Suzie, a girl, meets Jon, a boy. Their orgasms stop time, and they begin using these powers to rob banks and save a local library. Sex criminals.
Written by Matt Fraction (Hawkeye) and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, the comic book “Sex Criminals” (whose first five issues are collected into a trade paperback forming Volume One) is nothing short of a marvelous read. On the surface it’s a hilarious, irreverent sex comedy unafraid to throw dildos into its lead’s face. At its heart, however, “Sex Criminals” is a character-driven drama of eminently likeable people and a little more to say about the world. Fraction uses the title’s bizarre premise as a brazen vehicle to discuss sex in society: from its double standards to its expectations, judgments and hushed omnipresence.
The series begins in medias res with Jon and Suzie robbing a bank but immediately pulls back to adult Suzie narrating her past, appearing in-panel alongside her younger self. Fourth wall be damned, Suzie speaking to the reader better connects with the character and also provides some welcome introspection. Her father dies at a young age, leaving Suzie with her struggling mother in a house that carries the sound of her mom’s sobbing. As adolescents tend to do, Suzie discovers masturbation, and with it, an escape to The Quiet, her time-frozen sanctuary. She struggles to comprehend what she has done, confused that freezing time isn’t the norm and how this thing could feel so good, because at that age everything about sex is confusing and weird and tinged with guilt. So Suzie sets off to learn and runs headfirst into the stigma and misinformation the world holds for women.
Jon’s past is told to Suzie in Issue Two, following the male perspective growing up in a world where, “sex was everywhere and like, nowhere at the same time,” touted as the thing to do and strive for but at the same time always shunned away from, especially growing up without modern internet.
As adults, the isolation of The Quiet (Jon has another, less-poetic name for the place) has been both a source of pleasure and escape but also of awkwardness and desolation. Until now, every partner of Jon or Suzie has frozen in place when they climax, and they are rendered alone at their most intimate. Together, everything changes. These two people have the world’s biggest motivation to understand sex and could never share it until meeting each other, and so begins their delightful romance. However, the sex is a kicker sealing the deal. Jon and Suzie’s personalities mesh perfectly, forming a couple as enjoyable to spend time with together as apart. Bookish, witty and cautiously optimistic, Suzie is an endearingly human narrator. Jon is equally intelligent, clever and confidently self-deprecating. In short, the pair is alarmingly likeable. Good people, too, despite the work’s title. The bank is foreclosing on Suzie’s local library, her other sanctuary and the source of much of her information and self-discovery as a child (books don’t judge). Jon, a bitter personal assistant working at a local branch, suggests the near-victimless crime of stealing, “less than one thousandth of their annual budget on f[***]ing lobby pens.”
“Sex Criminals” reads like a justification for the entire medium of graphic novels. It’s sharp, efficiently written and always aware of how serious it is in the moment. Though the book’s strongest element is its writing, its success would not be possible without illustrator Chip Zdarsky. He presents a vibrant, colorful world with distinct character designs. The paneling is great, with “show, don’t tell” in full force. Actions and scene descriptions are handled by the art, leaving everything else to the writing. Fraction’s dialogue and narration are tight and efficient, always pushing the characters or the plot. In the meantime, Zdarsky has littered the story with Easter eggs and visual gags in a gradient of subtlety (the story’s sex shop is a goldmine). It’s a dirty book of sex jokes, but most of them aren’t shoved down the reader’s throat. The creators are confident and content to let the story stay at the forefront, and as a bonus this makes every re-read worth it just to discover what else Zdarsky has slipped in the background. The Quiet is a surreal marvel with its bright palette and shimmering lights, and faces are telling and expressive. Zdarsky even manages to feature a musical number in a comic book. The most important depictions, however, are those of sex and the characters. The coitus in “Sex Criminals” is never vulgar but sometimes romantic, sometimes awkward and sweaty and punctuated by bad music and sometimes sleazy. But it’s always honest. Suzie and Jon are attractive, but often shown at less flattering angles that emphasize their flaws rather than the constant heroic glamor that media tends to portray. As absurd as its premise is, “Sex Criminals” is always grounded in showing its characters realistically and empathetically.
A critical darling and Time Magazine’s Comic of the Year, “Sex Criminals” is still not without its flaws. Its characters, especially the leads, are certainly the most entertaining part of the book. Character development and flashbacks are so strong that the presently developing plot stands a little weak in comparison, leaving issues four and five of the volume a small decline. Also, the book’s antagonists, the Sex Police, read a little silly, but this is acceptable given that this book is about bank-robbers with time-stopping genitals. Throughout the first volume the Sex Police remain fairly underdeveloped, though as an ongoing comic the series has time to flesh them out.
Considering the primary weakness of “Sex Criminals” is that its character development is too strong compared to its plot, the book is a must-read. It’s poignant, intimately associable and authentic. It also has a lot of dirty jokes. Through and through, “Sex Criminals” is book that deserves to be read.