January 6, 2014

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Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski dare you to look away in SEX: THE SUMMER OF HARD


With Sex: The Summer of Hard, Joe Casey may be writing the best Before Watchmen comic that DC Comics wouldn't produce themselves.  I always enjoy Casey’s comics because I can tell that back in the 1980s, he read a lot of the same stuff as I did.  Actually, I can tell that a lot of current comic creators read the same stuff but most of them are trying to recreate what they liked.  When I look at DC’s Before Watchmen projects, that’s exactly what I see; a bunch of writers and artists making a buck off of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s story.  I don’t have a problem with them making a buck but with the limited number of Before Watchmen stuff I’ve read (the Darwyn Cooke-penned miniseries,) it all falls into the category of writers and artists getting to play with their favorite childhood toys without doing anything new or exciting.  Casey isn't playing with the toys like everyone else is though. He's making them do strange things, naughty things, uncomfortable things for us to read about. He's taking the toys of his own youth and trying to figure out what they have to say about us today rather than just recycling the stories that he's finding inspiration in.

I’ve heard Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski’s Sex compared to Watchmen quite a bit but I don’t know if I’ve really heard anyone support that statement too much.  Reading Sex: The Summer of Hard, the first collection of their series, it’s less Watchmen and more like everything that came swirling out of that era, trying to be the next Watchmen.  It’s got the sex and violence that so many people thought books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were all about without ever understanding where they came from.  It’s the grim and gritty book that was everywhere in Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller’s wake.  It’s almost like on the surface Casey and Kowalski are more influenced by Tim Vigil’s Faust or Grips than they are by Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns. Casey and Kowalski's Sex marries together the sex and the violence with the sex (or lack of it) serving to define the characters instead of the violence that so many superheroes have as the key definition of their persona. 

The story of Simon Cooke, the onetime Armored Saint and hero of Saturn City, returning to his city six months after “retiring” from the business is and isn’t about sex.  More accurately, it’s about sex the same way that Dan Dreiberg’s story in Watchmen is about sex.  A small part of Alan Moore’s story, it’s actually a large part of his theme as he looks at the impotence of superheroes.  The Dreiberg character is a bit of a lonely schlub and as Moore tells it, can’t connect emotionally or physically with Sally Juspeczyk until they both don their costumes and save a bunch of people from a burning tenement building. And when they can finally have sex after their night of illegal superheroing, Dreiberg admits that part of it is about the costumes.  “Yeah, I guess the costumes had something to do with it.  It just feels strange, you know?” he tells Sally.  “To come out and admit that to somebody.  To come out of the closet.”

Casey’s Simon Cooke isn’t there yet.  He hasn’t reached that Dreibergian level of self awareness yet.  Or maybe he just hasn’t gotten laid yet.  Sex: The Summer of Hard is about lost people.  It’s about damaged people who can’t function in a world of normality.  You’ve got Simon Cooke, a Batman like character who gave up the life and is now searching for something to fill the void.  Maybe the only thing separating him from Dreiberg is that Cooke is rich, filthy rich and has a business to run. His “Catwoman” is Annabelle LaGravenese, who he knew professionally as the costumed burglar Shadow Lynx.  Shades of Miller’s DKR and Batman: Year One, Annabelle just so happens to run a very high class and very kinky brothel in Saturn City.  They’re both getting a bit older.  They’re both not the kids that they used to be but neither one of them is completely comfortable with the person that they are now.  The sex is a symptom of the decay that exists below the surface of this comic.

To continue the Watchmen comparisons, Kowalski plays the part of Dave Gibbons with his strong, solid storytelling.  Kowalski would be an excellent superhero artist if this were a superhero comic but he excels at all of those character building moments that Casey has expanded into the entire issue.  Remember the days of Bob Layton drawing Iron Man in “Demon in the Bottle” where Stark just oozed cool?  That’s the kind of stuff that Kowalski is doing here as he gets to draw the characters is spiffy clothes and kinky outfits but rarely gets to draw them as the superheroes.  This is the time between the big battles where the characters have to exist as human beings. Kowalski draws these characters as uncomfortable in their own skins. Making the art even more interesting, colorist Brad Simpson makes bold and strong coloring choices that make Saturn City vibrant and alive.  Kowalski and Simpson are creating a pulsating and lively world to accompany Casey’s story of frustration and impotence.

As he always loves to do, Casey is playing agent provocateur in this book.  In a book about the faults of being a superhero, he could focus on the sex or the violence and he clearly picks the sex.  He and Kowalski are not afraid to show the most private parts of their characters or to place them in the middle of the most vivid yet businesslike orgies.  And they’re not shy about showing that the only character who may have a healthy sex life is the only one who’s not trying to forget his costumed path.  Cooke’s old sidekick is the closest thing to an actual superhero in this book.  The old sidekick is still trying to be a hero and he seems to be the only one who isn’t damaged by his part.  Think of him as the anti-Rorschach.

I’ve got this theory that most of Casey’s writing is just him recreating the comics that he loves. Godland was Fantastic Four; Charlatan’s Ball was Mister Miracle; Wildcats was Uncanny X-Men, Automatic Kafka was Doom Patrol.  If that’s the case, then Sex: The Summer of Hard is certainly his Watchmen.  It’s just where most of the post-Watchmen imitators got stuck on the sex and violence part of it, Casey is focusing on the sex and dysfunction of the characters.  Or maybe that should be the dysfunction of their sex.