Comic Book Review: SEX CRIMINALS #1 is the Sex Comedy Comics Deserves
The very first thing Sex Criminals has going for it is an extremely tantalizing hook: two people meet, fall into bed together, and find they each have the ability to stop time with sex. So, being two energetic young individuals, they decide to put that…talent, let’s say, to work in some not exactly legal ways, and have a few naked laughs along the way. It’s a titillating (sorry, but if I’m ever going to use that word in a review, now’s the time) blend of science fiction and hard-R comedic raunch that’s bound to pique the interest of plenty of comics fans, not to mention people who are just fans of weird sex comedies in general. It’s an easy way in for a lot of people.
Here’s the thing, though: It also sounds like the kind of concept that has enough juice for a two-hour movie, but maybe not an ongoing comic book series. Yes, there are quite a few examples of people who’ve made a career out of dick jokes, but even they have to change up characters now and then. How does that work when you’re following the same characters month in and month out, in a medium were such a premise is largely untested?
The answer is both simple and devastatingly challenging: You don’t make it all about the dick jokes. You add tremendous character substance, foreshadowing, a deep and textured emotional core and plenty of inventiveness with your conceptual hook, and you do it every single month. Whether Sex Criminals can pull that off issue after issue remains to be seen, but it achieves all of this its first time out in what is easily one of the best debut issues of a comic I’ve ever read.
The issue’s success begins with subverting expectations by saving the criminals part of the title, apart from a few panels, for another day, and instead focusing on lead character Suzie’s complicated personal history with sex. After a family tragedy leaves her distant from many people in her life, including her grieving mother, she discovers her time-stopping orgasmic powers (which is a metaphor in itself, don’t you think?) and takes solace in being able to get away from it all. Then comes the difficulty of sex with another person, the understanding that she’s alone in her particular gift, and a host of other complications that make sex even more layered with emotional complexities than it would be for a normal person. Then she meets Jon, who has the same ability, and after freaking out a bit, they forge a unique connection that leads to…you know…a life of orgasm-powered crime.
Though Suzie and Jon’s collaboration will be what pulls many readers onward into issue two, issue one’s real strength is the level of attention and care applied to telling Suzie’s story. We all have strange relationships with our sexuality as we grow up, but it’s important that we as readers know that Suzie’s is infinitely stranger than most of us could ever dream of, and part of getting to know that lies in simply getting to know her. Matt Fraction’s writing is the perfect blend of irreverence and sensitivity, pulling us into Suzie’s head with breezy, fourth wall-breaking monologues that never once feel like infodumps. And then, when things get weird (and oh yeah, they get weird), the dialogue is sharp, witty and without a single wasted word.
The other half of this potent storytelling equation is Chip Zdarsky, whose art is just plain fascinating to look at. The way he visually conveys Suzie’s ability — with a kind of dreamy, bubbly haze that shrouds her world in color and light — is among the most inventive visual devices I’ve seen in comics in a long time (and I’m a guy who looks at a lot of David Aja art). When it comes to characters, he infuses them with an emotional warmth that makes you feel like you instantly know them, particularly Suzie, from her concerned teenage years to her unique adulthood. There’s been a discussion in certain comics circles lately about how often readers and reviewers alike forget the storytelling contributions of the artist, but here Zdarsky’s work insists that you pay attention. We are just as informed by the look in Suzie’s eyes as we are by the words that fill the captions around her head. For all the sensationalism surrounding its concept, there’s a real, welcoming quality to this book, and a lot of that comes from Zdarsky.
While the first thing you think about when you finish Sex Criminals #1 might be the always strange sex scenes, what’ll keep you thinking about the book all month long until the next issue is the deeper story, the tale of a young woman trying to figure out her own particularly tricky brand of intimacy, and finding someone else who gets it. For a comic that features a glowing dick in one panel, this is a remarkably human book, and its sense of humor, tremendous heart and constant visual dazzle will seduce you, even if the action doesn’t get really hot and heavy until the final pages.