A Review of Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals
By Tini Howard
Comics are a brave medium through which to tell an adult story. While some of us know of Alan Moore’s Watchmen as comic literature and saw Chris Nolan turn Batman into Oscar bait, for plenty of people comic books still bring to mind stunted writers and readers who can’t handle real books.
Sex Criminals, written by Marvel veteran Matt Fraction and with art by Chip Zdarsky, is a real book. One of the realest and bravest books out this year. Sex Criminals addresses the shame, thrill, and occasional loneliness that come with sexual awakening via a bitingly clever metaphor that lends itself to fast-paced storytelling.
Lest readers think the title’s purely referential, allow me to educate. This is a comic where one character refers to his power as “Cumworld,” and there’s a panel illustrating “brimping,” undoubtedly the silliest sex act one will ever see. Make no mistake, Sex Criminals is about sex. Strange, silly, lonely, polarizing sex. Protagonists Jon and Suzie have both gone their whole lives feeling different. While it’s bad enough feeling like a weird teenager brimming with hormones, when Suzie and Jon independently discover masturbation as adolescents, they learn of an additional magic: the ability to stop time when they orgasm. Yes. Still reading? Hang on.
Their paths don’t cross until later in life, when they meet at a party and hook up. In that space after sex, where they’ve both always felt alone and strange, they find each other – joined in their time-stop continuum. (Remember “Cumworld?” Suzie isn’t a fan of the name either.) So, like any young, hot-blooded couple would, they use their newfound technique to commit crimes.
Sex Criminals isn’t porn, but it is full of sex. Apple has actually refused to sell it via the iOS ComiXology app due to its graphic content. (A somewhat hilarious choice, as there’s nothing in this book that isn’t in the lyrics of plenty of popular songs.) Criminals isn’t graphic novel literature, and it isn’t trying to be—but it’s far more than just a comic book. It’s both irreverent and deep; it stares in the face all of our weird societal feelings about sex and does something interesting with its tongue—maybe a raspberry or maybe a big French kiss. It’s unafraid and hilarious and real.
In issue 1, Suzie tearfully explains to readers that she uses the time stopped by her orgasm to dress and go downstairs, to say to her alcoholic mother all of the things she can’t say when time is moving normally, while Jon describes the loneliness of not understanding sexual desire for most of his young life. And then they bang and rob a bank. These people are real. Artist Chip Zdarsky never loses sight of that for a second, portraying them as beautiful and flawed, real and cartoony all at once. Every panel is stuffed full of visual jokes and commentary that encourages a laugh right when the awkward part might start. Just like the best sex.
Criminals is the story we all need—it isn’t afraid to address how we view sex workers in the same panel that it picks on the ludicrous names they sometimes choose. Is there a more perfect way to comment on we feel about sex? Perhaps not—as of early last week, Time Magazine named Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals its number one graphic novel of the year.
Sex Criminals is a comic book for literary fiction fans, something that’s not always easy to find, and hopefully not the last of its kind.
Matt Fraction, Sex Criminals, Image Comics, 2013: $3.50 (print)/free-$2.99 (digital)
Tini Howard lives and writes in Wilmington, NC because she got the idea life would be better there. So far, she’s not wrong. For more of her writing on comics, check out her blog or follow her @tinihoward.