When this comic first came out in 2013, there was a flood of praise for it, citing the story as revolutionary in the way it depicted sex and relationships and hilarious in its hijinks. I picked it up later when the compiled volume came out, but surprisingly put it down after about three issues in. I can see where the praise is coming from and I do generally like how Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky display a lot of important issues from dealing with puberty, sex education, mental illness, and even rape, but it’s not the what that made me put this down, it’s the how. I’m not the hugest fan of how the story is told and Fraction’s form of comedy that is abundantly interspersed within.
Sex Criminals, for those that haven’t read it yet, is a comic about two people, Suzanne and Jon, who can stop time when they orgasm. Both of them discover this power through the confusing and awkward nature of puberty and come to meet each other by happenstance at a party. Realizing they can stop time together after having sex, Suzie and Jon decide to use their ability to rob banks in order to save the library that Suzie works at. But, they realize too late that they’re in way over their heads. To call this a caper story would be misleading, though its main plot involves robbing a bank. Sex Criminals’ main focus is relationships and sex, framed by the narrative of a bank robbery. Each issue begins and ends in the present, showing just a little more of the frame narrative to keep the suspense going as it lays on the heavy themes that have won it so much critical praise.
Right at the beginning of issue one, we are introduced to the narrator and main character, Suzie, who will be there pretty much every step of the way to tell us what is going on. This is probably one of the main things that made me put down the comic. The narration is used throughout the comic, sometimes at the expense of actual dialogue with “witty” and meta clips thrown in such as: “I swear the jokes are coming. Hang on,” and, “I swear, this all gets funnier in a second.” It’s like Fraction feels guilty for making his story have serious moments, and just really wants this to be a comedy. However, forcing comedy usually leads to bad jokes like this which can be found all through the narration as well.
Pacing was also an issue for me. The nature of a frame narrative is that there’s a story within a story so the plot does pretty big jumps in time at points to accommodate the need for backstory. However, the first issue had a lot of jumps all pushed together within that frame. For reference, the plot jumps from the frame narrative to Suzie’s childhood to the time just before the robbery to her teenage years back to her childhood again and then forward to the frame narrative. These are a lot of jumps to make for one issue with an almost stream of consciousness connection between them. Jumps in time can be good for a narrative, but when you have this many chopped up and jumped in between like that, it can be jarring for the reader. That means the reader’s sense of immersion is disrupted, throwing them out of the natural flow of the story. It happened to me, even on my second reading. Not to mention the narration can be melded into the story so much that Suzie will change from dialogue to narration in the course of a panel or two but in such a way that it still looks like dialogue. This can be almost as jarring as the time jumps as well.
In terms of the actual themes this issue covers, I found them to be engaging and realistic. The comic depicts deep issues such as puberty, sex education, sexual positivity, and dealing with an alcoholic mother in a fairly meaningful light. I think we’ve all dealt with the poor job the American school system does as preparing us for puberty and having sex. Hell, any Sex Ed teacher that told you sex actually feels good and didn’t lead to all sorts of disease, was probably not going to last long in the public school system. I could definitely relate to the kind of education Suzie was thirsting for, all the answers she got being don’t have sex before marriage or the weird delusions of a young teen who was also a product of that system. With all the problems I have with the mechanics of his story-telling, Fraction does a great job at normalizing these moments, breaking the stereotypes that someone’s first time is all fireworks and perfection. Sometimes sex is awkward and messy and doesn’t exactly work for both people all the time. However, there were still some moments that had me questioning his grasp of certain emotional issues, such as when Suzie is talking about losing her father and then goes into talking about how she used her father’s death to get more candy on Halloween. That was a little bit of a weird moment for me. Looking back on it now, apart from showing her mother’s reaction and Suzie’s frustration with everything, I don’t think we get a good idea of how Suzie handled her father’s death. This is one of the first moments we see a direct reaction to it, and I do think it’s a bit disturbing to show her kind of devoid of emotion. We are given that moment where she breaks down and screams at her mom while time is stopped, but even that moment it was as if she was more frustrated with her mom’s inability to deal with his death more than his death directly.
I’m still very much confused about my feelings for this comic, and it took me a while to put together this review. On the one hand, I do like some of the themes and the overall plot of the story, but the mechanics of the story-telling itself make me want to put the comic down. However, I’m still early on in the series, so things could develop and change as more issues are created.
Issue 2’s review will be out soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that!