Image at 25: How ‘Sex Criminals’ Proved That Comics Can Do Rom-Coms
Rom-coms are all too rare in comics. Most stories have a romantic plot threaded through them somewhere, but books dedicated to telling a love story are few and far between in the modern market.
For a medium named after its origins in the funny pages, the other half of the rom-com equation --- the comedy --- has often gone underserved as well, at least in mainstream print comics. That's starting to change, thanks in no small part to the influence of webcomics, but I can count the comics that have made me laugh out loud on... well, not one hand, but on a very rudimentary abacus. Less than ten comics, is what I'm saying.
So when Sex Criminals came along, nearly a decade into my relationship with comics, it stuck out like an especially sexy thumb. It was funny, it was romantic, and I loved it. Much like the person I shared the comic with.
In 2013, when Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky launched Sex Criminals, Image was in the midst of its transformation into the publisher of comics you could give to people who didn't really read comics. Like most readers, I'd given my girlfriend the odd Vertigo book before, but it was Image titles like Morning Glories, Saga, and The Wicked + The Divine --- and this --- that really won her over.
Which brings me to another thing that makes Sex Criminals unusual, not just among comics but among romance stories as a whole. Its story begins where, in most rom-coms, the music kicks in and the credits roll. By the end of its first issue, the comic has already done the meet cute, zoomed past the will-they-won't-they, and got to the central couple – Suzie and Jon, in this case --- hooking up.
That lets it dive straight into their relationship, which is where the comic really shines. The comic sells you on this couple pretty much straight, with those moments that the genre does best. The kind that hold a mirror up to your own experiences, but 100% funnier and sexier. Creating a couple you wish you were in.
And, then, once you're invested in Suzie and Jon, it goes and gets honest. In funny ways --- like sharing the story of how you lost your virginity to a Morrissey song about grey English beaches --- and in neat little details --- like the way you save someone in your phone the first time you meet, and maybe never remember to change it.
Occasionally, though, the kind of honest Sex Criminals is can be brutal. Like how it feels the first time the other person finds out that thing that's wrong with you, that you've spent the whole time trying to hide from them. Like how it feels to not want sex when you feel like you should, or to want it more or less or different than your other half.
Sex is something Sex Criminals is great at talking about. Maybe that's not a surprise, given it's right there in the title, but then again, that title...
That honesty I mentioned extends to the presentation of sex, in all its forms. Alone, with someone, alone with someone. The book never seems guilty or ashamed of talking about any of this, but also it's not afraid to talk about the feelings of guilt or shame that can sometimes come with it. That's another thing that is all too rare.
Oh, I've gotten this far without even mentioning the premise of the book, which I guess is pretty unusual too. It's about people who stop time when they reach climax, and who use that power to rob banks. Hence the title.
It's a pretty perfect metaphor for the way an orgasm feels --- one guaranteed slice of clarity, among all the muddiness that can surround sex in society --- but honestly, the high concept is the least important thing about Sex Criminals. The important stuff is everything else that makes it unusual. The jokes. The focus on a real, nuanced, flawed relationship. The warm and fuzzies it can give you and the person you're reading it with, shielding sections of the page because you're in a public park and jeez kids probably shouldn't be seeing that.