Let me just get this out of the way: Sex Criminals, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, is not about rape, incest, pedophilia, or any other actual sex crimes. It’s actually about a couple that is able to stop time when they… um… uh…reach climax, so they use that ability to rob banks. It’s absolutely filthy. But is it good?
Big Hard Sex Criminals HC 1 (Image Comics)
Even after reading 10 issues* (all in one day) of as sex-positive a comic as Sex Criminals, it still makes me a little uncomfortable to write frankly about a book that discusses and depicts sex so frankly. So let me get this out of my system:
Okay, I think I’m good now.
Really though, it’s hard to talk about Sex Criminals in polite company, because there’s no G-rated (or even PG-13 rated) way to describe the plot. Suzie is a smart, confident young librarian that has known since puberty that, when she has an orgasm, she can enter “the quiet,” a period in which time stops for her until she is ready to have sex again. When she hooks up with a charming actor-turned-frustrated-secretary named Jon, they discover that they both have the same strange ability. With the library that Suzie works at being foreclosed upon by the bank that Jon works for, they decide to use their power to rob enough money from enough banks to save the library.
As Suzie and Jon’s relationship develops, we learn more about their pasts, as well as the (sex) lives of other characters that are introduced throughout the story, including the elusive Sex Police. It’s full of goofy concepts and, of course, lots and lots of sex, but there’s an emotional core here that most sex comedy films are sorely lacking. It very quickly becomes clear that this is more than just a silly comic about doin’ it, and the characters have wants, needs, and motivations beyond just getting laid. Readers may come for the sex jokes, but they’ll stay for everything else.
It should come as no surprise to fans of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye — a book that could have easily been a cheap cashing in on the newfound popularity of a B-list superhero thanks had a minor supporting role in one of the highest grossing films of all time, yet turned into one of the smartest mainstream comics in recent memory — that Sex Criminals offers so much more than it could have gotten away with. Unfortunately, Sex Criminals also does that Hawkeye thing where we jump back and forth through time without an easy transition, but that can be overlooked once you become accustomed to the comic’s many storytelling quirks.
There’s a lot to like about the way Fraction writes —- his knack for wordplay, the clever dialogue, and the flawed yet irresistibly likable characters — yet what stuck out to me most about the way Sex Criminals is written is just how dense it is. I don’t mean dense in the way that Alan Moore or Earnest Hemingway are dense (although, again, there is a lot more for readers think about here than those expecting mere sex comedy would expect), but in the sense that it takes a remarkably longer time to read than most comics of the same page length. I expected to be able to finish it over the course of an hour or two, maybe three at the most. Instead, it took up half of my day.
That’s not a complaint. I didn’t have to read it all in one sitting; I chose to. You’ll put this book down satisfied not just with its quality, but the sheer amount of content it packs in, not to mention the fact that you’re getting your money’s worth.
This density is achieved largely through a high panel-to-page ratio with lots of text, but credit is due to artist Chip Zdarsky for filling the book with so much detail (to the point where he admits that it might be unnecessary) that the reader has no choice but to slow down and take it all in for fear of missing anything, especially not the delightful background jokes. This Big Hard edition of the book even features highlights from Zdarsky of the background jokes that readers would otherwise miss because they were originally either unreadably small or covered up by text. He put a remarkable amount of work into gags that few readers would even see, so it’s clear that, despite his self-deprecation, he’s having a whole lot of fun. While often stupid, it’s remarkable just how many of these jokes actually are funny. It makes perfect sense that he would be chosen to write Marvel’s comedic new take on Howard the Duck.
As an artist, though, Zdarsky’s talent isn’t just his sense of humor. His layouts are seemingly effortlessly straightforward, when a lesser artist wouldn’t be able to handle fitting in so many panels into a single page, and the same goes for his lettering. He could have made an entire career out of lettering alone. His work is very obviously aided by digital production (especially in regards to the coloring, but it retains quirky, cartoony soul.
Sex Criminals obviously isn’t for everyone. Namely, anyone under the age of 18. But anyone that is uncomfortable with such blunt discussion and depiction of sex—a legitimate concern—may not be comfortable with this book. It should be noted that there is some very candid discussion about underage sexuality, though it should also be noted that the book is remarkably sensitive, mature, and even serious when it needs to be.
Is it Good?
Sex Criminals is one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read, but it’s also remarkably smart, sweet, and well-crafted. For obvious reasons, I can’t in good conscience recommend it to everyone, but if you’re old enough and you can stomach its content, Sex Criminals is exceptional.
*Correction: Originally written as 12 issues.