SEX: ‘Sex’ Writer Joe Casey on New Superhero ‘Sex’ Comic [Interview (about 'Sex')]
When teasers popped up this past summer with the line “Image Comics Wants You to Buy Sex,” it wasn’t all that shocking to discover that Joe Casey was behind it all. His new comic book series, he announced in San Diego, would cut through all the will-they-won’t-they games and get right to the point with its one-word title: Sex.
It’s not that Casey is known primarily for his sexually-charged comics, but he’s known to show a restlessness with comics the way they are and the way they have been. The veteran writer has one of the most eclectic back-catalogs of anyone working in the industry today, whether it’s his pacifistic Superman stories for DC or his chaotic creation of the devious Zodiac within the midst of a too-serious Marvel event or the self-reflexive madness of Automatic Kafka from days gone by or his Kirby-cosmic homage in the soon-to-conclude GØDLAND. Joe Casey loves comics, and he never lets us forget it.
His upcoming Sex ongoing series — due from Image in March — may not quite be what readers expect, though. I had a chance to read the first issue’s script and check out the unlettered artwork by Piotr Kowalski, and I was surprised by its less-than-bombastic tone. Casey’s new comic may scream Sex on the cover, and there may, in fact, be some sex inside, but it’s not a book that wallows in hyper-kinetic debauchery. It’s an exploration of…
Well, let’s see what Casey has to say about it. He and I talked about Sex, and, as usual, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. ComicsAlliance: Your last creator-owned project from Image was 2011-2012′s Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker, and that was a comic frothing with sex, or at least virility, and now you’re ready to unleash a comic actually called Sex into the marketplace? Isn’t that title a bit too on-the-nose?
Joe Casey: I dunno… I’m guessing it’s about as on-the-nose as titling a comic book Batman or Iron Man, if you’re talking about titles that reflect what’s actually in the series. Then again, there’s also those comic book titles like Love and Rockets or Hate or Optic Nerve that are more akin to the title of a novel or a TV show. Y’know, the show’s called Breaking Bad, not Walter White. But I suppose readers can ultimately decide which kind of series the title evokes when they read it. Hell, maybe it’s both.
CA: So what kind of series is it? It has superheroes and it has sex, but what’s the real angle you mean to explore with this comic, and what made you interested in the topic in the first place?
JC: Well, once again, I think the readers — all five or six of them that have the balls to actually buy this series — will judge for themselves just how much “superheroes” and how much “sex” the series actually contains. For some, it’ll be more than they were expecting… and for others, it might be less than they were expecting. Those two concepts are definitely tied together, though. In superhero comic books up to this point — especially in so-called “mainstream” comic books — sex has generally been a subtextual element (that is, when it’s not used as some kind of punchline). I guess there’s an aspect to this series where we’re trying to make it an explicitly textual element that we’re pushing much more to the forefront. And, in that respect, it has a lot to do with character and conflict. I’m sure someone hearing about this series without having read it will be girding their loins for some over-the-top, gratuitous sexual content. Now, I’m not saying there won’t be some of that… but I wouldn’t classify this series as full-on erotica, either. That can get to be a bit boring after a while.
Obviously, you’re asking me what it is and I’m telling you what it’s not… but, at this point, that may be the best that I can do when I’m talking about it on this kind of macro-conceptual level. We’ll see if it gets better as the interview progresses… but something long form like this, it’s a process of discovery-through-doing as much as it is executing some grand plan you might start out with.
CA: Is there something about the superhero genre, whatever that means to you, that has a fetishistic quality that implies a sexual subtext? Is it just the tight costumes and the exaggeratedly idealized bodies? Is it the naive morality juxtaposed with the physicality?
JC: I think it’s all of that and more. I doubt any of this is news to anyone. But there’s another facet to the discussion… in America, we’re still coming to grips with our own sexual repression. Just like it’s always been. Superhero comic books in particular don’t deal with that repression very well. Not consciously, anyway. If anything, they tend to feed into it by sliding across the surface of sexuality — or, more specifically, sexualized concepts — without ever really exploring it. Not that they should, not that they’re required to, but they certainly spend enough time trafficking in sexual imagery, almost always in a very clumsy, ham-fisted way.
CA: We watched as that stuff was deconstructed way back in comics like Marshal Law and Watchmen, but I’m wondering if the superhero fetishism/sexuality is different now than it was then. What do you think? And we’re comics like that on your mind as you started writing Sex?
JC: I have a riff on this… if you really go back and look at those comics and others of their ilk, obviously you’ll see them exploring more sexual content and taking those obvious fetishistic connections and making them more prominent. But, to me, it’s all really obvious stuff. My personal take is that it was more likely an application of the taboo-breaking nature of underground comix finally leaking into the mainstream a decade after the fact and applying it to superheroes. It ended up not being so much of a deconstruction, at least in terms of sexual content. It was more of a shortcut — one of many, no doubt — to making sure the world at large knew that “comics aren’t for kids anymore”… making Catwoman a former prostitute and all those other funky ideas. Almost three decades later now, I’d like to think we’re all a little more well-adjusted. But, y’know, we’re probably not. Maybe I’m just personally feeling a little more well-adjusted at the moment, which could make this an ideal time to explore this sort of thing in my work.
CA: Alan Moore once said something about sex in comics used, almost always, for “comedy or horror,” but if I think about sex in superhero or other genre comics, I’m also reminded of what Howard Chaykin has done over the years, and he seems to treat sex as a power struggle, primarily. From what I’ve seen in the first issue of Sex, you may possibly be exploring comedy, horror, and power in the long term, but it seems more like you’re using it as a symbol of what has been repressed. As a secret life, or sublimated desires, of someone in the public eye. How does that interpretation line up with what you have planned?
