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Comics: In Sex Criminals, when the main characters orgasm, time stops and the adventure begins

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Sex Criminals
Chip Zdarsky’s art is so effective, dialogue is often left to the reader’s imagination.

Reading Sex Criminals — a creator-owned comic published by Image and written by Matt Fraction with art by Chip Zdarsky — feels both illicit and mainstream.

As the title suggests, the comic is filled to bursting with adult content, which has led some comic shops — and also iTunes — to refuse to carry the book. The plot revolves around Suzie and Jon, each of whom can freeze the world around her or himself by having an orgasm. The night they discover one another changes their lives forever. Their sexual histories and their sexual present are, of course, central to the story and are depicted fairly explicitly.

The book is collecting plenty of accolades; some of them coming from sources you might not expect would love a graphic (in both senses of the word) sex romp. For example, Time placed Sex Criminals at the top of the magazine’s list of best comics and graphic novels of 2013. The folks at Iowa City’s Daydreams Comics told me that Sex Criminals is popular, particularly with female readers who enjoy the sex-positive story featuring a young woman who doesn’t need to be saved by a man.

sex-criminals-pageWhile the book may not be for everyone, Sex Criminals is excellent — well written and stunningly drawn, with a clever plot and characters we come to love very quickly. The fifth issue of the title, which was released in mid-March, completes the first arc of Fraction and Zdarsky’s story and will be collected in a trade edition. The book is on hiatus until June, so it’s a good time to catch up.

Right from the beginning of the first issue, Sex Criminals thrusts us into a climactic scene (as it were). We see Suzie and Jon frantically having sex in a bathroom while threats — first tentative and awkward and then authoritative and scary — are shouted through the door. Suzie asks the reader not to judge, and then we turn the page to discover the story of her father’s violent death, which launches us into her back story. Zdarsky’s art, which is warm, inviting and expressive, draws us in immediately (sure, the sex scene is arresting, but Zdarsky isn’t out to merely shock or titillate). The artist deserves much of the credit for how rapidly we connect with Suzie and Jon — Zdarsky has a gift for facial expressions, and some of the most effective panels in Sex Criminals have no dialogue at all.

Fraction devotes much of the first issue to Suzie’s story, while the second issue brings Jon’s history to the fore. Suzie’s path to sexual understanding includes a stop in a school bathroom stall for a hilarious — and disturbing — tutorial from another student. We see Suzie falling in love with the local library, an institution the adult Suzie, with Jon’s help, will go to great lengths to try to save from foreclosure. The issue also includes a beautifully composed page showing Jon wooing Suzie at a party by reciting a passage from the controversial classic Lolita. It’s a credit to both creators that we can think of this as a little discomfiting and completely sweet at the same time — which could also be said of the overall story.

As the series progresses, we meet the villains of the piece, including a stern woman who leads some sort of sex police force that pursues our heroes into what Suzie calls “The Quiet” — the out-of-time space they enter after orgasm. We learn more about Suzie and Jon, including the latter’s struggles with a behavioral disorder and the medication used to treat it. And, in the third issue, we encounter an epic musical number made meta and magnificent by a permissions delay. Yellow text blocks obscure the uncleared lyrics as we are told: ” … we started joking about doing a musical number in the book. And, as we’ve now hit our male lead in the face with a dildo, we figured — why not? So we decided it would be ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ by Queen because it’s kind of the greatest song of all time … We even had to send in script pages and everything. Just think — BRIAN MAY might have read this page before you did. Crazy right? Anyway … we just couldn’t get the license arranged in time. Maybe for the trade, we’ll see.”

This breach of the fourth wall could be disastrous, but by this point, Fraction and Zdarsky have established that we’re all in on the jokes and silliness and sentimentality that drive the story (a sense enhanced by the extensive letters sections that are included at the end of books two through five). In fact, this scene works so well one hopes it doesn’t get changed for the trade.

The fifth issue wraps us with our sex criminals on the run and several story threads dangling. Fraction and Zdarsky have set things up well for a great second arc. I’m looking forward to catching up with Suzie and Jon in June.

Born colorblind and therefore convinced he’d never enjoy graphic forms of storytelling, Rob Cline was first bitten by the comics bug in college. The resulting virus lay dormant for many years before it was activated by the inscrutable work of Grant Morrison. Now Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic.


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