Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why am I Still Reading Sex?

I bought the first issue of Sex because I usually like Joe Casey's writing. I bought the second because I was so impressed with Piotr Kowalski art and Brad Simpson's art. Since then, I've struggled with whether or not to get each of the other issues, because a story that initially seemed like it was gearing up for better things has grown tired, bordering on dull, in only six chapters. So far I've continued to follow the title, but many aspects of it grate my nerves and don't seem to be getting any better. Yet the few redeeming qualities it has are always just good enough to keep me coming back, making Sex a frustrating but thus far effective mix of good, bad, and ugly.
     The primary problem I have with this book is its protagonist, Simon Cooke. He's barely a character. Though his history is the foundation of the supposed premise of the entire series, in the present he is a passive un-man, wallowing in...I don't even know what. Self-pity? Self-loathing? Ennui? Quiet seething rage? Whatever emotion(s) he's feeling, feeling them is all he ever does. He never acts, speaks in vague and foolish terms, and offers no insight or assistance to his fellow cast members or the audience as to what's going on in his mind. Cooke used to be a superhero called the Armored Saint, but has given that up now and is struggling to find meaning in his life without the alter ego to rely on. I can see why giving up the costumed crimefighting lifestyle would be a rocky transition, but to see even a half-step of effort on Cooke's part would go a long way. This isn't the story of him trying and failing to establish a "normal" life. It's him saying he'll try but then refusing to do so, instead ending up in a stagnant state, neither living his old life nor his new one.
     To make matters worse, the only people Cooke ever interacts with are his assistant Larry and his lawyer Warren, neither of whom are especially interesting. Larry is at least good at her job, and is the only person capable of getting Cooke to actually do anything as far as running his company or at all behaving like member of society. Don't get me wrong, I don't give a shit if the heroes of the things I read act like regular members of society, but since that is what Cooke claims is his whole goal, it's nice to see someone who legitimately wants to help him achieve it. Without Larry, the infinitesimal amount of forward progress this narrative has managed to accomplish wouldn't even have happened. What doesn't work about Larry is that she's a one-note character. Because Cooke is so stubbornly unwilling to become the man he says he wants to become, all Larry ever has the time or space for is reminding her boss of his obligations and doing her damnedest to convince him to fulfill them. She gets almost no story of her own, save for being aggressively hit on by a politician in the most recent issue.
     Warren is just a scumbag who I'd rather not spend any more time with. I get that he's a lawyer for rich pricks like Cooke, and therefore a bit of a prick himself necessarily, but that doesn't make him easier to swallow. He's not a villain, but he's a bad guy through and through, and seeing him give half-hearted and self-interested advice to Cooke, which Cooke then refuses to take because he's so boneheaded, is wearing me down.
     There is one person in Cooke's life who I'm interested in and want to see more of, but she's dead and only appears in flashback. Her name is Quinn, and from what we've seen she was essentially Alfred to Cooke's Batman, and her death is the whole reason he gave up being the Armored Saint. The details of their relationship haven't been revealed, but the few scenes she's been in have established Quinn as smart, capable, and self-assured, not qualities that many others possess in this series. A small but significant part of why I haven't dropped Sex yet is my eagerness to get to know Quinn and figure out why she ever teamed up with Cooke, and what exactly motivated her to ask him to retire from her deathbed.
     Even worse than Cooke and his associates is the character being built up as the main villain of this tale, The Old Man. Here's what we know about this guy: he's evil. How do we know that? He murders women he's having sex with in the middle of having sex with them. He has his own Pulp-Fiction-style gimp who tortures people with anal sex so The Old Man can interrogate them. Basically, his role is to combine sex and violence in trite yet highly offensive ways that make no sense and serve no purpose just so the reader can keep being reminded that "THIS IS THE VILLAIN!" Nevermind that we were told right away that the dude was a major crime boss with a long history of wickedness who plans on using the Armored Saint's recent departure to take over the underworld once again. Apparently we need to be shown just how depraved The Old Man can be, more than once, over far too many pages. It's insulting to my intelligence to have to get through these scenes that say nothing new about the character or the story just so the book can justify its title.
     So the lead hero and lead villain both drive me crazy. What could I possibly be reading Sex for? Surely there's more to like about it than the slight chance that I might get some new Quinn scenes (which hasn't actually happened in a few issues).
