Comics You Should Own – The Intimates

by  in Comic News Comment
Comics You Should Own – <i>The Intimates</i>

I have a feeling I’ll be stirring the pot a bit with this selection, but I care not!

The Intimates by Joe Casey (writer), Giuseppe Camuncoli (penciller, issues #1-8), Scott Iwahashi (penciller, issues #9-10), Carlos D’Anda (penciller, issues #10, 12), Alé Garza (artist, issues #11-12), Jim Lee (artist of random panels, issues #1-2, 5, 8), Sandra Hope (inker, issues #1-10), Randy Mayor (colorist, issues #1-5, 7-11), Wildstorm FX (colorist, issues #6, 12), Tony Aviña (colorist, issues #6, 8, 10), Johnny Rench (colorist, issues #9, 11), Richard Starkings (letterer, issues #1-7, 11), Rob Steen (letterer, issues #1-8), and Comicraft (letterer, issues #9-12).

DC/Wildstorm, 12 issues (#1-12), cover dated January-December 2005.

The Intimates is the third of three Wildstorm comics that, in the first half of this decade, made Joe Casey one of, if not the most, interesting writer of superhero books you could find. The trifecta began with his work on Wildcats (which spanned 2000-2004 and included the 2.0 and 3.0 version), continued with the hallucinatory Automatic Kafka (2002), and ended with this comic.

The Intimates, to be honest, is the weakest of the trio, and one gets the sense that Casey was exasperated by the reception his attempts at recreating superheroes for a new millennium were getting and started to pull back (this is most evident with Gødland, which is a brilliant, brilliant comic book but treads no new ground in the arena of cosmic superhero comics). Thus, the brash youngster who toiled for Marvel in the late 1990s and then tried to re-invent the superhero with Wildcats has, in the space of a few years, become the bitter cynic who spends most of the final issue of The Intimates wondering why the book failed. (As an aside: I’ve met Casey a few times, at the past few San Diego conventions, and he’s as jazzed as ever about writing stuff, and it shows in his work. You can be bitter about an experiment failing and then get back on the horse and fire off great stuff over the next few years. I’m speaking of Casey’s apparent mindset during these years, based solely on what’s on the printed page – the end of Automatic Kafka and the end of this series. He might have been yanking all our chains and wasn’t sad at all that the books got the axe. You just never can tell!) It’s part of this bitterness that makes The Intimates a Comic You Should Own, in fact. There’s such tension between the things Casey wants to do with the series and the fact that it’s just not going to last, and that’s part of what makes this such an interesting comic.

Whereas Wildcats is a re-invention of superheroes within a superheroic framework (Grifter still kicked ass, in other words) and Automatic Kafka was more caustically satirical, The Intimates is neither a total re-imagining of superheroes nor a savage satire.

In many ways, it’s more subtle than AK, but it’s also gentler. That doesn’t mean it’s not dripping with irony, though, beginning with the title. Given that the book is about teenaged superheroes, two groups with built-in intimacy issues, the title mocks our expectations before we even begin reading. Casey piles on the irony by adding layers between the reader and the character, deliberately highlighting the fact that we’re reading a text about fictional characters. He does this in many ways. The storytelling is staccato, shifting quickly from one scene to another and back, never letting us get our bearings. This is especially evident in the scenes set in the school – the Seminary – where the cast is learning how to be superheroes. Casey jumps back and forth between cast members, forcing us to splice together the narrative, distancing us from the characters. Intercut between the “present” are asides showing secret origins, fantasies of the characters, the teachers in their superhero guises from years earlier, and built-in advertisements about the products the cast members use.

Then, of course, there are the infamous “info scrolls” on the bottom of the pages, where Casey ruminates about any- and everything that strikes his fancy, as he either comments on the story in progress, gives us various “factoids” (all of which, he admits near the end of the run, are made up), explains and advises teenagers on how to interact with adults, or even narrates all of Kefong’s summer vacation in Las Vegas. In the final issue, he writes about how the comic itself came together, comments obliquely on the industry itself, and makes meta-commentaries in the flow of the narrative: Punchy’s favorite spy comic gets cancelled in issue #12, and he rants about “fill-ins” – once Camuncoli left The Intimates, the art went downhill – and reads on-line that the editor loved the series, but that it never found its place in the market – a commentary about every cancelled series, more than likely, who often have someone championing it until push comes to shove. All of these tricks are meant to keep us separate from the book, and Casey mocks the notion of “intimacy” with these characters. He does this for a specific reason, and it’s not to make sure the inevitable cancellation of the book won’t sting. All of these barriers to involvement with the characters make the true “intimate” moments stand out more and cut us deeper. The end of issue #3, when Punchy realizes that Empty Vee has been sending him text messages and not Destra and he cruelly rebuffs her, is a devastating portrait of teenaged emotions, both from Punchy and Vee. When Duke and Destra dance in issue #4, it’s a wonderful moment, a true moment even, as these two people come together briefly for complicated reasons but do not become any closer. The kids’ journey into Sykes’ mind in issue #6 tears away their bravado, exposing their deepest fears, but what’s interesting is that Casey refuses to allow this to become a cathartic moment – the kids do change after their experiences, but very gradually and very subtly. And Punchy’s sexual encounter with Flora in issue #8 is beautiful because it reveals Punchy’s insecurities and desires, something he can’t admit to himself.

All of these moments, and other brief ones like them, become more powerful because it feels as if Casey is simply taking down a barrier or two just for a moment before throwing it back up again. It’s all manipulative, of course, but that’s the point.

