Review: The First Trade of Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals is written by Matt Fraction, drawn by Chip Zdarsky, and edited by Thomas K. Becka Kinzie and Christopher Sebela are credited as colour flatters. The trade collects issues 1-5, and is published by Image Comics.

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Part of the wave of new titles released across the year by Image, Sex Criminals is about two people who find that when they have sex, they pause time.

Now, the press releases and discussion follow this on by saying “and they rob banks”, but frankly that doesn’t factor much into the series – and certainly isn’t the reason why you might want to pick it up. The appeal here is seeing interesting characters be forthcoming about things you don’t tend to hear in comics unless Jess Fink is involved.

The excitement of Sex Criminals is seeing the characters talk frankly about their sexual interests. We’re focused not so much the acts of sex themselves, but the post-sex digressions and pre-sex ambitions of the central characters. The magical aspects aren’t played too hard into unwieldy metaphor either – the characters feed off the time-freeze concept, rather than into it. This is a thing which happens to them, and they have to deal with it in ways which exposes their personality and character.

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They are fairly interesting to read about, as well. The omnipresent narration is a familiar technique by now, and can sometimes turn a reader off the characters quickly – nobody likes to read about a know-it-all who purposely withholds plot details from you. Yet Fraction does a fairly decent job at keeping this to a minimum, mainly because the characters both offer omnipresence which the other doesn’t know about. Suzie talks in a knowing, winking fashion, and Jon has a sardonic twinkle of world-weariness – but neither knows that about the other.

This keeps them at a distance from one another, and into the same reach as the reader. We don’t know everything Jon knows, so we’re in the same boat as Suzie. Because Suzie withholds from us, we can empathise with Jon. It also allows an opportunity for the pair to clash, although the first trade doesn’t explore this particularly. Zdarsky also helps coax the characters into an empathetic place simply through the way he places them in each page. When Suzie appears to narrate her own flashbacks, Zdarsky makes sure to emphasise her constantly – she’s breaking into her own memories, and dominating them at the same time.

When Jon tells his story in the second issue, we don’t see him appear as narrator in the stories he tells to Suzie. He’s kept away for a surprising amount of the first trade (he’ll start to talk more directly to the reader in the second story arc, judging from previews) although he does still have narrative captions and panels where he talks to the reader. We know he knows things, but we just don’t know how much he knows we know he knows. Ahem.

It’s an example of context confusing content, to some extent, because seeing a girl who looks a bit like Kelly Sue De Connick and a guy who looks a bit like Matt Fraction talk about their sex lives does take you out the comic sometimes. And it’s hard to know if this is an intention or an accident. Sometimes the impression comes across that this is an affectation from Fraction, which deliberately trades you possible autobiographical detail during some of the lulls in the story.

Certainly, the central narrative as such is the least diverting part of these first five issues. At first the jumps forward to the ‘criminals’ part of the title are exciting and promise some unexpected ambitions from the creative team – but eventually they start to come across as a crutch. It becomes apparent very quickly that we’re going to have to keep reading these flash-forwards in very short, unsatisfying snippets for at least the whole of this first arc, meaning they start to fill readers with dread rather than excitement. Are we going to waste more time on this uninteresting genre piece when we could be spending better time inside the head of these characters?

As this resolves in the final issue, we start to see that the creative team also hold the story at far less a premium than the character content. Zdarsky starts breaking the flash-forward sequences into straight farce by the end, and in fact spends a lot of time leaning on broad physical comedy. His presence as artist places the use of humour at an interesting impasse, as both Fraction and Zdarsky have strong sense of humour which intersect but also divert away from one another.

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Having read past works like Casanova where the artists play into Fraction’s jokes, it’s entertaining to see Zdarsky deliberately overplay some of the jokes. There’s a sequence where a young Suzie tries to talk to ‘the cool girls’ at her school about sex, only to overexplain her sexual activities and run off in terror. Zdarsky had the chance to make this realistic or a character moment… but instead makes it a Buster Keaton gag with windmilling arms, puffed up face, and a blank background for her to run into.

That slight sense of the creative team undermining one another for entertainment is perhaps the single most prominent memory that gets taken from these few issues. There seems to be a crucial enjoyment of comic making in these five issues which get you invested even when the story starts to drag a little near the end. I’ve felt before that it can be obvious when Fraction isn’t enjoying the comics he’s making – you sense it in Fear Itself and parts of his Uncanny X-Men run where he seems to be slogging through pages rather than having a good time. With Sex Criminals, you get the sense that this is something he’s properly enjoying, and it makes the comic a more entertaining read.

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