     First of all, there's the art. I meant what I said up top; the main reason I picked up Sex #2 was because of how impressive the debut's visuals were. The sheer number of lines Piotr Kowalski draws in every issue is astonishing, particularly when he gets to do a cityscape. There is such immense detail in the buildings, rather than having them merely be looming suggestions of skyscrapers. Every window is actually there, and it happens even when all that's visible are glimpses of a few random buildings in the background of a panel. This carries over to all of the various settings—large offices, nightclubs, hospitals, etc. And the characters, too, especially The Old Man, whose face is so wrinkled he looks like a dried up reptile. But everyone has their own look, individualized personalities and fashions that say a lot about them, even the drabbest characters. It's a well-thought-out world Kowalski has built, as varied and full as our own. There's not a ton of violence, but what's there is always done efficiently, not overblown for shock value but still quick and brutal and sometimes hard to look at. There is, naturally, a lot of sex, and even though it rarely adds anything of import to the story, Kowalski at least makes it fittingly realistic. People are proportioned like people, and their whole bodies are involved.
     Brad Simpson's coloring is equally fantastic. He's playful with it, not worried about realism in the same way as Kowalski seems to be, and the combination is what makes Sex look so good. There are a lot of flat colors, figures done in all one color against backgrounds done in a contrasting one. Some whole pages are washed in a single color, while others are done in a more down-to-Earth manner, with everything colored more or less as it would actually be. And these decisions are not made arbitrarily; Simpson is more responsible for establishing mood than any of the other creators. Brash colors flare up momentarily to match characters' emotions doing the same. Flashbacks are marked by their soft grayness, allowing them to appear in the middle of present-tense panels without ever being confusing. There is a mix of neon and muted hues that works surprisingly well, and underlines that Cooke abandoned one world for another but doesn't really operate in either. This series is fun and stimulating to look at, and while not a great deal actually goes on in a given issue in terms of the narrative, the images are always dynamic and gripping.
     Good art alone doesn't make Sex worth the price of admission, at least not six issues deep. There's got to be something in the story that I care about enough to put up with the garbage, and in the case of Sex, it's mostly the stars of the B-plot that are holding my attention. Where Cooke and The Old Man turned me off a long time ago and have never improved one inch, Keenan Wade and The Alpha Brothers continue to be people worth watching.
     The Alpha Brothers are the dual heads of an illegal organization of some kind, and as people they're not all that deep. They might be actual brothers, might be boyfriends, might be both, but their personalities are largely indistinguishable and they're activities aren't any more or less exciting than any other baddy in any other book. What I like about them is their matter-of-fact, businesslike approach to what they do. In the middle of killing a guy who owes them money, the brothers get into a spat over exactly how much he owes them, which leads them to pull out their smartphones and compare the numbers they each have on file. This outlook makes me laugh, talking about crime in terms of clients and reports and data. It makes sense for the modern world, and may well be what current real-world criminals necessarily have to do, but either way it feels different for a superhero comicbook and I always appreciate that. Like Quinn, The Alpha Brothers don't get a massive amount of stage time, but I always look forward to their moments in the spotlight, and rely on them for a bit of comic relief and intelligent conversation in this series.
     Keenan Wade is the real reason to buy Sex, though, far and away a better character than anyone else. He's just a young waiter right now, but has ambitions of being the next great hero, basically seeing himself as a replacement for the Armored Saint, as far as I can tell. But his methods are unorthodox; it's Keenan who fucks with The Alpha Brothers' numbers, and he's currently considering joining a revived street gang called The Breaks so he can battle the baddies from the inside. He's got fighting skills, displayed when he wrecks some dickhead who's abusing his girlfriend in the club where Keenan works. And he's just a downright decent dude, as seen through his honest and caring attitude with his own girlfriend, perhaps the only truly affectionate relationship in the book. He also has some sort of unknown history with Cooke and Quinn, and is just as disgusted and disinterested in the man Cooke is now as I am, making Keenan a uniquely relatable member of the cast. It also gives me the smallest sliver of hope that Cooke might actually turn into someone I want to read about, should his and Keenan's stories ever collide due to whatever connection already exists between them. We've already seen Keenan break into Cooke's house, planning to announce his intentions of becoming the new head vigilante in town. But once he sees what a waste Cooke is these days, Keenan bails, setting off on his own to do things his way.
     I can't yet tell what Sex wants to say, about superheroes or modern life or anything at all. It's getting to its point far too slowly and unsteadily, and it centers on characters that mostly range from the dissatisfying to the despicable. The few people I care about are minor players, and though I adore the artwork, it's not going to keep me around indefinitely. I'm hesitant to drop it because, for all its flaws, it's still different than most of the cape comics on the shelves, and every issue does something to delight and/or surprise me. Also, Cooke still has plenty of potential to grow into a likable leading man. He's flimsy and underdeveloped so far, which is bad, but leaves ample room for details to be revealed or added that would redeem him. So I guess I'm holding out hope, putting maybe a bit too much trust in creators I admire, and crossing my fingers that this is all headed somewhere. My desire to keep spending my time in this world is waning rapidly, though, and if things don't turn around soon, I'm hard-pressed to believe I'll be reading Sex for more than another couple issues.

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