WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR NSFW IMAGERY (which, y’know, is to be expected coz of the title)
A writer’s workshop I attended last week featured the guy running it tell us “every story is a story rewritten”. He was (allegedly) quoting someone famous (Hemingway, maybe?), but Google-fu hasn’t been able to divine the culprit in any permutation of the above quotation or replacing the word “story” with “book”, “fable” or “random cave drawing”.
The crux of this wisdom was the notion that each new story these days takes elements from what has come before and reworks it in a way that can be fresh but is not, per se, entirely original. Star Wars might be a trope codifier for sci-fi fantasy, but the film itself was a rework of the classic 1930s sci-fi serials that would also later be homaged in movies like Flash Gordon. Even something genuinely push-the-envelope as Inception owes much of its DNA to films outside Christopher Nolan’s body of work, though I don’t think any of them could’ve pulled off a stylish mind-boggler in much the same way Nolan did. Also they wouldn’t have had Tom Hardy around.
My point is, stories these days can feel a bit recycled no matter how good they are. Ponder on this, then, as I tell you that Sex Criminals feels like the most truly original indie comic to come out of Image or any other non-Big-Two company in years.
In a nutshell, there’s a girl named Suzie. After her father dies and her mother hits the bottle she begins puberty, discovering with her first accidental orgasm that she can somehow freeze time whenever she has the sexy time. Over the years she uses this strange talent, unaware that another bloke called Jonathan, whom she meets at a party, has a similar condition. After the two realise the special things their special places can do, they hit upon the world-beating idea to rob banks together. Because wouldn’t we all?
Now, before those of you who’ve read it go off to draw links between the book and the sex comedies, heist films, Scott Pilgrim-inspired meta-narratives and sexual education posters you’ll no doubt claim inspired the former, let me clarify. It’s rare that I read a book as raptly and attentively as I did Sex Criminals – the last one that truly grabbed me to that extent was Saga – mostly because it’s a breath of fresh air. Some of the usual teen sex tropes are present, though thankfully not as painful to watch as many of the American Pie sequels, and the use of a myth arc to carry along both the strange things Suzie and Jon’s privates can do and those trying to stop them gives the book a surprising and unexpected spine.
In all honesty, the concept initially seemed a bit of a one-trick pony to me. The only way I could see it diversifying the repertoire was if particular kinds of orgasms (manual, assisted, from intercourse, etc) did different things to time and space, or maybe if an orgasm stretches for so long that the pair of protagonists are skeletons by the time the clocks start running again. But in actuality, Sex Criminals has a really intelligent story that just happens to contain a concept you’d expect as part of a Eurotrip fanfiction. The opening is overly serious (though the narration, quite meta throughout, assures you the sex and jokes are coming soon, promise) and there are bits of a darker undertone popping up here and there to punctuate the long stretches of really excellent comedy. This is a story rather than a string of jokes, so those hoping for a bunch of excuses to experience scenes of characters having sex should probably go watch Hotel Erotica instead.
And because Sex Criminals is a story, the characters are strongly written and their relationship is both believable and really sweet. They’re not together simply because their immodest orgasms break the timey-wimey ball, but because they seem to connect as people, too. Sure, the impetus for their whirlwind 48-hour (or something like that) first date is an insane amount of sex and time-stopping, but as the book goes on we see they could easily have matched up had they not been sexual clockstoppers. It’s a credit to writer Matt Fraction that our protagonists are written as characters rather than a pair of cyphers with sex jokes.
A big theme throughout the book is sexual security; that is, becoming secure in your own self once you hit the dreaded teens and things start happening to your body. Fraction tackles these issues of insecurity head-on with a few fourth-wall-breaking speech bubbles, presumably aimed at younger readers, telling them it’s ok to be changing and becoming an adult. What makes these bits fun rather than preachy is the light way it addresses those issues with truth but stops just short of becoming a sex ed piece. It’s gratifying to see a comic writer face issues of sex that a lot of others seem to shy away from. Maybe we should get some Republicans to check it out.
If I have a problem with the story – and given its overall tapestry of nuanced writing and marvellous characterisation, this is fairly minor – it’s the framing device used in medias res during a big bank robbery. Having it at the start works well to establish tension, but the plotting and timeline of later chapters become muddy when it appears at the start of each chapter and disrupts the flow of events from the chapter beforehand. Also, the villains (such as they are) seem reasonably ineffectual and relatively unexplained. I figure we’ll learn more about them later on, and hopefully they’ve got backstories as interesting as their kegel-enthusiast commanding officer.
Art is awesome. Chip Zdarsky does a great job of giving full-lipped illustrations without making it too cartoony, but at the same time carrying a slightly off-beat quirk to character proportions and background work that in some ways adds to the humour level. It very much puts me in mind of Rob Guillory’s work on Chew but with less exaggeration, especially with the funny posters and background details cheekily snuck into panels strategically. Despite the title, there’s not a lot of actual sex and even less full nudity, so Zdarsky straddles (sorry) the line between artistic and pornographic really well. Of particular note is the overlap effect used when time freezes which kinda looks like you’re viewing the world through sparkly fog, as if a rocket launcher detonated Edward Cullen and you’re seeing through his equivalent of pink mist.
Dialogue, mercifully, feels like it’s being spoken by real people. My biggest fear whenever reading teen- or young adult-aimed content is seeing words on page that make me want the protagonists to die on principle, and thankfully Fraction averts that marvellously. As mentioned before, the villains aren’t particularly noteworthy, but both Suzie and Jon sound and act like real people. On a meta level, I’ve gotta give Fraction credit for a karaoke sequence meant to use the lyrics to Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls”, but which was prohibited thanks to rights clearance issues. To compensate, Fraction uses in-panel post-it notes on the sequence that explain the lack of lyrics to turn what could’ve been a deleted scene into one of the best meta-jokes in the book. Major kudos, and somehow having the karaoke dance routine going on behind the post-its adds a wonderfully surreal humour value. In this one exception to the rule, the lawyers actually made a comic funnier.
Most might be turned off by the title, some by the story and others by the links to the much-loathed sex comedy genre. Honestly, I cannot recommend Sex Criminals enough. It’s witty, with great heart, excellent metatextual humour and a story I’m quite interested to see progress. It might borrow some things from what’s come before, but it still feels refreshingly original – avoiding the tropes of its forebears while still paying a bit of lip service just makes it better. And if you honestly can’t see the inherent coolness of being able to go all Hiro Nakamura when you rub one out, it’s probably time once again to reassess your standards.
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “So, we get a little jumped. And while I’m there on the ground…I see something, right? Porn. Porn in the woods. Which used to be a thing. You’d find porn left to rot out there. So the woods was, like, really slow internet basically. See, I didn’t – my dad – I had no porn, I had no stash, but this…this was mine. All I had to do was not get my ass beat.” – Jonathan