On Comics: Jillian Tamaki, "SexCoven," in Frontier #7 (2015)

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 179

Jillian Tamaki’s recent collection, Boundless (2017) brings together newer and previously-published shorter work, including stand-alone stories like “SexCoven,” originally published in Youth in Decline’s Frontier #7 in 2015. [Tamaki began as an illustrator, with her cousin Mariko Tamaki writing the prose, on graphic novels like Skim (2008) and This One Summer (2014), and has more recently branched out with shorter comics and a stand-alone graphic novel SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015), and is the editor of this year’s Best American Comics (2019).]

The piece is one of the longest stories in Boundless and presents a complex narrative of nostalgia and loss over a shared cultural moment, told in black, white, and teal (in colors very similar to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006)). The story caught my attention for its mix of complex storytelling and thematic depth, and while the issues of virality and the impact of the titular “SexCoven” track have been covered, I’d like to look at how retrospection and nostalgia play out through the narrative. These themes recur through some of the other stories in Boundless, including “Body Parts,” “1.Jenny,“ and “Darla!” they work to structure “SexCoven” in ways that I find fascinating.

The story opens with the history of a mysterious untitled .mp3 file, uploaded in 1996, which, as an anonymous narrative voice tells us, “was uploaded from a computer in Tempe, Arizona” and that “attempts to contact the uploader were unsuccessful.” Over the first pages, which a presented as though in a documentary, we meet a seventeen-year-old, Gordie Wynne/_EyeOfTheKush, who finds the six-hour untitled .mp3 and renames it “SexCoven,” thus helping spread it like a virus. Says Wynne (now as an adult in the present): “I’m not sure why I chose that name! Sounded dark and edgy. Cool.”

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 183

This setup is followed by a few vignettes drawn from the history of “SexCoven,” as it is transmitted like a (sexual) virus. In one, a college couple hurridly has sex while a roommate is away, captioned by an explanatory magazine article:

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 184

What is SexCoven? Well, that’s a little hard to explain. A song? Hardly. Music? Maybe not.

How to define a wordless, six-hour atonal drone? A sound so profound that each chord shift feels like a new tear in the universe? Sonic mindfuck gets close.

Listeners report cascading feelings of dread, fear, love, and euphoria.

But a tastier treat awaits perseverance to listen to the end: a warm, flooding sense of wholeness and potentiality.

In short, SexCoven is as immovable as the Earth and impermeable as air.

- A. Esteban, Slammer Magazine, May 2000

The page that combines this sex scene and magazine explainer is overlaid by streams of “SexCoven”, caressing the couple and heightening the sexual connotations of the song. The girl in the scene, Lucy, calls the song “so creepy,” “but, like, in a really good way. Really good…” intimating sexual satisfaction, while her lover professes that he thinks he loves her as the scene closes.

In another scene, two friends jointly listen to “SexCoven” while wandering in the woods. As they hit play—on an interestingly-organized page whose captions don’t quite align with the panel progression—we are then treated to a full-bleed page of transformation, teal at the base shifting to black and stars. As one of the characters notes in the captions, “This is really weird. I don’t feel normal but I don’t feel high. This is way more intense.” As one of them says “holy shit,” they are transformed into sonic specters, somehow becoming the music itself.

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 186

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 187

One of them says “It’s so messed. It’s like I’ve lost sense of myself. And I’m glad. No body. No name. No parents. No race. No, like, boy-girl distinction…” These lines are spoken over shapeless images of their bodies as sonic beings, meandering through the woods.

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 188

That segment closes with one of them wandering into the road and being struck by a car, though we don’t learn his fate. As our narrated history progresses, we learn that “by 2001, ‘covencrawls’ had become a trend amongst teens across America,” complete with guidelines—promulgated by “covenhead.net, an online community of SexCoven enthusiasts”—that emphasize a particular insular methods: groups of no more than three, going out at night, listening simultaneously with headphones (“no boomboxes”), without talking, in isolated areas.

As our narrator notes: “by the end of that summer, several deaths and injuries had been reported,” and that “parents and officials became alarmed.” Further, we learn that

After intense public outcry, studies were undertaken to understand SexCoven’s strange effects.

Some posited that the track contained high-frequency waves, only audible to young ears and undetectable by those over 25. Others theorized it somehow stimulated the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates judgment and controls emotions, triggering temporary insanity.

