In a week in which many of us are wondering if there’s any justice left in this world, one bright spot is to remember that Sex Criminals was honoured with an Eisner recently, which means that at least sometimes a truly deserving artistic work gets the recognition it deserves. I’m certainly not alone in loving this book and I’m pleased to see that it has a growing cult following. The latest issue, #7, continues Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s record of strong stories, effectively drawn and actually features very little if any graphic sex. It’s a testament to how good their storytelling abilities truly are that we don’t miss the sex content at all, and focus entirely on the characters and their situation.
Last time we had a sad, poignant look at Jon’s life on antidepressants, which killed his sex drive and his ability to feel strong emotions, turning the world into a safe, boring, miserable place. This time we start with a look at Suzie, post-breakup with Jon, living alone and dealing with all the usual insecurities of a modern North American woman. She is taking new birth control pills in the first scene, and feeling bloated and unattractive, retaining water and her skin breaking out. She even drops her muffin on the sidewalk and, leaning down to pick it up, winds up ripping her yoga pants. Just when her shame can’t reach any larger proportions, she looks up from grabbing her muffin to see her old roommate, high school bully and sexual mentor, Rachel. The two women go for coffee and repair their tattered friendship (Suzie had previously kicked Rachel to the proverbial curb to be with Jon) and Suzie feels comfortable enough to reveal her secret.
Of course, we as an audience know a few secrets about Rachel that Suzy doesn’t, such as the fact that Rachel called the Sex Police on the couple a few issues back. But that doesn’t stop the scene where Suzy explains her “powers” to Rachel from being funny, powerful and full of some great “acting”.
I recently had this conversation with a colleague (who doesn’t write for Sequart, alas), about important “face acting” is to comic art. Some artists have difficulty distinguishing between one character and another, particularly if they are a similar build and dressed similarly, such as in a uniform. This generally only becomes a problem if two or more characters are involved in a truly dramatic “scene” together that requires acting, rather than a kinetic action scene. Sadly, for many comics, those kinetic action scenes and big poses are sufficient. But not for the comics I read, and certainly not for Sex Criminals. Which is why I have to give due credit to the talents of Chip Zdarsky in this three-page conversation scene featuring two seated characters, no cutaways or fantasy moments, no fancy special effects: just “My coffee with Rachel”. And through all the usual comics storytelling tools, such as using panels with no dialogue, allowing faces to register lines, the importance of characters listening to each other and the pacing of a good dramatic scene, with enough dynamics to make this as compelling as any sex scene, or fight scene.
Because of Zdarsky’s artistic skill, and Fraction’s relentless focus on character and fundamentally making everyone in the story sympathetic (as I mentioned in my first review of Sex Criminals, there’s absolutely nothing mean about this book), the scene ends with Rachel making an embarrassing sexual confession of her own, and she and Suzy laughing it off. Suzy takes Rachel back to the apartment and Rachel asks for a demonstration of “The Quiet”. Suzy goes off to run a bath, as a bored Rachel implores her, “Just get off like regular people, with a magazine and your fingers!” But Rachel wants some evidence, so she suggests Suzy write on her face. Suzy quickly achieves what she set out to achieve in her bath, writes on Rachel’s face, and just as she’s realizing that there are phalluses drawn all over her face, there’s a knock at the door. It’s Jon, admitting that he has messed things up.
Jon was always the more problematic of the “Jon and Suzy” dyad. He hid his serious mental condition from Suzy right from the start, and in this issue, in a sequence titled “Jon Getting Away With It” he re-traces some of his morally questionable history with his special power, and his high school crush, Jennibeth Monroe. (Side note: great name. That’s a porn actress name, right there.) As a nerdy teenager, Jon would “enter the quiet” in his high school and get up to no good, taking photos of Jennibeth (although trying to develop them in the “quiet” didn’t work) and causing mischief at banks and stores. As Jon puts it, “If I could get away with anything… I could get away with everything.”
His final conquest comes when he sneaks into the house of their arch-enemy “Kegelface”‘s house during a “quiet” in the present day. Jon sneaks in, to discover a treasure trove of sex toys and bondage paraphernalia in the basement, but is surprised with Kegelface’s portly husband comes down the stairs and discovers Jon. A fight scene with large vibrators ensues (only in this book…). Jon triumphs, tying up the man in some S&M gear and running to Suzy’s apartment to give her the whole story and an armful of things he stole. Only, now Rachel has heard the story, too.
Jon’s disturbing lack of a solid moral compass is in stark contrast to Suzy’s fundamentally good soul and generosity. One of the questions the book seems to be raising at this point is that perhaps Suzy and Jon really aren’t a good match: they simply share this special power, but don’t quite fit together as people. Jon certainly has some issues to work out, and now that Rachel has been drawn into their circle, and the Sex Police are more than aware of Jon’s name, face and predilections, the tension has certainly risen. As usual, I can’t wait to see where things go from here.