I’m not sure how a comic like writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals #5 got past an editor. It’s not bad (in fact, I would say it’s one of the best comics of the year), but good lord in heaven, this has a premise that I don’t think I could ever explain to my parents and convince them that it was a totally mature and entertaining comic worth my time and money. I know my grandmother is one of the five people who reads these reviews, so if she’s reading this, I suggest she skip this one.
I’ll try and put it as simply as I can: John and Suzie have the magical ability to stop time when they orgasm. After some initial bonding over their shared magical abilities, the two become a couple and decide to use their powers to commit crimes. However, it appears that John and Suzie are not the only ones able to reach the time-stopped realm of “The Quiet” as Suzie calls it, and there seems to be a secretive “Sex Police” that are hell-bent on taking John and Suzie down before the world finds out what is happening. The Sex Police is led by a “kidnapping, sex fascist” who looks like a tanned Uma Thurman and can orgasm by doing Kegel exercises in public, a bus driver who beats people with dildos, and a guy wearing a Canadian Ski Mask. If you can still be on board after reading this, congratulations! You now have lower standards of morality (or you are very comfortable with sex), and you can properly enjoy this fantastic comic.
Fraction is probably the best writer in the comics business today, with his Hawkeye line being an absolute gem at Marvel, which already has some of the best-written comics out there. Only the most skilled of writers can make a premise like this not only entertaining, but also hilarious and honestly fascinating. I actually want to know how this world works, and I breezed through the first five of these comics in minutes because I found them so fantastically written. I am still curious of how John and Suzie’s power works and who the “Sex Police” really are.
In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever been so invested in characters as I have with John and Suzie. They are not only hysterical (John gets his frustrations out on his boss by defecating in his boss’s office plant when time has stopped), but also very realistically nuanced in a way that most comic writers don’t seem to understand. They are not brooding or depressed or angry at the world, but people who do inane things and whose anger with the world’s injustice is often justified but also realistically mediated. They don’t want to hurt anybody, and narrator Suzie honestly feels guilty at the thought of someone being fired at their actions. I think a lot of poor writers equate “realism” with a cynical worldview and anger (and, considering that is what most high art entails, who can blame them?), but Fraction understands real life to be a lot sillier and petty than we all like to think. He does delve into the more serious and depressing stuff every now and then, such as when John explains that his vindictive behavior is due to Oppositional Defiant Disorder and he refuses to take medication because it takes the spice and emotion out of his life, but these moments are rare and thus get the attention and emotional investment that they deserve. The other 80% of the comic is more dedicated to comedically characterizing John and Suzie so we honestly care about them, and are thus invested in their story. Drama and trauma can make a reader sympathize with a character, but writers need to remember that readers need to like a character before we can care about them.
Fraction also understands how to use the comic medium in a way that to which most writers cannot compare. He plays around with panels and narrative captions, using title panels to introduce backstory and various narrative threads, and the main narrator Suzie can often appear in various places and in various costumes to talk directly to the reader. Also, due to the time-stopping mechanic, Fraction plays around with the conventions of time. A run in with the yet unnamed “Sex Police” Leader has her stop time and leave a threatening message for our heroes, all in the transition from one panel to another. In this moment, Fraction raises many questions of the reliability of the narration. If so much can be done in the gutter between two panels, a reader is left to wonder just how much a person with these powers can do when our main characters don’t realize.
Artistically, the comic is a bit generic, but Zdarsky’s art is interesting enough to beneficially complement Fraction’s stellar writing. John and Suzie are portrayed realistically, with Suzie being relatively flat-chested and John having a bulbous nose that enforces the everyday nature of their characters, rather than have them be idealistically beautiful. He also throws in a ton of visual jokes, including having Suzie wear an apron that reads “Kiss the Cock” and John wear a Star Trek Ensign uniform and Spiderman gloves for no discernable reason. They may not always make sense, but they still made me laugh.
Zdarsky’s also quite good at drawing faces, with the “Sex Police” Leader being the gem of the issue. Her face is rarely expressive, leaving Zdarksy to experiment with subtle cues and curls of her lip to denote her emotions. He also has to draw her “kegelface,” which is exactly what it sounds like. His presentation of the Quiet is also interesting, using lens flare and vibrant secondary colors to denote the Quiet’s otherworldly nature.
I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of Sex Criminals. Fraction’s writing not only keeps the mystery of the “Sex Police” alive but also creates two interesting, engaging characters that I wish the best for. Sure, the premise is weird and immature at times, but Fraction and Zdarsky obviously embrace the weird with gusto. And, to be perfectly honest, there is a certain appeal to that. I’d rather have a fantastic comic that confuses and embarasses me than read a conventional comic that is passable at best. Every medium needs creators like Fraction and Zdarsky to step outside the box, and I think every person who cares about this medium (as well as people who just like good comics) should give their support to their bizarre venture.
Photo: Benjamin Mazzara/The Georgetown Voice