Talking About "Sex" With Joe Casey

Sex. Even though it's such an integral part of life from both a biological and motivational perspective, it's a topic considered taboo by many. The hows and whys of this dichotomy has filled numerous books, educational papers and websites. Now, Joe Casey puts his stamp on the topic with the release of his upcoming Image Comics series "Sex" with artist Piotr Kowalski.

The writer of "Haunt," "Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker" and "Gødland" is looking at the world of super-powered do-gooders and sex through the lens of Simon Cooke, a former superhero who focused all his energies on keeping Saturn City safe. Now that he's no longer in the game, Cooke has switched the focus of his life from keeping people safe to having as much sex as he possibly can.

CBR News spoke with Casey about "Sex," how Kowalski's European style adds an extra dimension to the book, artistic influences and the challenge in tackling such a potentially touchy subject. Plus, exclusive interior artwork by Kowalski.

CBR News: Sex is a topic mostly ignored or worked around in mainstream comics -- what made you decide to tackle the subject in such a direct way?

Joe Casey: Maybe the answer is right there in your question. I think the "direct way" we'll tackle this subject is part of the reason the book exists. Nothing wrong with diving head-first into a so-called taboo every once in a while, is there? But aside from the obvious, I thought it was an interesting angle to get into the exploration of a "post-superhero" concept. It seemed to be a way to talk about certain subject matter that the Corporate comics aren't allowed to even go near. Not that they want to and not that they should -- in fact, they shouldn't -- but we're making an adult book for an adult readership, so why should we censor ourselves in any way? That doesn't mean a lot of gratuitous shit, although I'm not ruling it out, either. Let's just get it all out in the open and see what happens. I'm in a unique position at the moment where I can let my inner-Bob Rafelson out a bit and, for now, this is how I choose to do it.

What connections are there between sex and playing superhero in your mind? How do these connections play out in the series?

I'm sure as hell not the first person to make that connection, that someone dressing up as a superhero could easily be equated to someone dressing up in any kind of fetish gear. The exact definition of the word, fetish, is something "to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment." That probably describes a lot of superheroes out there. Maybe even a few superhero comic book readers, too.

In "Sex," we really hammer home the notion that being a superhero -- at least the kind of urban vigilante that exists in our series -- involves a lot of repression. Sexual, emotional, social -- you name it. Now that he's "retired" from that life, how the main character, Simon Cooke, deals with that repression -- something he's carried around for all of his adult life -- is really the emotional undercurrent of the entire series. Personally, I think it's a pretty relatable concept for comic book readers in general. I know, for me, I was so involved in Big Two comic books for so many years, both writing and reading them, it was a strange thing to be so uninvolved with them, especially as a reader.

Tell us about Simon Cooke. It sounds like he's trying to return to some semblance of a normal life, but what does that mean to him?

The thing about Simon is, he never had a normal life. His entire adulthood has been about this obsessive war on crime, protecting Saturn City from the myriad of villains that have plagued it for years. He was damn good at it, but he also missed out on a lot of things that the rest of us often take for granted. Even in the midst of his superhero career, his civilian identity was not like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark -- guys who seem to get laid on a fairly regular basis. Simon was so utterly committed to his crusade, he lived what I've been describing as a very "monk-like" existence. So even the idea of a "normal life" is pretty alien to him. Imagine your emotional development being pretty much stunted from when you were a young teenager -- and now you're in your mid-30's and trying to make up for all that lost time. From the first issue, that's basically what "Sex" is all about: How do we evolve when the deck is so stacked against us?

The solicit text states Simon's returning from an "alternative lifestyle." Can you elaborate on that?

Well, how else would you describe a life of secretly dressing up in a cape and costume and going out to deliver some hardcore vigilante justice on a nightly basis? It's just not something most people would ever consider doing. In fact, it's probably the ultimate alternative lifestyle. Of course, another one of the underlying concepts of the series is how you may think you can just leave something behind -- in this case, the superhero lifestyle and all it involves -- but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of loose ends that'll come back to haunt you at every available opportunity. It's not just emotionally difficult. Simon had a whole rogues gallery of villains that, unfortunately, didn't retire when he did. They're still out there, and they're dealing with the loss of the city's superhero as much as Simon is, each of them in their own ways.

Why did Cooke become a hero in the first place, and what led to him quitting the game?

Becoming a costumed crimefighter had a lot to do with his family and his past. I don't want to reveal too much about it, for two reasons: 1) It's something for readers to discover when they read the series, and 2) If I talk about it too much here, I'm putting more of an onus on it than I actually do in the series. As far as why he quits, we reveal that right in issue #1. I can tell you it has to do with a deathbed promise he makes to someone extremely close to him.

Cooke's not only dealing with some sexual arrested development, but he has to have some of that old desire to stop evil still hanging around in his brain. How do those two aspects of his personality play off one another?

What's interesting about this character, for me, is that he's not a do-gooder in the traditional sense. I think he'd been doing it long enough that the impulse to "stop evil" wasn't really the driving force anymore. His motivation had become much more abstract. Not to mention part of being retired and confronting his own repression is to stop seeing the world in such black and white terms. He's making a concerted effort to be more open minded, less judgmental, etc. That definitely extends to how he views his former enemies.

