Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky and published by Image Comics, is one of the most imaginative, intelligent, honest, and warmly funny comic books I’ve read in some time. It starts off with a joke straight out of the Bill Hicks playbook. Beginning with, in a possible homage/nod to Watchmen, a man being thrown from a window of an office tower, the narration reads: “This guy killed my dad. The jokes are coming, I promise.” I was instantly on board with the knowing wit and style of the book, and the great thing is that, like the characters, the jokes kept coming.
The conceit of Sex Criminals is that at least two people in the world can suspend time for a certain (currently inconclusive) period whenever they have an orgasm, through whatever means, solo or partnered. The first two issues tell the story of Suzie and her man Jonathan discovering this ability, and in the process, we are able to join each of them on a familiar, frank, and entertaining journey of sexual discovery. Since, alas, in our culture we aren’t honest nearly enough about our first sexual awakenings, it was a wonderful breath of fresh air to see the subject dealt with in such honest and funny terms. Suzie, for example, is completely confused by her sexual feelings and orgasms, even if it didn’t stop time. Her mother, alcoholic and depressed from the loss of her husband, is no help when asked about sex. Her daughter’s questions about the recent discovery of masturbation are met with the familiar trope, “Great. Now I’m raising a whore.” Taking the only cue she’s given, Suzie goes to the “dirty girls” in her school to ask for advice, only to be given a comprehensive manual of ways to get boys off, but nothing to help her understand her own body or her own feelings. This seems to be, until recently and perhaps still, the woeful and pathetic state of honesty when teaching especially young girls about their sexual side.
Not that Jon fares much better in issue #2, when his compulsive masturbation leads him to essentially take over the local porn shop. Since he too can stop time after orgasms, this gives him the opportunity to wander freely and shoplift whatever materials he desires. But, of course, he quickly realizes that porn isn’t much help to him either, since no one can answer the simple questions for either of these characters: What does this time-stop power mean? Why can I do it and seemingly no one else?
Both Suzie and Jon have sex with other people before they meet and are more than a little taken aback by how time stops for them and not their partners. Their last lingering question about sex remains: Am I alone in this time-stopping ability? In issue #3, the two meet and physically reveal their powers to each other in a glorious, exciting, sex-filled first date. Their relationship grows from there. Suzie is a librarian, and Jon works in a bank. Neither of our heroes is particularly fulfilled by these jobs, with Suzie constantly fighting to save her library from defunding and destruction and Jon utterly bored with the tedium of his position. They meet, go on dates, and talk about their experiences, almost (pardon the pun) ecstatically happy to be able to share the experience and ability with another person.
On one of their dates, Sex Criminals pulls its other major stylistic trump card in the form of a musical number, complete with dancing and set pieces, plopped right into a stylish but fairly conventional comic book. (Conventional in the visual sense, with the usual airbrushed digital compositing enhancing the fine comics artwork.) Playing pool at a local bar, Suzie hears a song on the jukebox, uses her pool cue as a microphone stand and performs a complete version of “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen, her outfit morphing over several panels into a slightly feminized version of Freddie Mercury’s from the triumphant 1986 world tour. That alone would have been fairly unprecedented and enjoyable for a comic book. But it doesn’t stop there: the creators were apparently unable to finalize the legal issues surrounding the rights to use the lyrics. So after announcing the song title, the art plays out as if it were the song being performed, but in the word balloons, instead of the lyrics, a commentary by the creators appears. First, they explain how they tried to get the rights to the lyrics and couldn’t. They say that they are still working on it and hope to have the rights secured for the second pressing or TPB release. But then they start digressing, vamping to fill the bubbles, saying things like, “Anyway, so… Freddie Mercury huh?” If the creators had planned this format with its ultra-post-modern digression: genius. I was laughing out loud at the intelligent and deft way they handled the problem. If indeed it was a problem: I like thinking that they were so clever that they had it all worked out this way beforehand. Either way, to change it for future releases would take away one of the most charming moments in a comic book I’ve read in, literally, years. It was an astounding stylistic one-two punch, possible only in comics.
In terms of story, the above pretty much summarizes the “sex” part. But the book is called Sex “Criminals“, and that portion of the story is still in the process of unfolding. Wrapped around the backstory of both characters is a framing narrative – presumably taking place in the present – of the two carrying off a bank heist. This part of the story is leaked out over the first three issues, finally ending issue #3 with the promise of dealing with it squarely in the next issue. The characters “retire” to the bathroom of Jon’s bank and proceed to have hard, mercenary sex. At orgasm for both of them, time stops and they wander about the bank, getting into the vault and going about the business of stealing cash, ostensibly – according to Jon – to save the library. (His logic is difficult to refute: the sort of money that could save a library from closing is roughly akin to the bagel budget of a major bank.) Their amateurish but seemingly successful heist attempt is interrupted by a strange and sinister cast of characters dressed in matching white outfits who, unlike the rest of the characters populating the bank scene, are freely moving and interacting in the sexually time-stopped environment. Though, as of issue #3, we have heard little from them, but they seem poised to feature prominently in the story from here on.
I have really enjoyed Sex Criminals up to this point. I appreciate the humor and intelligence and the gentle air about it. There is nothing mean in the narrative of this book; no one – not even the “dirty girls at school” – is really denigrated or played as a stereotype. (For example, one of the “dirty girls” becomes Suzie’s roommate in later life.) The sexual politics and experiences ring absolutely true, right down to the tone of the first date between Suzie and Jon. None of their flirtiness, their attraction to each other, or their experience of the shared bond of their special power seems forced or stilted. These two would have been together even if they didn’t have a super-power, and they’re both enormously likeable, very real characters.
The challenge for this series is to introduce a Buffy-esque “big bad” element and not tip over into cliché. It would be a shame to plug these characters and their situation into some sort of generic science-fiction plot involving some secret society conspiring to take over the world. Or invoke some sort of alternate dimension and get lost in mystical tomfoolery. If Fraction and Zdarsky can navigate those potentially dangerous waters, I’ll be sticking with this book for the long haul.