This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on May 23, 2014.
What’s the best way to explain Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals? It’s a comic with a strange premise, complex characters, and many as-of-yet unexplained mysteries. So instead of walking through all of that, here’s a music video from Queen.
Don’t skip the video. I’ll still be here in a few minutes.
Seriously, watch the video. The rest of this will make a lot more sense if you do.
Did you finally watch the video? Fine. I don’t care if you didn’t. It’s your loss. That video is spectacular.
That song contains everything that makes Sex Criminals great. It’s heartfelt. It’s wild. It’s funny. It’s romantic. It deals with the hardships of life and the value of finding someone amidst all the struggle and pain. It simultaneously reminds you of the struggle while lifting you above it to recognize the magic of life. That’s a pretty apt description for both “It’s a Hard Life” and Sex Criminals.
Sex Criminals begins by revealing the stories of its protagonists in the first two issues. Suzie and Jon are pretty standard twenty-somethings for the most part. They have friends, feel passionately about their interests, and are stuck in jobs that they either hate or that face extinction. They also stop time when they have sex.
That’s the central conceit about which the series revolves. It serves to heighten the drama of problems that every person faces in their life. The disconnect and loneliness that the heroes face due to their anomalous powers results in the same awkward journey we all face in puberty. Peter Parker got spider powers to reflect the process of becoming an adult. Suzie and Jon got time-stopping orgasms.
Suzie’s search for answers and the complete lack of help she receives is reflective of many adolescent experiences. Jon’s wild indulgence in his new found freedom does the same. Of course, Suzie also learns about brimping and Jon runs naked through a sex shop, but the heart of their journeys are very similar to those of many readers. The sense of loneliness and confusion that permeates their childhoods is palpable. Their origins emphasize that it’s a hard life. The story doesn’t revel in their alienation or angst though; it focuses on finding a solution to those problems.
The (literal and metaphorical) climax of the first issue is the moment when Suzie and Jon discover they share their ability. For the first time in their lives, they are not alone and it is an amazing thing. They spend the next three days together sharing their entire lives. In a matter of days they learn to care for each other, to trust in one another right from the start. For some it will be reminiscent of the moment they first met someone who made them feel whole, for others it will be a hopeful possibility they look forward too. In either instance the romance feels so genuine, that it is hard to avoid smiling while watching them fall in love.
Part of that reality comes in recognizing there’s a chance you have to take with love. Jon hides parts of himself from Suzie and it’s not a problem that will be easily resolved. Suzie hurts those around her by choosing to follow Jon on his bank-robbing scheme. They are not perfect people and the comic doesn’t shy away from their imperfections, choosing instead to embrace them. There are no heroes in this comic, only people, which imbues some of their actions with a sense of heroism and bravery absent from many other stories in the medium.
It doesn’t hurt that each issue Sex Criminals is filled with genuinely hilarious moments too. Whether it’s Suzie singing “Fat Bottomed Girls” on a pool table while text boxes censor the lyrics which cannot be legally printed or the dozens of small jokes hidden in the sex store, laughter is impossible to avoid. Fraction and Zdarsky have made a concerted effort to include as much value in each issue as possible, often including jokes in the covers and opening pages of each issue as well as the back matter. The infectious nature of both the romance and comedy isn’t supposition on my part. It’s evident in the sub-culture that sprung up around the book.
The back material in each issue of Sex Criminals is just as worthwhile to read as the comic itself. In the letters column, which runs between seven and eight pages of text, fans have begun to communicate with the Fraction and Zdarsky, as well as one another. A mention of porn found in the woods in Sex Criminals #2 resulted in an outpouring of stories from readers sharing their discoveries of porn, both woods-related and not. Others have written in to tell of their personal journeys discovering their sexuality and what difficulties they face now. All of these letters are signed by name, often with cities attached.
The readers of Sex Criminals are not only finding a book they can relate to, but also one that has given them a safe place to share their stories with the world. Fraction and Zdarsky provide responses, banter, and sex tips in these pages that keep the mood light, but still provide a welcoming place for anyone to write in. In the age of the Internet where people are easily able to hide behind usernames and lie without repercussion these letter columns are not just a rarity, they are a miracle.
Sex Criminals isn’t just about finding people. It’s a comic that openly encourages it, and affects its readers to do so in a meaningful way. Suzie and Jon are not generic stand-ins. They are well-realized characters with unique problems. But their journey is universally relatable. It recognizes the struggle of growing up and finding your own identity, of connecting with someone else and giving over trust, of acknowledging mistakes and trying to be better. And it also gives signs of hope. The small hand squeezes, the little jokes, the passionate bathroom stall loving that makes life worth living.
Sex Criminals is a comic that imbues its readership with a sense of hope, not because life is easy, but because it is worth the struggle.
Sex Criminals is a comic that makes its audience want to sing out: It’s a long hard fight, but I’ll always live for tomorrow. I’ll look back on myself and say I did it for love.
Check it out.