This overview is followed by a two-page explosion of information:

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), pages 190-191

On the left is an excerpt of those injured while on “covencrawls,” overlayed by some sort of call-in show caller who believes that Satan might be “at play here,” occupying a quarter or so of the two-page spread. The rest is devoted to a form of “explanatory” infographic, visualizing various technical aspects of the “SexCoven” .mp3 and ways of representing its properties. The narrative voice informs us that “many people believed SexCoven contained hidden messages.” We learn that a group called “The Tech,” after “playing the track backwards, sped up, slowed down, looking for patterns and glitches,” “grew more sophisticated, inventing new tools and audio software.”

These pages seem to be a representation of those methods, visually resembling a mix of infographics highlighted by the likes of Edward Tufte and drawn explainers like those in the comics of Kevin Huizenga.

Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (1990)

Kevin Huizenga, “Gloriana,” in Or Else #2 (2004)

But just after this, we learn that the spread of the virus slowed: the “covencrawls” tapered off in 2004 and the .mp3 stopped being shared around 2007. The members of The Tech “drifted away from the community, usually after college.” In 2010, the last holdouts abdicate the work, with a “final transmission” from one of The Tech announcing that “universal sound is imminent” and that “tomorrow, we wean ourselves.” Whatever that means…

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), page 198

The narrative then hard cuts to Joshua Tree National Park, in 2012. The rest of the story focuses on two lovers, Raven and Furbaby, who are part of the Ranch, a commune trying to hold on to what they had during the peak of the “SexCoven” craze. Their interplay stretches over the rest of the story and is told with a mix of panels and text from their time at The Ranch—in the prime narrative, they argue in the desert, as Raven (topless with blonde dreads pulled back) tries to finish a shirt-dyeing job, making her miss a commune meeting. Retrospective text, which we later learn is from an interview Raven gives at some later point, explains that The Ranch is sustained by selling crafts online and to retailers, while Raven, Furbaby, Rob, Neuroboomb, Jakey, Goldie, and a handful of others from The Tech explore what they call “The Data.”

In the early days, The Tech had made “a lot of discoveries, breakthroughs, [with] new tools,” and once the popularity of “SexCoven” waned, Raven reflects: “Thank god the jocks and teen queens left. It was finally ours again.” Here, the desire to hold on to the “SexCoven” fad is rendered in both nostalgic reverence and the tired sadness that comes from feeling compelled to follow through on something that should have been left behind. Over another two-page spread, this time anchored by Furbaby’s tired countenance, Raven recounts the shift:

Well, it was Rob who found the code with that directive [to found The Ranch]. And from a practical standpoint, it made sense. What else were we doing? I was in grad school hating life. Furbaby worked in a call centre in Winnipeg.

These were my best friends. And tapping into SexCoven at 27? 28? We were special.

Plus, it meant I could finally be Furbaby in real life…

Here, the interviewer interjects, asking if Furbaby is still at The Ranch. Raven’s reply: “Oh yeah. She’ll be there ‘til the very end. She’s a lifer.”

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), pages 200-201

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), pages 203

Their fight in the desert, periodically interrupted, signals the burgeoning tensions in The Ranch project. While Rob and Furbaby run things and explore The Data, “ascending.” But Rob “couldn’t organize people for the life or him… IRL isn’t really his medium.” So, Raven feels compelled to organized their products and distribution: “Forever21 and Urban Outfitters need their Christmas orders out by—” and “The Clients. It’s just like, even with that said, it’s like… we gotta get this stuff in!”

Furbaby explodes: “OK, OH MY GOD, RAVEN. STOP, STOP, STOP! Fuck.” She goes on, “The world out there? THAT is insane! Corporations, religion, money? Constructs! NOT REAL. Constructs don’t care about—”

To which Raven can only reply, “OK, FUCK. SURE!” before the conversation is again interrupted.

After a bit more, Raven and Furbaby’s story closes, and the final pages reveal that the narrative has been structured by an interview (for an audio documentary) between an anthropology student and Raven, who has now left The Ranch.

When he askes “Do you still believe in SexCoven..? Even after you left The Ranch,” Raven replies “…Yeah. Yes. Well…what do you think? Haha.”

And, as the story closes, we are left with an uneasy reading of the role of nostalgia and its effects. Raven, having left The Ranch and her lover, still believes, but couldn’t escape the world of commerce and practicalities. Furbaby, presumably, still at The Ranch, with a hard-scrabble life, diving ever deeper into a song file that perhaps should have been left behind in her youth. And all those affected by “SexCoven” with lingering attachments, soon to be reminded of what they once had but have moved past with a mix of emotions and nostalgic longing in each of them.

Jillian Tamaki, “SexCoven,” in Boundless (2017), pages 206