Portland writer Matt Fraction and Canadian artist Chip Zdarsky’s comic series Sex Criminals is a lot less creepy than it sounds, but just as amazing as you can expect. Suzie, the comic’s lead, comes to us as an adult to describe her foray into her own sexuality and how that leads to where she is now: robbing a bank with a brunette man through a sea of rainbows.
The first issue is a thorough introduction of who Suzie is as a person and how her life of crime began. You’re not surprised, it’s called Sex Criminals after all. While most of Suzie’s life plays out normally, the first time she masturbates time stops. Well, time stops and there are rainbows everywhere.
Since Suzie is a well-rounded youngster with not only a spectacular American sexual education, but many trusted adults in her life, she freaks out. But there’s no one she can go to. First because time is stopped and everyone’s frozen, then later because no one wants to or can give her advice or any honest information.
She asks questions in her sex-ed class and promptly gets stonewalled. She asks the “dirty girls” in class, one who has HPV and who honestly tries to be helpful with anatomically improbable sexual positions illustrated on a bathroom stall. Her gynecologist, a man, tells her to orgasm with her husband and her mother calls her a whore.
So Suzie has no choice but to assume that it’s not normal to stop time when you orgasm, and while she develops a lot of guilt around it, she still goes to The Quiet, when time is frozen, to deal with her emotions. She screams and throws things, which she doesn’t have the privacy to do in any other place or time. It’s a place where she can be alone and unguarded, and the first issue ends when she orgasms with a man, Jon, she meets at a party. And when time stops and Suzie doesn’t, Jon doesn’t either.
That is the most amazing thing about Sex Criminals. Fraction takes this simple and outlandish concept of girl orgasms and time literally stops and uses it as a metaphor for growing up in a culture that turns sex taboo, especially clitoris-related orgasms. Fraction is also keen on exploring the way in which healthy sexual/romantic relationships, for those who are so inclined, inherently can’t be all sex or all emotion; that to relate to other people, it’s important that we don’t ignore either our bodies or our emotions. Also, sex education is notoriously awful in America.
Fraction’s writing is similarly spectacular. Sex Criminals is frank without being heavy-handed. And for such a bizarre plot, the story is as organic and natural as sex. Suzie and Jon are round characters who have just enough in common for them to meet and hook up, but not quite enough to justify talking for fifty-five hours straight, except for the fact that they both have the same titular one weird trick. As far as they know, they’ve each found the single other person in all of time and space with whom they can connect sexually, and it turns into a bank robbery—which is a relationship red flag if ever there was one.
It’s not just Fraction’s writing, either. Zdarsky’s art not only complements the writing with bold lines and subtle visual cues, but it reinforces and adds layered meanings to everything written. The adult-Suzie narrating this story of sexual confusion and guilt in her younger self is sometimes wearing tight skirts or low-cut shirts, neither being sexual nor shying away from it, signaling to the audience that she’s okay and that despite the obstacles, in her way she grows up and grows into herself. Except in younger-Suzie’s most vulnerable moments, in which their outfits perfectly mirror each other.
In a story that looks deeply and seriously at what it means to be sexual and to be sexual with another person within the bounds of a society like ours, Zdarsky’s backgrounds lend just enough brevity and humor to keep the story reasonably light-hearted without detracting from the gravity, and instead adding to the story and giving a context to all the non-advice and misinformation Suzie receives from what I’m sure are very well-meaning people.