Casey & Kowalski on Creating Sex [Interview]
January 29, 2016
IMAGE COMICS: SEX is very much a post-superhero comic comic, one that acknowledges the history of the genre even as it pushes the idea into very different shapes. What appeals about exploring this kind of world from the human perspective?
JOE CASEY: Having crossed the two-year mark a few months ago, these "big picture" concepts become more and more clear to me, the deeper I get into the material. I suppose I can come right out and say that the whole thing could be seen as one big metaphor for how comicbook readers—particularly superhero comicbook readers—grow up and mature and, in doing so, have to reconcile these things that meant so much when we were kids, but don't completely fit into the adult world anymore. At least, not in the same way they did when we were young. Sometimes that shift in priorities can be a relatively minor thing, and sometimes it can be fairly seismic in nature, and can take a significant toll on the way we view ourselves. And you see that happening to pretty much every character in SEX. And that's where it's all very personal to me, specifically.
PIOTR KOWLASKI: I think that SEX is in some way a big, ongoing tale in the making. It deals with one of the most appealing concepts in comics: a private life of a retired superhero. His costume has been put aside and we see him as he is: a complex, withdrawn, slightly lost man reeling from the weight of his past. But his present life is not calm and peaceful, it's not free from tension; it's dark, it's solitary. It is a very lonely life. And this aspect of Simon's present situation, his solitude and his despondency (which is very subtle but evident) is in my opinion the most appealing, the most interesting part of the story.
IC: Brad Simpson's colors add a lot to the feel of the book, from the overall palette to how he'll drop in a color over an entire panel to emphasize a bit of dialogue. What do you like best about Brad's work?
JC: For me, Brad's definitely one of the secret weapons of this series. At first, he and I worked closely to establish the overall look of the book, color-wise, but Brad got it right away and now he's completely dialed in. He knows that every color choice contributes to how the story is received—and perceived—by the reader. Besides that, it'd been a long time since any mainstream comicbook had boldly eschewed the principles of "realistic" coloring and gone back to the kind of impressionistic palettes that were a hallmark of every newsprint comicbook I ever read growing up. It's an approach I happen to prefer, so it's cool to have been able to bring it back in our own delightful way.
And, by the way, let's not forget the important contributions of the other members of the creative team: Rus Wooton and Sonia Harris. Rus's distinctive lettering goes a long way to giving the book its visual identity, and Sonia provides the kind of sleek design that puts the whole package in a particular context that really sells the underlying ideas that we're trying to convey in each issue.
PK: Brad is, without question, one of the best colorists I have ever worked with. Many reviewers and critics praise his mastery of colors and I couldn't agree more. SEX is a very specific series and it has a very specific look. It is not action-packed, but mainly it is focused on people who try to resolve their problems and inner traumas. They struggle, but not in a physical sense. The fact is that Brad and I are responsible for the visual look of the comic, which is strongly dialogue-oriented. Our job is to make this story as dynamic and entertaining as it can be, and, frankly speaking, Brad is a perfect colorist for this kind of job. He knows when and where to accentuate certain panels, he knows how to bring out the emotional tones of certain sequences that need to be gloomy, moody, or very bright, full of energy and life. He applies very aggressive colors when story demands it, but he also knows when he must not do it. I think that he does it all very instinctively, and over the years I have learned how to trust his instinct.
IC: SEX has a lot going on, between the criminal factions jockeying for position, Cooke dealing with...everything, really, and Keenan looking into the Breaks. What's your writing process like for this series? Do you have notebooks full of outlines you're closely following?
JC: I'm deep into it, man. I'm so deep that the notion of "process" has kind of melted away. It all just seems to happen now. There's a bit of a churn going on at this point...characters, events, moments, etc. that are swirling around all the time. And to use an old writer's cliché, the characters are really writing themselves now. They tell me where the story is gonna go. It's up to me to keep up with them. Sometimes they move pretty fast.
IC: You've slowly been peeling back the onion of the past of Saturn City and Simon Cooke, but with a focus mainly on motivations, rather than acrobatic superheroics. What do you get out of this kind of measured roll-out?
JC: The way I'm approaching it, it's all one, big novel. There's a particular sprawl to this brand of long-form writing that I really like, and you rarely see it in comicbooks anymore outside of Love & Rockets, a few long-running Image titles, and the big franchise superhero universes, and even the corporate books have become so fractured, so unhinged from their core continuities, that I don't think readers get that same vibe that I got when I was a kid, reading monthly comicbooks. The business is just different now, but I guess I'm taking another stab at the long narrative...if, for no other reason, to see what kind of stories and what kind of experiences can still be wrung out of it.
IC: The look of Saturn City is as important to this series as how you've designed the human members of the cast. What did you look to when coming up with the visual style of the setting? Were you drawing from real-life cities, specific art movements, or anything like that?
PK: In general, I like to inspire myself with specific places or authentic city shots, but I do it in a very subtle way. What I mean by that is that even if I use real places as references or inspire myself with photos or images, readers must not realize that I do so. The landscapes of Saturn City have to be based on real landscapes in order to make the whole city look coherent and believable. The trick is to make Saturn City unlike any other place.
On the other hand, the whole SEX world has to be clearly established as a very solid environment because the characters are specifically assigned to various parts of this world. For instance, Prank Addict's place had to be very carefully composed in order to tell us a lot about him. Also, the Breaks dwell in an ugly underworld which is perfect for them. Everything has to be designed and carefully planned. Joe and I use a lot of references, but most of all we use our imagination which means that the whole SEX experience is pure fun!
IC: SEX is a series with mostly normal-looking people. How do you approach drawing them in such a way that they remain recognizably human, instead of super, but still visually interesting?
PK: Being a comic artist is very much like being a movie director. You need to build the set, you need to cast the right characters, and you need to make it all work. In order to ensure fluent narration you need to observe certain rules of the trade. The major difficulty is that SEX has characters who basically look like normal people. Simon looks like a casual guy, you could meet him passing in the street and you wouldn't even bother to look at him twice. The same goes for Keenan or the Alpha Brothers. Granted, the Old Man looks kind of creepy but still, he is not a super villain with overgrown muscles or green hair.
The truth is that it is very easy to draw monsters, zombies, or athletic, pumped up guys with large guns. Take a guy in a suit drinking tea...doesn't sound like an interesting subject for a good drawing, but when you use the right tricks you will be able to produce a truly stunning illustration. It requires certain skills that can be acquired over years of constant training. The thing is that as a comic artist I have to remember that my task is to keep all of my drawings interesting to the reader's eye.
From SEX Book Four: DAISY CHAINS: