The Best and Worst Books of April
Fiction: 'The Stroller' by Margaret St. Clair

New Releases: Sex Criminals, Volume 1 - One Weird Trick

Sex CriminalsSex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s recently-launched series from Image Comics received recognition in several categories in the recently-announced Eisner nominations. This collection assembles the first five issues of this extremely distinctive series.

Suzie has had a difficult life; following her father’s death, her depressed mother became dependent on alcohol, leaving Suzie pretty much to her own devices. Never one of the popular kids at school, she grew up isolated and unhappy. Then one day, when (let’s just get this out there) masturbating while taking a bath, something entirely unexpected happens that makes Suzie’s life a whole lot more interesting. Her orgasm makes time stop. In a riot of colour and light, she investigates a weirdly still world in which she alone can move around, which she comes to think of as The Quiet.

Naively, she assumes this is something that happens to everyone, leading to misunderstanding and embarassment, and an amazing sequence in which Rachelle, one of the school ‘Dirty Girls’ explains a number of sexual techniques to her. (These, drawn in Zdarsky’s cartoony style, are a real highlight of the series’ first issue.)

Unfortunately, Suzie’s efforts to recapture this magic experience with sex partners other than herself are frequently unrewarding, even though she tries a lot.  In the meantime, she grows up, leaves school, and becomes a librarian. Cut to some time later when her library is threatened with closure, and she and now-best friend and roommate Rachelle throw a party to try and raise money. In the aftermath of an encounter with party guest Jon, she suddenly discovers that she’s not the only one who can visit The Quiet - though that’s not exactly what Jon calls it…

Sex Criminals is one of the most original concepts for a comic in a while, and this collection does a great job in setting the series up for what I hope will be a long run. Split between telling the story of Suzie and Jon’s pasts and their current situation as Sex Criminals (they have sex to make time stop so they can rob a bank - it’s not an unreasonable label), by the end of the book the audience has a great grasp on the protagonists and their world, as well as some idea of the complexities that are going to feature in the future. The attention of the (obviously- but nevertheless brilliantly-named) Sex Police, who are concerned about their abuse of The Quiet, promises particular entertainment.

Matt Fraction has had an interesting few years - from indie hit Casanova to early Marvel recognition for his work on The Immortal Iron Fist, he’s since had well-received runs on title such as Iron Man and Uncanny X-Men, a slightly more mixed response to his big crossover debut on Fear Itself (which I quite liked), and a should-have-been-longer-lived, very high-concept revival of The Defenders before launching the multi-award-winning Hawkeye. His two current Image titles are this one and Satellite Sam, and though both deal with somewhat sleazy subjects, they could not be more different. Of the two, Sex Criminals is far quirkier and more interesting.

His character work here especially is excellent. Suzie in particular is one of the most interesting new personalities in comics for quite a while, but highlighting her shouldn’t undermine how well he does with giving Jon his own well-rounded set of traits and foibles. Even ‘bad girl turned best friend turned concerned best friend’ Rachelle, a walking stereotype in many other stories, is a well developed participant in Suzie’s life, even though her actual page time is minimal. Rachelle is also the subject of the series’ one big uncomfortable use of Comic Book Coincidence, sadly, but otherwise Fraction’s plotting feels organic and clever. The split between the two timelines works well to keep both engaging and interesting, and despite the obvious and inescapably prurient nature of the subject matter, Sex Criminals never feels sleazy.

Part of that is also down to Chip Zdarsky, briefly famous several years ago for getting naked on the internet, and now for depicting other (fictional) people’s nudity and sexy times tastefully and at the same time entertainingly. Anyone doubting he’s the perfect man for the job should check out that sex acts catalogue from issue one I mentioned above. If you can get past brimping without snorting with laughter you’re a better person than I. Zdarsky’s style is just far along on the ‘cartoony’ end of the scale to take the salacious edge off what he’s drawing while close enough to ‘realistic’ to make his subjects feel real and relatable.  (He draws from real life models, by the way, so he also avoids all of the ludicrous physiology that characterises so much comic art.)  In my odder moments I’ve occasionally wondered what this title would look like drawn by other artists with a reputation for the risque, such as Fraction’s Satellite Sam collaborator Howard Chaykin, and in every case my answer has been “a lot worse”.

The only criticism, which I suspect arises from the script wanting to avoid being too explicit, is that very occasionally the art doesn’t then convey clearly enough what’s actually happening. This interrupts the flow of the story in places while the reader (or this reader at least) puts the pieces together.  

As well as issues 1-5, this first collection also includes bonus material, including some promotional stuff Fraction and Zdarsky did around the series launch and all the repeat printing covers, including the 'making of' of the issue 1 fourth printing, by itself one of the best covers on any comic last year.

I mentioned in my Eisners round up that Sex Criminals puts fun back into comics. We’re not so mired in ‘grim and gritty’ as we occasionally have been in past industry phases, but I do sometimes think we need to get back to the fun, and if you think so too, then the sex comedy that is Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is what you’re looking for.