Can this whole intro just be the lyrics to “Fat Bottomed Girls”? No? Fine. In that case, let’s talk about sex, baby. Specifically, sex involving bank-robbing, library-saving, relationship-ruining criminals as written by the kind of comics creators who do great work in the mainstream and off-the-wall-awesome work at Image Comics. This is the story of a fledgling relationship, of two young people struggling with the whole “adulthood” thing, of people who can stop time, of sex scientists and sex cops and sex criminals, of the ways we live and love and screw and screw up. So put down that street muffin, brimpers. This is about to get weird.*
*But not that weird. This review is totally SFW. Unless you click the links. So maybe wait to do that until you get home. Ok? Ok.
Suze is a librarian at a library in the death throes of irrelevance, and Jon is a wannabe actor who mostly spends his time using his boss’ potted plant as a toilet and hating being a secretary. During a fundraising party to save her job, Suze and Jon hook up and discover they both share the same dirty secret: when they climax, the world stops. As long as they remain in the “refractory period” and don’t get aroused, they exist outside of time.
Suze uses “The Quiet” as space to reflect and deal with her personal issues, while Jon uses his to enact petty vengeances and unleash his pent up anger. Their friends Rachelle, Robert, and a pornstar-turned-horologist get tangled up in their plot to foil the Sex Police, headed by a kegeling soccer mom, a bus driver, and an über-rich developer.
Sex Criminals is written by Matt Fraction (Ody-C, Hawkeye, half of DeFraction) with art by Chip Zdarsky (Toronto-based illustrator, giver of extremely bad advice, and man behind ZdarsCon). It is an ongoing Image Comics series that started in 2013, with 10 issues (compiled into 2 volumes) printed to date. The first arc focuses on Suzie’s backstory and her and Jon’s criminal endeavors, and the second on Jon’s history of mental illness and learning more about their sex-fueled superpower. The series was nominated for 2 Eisners and won for Best New Series in 2014. Vol 2 releases February 25, 2015, and a hardcover edition of all 10 issues drops in March. If that’s not enough to wet your whistle, there’s also Just the Tips, Fraction and Zdarsky’s accompanying sex guide.
To Pull or Not to Pull
It’s February, and love is in the air, whether you like it or not. In the spirit of things, let’s talk about the hardest part of the whole love deal: the actual relationship. Now, if you’re as messed up as Suzie, Jon, and I are, you know that relationships are hard work, especially when they involve two people with very intense, very singular personalities. Adding the ability to stop time whenever you reach peak pleasure is a complication I’m glad I don’t have, although the chance to live out my childhood obsession with Out of this World is a strong pull. (I used to touch the tips of my index fingers together ALL. THE. TIME. as a kid hoping that maybe just once it would actually work. I remain bitterly disappointed about that.) The relationships, romantic and otherwise, are what really ground this quirky little SFF sex comedy. Not just the happy bits of a functional relationship, but seeing the darker bits of a dying relationship. Jon and Suze are fumbling and awkward with each other and with both discovering their bodies and what their bodies are capable of. They are so…so…human.
The characters are riddled with issues, as we all are, really, and Fraction and Zdarsky don’t shy away from delving into the messiness of it all. Sex Crimz is part therapy session, part education—think Neil Gaiman’s “Death Talks About Life” where Death and John Constantine do a sex ed PSA—and part genre-bending weirdness. The science fiction stuff is pretty great, but the human stories makes up the bulk of the stuff in between. It’s the packing peanuts surrounding the main arc of a couple using their sex powers for good and ill and the not-cops trying to stop them.
