Meditations On Sex, Love, And Venn Diagrams In Fraction And Zdarsky’s ‘Sex Criminals’ #1 [Review]
Here's a fun fact: when you Google Sex Criminals, the first result you get does not, in fact, refer to the new Image Comics series from Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. Instead, in a deft maneuver to remind us of the blackness that surrounds us, the byzantine network of pneumatic tubes that constitutes Google’s search engine front-loads the page with a link to the National Sex Offender Registry. For the record, internet: Sex Criminals is a funny, engaging, and inventive new comic book about sex, love, and fighting the man, with a clever sci-fi twist. Sex offenders are not. For more on the hilarious differences between the two, continue reading.
In Sex Criminals, when lovers Suzie and Jon orgasm, time stops. Not metaphorically, like every romance novelist of all time means; literally. When they have sex, time locks, leaving them free to move about, commit crimes, and exact a moral equilibrium against a corrupt financial system. That’s what the copy suggests, anyway – the first issue merely hints at the larceny to come. The first issue is Suzie’s story: the discovery of her sexuality and her ability, the fear and alienation that each engenders, her eventual transformation from confused adolescent to liberated woman, and how she met the love of her life.
Untethered by time, Suzie moves freely through her own life, narrating flashbacks of the death of her father, her sexual awakening, and her experiments in what she calls “The Quiet,” the place where time stands still. The first issue is a great character piece that examines the nerve-wracking particulars of the universal sexual experience with all the thrill, shame, and ignorance that the subject implies. More fascinating, though, is how quickly Sex Criminals #1 establishes the metaphorical power of the central concept.
It begins with the cover. Potent with imagery, Zdarsky’s art augurs all the sex, crime, and literary references that take place in the story. Everything is suggestively placed and appropriately sexy, stylish, dangerous, and vaginal; sensationalistic without being tawdry. That’s the lower portion, where Suzie lies nestled in her own nethers, brandishing whip and gun. But above that -- the upper portion of the cover, behind the title and credits, seen below -- is what really interests me:
Besides being suggestive of even more sex parts, it's also two circles, one inside the other, with a Venn diagram intersecting them. Right? If you’re not convinced, you’ve probably never seen Fraction’s The Batman Dreams of Hieronymous Machines speech – he’s quite fond of Venn diagrams. On a deeper viewing of the cover, after having read the issue, this design brings several things to mind: there’s the thrust of Fraction’s aforementioned essay, that comics happens in the nexus between the comic page and the reader’s imagination; there’s Suzie and Jon’s shared experience in “The Quiet,” where only they can be perfectly alone together; there’s the unknowable intersection of chemistry and chance where Person A and Person B meet and fall in love; and, as womb-located as it is, we have to wonder if it’s possibly foreshadowing a pregnancy, where a little bit of Person A and Person B literally come together to make Person C.
Whatever they intended specifically, it’s evident that Fraction and Zdarsky are keen to explore all the metaphors that their concept suggests. Apart from a clever twist new to comics, it’s a great mechanism to explore the nature of love, and what it means to be truly intimate with someone. In those fixed moments where Suzie and Jon make love and stop time, they’re sharing something with each other that could never happen with anyone else, much like we do when we fall in love. It’s refreshing to read something that rests so easily between so many different genres: sex comedy, crime story, sci-fi and, yes, romance. Romance comics, real ones that explore the emotional complexity of human relationships, are a rare commodity, and even in that meager fraternity (or maybe sorority?) Sex Criminals is unique if only for its attitude towards the form.
Fraction and Zdarsky, both possessing quirky leanings, both eager to explore the form of comics, employ several tricks to convey mood and meaning. There’s a near-Breaking Bad-level of attention paid to color: before Suzie’s first sexual experience, and the discovery of The Quiet, she wears green, the color of life, renewal, rebirth; when she loses her virginity, she’s wearing blue, implying confidence and intellectual curiosity; when she feels confused, sad, or estranged, she wears darker, drab clothing. And when she finally meets Jon, she literally floats a few inches above ground as they navigate through a time-frozen party, where everyone around them just looks darker and less interesting than the two of them. It’s the best scene in the issue.
It’s not much of a stretch to say the concept is reminiscent of The Fermata, and it’s bound to draw comparisons (it already has, and I guess it just did). In Nicholson Baker’s idiosyncratic novel, Arno Strine has the ability to stop time, which he uses for his own sexual amusement, undressing women while they stand frozen in what he calls “The Fold.” The similarities are obvious – both stories involve frozen time and sex – but they’re also cosmetic. Sex Criminals is more than an inversion of The Fermata, it’s practically its polar opposite.
The Fermata is a cold, essentially plotless story about boredom and waste that only strains for emotional fare at its conclusion. There’s no depth to the story, no metaphor, no character growth, and the whole time you wonder if something more interesting might happen. It doesn’t. Only Baker’s prose acrobatics save it from being unremarkable, and it is, at best, an interesting but emotionless dud. Whether or not Fraction and Zdarsky were influenced by The Fermata, Sex Criminals is already doing cartwheels around it. It’s everything that The Fermata isn’t: funny and imaginative, with a strong emotional core, and characters who, despite their fantastic power, are relatable, even lovable, where Arno Strine was alien.
In the stillness that Suzie and Jon share, Fraction and Zdarsky have found the perfect place to explore the most necessary of human emotions, that place where time and luck and electricity meet; that place in the diagram where Person A intersects with Person B.