Casey’s metaphorical use of teenagers makes The Intimates fascinating, too. As I noted above, teens and superheroes have/would have intimacy issues, but making the teenagers superheroes themselves allows Casey to tap into the idea of identity and rebellion that superheroes often grapple with. Identity, of course, is crucial to teens, as they often have a difficult time figuring out their own identities and construct ones to suit their peers. Casey belabors the metaphor with Empty Vee, the overweight character who must concentrate to become visible, but she also turns out to be one of the most interesting characters as the series progresses. Vee is a typical tragic figure, crushing on the brash Punchy until he destroys her emotionally in issue #3, and then twisting that crush into a sexual voraciousness over her summer vacation, when she beds first a bass player in an opening act before moving up to the lead singer of the headlining band. Of course, Vee’s summer escapades are another construction, as she rebels against Punchy’s rejection by becoming more of a predator (she initially sent Punchy the text messages, after all).

Meanwhile, the other cast members deal with showing different facets of themselves to the world in much the same way that Vee does. Punchy, the obnoxious wannabe hero who speaks in “gangsta” slang (more than one character comments on the idiocy of him talking that way) and lies about his family and his prowess with girls, is rebuffed by Destra, rebuffs Vee, and hooks up with an old friend. When he leaves Flora at the end of issue #8 and immediately heads out on his grand adventure with Destra, it’s a sad moment, because we get the sense that Punchy and Flora need to say more to each other, but Punchy can’t or won’t leave behind the image he’s created for himself, even though no one likes him. The scenes spanning issues #8 and 9 are fascinating, as Punchy leaves Flora even though it’s clear he doesn’t want to, and then is accosted by Destra, who wants him to go with her. Destra, the epitome of cool in the comic, never really cracks except in two panels in issue #9 – when she asks Punchy to go with her and, a moment later, when there’s an awkward pause. Iwahashi, unfortunately, isn’t up to creating the right amount of awkwardness in the panels, but it’s clear from Casey’s writing how difficult it is for Destra to ask for help from Punchy (Duke had already turned her down). Of all the main characters (Kefong and Sykes don’t really count), Destra has built a sturdy edifice, but even she isn’t confident in her identity. This problem with identity is most obvious in issue #5, which focuses on Dead Kid Fred, who is, well, dead but still suicidal. That Punchy figures out what Dead Kid Fred is planning is another source of irony, as it’s only because Punchy thinks Dead Kid Fred’s melancholy on-line journal is written by a girl that he pays any attention to it. Punchy saves Fred almost despite himself.

It’s not difficult to figure out why The Intimates failed.

It really doesn’t have much in the way of plot, with Casey only bringing in a rather desultory story about the food being tainted by the company that sells it to the school in order to keep the kids docile, but like everything else in the book, that got cut short when the book got cancelled. Casey is obviously not interested in plots, but when you’re publishing a book under the Wildstorm imprint and you feature characters that are, after all, superheroes (not to mention cameos by the Engineer, Mr. Majestic, and Spartan), readers kind of expect it. With Automatic Kafka, we had the barrier of Ashley Wood’s decidedly non-superheroic art, but Camuncoli is definitely a good superhero artist, so the fact that Casey is subverting our expectations may have been his downfall (I certainly can’t definitely say that’s why the book failed, but on-line chatter about it seemed to indicate that the main complaint was that “nothing happened”). Casey is far more interested in trying to figure out what makes teenagers and/or superheroes tick, and that’s a tough nut to crack. What’s best about Casey’s writing in this series (and in his Wildstorm days as a whole) is that he confronts us with things that we don’t usually see in superhero comics. With the Teen Titans or the New Mutants, to name a couple of teen superhero books, we got lip service to the anxieties that teens go through. Casey tries to show how insane it can be to be a teen, and he adds to it the oversaturation of twentieth-century advertising, which adds more pressure. This is a far more “real” teen book than we’ve seen in comics, showing teens as rebellious conformists, with all the contradictions implied in that phrase. Most teen books seem to portray them as adults with a few immature quirks, but Casey’s cast is much more interesting than that. The lack of an overall plot is a deliberate choice by Casey, highlighting the lassitude that many teens (and, hell, adults) feel because they aren’t “stars” in some grand narrative. It’s pertinent that the most “together” of the teens, Kefong, is a supporting character whose big summer adventure is narrated in the info scrolls, while Punchy and Destra’s significant (to them) but ultimately pointless trek to discover the big food secret takes center stage. Even Duke’s work for the government is downplayed, because it’s too “important.”

Casey cares more about showing Punchy and Destra’s emotional growth on their journey rather than Duke’s efforts to prop up the status quo. For this, plot is insignificant.

The Intimates plays with the idea of overturning that status quo, but unlike his previous two Wildstorm books, which actually challenged the way the world works, this one must fail, because the kids aren’t fully formed enough to do it. Like Automatic Kafka, Casey gives the kids an extremely metafictional “out” at the end of the series, even if he doesn’t show up in the book as he does in AK (he even calls the ending of issue #12 the “Kafka gambit”). It’s an ending that shows that the kids are growing up, as they begin to work together as a team, but they retain their youthful exuberance and, yes, obnoxiousness. In a strange way, much like Casey’s ending of Automatic Kafka, we feel as if the kids “escape” more than the Seminary, but the bounds of the comic book itself, even as Casey reminds us, via the info scrolls, that the characters exist only on the written page … and in readers’ imagination. That’s where The Intimates triumphs, because Casey’s blending of traditional narrative with metafictional commentary has reminded us again what kind of power stories have. That’s what makes this series so good.

The Intimates, as far as I can tell, has never been collected in trade paperback. So sad! It’s worth a dive into the back issues boxes, though. And, as always, I feel I must steer you toward the archives, incomplete as they are. Don’t let my laziness in fixing them stop you!