomenon is done.
You can buy Frontier #7: Sex Coven here.