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[Guest Post] Review: Sex Criminals #1, Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

2013 September 30
  • Alyson Macdonald, who blogs for Bright Green, sent us this review. She’s previously written badass posts for us on the feminist issues in issue 1 of Kieron Gillen and Kamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers and Dirty Dancing. Do you have a guest post brewing in your brain? email us on [email protected].

Writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky have created a warm and intelligent comic with an overtly pro-feminist take on sex and relationships. Don’t let the fact that it’s called Sex Criminals put you off – the title is a play on words and refers to the main characters’ ability to literally stop time when they have sex, which they use to carry out bank robberies.

Cover for Sex Criminals issue 1

It’s a surreal concept, and one which is difficult to write well, but Fraction has built a successful career out of telling these kinds of stories, and is skilled in persuading readers to suspend their disbelief.

In Sex Criminals, time is not presented as strictly linear: events are shown out of sequence, and the adult version of the lead character Suzie narrates scenes from her adolescence, sometimes even appearing next to her younger self on the page. This time-travel effect makes it easier for the reader to accept Suzie’s time-stopping powers, while also establishing her as our link to the story.

By choosing a female lead character, writer Fraction is challenging popular culture’s tendency to shy away from female leads, as well as the relative taboo of women’s sexuality.

In particular, his willingness to discuss female masturbation is refreshing because, while male wanking is openly discussed, joked about, and accepted as a fact of life, there’s still a lingering sense that it’s dirty when women do it.

Early on in the comic, we see young Suzie discovering the Greatest Love of All in the bath, and it’s dealt with in a sensitive, not overtly-eroticised way – adult Suzie, narrating while fully clothed and perched on the edge of the bathtub, is the focus of the panel.

Panel from Sex Criminals 1. Suzie discusses her first orgasm.

Although we are aware that young Suzie is masturbating in this scene, the aim is not to sexualise her but to introduce her orgasm-related superpower, so the masturbation is less important than what happens immediately afterwards. In a pastiche of the old comics trope of an ordinary kid acquiring superpowers when they hit puberty, Suzie realises that time stops when she comes. Here, Fraction takes an inspired dig at the state of sex education in American schools, because Suzie has no idea whether her experience is normal, and she’s forced to rely on the dubious wisdom of a classmate when the adults won’t answer her questions.

Despite this, Suzie eventually becomes more confident about sex, and it’s made very clear to the reader that when she has sex with a partner it’s her choice to do so. As the narrator, she informs us that the first time she slept with her high school boyfriend Craig she had decided to do so in advance, and we see her enjoy the experience, even though it doesn’t live up to her expectation that it would be a profound, life-changing event. From a feminist point of view, the most interesting of the comic’s sex scenes is Suzie’s first encounter with Jon, who has just been introduced as the love interest. Jon explicitly checks for consent before initiating physical contact, in a way that seems natural, relaxed, and pretty damn sexy.

Jon asks Suzie whether it's cool to go further.

Suzie confirms she's comfortable.

The admirable gender politics of the writing are perfectly complemented by Zdarsky’s art, which fits perfectly with a comic which is played for laughs as much as for titillation. It isn’t drawn in an overtly erotic style, and there isn’t as much nudity as you might expect. The fact that the art isn’t wank-bank material in and of itself highlights the more cerebral aspects of Suzie’s attraction to Jon; they fancy one another, but their interest is sparked by shared interests over looks.

The art is also key to conveying the comic’s humour, whether it’s in Craig’s ridiculous gurning expression when he’s frozen in time right at the point of orgasm, or the crude drawings of nonsensical sex acts that Rachelle uses to explain “the real raw sex shit” to teenage Suzie. There are also a range of less obvious visual gags worked into the art in backgrounds or on characters’ clothes, including numerous references to a celebrity called “Sexual Gary” who appears to be a pin-up figure for teenage girls.

Suzie discovers her orgasm has frozen time.

Although Sex Criminals is a very funny comic, it also has emotional depth. The scenes from Suzie’s adolescence aren’t solely about her sexual development, but also deal with her father’s sudden death and her mother’s difficulty in coping afterwards. Young Suzie’s reactions are balanced by the narration from her adult self, creating a richer and more satisfying narrative.

Sex comedies can often disappoint feminists, but Sex Criminals shows that writers don’t have to rely on tired sexist stereotypes when writing jokes about sex, and that decent gender politics don’t have to be po-faced and humourless. Whether you’re a devoted comics fan or simply curious, this one is definitely worth a look.

Sex Criminals is available now from Image Comics for digital download and from, ahem, specialist retailers.

  • At night Alyson Macdonald dons a cape and tights to fight sexism and the Tory government on the internet. She mostly blogs at Bright Green and tweets as @textuallimits.
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