‘Sex’: Joe Casey talks salacious Image series, Comic-Con plans

July 21, 2014 | 3:00 p.m.

Joe Casey is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

The long heralded scribe of such popular titles as “Uncanny X-Men” and “Adventures of Superman,” Casey began producing his own creator-owned work in 2001 at Image and made a name for himself as a writer unafraid to explore mature themes and taboo subjects. As of late, he’s been making waves with creations like “Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker,” about an all-too-realistic hero coming out of retirement, and “Bounce,” which stars a drug-using slacker-type, Jasper Jenkins, as the costumed protagonist.

He’s also been busy with his work as a collaborator with the Man of Action collective of creators, which includes Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, who, as a team, created the wildly popular series Ben 10,” and serve as producers and story editors on Disney XD’s  “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.”

But his current passion right now is sex, or, ahem, “Sex”: the “Heart of Darkness”-esque journey of former superhero Simon Cooke, who, having hung up the costume, enters a journey of pleasure seeking in Saturn City. When the “Sex” series debuted last year, it opened with a semi-irresistible premise: What would happen if a Bruce Wayne-type retired from crime fighting and sought to experience the pleasures of the flesh that he had been missing for so many years? Since then, however, Casey has turned the story into an allegory for adulthood and how a life in comics, either as the creation or creator, can lead to a state of suspended adolescence.

“Sex Vol. 2: Supercool,” the collection of issues No. 8-14, will hit stores this week, and the series shows no signs of slowing down. Casey will continue Cooke’s journey in issue No. 15, which arrives in late August, and he says that big changes are in store for the pleasure-seeking protagonist.

While Casey geared up for his Comic-Con appearance, Hero Complex caught up with him over email to discuss the human condition, repressed heroes and his  plans for the convention.

Hero Complex: For the uninitiated, can you briefly go over Simon Cooke’s journey so far from the stories collected in “Sex” Vol. 1 (“The Summer of Hard”) and Vol. 2 (“Supercool”)?

A page from the upcoming issue "Sex" No. 15, available August 27th. (Piotr Kowlaski/Image)

A page from the upcoming issue “Sex” No. 15, available Aug. 27. (Piotr Kowlaski/Image)

Joe Casey: Simon Cooke spent most of his adulthood living a double-life as the costumed vigilante, the Armored Saint, doggedly protecting a sprawling metropolis known as Saturn City. A deathbed promise has put him into retirement, and he’s currently trying to adjust to a life without his more adventurous alter-ego. As it turns out, he’s not quite emotionally equipped to live life as a fully-functioning adult. Then again, are any of us? He’s still attracted to the darker elements of Saturn City, hence his visit to the uber-rich orgy known as the Saturnalia and his clandestine visits (once in disguise) to a former adversary’s underground sex club. Lately, he’s been trying to take his role as CEO of the Cooke Company more seriously, but even that is often fraught with the absurd.

HC: Have you gotten much criticism for presenting such explicit themes in the comics medium? Obviously there are forerunners to the idea, but “Sex” unapologetically tackles deep, primal drives and desires with a more extreme focus.

JC: From the very first issue, it’s been sort of a two-tiered assault. On the one hand, I’m demonstrating that the medium can handle any subject matter, no matter how extreme. Personally, I think the mature content the series contains is presented in a very non-exploitative way. But, y’know, I’m probably biased. On the other hand, I feel like the series — with each issue — is morphing into a much deeper exploration of the human condition, how we strive for intimacy and connection and how we struggle with it, even when we manage to achieve it. The series is evolving just like Simon’s character is.

HC: When dealing with both sex and heroes, morals are an intrinsic part of the conversation. A lot of “Sex” focuses on Cooke’s denial of sex for his career as the Armored Saint, a name that invokes a religious asceticism to his cause as well. Do you think it’s possible for a character to follow a personal moral code without necessarily being repressed?

JC: Absolutely, but as it happens, that’s not the way Simon approached his crime fighting career. I don’t even think he thought he was repressed. As the Armored Saint, he was getting a lot of things out of his system on a nightly basis. But his war on crime required a monk-like focus that left little room for anything else in his life. Of course, that kind of dedication has an emotional down side. The series explores that other side of the experience, the aftermath of something so intense, it’s hard to imagine a life without it. And, even beyond the heroic angle, the very concept of morality is ever-shifting. I mean, look at a character like Simon’s lawyer, Warren… now there’s a guy that proves that there are no moral absolutes, even in so-called “civilian” life. And he’s certainly not repressed in any way, shape or form… although maybe he could use a bit of restraint, on occasion.

