‘Sex’: The Best Eighties Comics Currently Being Published
Remember that feeling you got when you first read the great comics of the Eighties? When fantastic deconstructions of superhero characters and genre fiction idioms introduced you to a new level of sophistication? When dozens of mainstream books were possessed of a style and edge that scaled up your spine and sent electricity licking through your neck? When sex and violence were done right? Do ya miss it? Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski might just have your fix: if you miss the honed sense of danger you got when reading The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and American Flagg! it might be time to check out the Image comic Sex, the coolest new Batman book on the shelves.
Not the actual character, of course. Another version of Batman, far removed from the continuity and publishing standards of DC and just beyond the reach of the Warner Bros. legal department, but Batman nonetheless. Repurposed; broken down into his base elements and reformed as something new and different. Seems like part of a whole trip Joe Casey is on these days, as Sex runs concurrently with his other new Image series The Bounce with David Messina, in which an analogue of Spider-Man, well, bounces around twenty-first century New York, high on weed and super-heroism.
But Batman and Spider-Man are very different characters, and even though Sex and The Bounce both disassemble and rebuild archetypes to re-examine them (and sound like godawful Miami Beach nightclubs), they do so in very different ways. The Bounce is about youth, responsibility, and new definitions of heroism; Sex is about retirement, repression, class divisions, power, and fear.
Also f*****g. Lots of f*****g.
In Sex, the role of Batman is played by Simon Cooke, otherwise known as the Saturn City superhero The Armored Saint. Returning from a sabbatical of indeterminate length, the story begins with Cooke awkwardly starting a new chapter in his life: retired from crime-fighting, settling down to run the corporation he’s always pretended to, and leaving heroism behind to live a normal, happy life. And though there have been plenty of stories about retired superheroes, this is where Casey does that unique Casey thing: Simon Cooke has absolutely no idea how to live a normal life.
The life of a superhero, even in this world, is about as far from real life as you can get. And though Cooke has vowed to retire and leave The Armored Saint behind, as he explains to his confidant, he’s essentially lived a life of discipline, focus, and control since he was a teenager. Now at thirty-something years old, he has no experience which constitutes a typical life, and no idea how to start living one. While the whole of Saturn City seems to be populated with thousands of Amish teenagers unleashed for Rumspringa, Cooke is repressed, anxious, and practically frozen in place; an un-person stripped down to his interior, forced to find an identity after living an assumed one; unsure of what to do next, like a thirty-five-year-old virgin who suddenly wins a date with a porn star.
It’s like if The Dark Knight Returns had been drawn by Milo Manara, except we’re five issues in and Bruce Wayne still hasn’t put the suit back on OR gotten laid. The story unfolds at a measured pace, using several moving parts, and never quite showing you exactly what you want to see. The few glimpses we have of the The Armored Saint are only in flashback; the sex scenes — plentiful, graphic, and beautifully composed by artist Kowalski — only serve to raise Cooke’s sense of frustration and discomfort with the new direction his life must take; the action scenes — razor-sharp and dynamically choreographed — are quick-moving and sparse, and only serve to whet the appetite for something bigger, something more.
Sound like a tease? That might very well be the point. The title of the book is Sex, after all, and before there can be release there must first be pressure. So far this book is churning with psychological depth, sexual tension, mounting frustrations, and the specter of something big and awful threatening to happen any minute now. Everything is steadily welling up, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that things are going to get real, real bad when something bursts.
Artist Piotr Kowalski is, simply put, amazing. Sex was my introduction to the Polish artist, and it was such a strong first impression I had to go back and look at what came before it, just to see where a talent like his could have come from. Most of his career has been spent in European comics, working on Bande Dessinée with titles like Urban Vampires, and a year or two back he did a series for BOOM! called Malignant Man. And although everything is very well-drawn, none of it looks anything like Sex, which seems absolutely insane.
The particular tenor that Kowalski brings to Sex feels like something that would have to be practiced for years before it got to this level, like a guitar lick played over, and over, and over again. Nope. It’s just what he cooked up for this particular comic book. Later this year he’s doing a four-issue Hulk series with writer Joe Keatinge, but let’s collectively hope that it doesn’t pull him away from Sex for too long, because it’s abundantly clear that this is exactly the type of book he should be doing.
Under Kowalski’s pen, Saturn City is a vast, looming metropolis that seems to splay out into infinity in all directions, every floor and light and window accounted-for. Everything looks like visions of the 2000s by artists from 1980s, on the inside and the outside; characters look like they were dressed by Howard Chaykin. It’s as if Kowalski is channeling traits from all the artists needed to come together for a deconstructionist erotic eighties throwback like Sex: Chaykin, Manara, Katsuhiro Otomo, Dean Motter, and Dave Gibbons all come to mind in the span of a few panels. I have absolutely no idea what to call his style in Sex — neo-pop retro-futurism? — but it’s elegant, energetic, and glides cleanly across the page like it’s coated in KY. His framing is subtle and effective, especially when it comes time to convey Cooke’s mental state: he pulls back to let him breathe, widens out to show the responsibilities he’s leaving behind and the nerve-wracking new possibilities that await; zooms in when it’s time to get claustrophobic. His sex scenes are dreamy and alluring, his action scenes cooking with gas. Colorist Brad Simpson – who seems to have successfully recreated John Higgins’ palette from Watchmen – bathes the book in purples and oranges, neon yellows and hot pinks that transform Saturn City into a brightly-lit Gomorrah covered in glitter and sin. Rus Wooten’s lettering — which hi-lites words of emphasis rather than showing them in bold — rounds out a complete visual package. The art, like the story, is strikingly new yet comfortably familiar, like the creators are building a new machine to examine our own nostalgia.
I love the reconstruction movement of the last fifteen years. In fact, pretty much all of my favorite superhero comics over that era are clearly reconstructions. But a little deconstruction is still healthy for the soul. And when it results in truly edgy, truly stylish, truly sophisticated work like Sex, I can practically feel that wire of recognition snaking through my nervous system once again. Maybe you will too.