This is a comic that looked at the fourth wall and laughed. Every character routinely talks directly to the reader. They look the reader straight in the eye and chat about what’s swirling between the lines of what they say to each others. It’s a risky move by Fraction and Zdarsky, and they are two of only a handful of people who could pull it off. It’s gimmicky, but in an earnest sort of way. I mean, there’s a whole scene where Suzie does a glorious musical number to Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” except Fraction and Zdarsky couldn’t get the licensing done by the time they went to print so they fourth walled the hell outta the fourth wall. In that moment, Jon fell in love with Suze and I fell in love with Sex Criminals. And if that wasn’t enough for you, there are several excellent shoutouts to The Wicked + The Divine. Not to mention Jon’s shrink looking suspiciously like Steve Murray… And it gets even more meta when Fraction and Zdarsky start messing with publication conventions—the “previously on” bits are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I look forward to the back cover For Mature Readers warnings almost as much as I do the fantastic variant covers.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Sex Criminals doesn’t work without Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. Fraction’s scripts are just as vital as Zdarsky’s art; take one out of the equation and the whole thing becomes immensely lesser. It’s a pleasant mix of focused detail, deadpan humor, wild abandon, and agonizing realism. Zdarsky’s art is a delight from top to bottom. You could easily spend an hour just reading the names of businesses and books in the background. Bob’s Burgers is masterful at background humor, but even it has nothing on Sex Crimz. There’s a set of stores in Appleton called “Fashion? Turn to the Right,” “Fashion? Turn to the Left,” and “Good Fashion.” The porn shop Jon frequents has sections called “Tainted Childhood,” “Femdom Rom-Coms,” and “Hey Kids! Not Comics Go Away.” At one point, Rachelle and Robert Rainbow are wandering through a Pornes & Nobles past bookshelves stocked with “Mantasy” and “Rule 34 Shades of Grey.”
But the real reason the one-two punch of Fraction and Zdarsky hits so hard is because of how well they handle the sex and the comedy. Zdarsky’s art enhances Fraction’s jokes, like the punchline after the punchline that makes the original joke even funnier. And while Fraction’s script discusses very sexual things, there’s nothing salacious about Zdarsky’s art. It’s not easy to draw a BDSM scene, porno shoot, closeup of a woman giving birth, or a couple of kids having their first orgasms and not let it fall on the side of tawdry, but somehow they keep it honest and real. Sex Criminals isn’t smut—not that there’s anything wrong with that, as we shall see—and Fraction and Zdarsky are careful to keep it that way.
Everything about Sex Crimz is refreshingly frank and feminist, which is a thing I never thought I’d say about a comic helmed by two men telling a story about a girl discovering her womanhood. It’s never mean spirited, trite, or crass, nor does it reduce itself to base stereotypes. It’s take on mental illness is particularly heartening, especially in a medium that rarely knows how to handle such disorders. (As a person who an anxiety disorder with a splash of OCD, I relate to Jon in issue #6 on a molecular level.) Yes, the science fiction elements often get shoved to the side in lieu of character pieces, but honestly Jon and Suzie would be just as interesting even if they didn’t have the power to stop time. If it were just a story about how Jon, Suze, Rach, Jazmine St. Cocaine (of the Westport St. Cocaines), and Kegelface navigated their little patch of Canada, I’d still put Sex Criminals at the top of my Best Of Comics list.
As a fun little postscript since we’re talking SFF sexytimes, I’d be remiss in my Comic Book Chick duties if I didn’t point you to some excellent webcomic erotica. Given that the internet is composed almost exclusively of cat vids, Hiddles and Cumberbatch pics, trolls, and porn, it’s surprisingly difficult to find good smut that isn’t sleazy, degrading, or offensive. And it’s even harder to find some with a genre twist. Which is why I’m pleased to present Jess Fink’s deliciously dirty Chester 5000 XYV. She’s been writing the “erotic, robotic Victorian Romance” since 2008, and it was compiled into a graphic novel a few years ago. Fink has been doing her smut peddling for quite some time now, and it typically has a kinky SFF bent to it.
Chester 5000 is everything I have ever wanted in an X-rated webcomic. And I mean that with the strongest NSFW warning. It’s not far off from the kind of graphic depictions you’d find in woods porn, as a matter of fact, but less virulently anti-everyone-who-isn’t-a-cishet-white-man. It’s steamy, spicy, romantic, and sex positive, but with enough Steampunk geekiness to sate your fantasy whims. Although her webcomic is wordless, the characters are expressive, the stories evocative, and the art exhilarating. I have a deep, unabashed love for silent films (you should see my collection of Buster Keaton DVDs), meaning it’s just perfect for me. It and Nimona are the two webcomics I suggest first to anyone seeking recs, so that should tell you something about it’s outstanding quality.
If nothing else, Chester 5000 XYV and Sex Criminals should wash the gag-inducing taste of 50 Shades of No out of your mouth.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.