I think it’s fair to say that 2017 was a “break-out year” for New York-based cartoonist Katie Skelly, what with her OGN My Pretty Vampire ranking among the year’s best-reviewed books and proving to be an out-of-left-field success for its publisher, Fantagraphics, so it doesn’t come as any surprise that a follow-up would be rushed to presses fairly quickly — and it’s a doubly-obvious move since her “next book” was already, as the saying goes, “in the can.”
By way of making that statement seem far less mysterious, I suppose I should explain that the strips that make up Skelly’s forthcoming The Agency have already seen the light of day as webcomics, so collecting them all in one volume makes all kinds of sense given that she’s sure to have a solid group of freshly-minted fans who will be eager to see something new with her name on it on comic shop and bookstore shelves while they wait for her next “major” work, whenever that may be. So this book fills a void, true — but fortunately, it also does a bit more than that.
Still, at first glance it’s tempting to classify this as a “slighter” work in Skelly’s emerging oeuvre, but that’s neither fair nor accurate: yes, these short vignettes starring sexy Secret Agents 8, 9, and 10 don’t come together to form what one could even remotely call a narrative, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t coalesce around, and by extension address, a similar set of themes, most of which are variations on the simple, but always timely, idea that sex can, and should, be both fun and liberating. Even — hell, maybe especially — when it’s a little bit strange.
Unless, of course, things like randy skeletons, libidinous outer space vegetables, and yonic portal “travel” fit your definition of “normal,” in which case you’ve clearly got a more active imagination than this hopelessly dull armchair critic — and all I can really muster in response to that is a well-deserved “more power to you.”
So, ya know, more power to Katie Skelly. Her cartooning is fun, stylish, colorful, and lends itself well to erotic/pornographic (I tend to agree with Alan Moore that “erotica” and “pornography” are essentially the same thing, and which label is attached to it tends to come down to which economic class a given work is both made by and marketed toward — the rich pricks get the “erotica,” us working stiffs the “pornography”) subject matter and situations. Playful at all times, even when danger is present to one degree or another, and inherently positive in its attitude about all things consensual (as it should be), these strips aren’t out to change the conversation about female sexuality, or even necessarily to broaden it, but each is, ultimately, celebratory, and most show that stepping outside one’s comfort zone can often lead to unexpected delights. As such, then, the book, when taken as a whole, presents something of an aspirational statement, albeit not one especially out of reach or anything — yeah, okay, we can’t all be space-faring adventuresses or Jane Bond-types, but most of us do want good sex and enjoy it when we have it, and there’s no harm in any of us (provided we’re not lecherous creeps) admitting to ourselves that we not only want, but deserve it. Not that we can ever hope to be as out-and-out cool as Skelly’s leading ladies, of course!
There’s plenty, then, to enjoy — even admire — about this book. Unfortunately, the price isn’t one of those things. Published under the auspices of the Fantagraphics Underground “micro-publishing” imprint, the low print runs on this line almost always guarantee a bit of “sticker shock” (the only “FU” volume to date that I’ve found to offer really solid value for money being Gerald Jablonski’s absolutely extraordinary Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn), but even allowing for all that, $25 for an 80-page paperback that reprints stuff you can already find online for free? Well, that’s just a bit much. I heartily recommend that you read The Agency — it’s fast, fun, fluid, fantastic fuckery — but it would have worked much better as, say, a standard-format comic book (remember those?) on cheaper paper priced at seven or eight bucks. Since that’s not what it is, though, if you just read these strips online (which, in this case, you can do perfectly legally) I’m hardly going to hold that against you — but do check ’em out one way or another. You’ll be glad you did.