I guess you wouldn’t expect a comic called “Sex Criminals” to be a nuanced and sentimental story. You expect a zany comedy about people who have sex and rob banks, and on one level, that’s what this book is. The standard pitch for this book is that it’s about two people who have the ability to literally stop time when they have sex, so they use this power to rob banks and donate the money to an ailing local library to save the books. And it is about that. It absolutely is about that. It’s also about a lot more than that, and I think that’s where the audience appeal really kicks in. Come for the wacky hijinks, stay for the heartfelt portrayal of two flawed people who find each other, and struggle to do the right thing in a big and scary world.
This is, not surprisingly, a bit of a highwire act, to try and maintain what often feels like two halves of this series. The first issue of Sex Criminals is actually one of the first comics I ever read, after a friend put it in my hands and said, “You NEED to read this.” One of the first things that struck me about it was the feeling of real and deep sincerity coming from both Fraction and Zdarsky on this book. I mean, you look at the premise, and it would be so easy to be snide and sarcastic, as so much “adult” humor is. That isn’t a pitch where you expect to see a lot of very raw emotions laid out on the table, but there they are. If the first issue or the first arc had had that sense of “ha ha aren’t we clever and shocking”, I never would have picked it back up again; I never would have kept reading.
What you get, instead, in this series, is a serious examination of loneliness and frustration and fulfillment and mental health and physical health and adulthood and sexual expression. In the first arc, I felt I related more to Suzy, our female protagonist; in the second, I felt a greater kind of empathy with Jon, our male protagonist (in the third, I feel it might be Robert Rainbow, but that’s a different story). They love each other, and (I know this may be shocking to some of you) their romance plot/subplot (depending on the issue) is what’s kept me hooked through some ups and downs in this series.
After the end of the first arc, I also thought about the highwire act this book was performing, and wondered how long it would be before an inevitable slip occurred. After all, no ongoing series is perfect, especially not one that deals with such sensitive topics as this one. I have a deep admiration for Matt Fraction as a writer, but no writer is perfect either, and it’s not right or fair to put them up on a pedestal as if they were. To me, the end of the second arc/beginning of the third arc is where that slip happened. But much to my eternal gratitude, I think they managed to recover it before the end of the third arc.
The first arc details how Jon’s first sexual experience was finding porn in the woods (an apparently common thing? The internet tells me this is a surprisingly common thing) featuring an actress named Jazmine St. Cocaine, and you expect it to be a throwaway gag. Some funny one-liner that doesn’t go anywhere. In the second arc, Jazmine St. Cocaine herself actually appears, using her real name, Dr. Ana Kincaid. Yeah, she’s got a PhD. And she’s got the same time-stopping powers as Jon and Suzy do (and the mysterious recurring antagonist Myrtle Spurge, or Kegelface). Dr. Kincaid is shown sympathetically, and the reader is generally forced to confront their mental images of who sex workers are and what they do and a lot of the ugly stereotypes that surround sex work. This is a good thing.
Unfortunately, at least two or three more issues pass before Jon and Suzy themselves are made to confront their own biases about this. This is a really interesting scene in issue 14, the fourth issue of the third arc. Dr. Kincaid finds a lot of the couples’ derogatory texts about her, and she goes to confront Suzy about it. At this point, not only does the fourth wall break, the book goes entirely meta. There’s several pages drawn of conversation between Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, as themselves, discussing how to handle this scene. Fraction doesn’t want to write it, because to say what he wants to (and has to) say, is going to result in bad writing. What he needs to say is that judging other people based on their sexual past and proclivities is wrong, and coming right out and saying it isn’t good writing (I might have qualms with that, but no matter). When we get back into the world of the book, the moment has passed, and the necessary resolution has been met. I still haven’t decided if going meta was a cheap, hack move, or a stroke of genius, but I loved it either way, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
The aforementioned Myrtle Spurge (I’m sure they intentionally chose her name to be as repulsive as possible, but oh god why) is the antagonist who shares the time-stopping sex powers and seems to be part of a massive force of sex police who try to stop exactly what Jon and Suzy are doing. She has a recurring subplot through this arc in which she sleeps with Jon’s therapist in order to gain access to Jon’s files, so that she can find him and use her knowledge to stop him. This is, of course, wrong on every level and it only gets worse when it’s revealed that she’s starting to have feelings for Jon’s therapist (ignoring, for the time, the existence of her husband and children). The sex police plotline was a lot more imposing during the first and second arcs, and it seems to have taken a backseat in the third, which I feel may have been to the book’s detriment. However, I can see that it would be totally necessary with the amount of other stuff they decided to put in instead.
The third arc featured two issues that focused on… I don’t want to use the phrase “alternative sexualities”, because “anime” is not a sexuality, but perhaps you’ll get my meaning. Issue 11, Manime, focused on a guy who dresses up like a sailor senshi and his semen takes on the form of a magical anime girl that attacks people… yeah, let it never be said that comics are for kids, people. And issue 13, Bace, focuses on an asexual woman who reaches the necessary climax to activate her time-stopping powers not by sex, but by base jumping. I’ve seen a lot of back and forth and a lot of varying opinions about whether or not these portrayals were handled well or not – ultimately, I’m going to fail to give an opinion one way or another, but I will say that spending entire issues focused on people who had never been introduced and had no relevance to the main plot at that point was not necessarily a smart choice, and I think it artificially padded out a very small amount of story into five issues worth of comics.
At the end of the last issue of the third arc, it finally seems like things are coming to a head – characters who were previously not involved are being pulled in, concrete action is about to be taken, Jon and Suzy might be starting to get their shit together, and we’re on the verge of getting some real answers to some of the lingering questions that have hovered over the series as a whole. And then the issue ends, of course. If you’re not okay with cliffhangers, never get involved with reading monthly comic series. Don’t do it to yourself. What’s unclear to me is how much longer Sex Criminals has left.
This could be the beginning of the end, or it could just be the very very start. One of the problems with comics is that an “ongoing” series can mean anything from 12 issues (like Charles Soule’s She Hulk ongoing) to over 150 (like The Walking Dead, currently on issue 156). I’m hoping there’s a lot more left to this series, honestly. When it missteps, it seems to misstep big, which is going to be the case when you deal with hot button issues like sexualities and sex work and mental health in relation to sex and really just sex in general. But when it’s good, it’s so good, and I may never forget the feeling of “oh my god it’s not just me” that I got from reading the first five issues.
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