Review: Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick trade paperback (Image Comics)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Writer Matt Fraction sets up his narrative dichotomy between the profane and the reverent (or, less seriously, the bawdy and the sweet) right from the outset in Image's Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick. It is, after all, a book called Sex Criminals, which is enough to make anyone blush from reading it on the subway; the first issue, however, is about as brilliant and sensitive an exploration of puberty-and-sexuality-through-comics-science-fiction as you're going to find. Sex Criminals likes to bill itself as a sex comedy, but while it's funny, the truth is there's considerable more heart and thoughtfulness in this book than in your average American Pie or its ilk.

[Review contains spoilers]

Fraction and artist Chip Zdarksky's first two issues are the best of the best in this initial five issue collection. In flashback, they profile respectively the sexual awakening of both Suzie and Jon, including how they each discover they can make time stop when they orgasm. Sex is a thing but it's not the whole thing here; it all bleeds together into Suzie's relationship with her alcoholic mom after her dad dies (the scene where Suzie screams at her frozen mother is heartbreaking and wonderous), and Jon's adolescent sexual curiosity and, we learn later, mental illness.

Superhero comics are rife with metaphor, in which the secret identity stands for the self each of us hides from the world; in Sex Criminals, as even the characters note, all the real-life stigmatization and secretiveness surrounding sex is layered with the actual secret that Suzie and Jon each share, about stopping time. Equally Fraction makes literal the peace and self-awareness that can come with sexuality in the "quiet" that Suzie and Jon experience when sexually satisfied.

Sex Criminals, setting aside the "stopping time" stuff, is also simply about the evolution of a new relationship. Sex is, of course, ever-present in the book, but the actual sex acts performed by the characters on the page are relatively modest and tasteful (various puns and sight gags notwithstanding). Perhaps more interesting is the story of how two nice, relatively normal people meet, have an attraction, hang out, and then try to negotiate their newfound "togetherness" -- wanting to spend time together but also not wanting to seem too eager, and so on.

There is a relative normalcy to this particular aspect of Sex Criminals (as opposed to other, not-so-normal aspects) that's a nice change and fun to read, like early Strangers in Paradise. Neither Suzie nor Jon are "superheroes" (stopping time notwithstanding) nor particularly outstanding, just two regular people dealing with the regular obstacles of falling in love. This aspect is helped immensely by Zdarksky's art, especially his depiction of the large-nosed, lanky Jon, far from your traditional leading man but infinitely recognizable.

The fifth issue turns on two plot elements that set up the next book, one of which I liked more than the other. The first is that Jon reveals to Suzie his struggles with ADHD and related illnesses that might require him to be medicated, but that the medication so dulled his emotions and libido that he now "copes" in other ways (like stopping time and defecating on his boss's ficus). Jon acts like he has his issues under control, but Suzie is obviously concerned about it, and an educated reader knows Fraction is unlikely to let this go. This is an interesting wrinkle in the aforementioned "relationship plot" -- Suzie thought things were fine and that she knew Jon, and now she realizes she does not -- and also brings up additional metaphoric opportunities, that were Jon to be medicated and "healthy" he couldn't enter "the Quiet" (which, apropos of nothing, I'll mention Jon calls "Cumworld").

The other element is the revelation in the book of the "Sex Police," others who share Suzie and Jon's ability and want to prevent things like Suzie and Jon robbing a bank (which they do, to save Suzie's library, hence the name Sex Criminals). Though "sex police" is perhaps the book's funniest line among funny lines, they're my least favorite characters here. If we posit two people who can stop time by having sex to be "realistic" (or "magical realism," at least), the point in which Fraction introduces a shady cabal that police the world of time-stopping, and in tricked-out uniforms no less, is where Sex Criminals becomes a bit too much like Mind MGMT, Agents of SHIELD, or the umpteen covert agencies in the DC Universe for me. I like Sex Criminals as a risque rom-com and less so as a spy thriller; I certainly enjoyed this book enough to pick up the next volume, but my preference would be more character work, less thriller elements.

More amusing, in my opinion, than Fraction's invented names for sexual positions or the porn parodies that populate the story are the times that Fraction and Zdarksky break the "rules" of the book, acknowledging comics as comics and that we're all here to have fun, right? There's a particularly amusing riff on Family Circus set in a sex shop (and yes, when Fraction's Jon says to "cue the Benny Hill music," I could totally hear it). There's also a bar scene where Suzie does a rousing rendition of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," except Fraction and company couldn't get rights to the lyrics (supposedly; hard to tell what's a gag here), so instead Fraction breaks the fourth wall and spitballs for a while on the making of the comic, even suggesting that what he talks about in the trade is different from what was in the single issue. Again, tough to tell what's real and what's a joke here, but it's enjoyable nonetheless to read a book that doesn't take itself so seriously.

I maintain that the title of this book, Sex Criminals, is a form of the book determining its own audience; the barrier for entry is whether one can get past reading a book actually called Sex Criminals. What might seem like comics's answer to Law & Order: SVU, however, is considerably far from it; instead, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksky's Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick is something ribald and smart and wholly unique. Saga is another comic that's filthy and yet full of heart; between Saga and Sex Criminals, Image is redefining how heartfelt "filth" can be.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketches, art process, and extras]
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1 comment:

  1. Sounds like I should review Joe Casey's "Sex" so that we can compare notes...

    I will say that Sex Criminals has one of the greatest alternate covers of all time, featuring Fraction and Zdarsky posing for an awkward family portrait.

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