Review: Sex Vol. 1: The Summer of Hard trade paperback (Image Comics)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

[Guest reviewer Scott Beattie blogs at Pop Culture Report]

Before you read any of his work, there is something that you need to know about Joe Casey: he's crazy. Not crazy in terms of his mental health, but in the kinds of ideas that he tries to put into his comics, which is partially why a writer of his stature has done so little work for the "Big 2" in the past decade. He's the kind of writer that you can imagine executives at Marvel and DC referring to as a "liability" [I love what he did on Superman and hope DC will collect it one day -- ed]. Fortunately, while all of his work is now creator-owned, he hasn't lost interest in superheroes, and last year, courtesy of Image, Casey began work on two new series, The Bounce and Sex. Both series offer a variation on a familiar hero -- Spider-man for The Bounce and Batman for Sex -- but takes them places story-wise that the nervous editors at Marvel and DC would surely never approve of.

The latter especially gives a reader the opportunity to see Joe Casey unleashed; Sex Vol. 1: The Summer of Hard is a wild ride, but it is also an incredibly thoughtful work with more heart than its intentionally exploitative title would suggest.

[Review contains spoilers]

With the characters in Sex, Casey pulls a neat trick; since nearly every character is an analogue of a Batman character, it allows him to immediately dive into the story without having to waste time providing background details or origin stories for the characters. It's the same technique Alan Moore used in Watchmen, and, like in that comic, it is used to great effect. Also interesting is that much of the initial story behind Sex echoes many of the same beats as Batman: Year One. It is apparent that this was Casey's intention by the way that he plays with the reader's expectations by reversing key elements; while each story begins with its protagonist returning to the city, in Year One Bruce Wayne is just beginning his superhero career, whereas Sex's Simon Cooke is ending his.

The key decision to cast Simon as retired works especially well due to the shared structure, the assumption being that the story is building to a point where he takes back up the mantle of the Armored Saint, only to once again subvert reader expectations by having him remain retired. The only true superheroics come from the Robin-stand-in Keenan, who carries on the fight against crime even after his partner retired.

There's another reason why everyone and everything in this comic is essentially a rip-off from Batman. In Summer of Hard Casey has taken the implicit and made it explicit. Every metaphor or underlying dirty metaphor that has been present in superhero comics ever since Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent is now on display. Essentially, what Casey is doing here is airing out the genre's "dirty laundry" as it were.

Simon himself is really compelling character. Apparently, a few readers have complained that he's too boring, but that's the point. Throughout The Summer of Hard we observe him dealing with the realization that he doesn't have a personality outside of being a superhero. Where Year One was the story of Bruce Wayne creating Batman, this is the story of Simon creating a real identity for himself. Obviously, sex is the metaphor for this process. At first, he is uncomfortable even watching it and, even once he makes up his mind to engage in it with the Catwoman-analogue Anabelle Lagravenese, he fails to do so. It is clear that Casey is building the story towards something -- the collection ends with Simon saying, "Okay ... Here we go" -- but it is left unclear what exactly that is. As a longtime reader of superhero comics, I can't say enough what a rare pleasure it is to have absolutely no idea what direction a series is headed in.

Equally important to the effectiveness of Sex is the artist. Artist Piotr Kowalski's work is absolutely incredible to behold, although there's nothing that can adequately describe his style -- one reviewer referred to it as "neo-pop retro-futurism," which is as good as summary as any. The contrast between the 1960's-style shots of Saturn City's skylines and the futuristic street-level views are not only beautiful, but thematically important as well. Colorist Brad Simpson is probably the unsung hero of this series; his color palette is bright and vibrant, full of orange, purple, and neon colors giving the series a completely different look from anything else in comics right now. Even the letterer Rus Wooton is allowed to flex his creative muscles by highlighting stressed words with color boxes rather than simply bold letters or italics.

A word of caution is necessary. As the title implies, sex is a vital element to this comic and every bit of it is depicted in graphic detail. Further, almost no kink or fetish is left uncovered. Anyone who was too squeamish to watch "the Gimp" scene in Pulp Fiction is probably best advised to stay away from Sex.

My only real disappointment with Sex Vol. 1: Summer of Hard comes from the collection itself. There's no real bonus material, no sketches or variant covers, and only a few advertisements for some of Casey's other books. Even though it pains me as a trade-reader to say this, I'd highly recommend that you buy the individual issues either at your LCS or on Comixology, because they include "Dirty Talk," Casey's letter column, wherein he goes on long, self-indulgent discussions about superheroes and the problems with corporate comics like DC and Marvel. Although this is a much pricier alternative ($1.99 each for all eight issues versus $8.80 for the trade), it's worth the extra money if for no other reason than to see Casey write something like, "WRITING CORPORATE COMICS MAKES YOUR DICK SOFT." Regardless of which route you chose, don't pass up Sex; it's a fantastic book.
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