Monday, 20 October 2014

Sound Advice: Sex Criminals Vol. 1

Advisement on Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trip
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky; Image Comics

First, a disclaimer: If you have found this review through googling my name because you are a student or former student of mine, do me a huge solid and take my advice right here: while Sex Criminals is a fantastic comic, it is also not for you, at least, not without your parents reading it first and giving you the okay to read it and then having what I can only imaging are going to be awkward discussions about the content of the book. If you and your parents have not yet handled talks about safe sex, consent, intimacy, and how sex is only one aspect of an adult relationship, just trust me and know you’re not quite ready for this book yet. Check back in a few years.

If you are my parents? Sorry, Mom and Dad. Maybe go check out my tag and read another of the reviews I’ve written?

Also, *SPOILERS* ahead so proceed at your own risk.


To level with you, I had trouble writing this review. There are so many things I absolutely adore about this book that figuring out a cohesive way to express my feelings about Sex Criminals took far more time and introspection than I wanted it to. I wrote and trashed multiple versions of this piece before I could even articulate why that was happening.

Sex Criminals has a simple premise, one that could be reduced so much that at first glance it’s a complete gimmick: Our Hero and Heroine stop time when the orgasm, and decide to use this power to rob banks. From the moment I heard about this book, I knew it was going on my pull list just because I wanted to read what I was sure would be a hilarious book by Matt Fraction resplendent with dick jokes. I expected that I would laugh, and keep the digital copies on my kindle for days I needed some levity, and not mention to my mom that this was a book I was reading.

Sex Criminals is so funny and witty and just silly. The dialogue and story makes me smile consistently – Suzie’s pool table musical number comes to mind. Fraction and Zdarsky have built a book that is full of jokes – on every reread I catch something I didn’t see before in the background of a scene.

 (A couple of examples of excellent jokes created in the background art.)

 The levity that oozes from every aspect of this book makes it easy to engage with – from the tips heading the letters column to the dedications in the collected volume, Fraction and Zdarsky bring the funny.

But Sex Criminals is also a great examination of a new relationship, about the magic of learning about another person and discovering what about them it is that you find attractive and connect with, about why they have taken up some precious residence in your heart.

Like sex itself, Sex Criminals is more complex than it’s pitch makes it seem. Sex is very rarely just sex; it’s not something that is simple, that occurs in a vacuum, or happens in the same timeline or situation for all people. Though a lot of media insist on portraying sex in a pretty simple view, it can fail to recognize that the only thing necessarily common across sexual experience is that we all have to figure out how (and even if) we want to interact with, talk about, and participate in such relationships.

Cue Suzie and Jon, our intrepid protagonists, who are willing to fully admit to one another that they struggle to figure relationships out. While they are building their relationship with one another, the readers get to see them—in present time and in flashbacks—struggle to understand sex, worry that their experiences maybe aren’t normal, lament failed relationships, explore their sexuality and desires, experience attraction and affection, and discover that this whole relationship thing may be more complex than they want it to be. Even Jon and Suzie’s experiences are quite different from one another’s. This is evident even in the way they use their stopped-time. For Suzie, The Quiet is about escaping and getting space to clear her head.

For Jon, it’s about “getting away with things,” and finding the freedom to act out what it later becomes clear are destructive impulses.

 When they find each other, it’s almost inevitable that they try to use their powers to get away with something that also helps them escape their troubles (robbing the bank Jon hates working for to save the library Suzie loves from destruction). Of course, it’s not as simple as they want it to be. Complications arise. Suzie’s friends worry about her, Jon’s mental health comes into question, and hey, apparently there are Sex Police?

 My experience is not the same as Jon or Suzie’s, but I can find much I relate to in their stories of sexual and romantic exploration – lack of information, curiosity, experimentation, shame, guilt, and emotional baggage.  Looking at the Sex Criminals letter column each issue, it seems I’m not the only one that relates so strongly to this book. Frankly, this comedy about sex has something real and relatable to say about our common experience of just trying to figure things out. By sharing these moments with the reader, Fraction and Zdarsky give us the opportunity to connect more with the characters.

We see a young Suzie unable to find information, going to all sorts of sources and not knowing what to do.

We see teenage Jon unsure about why sex is a big deal, and why he feels so strange about it.

We see Suzie’s rendition of a musical number in a pool hall (one of my favorite scenes) as the as Jon’s moment of realization about his deepening affection for her.

 We see, though the repetition of a single phrase of internal dialogue as the plot progresses, how her feelings about Jon grow and change over the course of the volume.

The willingness to explore all these moments makes Sex Criminals one of the most realistic portrayals of sex and relationships I’ve seen in contemporary media, aside from, you know, the stopping time with orgasms and the sex police. Really, this discovery just adds another layer of complexity to Suzie and Jon’s relationship, gives them another thing they need to consider and weigh and negotiate around. It’s another obstacle to overcome, and to consider if it is worth overcoming.

It took one issue of this book (bought digitally, I will fully admit, because I was not comfortable going to my comic book store full of mostly men and requesting I be put on the pre-order list for a book called Sex Criminals) for this to become a story that I was talking about with my friends and recommending to any friend that I thought would listen. The balance this book strikes between comedic and introspective continues to astound and impress me.

For me, the other truly remarkable thing about Sex Criminals is how much conversation it’s sparked in my life. After a friend read the first issue, she sent me a text absolutely floored about the remarkably realistic and grounded portrayal of female sexuality, and we agreed that it felt like a breath of fresh air.  At Emerald City Comicon 2014, it was clear that there was a rabid fanbase for the book—the lines to have Fraction and Zdarsky sign my freshly-purchased SEXclusive Convention HARDcover of Volume One was long all weekend.

(I did eventually get it signed, and uh, marked, by Fraction and Zdarsky—don’t worry, that’s whiteout)

 One of the advantages of reading Sex Criminals issue to issue was the letters column, where person after person related to the stories on the page, and shared their own experiences and questions. This book has sparked a conversation among readers, and that’s what I believe good media should do, not just entertain, but inspire us to seek some better understanding.  

The best thing about this book?

There’s so many more good things to talk about.  

Post by Jennifer DePrey


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