Based on the title, you probably won’t be surprised to read that Image’s Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, is a comic about sex. And crime. Or rather, social transgression: because the essence of a crime is that it goes against the mores of society, whether reasonable or otherwise. As for the sex part, the two lead characters in Sex Criminals look at porn, talk about sex positions, and of course, have sex.
But this is far from the first comic to transgress social taboos about sex. What makes Sex Criminals stand out is its dedication to addressing the ways in which we talk – or don’t talk – about sex and its significance, and its ability to bridge the gap between the commercially produced and the intensely personal.
The primary plot of the series thus far focuses on the boundaries we erect for ourselves and how breaking these down can increase our ability to connect with others and live life more fully.
The two protagonists of Sex Criminals are Suzie and Jon, two halves of a new couple whose orgasms can stop time. Whenever Suzie and Jon climax, the world around them stops and they enter (no innuendo intended) an essentially transcendent state – “an ocean of warm silence and color” – wherein they are free to do anything they want. Suzie yells at her mother; Jon rifles through the contents of a porn store; eventually, they rob a bank.
And until they meet, each of them believes that they’re the only person who possesses this ability.
When Suzie and Jon first have sex with each other and discover each other in that private stoppage of time full of color and inexplicability, their first reaction is to shout, in unison, “How are you here?” Then:
“You’re here with me. You – I – !”
“ – no no no. That’s not how it works. I brought you with me. Somehow, I – ”
“Holy shit. Holy shit, you can do it too.”
Finding the other in what each of them previously believed was a secret place unknown to the rest of the world means that less than three days later, Jon is holding Suzie’s hands and telling her, “I’ve looked for you every day of my life. Or since I was, what, thirteen…Suzie, I’m worried that if I don’t go home tonight I am never, ever going to go home again.”
As the poet J. D. McClatchy writes, “The three most seductive words in the language, undoubtedly, have always been not I love you but I understand you.”
And that understanding occurs through talking; Suzie and Jon’s formative sexual experiences place great emphasis on the link between sexuality and language.
Both Suzie and Jon exist in a society where sex is not meant to be discussed on a serious personal level (although the specific terms of this code of silence are highly gendered), meaning that their exploration of this sex-language link is a socially transgressive act.
When Suzie is seeking to learn more about sex in general and her sexuality in particular, the refusal of others around her to talk about sex has negative emotional and physical consequences.
Suzie’s relationship with her mother suffers: when she tentatively attempts to ask her “sex questions”, her mother’s response is simply, “Great. Now I’m raising a whore.”
A (male) gynecologist’s dismissal of Suzie’s question about orgasms occurs in a setting of physical discomfort, where a medical instrument about to enter her body – along with the doctor’s overall demeanor – “might feel a bit cold”. Rachelle (later Rachel, Suzie’s best friend) states that a lack of explanation about sex in her own life has been detrimental to her physical health and her relationship with her father: “maybe if somebody did this for ME, I wouldn’t have HPV and a dad that can’t look me in the eye anymore”.
Once language becomes a part of the treatment of sexuality, Suzie not only learns about intercourse but meets her best friend and makes a significant romantic/sexual connection.
The first person who makes a concerted effort to explain sex to Suzie is Rachelle, who does so by dragging her into the girls’ bathroom at school and rattling off a list of names of unconventional sexual positions; to illustrate, she crudely scrawls pictures of them on the bathroom wall.
None of these names directly describe the acts to which they refer, but rather range from oblique pop culture references (“E.T. The Sex Move,” involving Reese’s Pieces) to the I-don’t-even-know (such as “brimping,” “auto-erotic twerging,” and my personal favorite, “The User Agreement”). Although Rachelle is the first to provide a vocabulary with which to talk about sex, the indirect association between the names and the acts is linked to Suzie’s lack of maturity: “No. I was not ready.”
It’s through large-scale access to language that Suzie learns to become more confident with her sexuality. Her desire to figure out her orgasmic ability, and the resulting turmoil, leads to the need for a “way of sorting it all and searching through it and stuff”. To this end, she visits a library, where the female librarian (perhaps a momentary substitute mother figure?) tells her that she “need[s] a taxonomy. Like the Dewey Decimal System”. There’s friendliness and cheer in the librarian’s face when she says this, implying a willingness to engage with Suzie in an area where her own mother can’t. For Suzie, this moment of engagement and the access to and control over knowledge it provides marks “the day I fell in love with libraries”.
By contrast, Jon’s experience of sex is characterized by commodification: specifically, pornography, where the visual is all and the organic is absent. As he says, “Back then sex was everywhere and, like, nowhere at the same time.”
It begins with a photo centerfold of a woman in a magazine, then moves on to videos and DVDs. But again there is no discussion about sex; while he is encouraged to react to visual stimuli, this never translates into a verbal reaction (until he meets Suzie, of course). When language is used, it’s often corrupted into something solely for pornographic use: Obamacare, for instance, becomes “Obamacore,” and the aforementioned search engine is not Ask Jeeves but “Ass Jeeves”. The one time he vaguely associates words with learning about sex – when he and his friends type in search terms into a pre-Google pornographic search engine – this attempt is blocked by an Internet filter.
In the world of boys and men, sex is presented as a series of images and not much else, not even in terms of bodily sensations. As a boy, Jon doesn’t even know that masturbation “would feel so good”, or that “it was the physical act of that stuff blasting out of you that was kind of the point”.
Like Suzie, he learns that his orgasms create a state of suspended time full of color; unlike Suzie, he calls that transcendent state “Cumworld,” after a porn store that he frequently walks past.
