Sometimes you just read a book that’s too good to put down. Sex Criminals from writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky is one of those books. Don’t let the cheeky title fool you, the warning on the back of the book that offers a new disclaimer every issue. At first glance its slick and humorous packaging may seem flippant, the flat figures on its covers teasing sex cloaked pop sensibility, but Sex Criminals is a thoughtful gem from cover to cover. It follows Suzie, a librarian who discovered during puberty that having sex stops time, and Jon, a man she meets at a party who shares her love of literature as well as her particular time-freezing sexual quirk. Then they start robbing banks. Yes, that’s the book. No, I’m not kidding.
I could talk all day about the critical reception of this Image Comics title, issue #2 selling out and heading back for a second printing, but that doesn’t really tell you what you need to know. Because if you’re not reading this book, you should be. You’re missing out on something great. So if you aren’t planning to already, here are all the reasons why you should be picking up this book when #3 when it hits store shelves this November.
It’s about Sex. (Duh.)
Yes, as the title would suggest, it’s about sex. First and foremost, this book is a sex comedy. A tightly-scripted, well-executed sex comedy, with a great wealth of fascinating imagery. Fraction’s direct sense of humor lends a unique voice to the well-trodden genre we associate with films such as 40-Year-Old Virgin or American Pie, although it’s rarely seen in comics. After finding another person who shares her experiences and abilities, Suzie and Jon experiment with their powers, to varied and humorous results, eventually leading them to their foray into criminal endeavors. The jokes are funny and natural, even when they’re a little uncomfortable to think about, which comes from Fraction’s knack for scripting dialogue. From flashbacks to teenaged fumbling to how the characters came to understand their power, it all reads as engaging and sincere.
But don’t let the premise fool you, because what makes this book shine is its humanity. There is a realism, a
tenderness to the sex in this book, sincere and candid without being crude or silly, even in the face of time-stopping absurdity. The decision to ground the opening issue in Suzie’s experiences, both throughout her adolescence and into adulthood, establishes a personal tone and keeps the story emotionally relevant. Sex is part of the story, but it’s handled in a real and honest way. She and Jon feel like a real couple, joke and talk like a real couple, and have sex like a real couple. Everything just feels very genuine, and touches on things I think most readers can really relate to in their own lives and relationships.
The Artwork. (Seriously.)
Of course, writing is only half the equation. Zdarsky meets Fraction’s script and raises the bar with a clever balance of humor and sobriety, and really sells the book. His sense of design and layout is great, his panels beautifully composed with inventive pages throughout. “The Quiet,” as Suzie refers to her post-coital time-traveling, is fantastically rendered as a bright, colorful veneer of soft focus and scattered light that successfully bridges intimacy with a sense of the ethereal. So much of this works so well, simply because of the strength of the artwork, carrying the script through to a highly satisfying execution.
The Book is Self-Aware. (In a Good Way.)
Never taking itself too seriously, the narrative centers on Suzie, who often breaks the fourth wall. Through memories and metanarrative, she playfully and earnestly addresses the reader to offer her little tidbits and humorous anecdotes along the way, helping to develop her and the world she inhabits. This allows the book to move non-linearly, structured around flashbacks, progressing through the plot dependent on particular cues and references. It also allows for scenes such as that in issue #2, where Suzie is chided by the image of porn star Jazmine St. Cocaine, completely breaking from the story to make a point about the shaming of sex workers. Moments like these keep the book fresh and the reader involved, stepping outside of the constraints of traditional narrative to do and say something interesting.
It’s a Unique and Thoughtful Read. (No, Really.)
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of this title when I picked it up. I was intrigued by the concept, and as a longtime reader of Fraction’s work I was going to read it regardless, but I’ve been highly impressed by this book so far. Sex Criminals has been able to accomplish a lot in just two short months, taking on a genre rarely seen in comics to offer touching insights into private moments most of us can relate to. It’s a comedy, a crime caper, and a really shrewd commentary on sex, relationships and the experiences of men and women. The humor is whip-smart and uncompromising, the artwork is fantastic and intimate, creating a thoughtful discourse between the characters and the reader. It’s only two issues in, but I think it’s fair to say that if this book keeps it up, things can only get better from here.