 HC: You’ve said that another theme you wanted to address is suspended adolescence and using Cooke’s struggle with that as a potential mirror for the reader and yourself. Have you gotten any more clarity on that internal debate as the series has continued?

JC: Well, we certainly live in a society that, more and more, extends our adolescence and retards our adulthood. So much so that even that argument is questionable, because we no longer make much effort to distinguish when one ends and the other begins. And I’m speaking as someone that works in the entertainment industry, so I have no doubt that I’m part of the problem. Now, I grew up reading comics at the very time when they were growing up with me. So the idea of “mature” comic books is very natural for me. My internal debate is, as you pointed out, mainly about superheroes and their place in our culture. As children’s fiction, they work in a very specific, symbolic way. They operate as modern-day fairy tales, morality tales and — hopefully – harmless power fantasies. As “Sex” rolls on, I’d like to think that the superheroic aspect of it will naturally fade into the background to such an extent that readers won’t even wonder about it anymore. I think, at first, most readers were asking, “When is he going to put the mask and cape back on?” As though that was the dramatic arc they’re more used to, ala “Dark Knight Returns.” At this point, I hope they’ve gotten into the series enough so that particular question isn’t even an issue anymore. Most people don’t remember that “Love and Rockets” started off with really heavy pulp and sci-fi elements. The way that particular series has evolved over the decades is a huge inspiration for “Sex.”

HC: You were already an established writer working with popular titles when you created “Sex.” Was it a creative response to anything in particular? Where did this desire to play with conventional comic themes come from?

A page from the upcoming issue "Sex" No. 15, available August 27th. (Piotr Kowlaski/Image)

A page from the upcoming issue “Sex” No. 15, available Aug. 27. (Piotr Kowlaski/Image)

JC: I guess it’s something I’m always doing in my creator-owned work. I grew up a Marvel/DC kid first and foremost, and then as the independent comics scene exploded in the ’80s, my own horizons on what comic books could be exploded right along with them. So even though I’ve spent a good amount of time having fun making a few bones in those Marvel/DC trenches, I can’t get away from that need to subvert those mainstream comic book cliches I grew up loving so much. All of my main heroes growing up — Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Mike Baron, Matt Wagner, Alan Moore, Peter Milligan — did the same thing in their work. Hopefully, I’m just carrying on that grand tradition. And I can’t discount the fact that, in some ways, I’m rebelling against my own career. After all, I’m one of the guys that created “Ben 10,” so I’m well aware that myself and our company, Man of Action, has this very family-friendly image that’s carried all over the world. And as proud as I am of that success, I’m equally proud that I’ve taken advantage of that success by pushing my more personal work into more extreme areas.

HC: Where will things be headed for Cooke now? Any hints at where Issue 15 might be taking things?

JC: The end of issue No. 15 sees Simon take a big step forward, in terms of his personal and emotional development. He’s actually going to reach out and try to make an honest, one-on-one connection to the one woman out there he feels like might truly understand him and what he’s going through. Meanwhile, a lot of the subplots involving the other characters like Keenan, Annabelle, the Old Man, the Prank Addict and the Alpha Brothers are starting to reach a boil. On top of all that, a very enterprising journalist at the Saturn Sentinel named Juliette Jemas is very interested in Simon’s backstory.

HC: What’s next for Man of Action? And what’s been the best part about working in that collective for you?

JC: Like I said, the freedom that our bigger successes afford us has been incredibly liberating. Our animation work has spread to global partnerships on almost every continent on the planet. We’re getting into live action television and, if all goes well, we’ll be filming the “Officer Downe” feature film later this summer. It’s very cool to be able to dip our wicks into just about all areas of the entertainment industry. At the same time, I’m lining up more comic book work than ever before. It’s a medium of expression that is just too important to me to ever give up. I love comics too much and I worked too hard to get to a place where I can do a series like “Sex” on a regular basis to ever consider abandoning it.

HC: Finally, the hour of Comic Con 2014 is nigh. What do you have planned for your visit?

JC: Let me put it this way… you ever seen the film, “Caligula”? That’s nothing compared to how I attack Comic-Con. Man of Action will, as usual, plant our freak flag at booth No. 2007 and by the time the Con is over, we’ll have left a wide trail of sweat and stink behind us.

– Justin Sullivan | @LATHeroComplex

 

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