JC: Well, the lead character in Sex, Simon Cooke, isn’t quite the “billionaire playboy” that someone like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark is… although he does have some bucks. As a superhero, he was way more driven in a way that, say, Batman never was. Even Bruce Wayne seems to get laid on a regular basis. But Simon’s time spent in his civilian identity was a complete ruse, just counting down the hours until he could get back into costume and deal out some righteous vigilante justice. It was an escape from “real life.” He was completely single-minded… there was no room for anything else in his life besides his ongoing war on crime. Well, now that he’s retired, he’s being forced to confront all those things he pushed off to the side in the twelve years he was a superhero (which, as we’re depicting it, was an almost monk-like existence), most notably a social life. To live a normal, healthy adult life is probably the greatest challenge he’s ever faced. How does he even begin to do that? Well, trust me, he makes a lot of mistakes along the way… some of them will play as comedy and some of them will play as tragedy. And, yeah, there’s a lot of repression there to deal with, in all sorts of areas… things he’s had locked down for the entirety of his adult life up until now.
CA: The first issue has some brief flashbacks, but as the series goes on, how much will you be delving back into Simon’s former life? Is Sex as much about the past as it is the present? Will we see the sacrifices he once made, or does his life as a superhero just work as backstory for what’s happening now?
JC: The flashbacks will occur every once in awhile, but I don’t think we’ll rely too heavily on them. It’s definitely a book about the present… about living in the moment. Some folks might assume that the flashbacks are a way for us to have our cake and eat it, too… a storytelling crutch that allows us to actually show Simon as a superhero. But we’re being very careful not to show him in full costume when we do flashback. I guess it’s a similar challenge to the whole “Superman won’t throw a punch for a year” experiment I did on my last blast of Adventures of Superman. We all know there’s a visceral jolt that occurs when you see a superhero on the page, on camera in full flower. A kick to the balls of every power fantasy you’ve ever had It’s a trope that’s obviously worked since Action Comics #1. But it’s also too easy and that’s not what this series is. It’s not meant to push all the usual buttons. There are other buttons to push…
CA: What struck me most about the first issue was the look of the whole thing. I had never heard of Piotr Kowalski and since I hadn’t seen any preview images before I read the opening issue, I expected, with a title like Sex, something much more bombastic. Something closer to the look of Butcher Baker or Automatic Kafka or Haunt. But Kowalski’s work is a much more realistic vein. He looks like the kind of guy who would draw European crime books, or do a guest stint on some Shadow comics or something. It’s certainly not what I expected, and not what I tend to think of when I picture “Joe Casey comics” in my mind. You haven’t tended to work with artists like this — not since, what, Devil’s Due G.I. Joe? — and I’m just wondering how Kowalski’s style affects the way you write the comic.
JC: Yeah… I see what you mean about artistic style. But for every Nathan Fox or Tom Scioli I’ve worked with over the years, there’s also Charlie Adlard and Sean Phillips and others that I’ve also done some pretty good s*** with. So that more “realistic” — what a weird f***in’ word for it — style of artwork is something I’m pretty comfortable writing for. But Piotr specifically had that European sensibility (naturally, since he lives there) that I thought was a good match for this material. To present these characters and this subject matter in a very straightforward manner was definitely the way to go. It’s not meant to be bombastic in any of the typical ways. Emotionally bombastic, maybe…
CA: The first issue is definitely not emotionally bombastic either. It’s pretty understated for a comic that screams Sex right on the cover. What’s the structure of this series — and it is an ongoing, right? Are you thinking in terms of smaller arcs or a giant overarching structure of escalation or what? And how large is the cast of characters going to be?
JC: It’s an ongoing, monthly series. But I’m not really thinking in arcs at all. Sex takes more of a novelistic approach, kind of like what I was doing way back on Wildcats. Anyone who read and dug that series will feel right at home here. The size of the cast… that’s tough to say. I guess you could say it’s big. It’s sizable. It’s an entire city we’re dealing with, and even though Simon is the focal point of the series at the beginning, we’ll be telling stories about a lot of different characters. In a very real way, it’s an opportunity to let my Love and Rockets influence come out a bit, in terms of how to tell a story that deals with a community of people. But, y’know, ensemble casts are my thing. You don’t have to look too closely at my body of work so far to see that. Of course, one aspect of the series that I haven’t really talked about before is that the superhero of the book might’ve retired… but his rogues gallery is another story entirely. So anyone who’s read my work can look forward to a whole new cast of freaky villains to get close to. And I actually think there’s quite a bit of emotion conveyed in the first issue… it’s just not all on the surface. Again, that feeling of repression can be pretty seething.
CA: And sexual repression underlines the whole series, or is that the hook to get everything started and see where it leads?
JC: It’s a lot more than a hook… it’s something that exists underneath the surface of just about everything in this series. Think about it… how much of our behavior can be traced back to some sort of repression, whether it’s giving in to it or (hopefully) transcending it? If anything, it’s an exploration of human nature, but seen through the filter of a few classic, post-superhero tropes. Simon’s doing a lot more than simply trying to get his f*** on… he’s trying to find out who he is, what he’s about. Just like we all are. I hope readers check it out, because I think this is a ride that we can all take together. Not to mention the all-new back-matter I’m packing into this thing, each and every issue. Talk about a lack of sexual repression…!
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