Author: Edward Haynes (@teddyhaynes)
Sex Criminals Volume 1
Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s comics series Sex Criminals ended recently. It tells the story of Jon and Suzie, a couple who freeze time when they orgasm, throwing them into a lonely, liminal space that Suzie calls The Quiet and Jon calls Cumworld, in which they rob banks to get money to save a library from foreclosure. Or at least that’s how it started. A lot can happen in six years and thirty-odd issues.
Almost exactly three years ago, half way through the book’s run in terms of years, I wrote a piece for Multiversity Comics looking back at its first issue. As the series ends now, those early issues have a new context, looking back at the first volume it feels almost quaint, a relic of the mid-2010’s Image Comics surge when books like Saga and The Wicked And The Divine started, a relic of my teens. Sex Criminals is a book that’s both big and small, the last page of the fist collection (featuring the comic’s first five issues) has a caption box where Suzie narrates that “[Their] worlds had just gotten bigger and smaller at the same time.”
This comic is special in my life. It was one of the first non-superhero comics I read, and the first that I fell in love with. It was something that was mine, no one I knew in real life cared about creator-owned comics, it was a place where I could go and hide, where I felt like a mature, respected reader. At an age where most of my peers where leaning in to mature content by watching Tarintino films, I had Sex Criminals instead! Getting into books like this at sixteen, barely aware of my sexuality, was a formative experience. It felt mature but without any pretense, it was allowed to be silly while also telling an emotionally intimate story. It wasn’t gritty and over-serious. Sure it was gross but in a way that felt purposeful, not just throwing out dick jokes willy nilly (although there are a lot of dick jokes). It cut through the noise of what teenagers look for as grown up stories. Like young Suzie, alone in The Quiet, it was a relief to have this book.
Rereading its beginning now, it maybe stands out less in those terms, the silly high concept humor married with serious, emotive storytelling is something I have seen elsewhere, most obviously in Bojack Horseman. But that doesn’t mean I love this book any less. A lot of this first arc is flashbacks, establishing our leads’ backstories, first Suzie and then Jon, we are taken through sexual awakenings and childhood trauma. In the messy way that memory works, non-linear, maybe exaggerated, we get a picture of their growing up, and their learning about their time freezing orgasms. It’s easy to slot yourself in at various points, when I was a teen, I could relate to the anxieties and unreleased tension of the flashbacks, and could look to their presents and imagine my future. Now that’s inverted, and it becomes an almost nostalgic exercise for me, as I remember reading this comic in my teens.
Finding Sex Crimals brought me into a whole world. The world of comics outside of superheroes. The world of mature reader comics. The world of the online comics community. Coming into this felt urgent and needed, it was an expansion of my idea of comics that led directly to my comics criticism career. It put me on a path towards what I’m doing here and now. For that, I will always be grateful to Chip & Matt.
Sex Criminal’s second issue is an expansion from the first’s exploration of Suzie’s relationship with The Quiet. We step from Suzie to Jon, as their lives come together, and we flashback to Jon’s first experience freezing time with his cum. Rather than quiet relief, his masculine experience of Cumworld allows him to take liberties, push boundaries, break and steal stuff -- it’s still a relief of tension, but through consequence-free action more than escape. The frustration of the teenage Jon and his ADHD gets to be released while no one is looking.
Unlike Suzie’s, Jon’s backstory comes to us in two parts. Issue two shows us his energetic frustrated teenage years, while issue three gives us his adult anxieties, and a mellowing as he learnt to live with, and occasionally medicate, his ADHD. Suzie’s presence is always felt through this, she is our introduction to the world of Sex Criminals, and the present day story is establishing the early days of her and Jon’s relationship, she’s still our eyes, as we look, together, at this guy with something incredible in common with her. We can feel that he’ll be a long-term fixture, for better or worse, in Suzie’s life, we need to figure him out. Through the eyes of this book, I could see that, for better or worse, comics would be in my life for a long time.
The last two issues of this first arc grow the world even more, bringing together Suzie and Jon’s bank robbing caper and hinting at some consequences. Issue four, entitled Sex Police, is the point where we start to grow up. We see the world outside of our insular leads, face repercussions for their actions, see them as a part of a wider world. It’s getting noisy in The Quiet. Kegel Face is here to lay down the law in Cumworld. Maybe robbing banks wasn’t the best idea. Maybe they’re not that special. Just like learning to live as an adult, they must find their places in a less sheltered world.
We know our characters now, where they come from, what they can do. The end of this volume leaves us ready for what comes next, with firm ground to stand on. What Suzie says on the last page is true, their sexy time freezing world is so much bigger than they knew, but that leaves the part they do know, the intimacy between her and Jon as something more special, smaller, closer.
Sex Criminals brought me fully into the world of comics, introducing me to whole culture and community. It’s a series that grew up with me, and holds an especially intimate part of my heart. But it doesn’t feel like only mine anymore, part of it belongs to me, but also it belongs to the creators, and the thousands of other readers. I’m one of many who get to have an intimate, quiet, loud relationship with this silly comicbook.
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Edward Haynes is a writer, critic, and editor living in Liverpool. As well as editing this site, they edited fiction at Across & Through, and have written for Multiversity Comics, SOLRAD, Bido Lito!, and PanelxPanel. They created the comic DRIFT with Martyn Lorbiecki. They tweet a load of nonsense @teddyhaynes