Comics

A Frank Understanding of Sexual Awakening: "Sex Criminals #1"

The Judd Apatow movies of a few years ago suggest a trend to a far dirtier type of romantic comedy. But is Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals the first sign of the wheel coming full circle?


Sex Criminals #1

Publisher: Image
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2013-11
Amazon

For many years now we’ve been hearing that the romantic comedy is dead. Looking at the movies that adhere to that label, it might be true. From the saccharine and sappy “based on a Nicolas Sparks novel” films that seem to sprout each year to the hopelessly underwhelming fair of movies like Admission and The Big Wedding, we can understand the death notice refrain film critics have repeated in review after review. Perhaps the romantic comedy has been replaced by the sex comedy; a type of comedy that focuses on the finish without all the rain soaked glances and swirling score. The Judd Apatow movies of a few years ago, particularly The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, suggest a trend to a far dirtier type of romantic comedy. As with this transitional period for movies, comics have had their own transformation as the medium’s genres have stretched beyond what is traditionally associated with funny books. Mainstream comics seem to have sex on the brain…or between the staples. And just as so many of our postmodern comics have done, the comic book take on romantic comedies mixes elements and themes from across storytelling to make something timeless the medium’s own.

Placed somewhere between a sex comedy and a romantic comedy, with a touch of special abilities, Sex Criminals from Image Comics floats in the ether of satisfaction: It comes to satisfactory completion, but some of the wonderment is lost in a very frank understanding of sexual awakening. It’s their first time, and like anyone’s first time it doesn’t last nearly as long as you would like (even at 32 pages) or hit all of the right spots. But the first issue does signal that writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky will be bed-sheet charmers and rogues very quickly. Well, relatively quickly. Quick, but satisfying.

Suzie’s orgasms can make time stop – an apt metaphor for fulfillment from sexual experience – but the discovery of this ability and her adolescent and post-adolescent life are vastly unfulfilled. The death of her father and her mother’s detachment and alcoholism force her into a position of having a lot of questions (not just about sex) and not having reliable sources to consult. It’s not a funny situation, but very poignant, yet Fraction with his dialogue and pacing tries to minimize the sadness with the repeated assurance that “the jokes are coming.” They are there dancing in the same ether as romantic comedy and sex comedy, underlying a confusion that is no overstated and steadies itself in the in-between.

Perhaps the funniest sequence of this debut is when Suzie’s new high school friend illustrates hard to belief sex acts with a Sharpie on a bathroom wall. Suzie has serious questions about sex and whether time stops for everyone after orgasm, but she’s hard pressed to find answers. This scene perfectly captures the confusion between understanding sexuality and understanding sex. One is emotional and physical, while the other is purely physical.

There is a certain amount of subversive humor within the poignancy, as in that the comic finds humor in the places where there should be none. It’s not the type of humor that will make you burst out in laughter, but like the premise of stopping time with an orgasm, there is a wink and smile nature to the narrative. It’s not serious, but definitely takes the subject seriously – this is not a long drawn out dirty joke. It is perhaps one of the best investigations of real world sex education in any medium.

As he has done with such titles like Hawkeye for Marvel, Fraction creates a very modern narrative that speaks to the current understanding of the human condition. It speaks in our present language, taking cues from various other media, genres and popculture to create identifiable characters and situations. Identifiable outside of the whole stopping time with an orgasm thing.

For his part, Zdarsky renders panels that are funny, thrilling and, when needed in the early action of the book, dreadfully sad. The visual storytelling is perhaps the strongest selling point, far exceeding even modest expectations. He’s unabashed and playful in his rendering of Suzie’s early sexual encounters, but always tasteful, drawing a strong line that is sexy and provocative without being cheap or exploitive. It’s a hard line to straddle, but Zdarsky does it with skill, filling the places between dialogue and action with strong attention to detail and surroundings.

The details, both in the script and dialogue and in the visual, are suggestively modest but thorough. Sex Criminals has the trappings of a romantic comedy and the frankness of a sex comedy. It’s also a book about two people with powers. That set-up, which is pretty much the entire first issue, will have to give way to something deeper, something that continues to be frank about our sexual knowledge and creates a connection between protagonist and reader. It’s partially there already, but like the transition of movie genres and the transformation of comics, Sex Criminals will need to take the best of its influences and make them its own.

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