Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SEX Book One: The Summer of Hard (2013)

Growing up poor and nomadic, I embraced television, comic books and action figures to an unhealthy degree. These were, after all the "relationships" I could afford to maintain and carry with me wherever my shitty deadbeat parents dragged me. By the late '90s, I'd put away my toys, but running a comic shop scratched that itch, and I traded out TV for a pathetically large attention investment in the internet. Outside of DVD sets, my estrangement from television held through the aughts, but the rise of high quality cable offerings finally drew me back to weekly television.

My interest in a lot of these shows could readily be shared with others, but my regard for Mad Men was more isolated. Where something like True Blood was a lightweight confection ideal for marathon/party viewing, Mad Men was a heavy, filling drama that was difficult to sit through much more than an episode at a time. I was recently talking to one acquaintance who found himself stalling out in the second season, and asking me if it would get better. In terms of storytelling quality and advancement, it certainly would, but in terms of the existential angst and suicidal depression it wallowed in, no it would not. It's a show set during the initial crack-up of the "golden age of white Americans," centered on deeply unhappy people whose identities hinge on their performance in an industry of generating falsehoods. Total red wine and sleeping pills in the bathtub viewing.

Presently, my connection to the comic book universes have been strained, so I've been seeking out more esoteric fare, to mixed results. Just as when I was getting back into cable TV, I've sampled a lot of stuff, and appreciated their more loose morals, but too often found that the material wasn't all that different from what's driven me away from the mainstream. For instance, I never really warmed to the notion of mutant brothels in the X-Men books, or the self-consciously "cool" writing of Joe Casey in general. His moving into creator-owned works and fully embracing his gratuitous inclinations on a book like Sex is more palatable to me than his efforts at DC & Marvel, but the debt he owes them is readily apparent. Audacity has its merits, but it isn't near as rewarding as originality.

Sex, Vol. 1 is basically the scenes from Watchmen involving Nite Owl and Silk Spectre in plain clothes pining for their glory days extended for eight long issues at a very affordable $9.99. Filling the extra space is loads of Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller pastiche achingly familiar to readers of late 80s/early 90s "mature graphic novel" sludge-- the Moore Wave/Post-funk era of comics. Not-Batman is in a po-faced malaise after promising a dying not-Leslie Thompkins to give up the cape and cowl. Not-Bruce Wayne suffers through anhedonia while intentionally exposing himself to graphic sexuality while drifting through a "real life" not of his choosing. To assist with the amorous in nature but not in elicited response imagery, a prematurely aging not-Selina Kyle runs a whorehouse, where not-The Riddler seduces one of the girls. The only action pulse comes from the rougher side of town, where "Urban" Jason Todd is still trying to mete out street justice to That Yellow Bastard, The Calculator, and Heckle and Jeckle.

While it's a goddamned shame that so much of the super-hero genre is so nakedly dependent on tarted up blatant swipes of corporate IP, Sex seems to aim outright for melancholy in a familiar milieu. Mad Men owes as much a debt to filmmakers of the '50s & '60s as it does to Matthew Weiner's fuzzy half-memories of life in that era. Donald Draper is hounded by his compulsions toward self-destructive adultery and other debauchery, but Mad Men has never been interested in glamorizing those inclinations as playing out the emptiness and psychic wreckage that comes with it. In spite of the appealing and often naughty art of Piotr Kowalski, Sex is in no way about getting the audience off, and is in fact a denier of pleasure. The book reads like a condemnation of the '80s avant guard in comics, as though a young Joe Casey followed them like an apostle, only to find their nihilism and judgment of earlier creators' naive works led him to a place where he could produce such a joyless, defeatist book as this.

I can't say that I enjoy Mad Men much anymore, but I'll follow it to the unquestionably bitter end in 2015, as it warrants viewing, analysis, and measured praise. For what it's worth, Sex is something like the Mad Men of modern comics, whispering in your ear during a viewing of Pillow Talk that Rock Hudson's really a queer who's going to die of A.I.D.S. in the end. I can't exactly recommend Sex, but there's enough of admittedly bleak interest here that I'll commit to at least slog through a second volume.

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