But on the title of Issue #2, this phrase is rendered as the homophone “Come, World,” as though Jon is inviting the world, the totality of human experience and emotion, into his life.
This link between language and ex continues into adulthood. When Suzie meets Jon, it’s at a party aimed at raising funds to save a library.
She notices him because of his use of language and not because of his looks; initially she doesn’t even see him enter the room. In fact, she’s talking to another man who describes her favorite novel, Lolita, as “that dirty sex book”. Once Jon begins quoting the opening lines of Lolita, though, Suzie abandons the other man and follows Jon to the other end of the room.
These lines mark Jon’s introduction to the series. That is, the first time he speaks, it’s to quote from a novel which is often referred to as merely a “dirty sex book”. But Lolita is of course so much more: each bit of its wordplay, sentence constructions, word choice and overall intricacies combines to portray Nabokov’s love for the myriad nuances and capacities of language (English was his third language, after Russian and French). This is not a love of language in the sense that most people use the word – for a favorite possession or food, for instance – but rather in the sense of being in love, wanting to spend every waking moment with language, the joy of letting it inhabit you and vice versa.
(It’s possible that by associating itself with Lolita, Sex Criminals may be seeking to emphasize the distance between its own subject matter and that of a “dirty sex” comic, or at least to further the argument that sex can be discussed in the realm of high literature and art worthy of respect.)
In the midst of this comic about sex, being in love with language is what brings Suzie and Jon together. Although they do have sex with each other later that night, their physical connection stems from a linguistic one. And language is a tool by which we convey our unique ideas, feelings, and individuality.
This focus on individuality has carried over into later marketing of the comic; the famous fourth printing of Issue #1 features photos of both Fraction and Zdarsky holding a previous printing of the issue and references their careers (Fraction leaving Inhumans) and social media habits (Zdarsky’s legendary Facebook chats with Applebee’s).
By reminding us that they have lives outside the comic and showing us exactly what they look like, this choice draws attention to the creators as individuals, while having them hold a copy of the comic reminds that it is a commercial product.
The content of Sex Criminals also invites us past the fourth wall into the inner workings of the comic production process. In Issue #3 Suzie sings Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” – or at least is meant to be singing “Fat Bottomed Girls”. Her speech bubbles, which implicitly contain the lyrics to the song, are censored and covered by a series of text boxes explaining why Image is in fact unable to print any of the lyrics.
When a comic is distributed, the readers are usually meant to see it as a finished product. We aren’t meant to see the redrafts, emails, disagreements, meetings, memos and copyright wrangling that go into it (although the history of hidden jokes/vengeance in comics is a rich one, e.g. Dave Cockrum’s resignation letter from Marvel being reprinted almost verbatim as Jarvis’s resignation letter to Tony Stark). The printed page – or the digitally downloaded page, if you’re one of those cool people who uses Comixology – represents a division between the world of the reader and the world of the creators and publishers.
By detailing the copyright conflict and its effects in the middle of panels, Fraction and Zdarsky invite the reader into their world: a world that they, as creators, aren’t supposed to tell us about.
Interestingly, it’s during this incident that the word “love” first comes up between Suzie and Jon: “In case you were wondering, babe – ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ was when I knew I loved you.”
But this most intimate of moments is partially shielded from us by the text boxes. Although those who know the lyrics to “Fat Bottomed Girls” can guess what’s in Suzie’s speech bubbles, we can never know for sure exactly what she was singing when Jon fell in love with her. It’s a moment only for them.
That’s the sex accounted for. What about the “Criminals”?
Suzie and Jon grow up exposed to very different messages about sex; for Suzie, sex is only for the “dirty girls”, while Jon is seemingly surrounded by porn. However, they both inhabit a society where sex is not to be discussed.
Not talking about sex or presenting it as merely a visual commodity leaves no room to explore the emotions and sensations attached to it, and cuts out the possibility that aspects of sex can be both abstract and good (as opposed to abstract and wrong).
By talking about sex, having orgasms that possess supernatural qualities, and experiencing affection for each other as a result of both of these, Suzie and Jon break the rules of their society.
In other words, they’re criminals. Sex Criminals.
This emphasis on transgressing boundaries – whether between characters or between the reader and the creators – allows Sex Criminals to carry great personal import for its fans.
In my case, I grew up in an environment where sex was not to be talked about in any sort of personal way and met my husband on a Creative Writing course in graduate school; the day he read me some of David Constantine’s poems and said that he thought Othello was the most tragic of all of Shakespeare’s plays was when I knew we would have some kind of long-term social relationship.
Comics Alliance writer and excellent Tweeter David Uzumeri has also described Sex Criminals as a highly personal read, for very different reasons, and many of its other readers express similar sentiments in the letters pages and online.
But Uzumeri’s emotional connection to the series is markedly different from mine, and presumably other people reading this series come from a wide range of social and sexual backgrounds. So why does it pack such a universal punch?
Maybe it’s because comics have had such an obviously skewed view of sexuality (most of Alan Moore’s work, for instance, or the outfits and poses of most female characters) for so long that it’s a relief to read something in the medium that talks about the topic with insight and respect.
Maybe it’s because many comics readers are nerds who, like Suzie and Jon, invest a great deal of significance in the media we consume and dream of finding a partner who shares these tastes.
Maybe we just want to believe that our sexualities are strange and beautiful, to feel unafraid of reaching out to another person and letting them reach back.
That’s at the heart of what makes Sex Criminals work – its ability to explore the infinite complexities of a basic emotional need and to encourage readers to do the same. Or, to put it another way, its ability to say to us those three most seductive words: I understand you.