This Review is Rated NC-17:

Sex – The Summer of Hard

It feels so strange to see the “Man of Action” logo on the back of a book like Sex. Not simply because of the graphic nature of the work (we’ll get to that) but because Man of Action, in my mind, is the company paint-by-numbers B-grade children entertainment like Ben 10, Generator Rex and Ultimate Spider-Man[1] and not the home for creators like Duncan Rouleau, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, and Steven T. Seagle. Watching their cartoon work, one must assume they intentionally suppress their natural transgressive tendencies in order to appeal to as large a group of children as possible. But I can’t complain too much – if Ben 10 puts loads of cash in Casey’s wallet, that means he doesn’t have to waste his comics-writing time on doing tie-ins to the latest crossover event but can, instead, write whatever he wants. If Ben 10 allows books like Sex to exist, then god bless it[2].

But on to the main point: Sex is truly an oddball of a series, if nothing else it’s because, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between the main plot (an ex-superhero returns to his hometown as things are heating up on the streets) and the series’ focus on, well… Sex. During the eight issues that constitute this collection[3] we see man-on-woman, woman-on-woman, man-on-man, man-on-man-on-woman and just about every other sexual combination (that excludes animals at least), each of which is given the full graphic treatment.

When HBO first aired The Sopranos, the neophyte viewer got a larger and more explicit dosage of sex and nudity on his screen than he was used to. It made sense in that show – sex, like drugs and violence, was just another commodity in the life of the gangster; the show treated it off-hand because the characters treated off-hand (many scenes took place in a mob-owned strip club after all). Many of the cable shows that followed The Sopranos gave the same explicit treatment to sex, and many critics rejoiced as TV’s decade-long pretence that sex is something that simply happens during commercials and can only be alluded to was over.

But as time moved on and new shows came on the air (Game of Thrones) there was a murmur of uncertainty: where these shows featuring sex because it was important to the plot, or were they simply making an effort to appear “mature” and “daring”. I don’t watch enough TV to pass any sort of judgment, but looking from the sidelines, one gets the feeling that TV is at the same state as the superhero industry was[4] in the post-Watchmen age: the medium seems to have matured overnight (seems to) and many works are playing catch up to their betters – and the easiest way to play artistic catch-up is to copy the surface elements – The Sopranos (and Oz and other outliers) had sex and violence, so if we add sex and violence to our new show, people will think we are mature too.

But superhero comics never really went all in (it would be tiresome to avoid any possible double entendre so just pretend that I did and call it a day): we’ve had all out violence but hardly all out sexuality (off the top of my head, the only example is Adam Warren’s Empowered, and compared to Sex it might as well be the Care Bears); partly because our society seems to find sex more objectionable than violence (or at least – the fictional representation thereof) – Wolverine can chop up ninjas until his audience is content but we can’t see his penis. Warren Ellis got a lot of mileage, in the early 2000′s, from the “perv suit” joke about superheroes – but things never move beyond sniggering and cheap jokes by tired creators.

This, I assume, is the reason Casey and Co go all out – they basically drag the background of the genre into the foreground, kicking and screaming. From the first Trade / Storyline there doesn’t seem to be a “reason” such as it is to call the series Sex – there’s a lot going around, lots of characters, lots of politics, lots of intrigue, besides Simon Cooke’s[5] visits to his ex’s strip club / house of carnal delights. Plotwise, the comics aim more for the HBO ensemble cast thing than to a single starring protagonist – Cooke’s is just part of larger network, and there’s plenty that goes around that has nothing (directly) to do with him.

So why all the Sex stuff? Well – Simon Cooke’s quitting his secret identity is presented as a need for him to “grow up”, a last request made by a confident; this would mirror the classic criticism of comic-book / superhero readers as stranded adults, unwilling to make the jump from fantasy to reality. But I don’t buy it – a) Casey has never shun the superhero genre (in fact – he seems to embrace it with far more fervor than his contemporaries who actually work for Marvel and DC)[6] and it would seem odd for him to start throwing the old insults again, and b) despite what’s happening to Cooke, other characters are still deep in the cowl and cape game – including a young waiter called Keenan who does a lot crime fighting on the side and shapes up to be a breakout character: there’s something refreshing about the straightforward way he sets out to “fuck with crime”.

Maybe it’s an intentional hunt for controversy? Casey has done this before, playing the outrageous punk to a straight-laced audience[7], and Image had done the exact same thing with Sex Criminals: “look at how daring we are” might lose its edge if overused; especially since the audience for most Image comics is not likely to be offended by these things.

The thing is – as you read farther into this volume you just stop caring about the explicit nature and just get into the proceedings of the plot and characters: Casey juggles many balls in the air and comes close create the long-sought-after “HBO of Superheroes” – a long term, adult oriented story that tries to say something not just about the genre[8] but about society[9]. Sex has a lot more to offer than sex (though it offers that in spades).

I’d be remiss not to mention the great work Peter Kowalski does on art duty: he not only creates a full city with a character of its own but also sells the scale of it – the massive skyscrapers, the open streets, the crowded clubs and bars… it’s a regular size story in a gigantic world. Add his talent for design and the effortless kineticism and brutality of his short fight sequences and you get one of the breakout stars of the year[10].

Image had lunched plenty of books this year, and most of its success from the last two years (Saga, Manhattan Projects, Orc Stain) are still ongoing; it would be easy for a book to get lost in the long shuffle – but Sex makes the jump: it’s a book that challenges you to notice it, but you once notice and look past the (manufactured) controversy, you realize just how good it is.


[1] A show that manages to be boring despite giving whole episodes to the Howling Commandoes and Frog Thor.

[2] As long as god remembers to keep the book away from the grasp of some poor young thing.

[3] Another side note: how great it is to get an 8 issue collection, fully colored, for just ten bucks? This is how you drawn in new customers.

[4] And maybe still is

[5] Yes, that’s our hero’s name – and first time we see it i son a top of giant building, Freud would be proud.

[6] His other ongoing titles right now are Bounce and Catalyst Comics which are more direct in their superhero presentation.

[7] Of course, the only people who know and read Casey’s comics work are people that don’t really care about stuff like this – people who would be offended never even know about this stuff.

[8] The usual problem with adult oriented superhero stories (or those that present themselves as such) is their tendency to be completely insular – whatever artistic statement they try to make it’s usually relent only within the genre. Casey. At least, tends to treat genre convention as a given and move on from there…

[9] Whether he’ll succeed is a question for issues down the road.

[10] Now  I really want to see is pre-American work.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century

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