“Does Batman have sex?” If you had to boil down Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski’s “Sex” #1 to a single question, that’d be it. Make no mistake, “Sex” isn’t a Batman comic — it’s just a comic about the wealthy head of a corporation who uses martial arts and cool tech to fight crime in the seedy underbelly of a troubled city.
Or at least he used to — as “Sex” #1 opens, Simon Cooke returns to Saturn City after a seven-month hiatus that began when he hung up the mantle of the Armored Saint for good. The implication here is that Simon was so obsessed with cleaning up the streets that he had no time for the usual extracurricular pursuits of a guy his age, and now that he’s retired, he plans to find out what he’s been missing.
This is a guy for whom sexuality is alien and maybe a bit scary, and readers who empathize with Simon on that point may be a bit put off by “Sex.” As the title suggests, sexuality is on full display here; the girl-on-girl show Simon attends in the vice district he used to patrol is shown in full, uncensored detail. Its marketing has also played up the X-rated aspect of the book; the original teaser ad from last summer simply read “Image Comics wants you to buy sex,” and the cover slyly features the “E” and “X” of the word “SEX” forming an arrow, FedEx style, that points to the title.
So is this all just a cheap trick to sell comics, or does Casey really have something to say? It’s tough to tell just yet. “Sex” #1 spends so much time setting up its premise; there isn’t much room for anything else. The creative team presents the requisite scenes of Simon back at the Cooke Company, Simon in the gym for the first time in months, and various bad guys discussing the power vacuum caused by Simon’s disappearance. What sort of a hero he was, and what sort of villains he fought, could have been handled in shorthand, since it’s an archetype we’ve all known for years.
Nevertheless, Casey plainly has a lot to say about the fine line between sex and violence, and the implication of “Sex” is that Simon will replace one with the other as he struggles to adjust to civilian life. Casey is also hip to the dungeon-fetish vibe of comics about muscular dudes grappling one another in spandex tights, which is smartly parodied by the skimpy, shiny outfits worn by the strippers, who could also pass for superheroines from the ’90s.
If the writing of “Sex” doesn’t quite deliver on its intriguing promise just yet, the art is another matter entirely. Kowalski comes out swinging from the world of European indie comics with a powerful, delicate ink line that recalls classic newsprint comic strips filtered through Tony Harris’s cartoon realism. Characters’ expressions speak volumes, from the intrigue in the look of a busboy that overhears villains plotting to the tiny hint of sorrow in the first closeup of a stripper’s face. Brad Simpson also carries more than his weight with a virtuoso coloring performance. He works with big pastel blocks that are reminiscent of ’80s Big Two books as Simon returns to Saturn City at the beginning of the issue, but shift to a very modern disco candy look for the sex show at its climax. There is a strong, clear mood to every scene and every panel, sometimes even multiple moods in the same panel, and it’s nice to see colors really working to tell the story.
Ultimately, Casey is lucky to have such a talented art team right out of the gate. “Sex” #1 has a lot of promise, but spends so much time introducing its characters, themes and situations, that readers are left wondering if anything much is going to happen besides Simon moping and feeling awkward. But Kowalski and Simpson hint at untold depths with their deliberate bold choices; their work alone is worth the price of admission, and enough to make it worth sticking around to see if things really get going in #2.