Can you talk about some of Simon's villains who appear in the book?

I can rattle off some names, but they won't mean much until people read the book. There's the Old Man. The Alpha Brothers. The Prank Addict. The Operator. Shadow Lynx. The Bone Collector. Definitely not your typical bad guys, and each one of them has a story to be told. In a lot of my creator-owned books, the villains tend to become much more interesting than I assume they are at the beginning. Their lack of morality allows for a lot of cool story tangents, and I'm ready to follow them anywhere.

How did you hook up with the book's artist, Piotr Kowalski? Was there a particular work of his that said "Sex" to you?

God bless the Internet. It allows for plenty of creative love connections and this was no exception. Piotr's done a little bit of work in America, but because he comes from Euro comix, he has a certain style, a certain sensibility that works really well for this material. It's allowed us to get deeper into the characters, to really present them in a way where you feel like you can actually get to know them. Plus, he has an incredible work ethic -- which you obviously need to keep a monthly book going -- so we're just chugging along on this beast, digging into the world of Saturn City and the folks who live there more and more with each issue.

From my perspective, nothing is sensationalized, and that was a fairly important decision on both of our parts. In a book that deals with the kind of subject matter we're dealing with, you can be tempted to go over the top at times. After all, sex sells. But there's something much deeper about honestly depicting characters in this type of milieu -- to be unflinching about it. It's something "alternative" comic artists excel at, but when it comes to more superhero-centric stories, things tend to get exaggerated for effect. Not to mention, the steadiness of Piotr's line frees us up to push things artistically in other areas of the medium, like coloring and lettering and graphic design. It's going to be an interesting mix of artistic disciplines. At the very least, I think we're doing something unlike anything else in American commercial comics right now.

You've invented plenty of superhero universes over the years. What keeps bringing you back to that genre?

It's hard to explain, except that I grew up reading superhero comic books, so for better or worse, it's part of my DNA. It's powerful grist for the fiction mill. For the most part, I'm a genre guy. I like to work somewhat within the parameters of genre (whatever that might be), but it's never enough for me to simply try and recreate my own childhood in my superhero-related work. I'm still trying to push the boundaries a little, whenever and wherever I can.

We're also in the middle of a very interesting time for this type of "superfiction" in comic books. I think it's great when I look at some of the non-Big Two books out there and see that new, independent creators are incorporating "mainstream" superheroic tropes into their work without allowing themselves to be instantly subsumed (or consumed) by the one of the two Big Corporate Comic Book Publishers, or just trying to flat-out be them in all the worst ways. They're maintaining their voices even as they indulge in the genre.

Guys like Jim Rugg, Brandon Graham and Michel Fiffe are just a few of the creators I see who are exploring this "fusion" idea that's been talked about a bit around the Net, but it's an idea I'm totally down with (I think it was actually Frank Santoro that coined the term, such as it is, a couple of years ago). I love reading shit from creators who might be equally influenced by Jack Kirby and Katsuhiro Otomo. Or maybe by both Los Bros Hernandez and Jim Starlin. Creators who might be as influenced by the original blast of Image Comics titles as they are early '90s Fantagraphics books and don't place them in opposing camps. Creators who see as much artistic merit in the weird Marvel Comics from the '70s as they do the latest Chris Ware book.

And all those random examples are just me scratching the surface. But the point is -- they're all part of the same stew. It's all comic books. It's exactly how I've always felt. Whatever snobbery that existed is finally starting to fade away. Reading an interview with Benjamin Marra (another favorite of mine) and finding out that his own art is obsessively -- and, I think, proudly -- influenced by Howard Chaykin's almost-forgotten "American Century" series made me feel strangely reassured. So obviously, I can talk about my love for David Michelinie, Dan Clowes and Dupuy & Berberian all in the same breath, how they all influence my own work, and not seem like a freak because of it. It's very much like the situation that existed in the '80s, where the so-called mainstream and independent worlds collided in really interesting ways, resulting in a slew of incredibly literate comic books coming from all corners of the business that seemed to feed off each other's energy. You could have "Cerebus" and "Mister X" and "Daredevil" and "Weirdo" and "Swamp Thing" all in your stack and not feel like you were gonna be judged for any of it.

I'm always baffled when anyone -- creator and blogger alike -- talks about what they're currently reading, and their list consists mainly of current Marvel and DC output. Because, as far as I'm concerned, that's not where the real action is. Maybe it's just me, but I find most Marvel/DC stuff these days to be fairly cynical in tone. Meanwhile, the work being done in similar genres -- but exiting on the fringes of the so-called mainstream -- seems decidedly not cynical. The Big Two exist exclusively to manage their IPs and, ultimately, you're not going to find a lot of their product pushing the envelope -- of either the genre or the craft -- within that kind of environment. I know that's a sweeping statement, but for me, it's the rare exceptions that actually prove the rule. If you're a reader who still gets a kick out of wild heroic action stories, now there's plenty of great material out there to scratch that particular itch beyond the latest Batman family title or Avengers spinoff series. You've got to seek it out -- it's not being jammed down your throats like the Big Two books are. It's out there, and it's the same kind of work I've been trying to do all along, so I'm pretty psyched.

"Sex" #1 by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski debuts on March 6 from Image Comics.

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