Sex Criminals – Graphic Novel Review

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction, Volume 1: One Weird Trick
Sex Criminals is a raunchy, unapologetically ADULT graphic novel.

It may wow. It may offend. Either way, it will surprise you.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick (2014)
By Matt Fraction, Art by Chip Zdarsky     Add to Goodreads or see more reviews
Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks.3 Stars - Enjoyable
My result: Enjoyable

If you follow comics, you’ve probably heard about Sex Criminals. It’s the 2014 winner for Best New Series, for both the Eisner and the Harvey awards. A six word plot summary: Have sex; stop time; rob banks. It’s a concept crazy enough to make almost anyone take a peek.

The artwork is bright and strikingly different, with a mix of expressive comic styling and computer-drawn effects. And there’s sex. Lots of sex, explored with an enthusiasm that veers from adolescent awkwardness to adult exploration.

Not surprisingly, reactions vary wildly. Many glowing five star reviews call it the best comic in years. And many find it offensive, for various reasons. My own reaction is deeply conflicted.

Why I enjoyed Sex Criminals:

Startlingly mature
Sex Criminals is thoroughly adult in its themes and content, aimed at a mature audience who understands the medium well. Even the memories of Suzie’s younger self depend on an adult perspective for their humor, as when a schoolmate explains sex to Suzie by drawing a catalog of preposterous sex positions on the stall wall. It’s stick figure Kama Sutra, with all the confusion of junior high inexperience. Any adult will laugh out loud at the memory of those earnest, yet incorrect, explanations.

Sexuality explored
Sex is isolating in Sex Criminals, not empowering. When Suzie experiences pleasure, time stops and she’s alone in the universe. It’s an excellent metaphor for the emptiness of sex without meaning, and the loneliness that can come with it.
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction
When she finally finds someone who stays with her in the Quiet, of course she thinks it’s a match. For the first time in her life, she doesn’t feel alone.

Beautiful layouts
I’m a sucker for Matt Fraction’s beautiful layout designs. Sex Criminals didn’t wow me nearly as much as Hawkeye, but it’s still a pleasure. Check out this beautiful full page scene when Suzie and Jon meet at a party.
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction

Self-aware cleverness
Matt Fraction is clever and stylish, and this story is an excuse for him to play with his medium of choice. When it works, it’s amazing. My favorite was a Family Circus style dash through an adult toy store. Remember Billy’s meandering path from A to B? Imagine that through a store overflowing with sex toys, videos, and blow up dolls. There’s no better way to conjure up the kid in a candy store impact of Jon’s forbidden explorations of this adult environment. (But no panel, as I’m going to keep my images PG-13.)

Why Sex Criminals bothered me:

The problem of Rachel
Sex Criminals is deeply conflicted in its portrayal of women and sex, shown most vividly in Suzie’s friend Rachel. Rachel is introduced as one of the “dirty girls” who hold the secret keys to sexual knowledge. She doesn’t know as much as she pretends, but her confidence is enough to convince Suzie.

By college, not much has changed. They’re friends and roommates, but Rachel is still introduced as the girl who’s slept with everyone in their social circle. We’re shown nothing of her personality. The first hint of a backstory comes when Suzie tells the story of Rachel’s rape, and Suzie’s revenge on her assailant. Then a few pages later, Rachel informs the police of Suzie and Jon’s plans.

There’s no suggestion that Rachel earned the assault with her active sex life, but the placement is problematic at best. Structurally, we’re presented with multiple jokes about her sexual activity prior to the assault, then her apparent betrayal. It’s a deeply troubling sequence of reveals that left me with no understanding of Rachel. She exists as a convenience, a tool to be manipulated for the sake of plot.

Overbearing author presence
The viewpoint of Sex Criminals feels distinctly male, despite Suzie’s narration. Jon’s origin story is given a lot of pages, and his idea for a bank robbery quickly overshadows Suzie’s quest to save the library. The author/artist presence in the story is overwhelming, with asides and commentary. With the amount of visual detail at the sex shop, for example, it feels like this is a dirty story told by snickering teen boys. Suzie feels just as conveniently manipulated as Rachel.

Mismatched art styles
Zdarsky’s cartoonish style works well for childhood scenes, like the bathroom stall sex lesson. It’s less effective for adult scenes. The artwork feels more like caricature than characterization. The Quiet effect, when time stops for the rest of the world, is also hit or miss. I love the bright colors and swirling lines; I don’t like the way the computer-generated effect overlays and warps the drawn illustrations.

Self-aware cleverness
Sometimes Matt Fraction is a little too aware of his cleverness. There’s so much snide side commentary and tongue in cheek playfulness that something here will fall flat for you. For me, it was four pages of panels with post it note author commentary over the dialogue. No character development, no actual scene, just breaking the third wall for the sake of stylish irony.
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction

Overall, Sex Criminals was a deeply conflicted read for me. On first read, it’s entertaining and clever. But a more close read reveals troubling issues and far too many concerns to overlook when it comes to the review stage.

You might also enjoy:

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnickBitch Planet is another edgy adult-only comic that toes the line between offensive and groundbreaking. Loudly feminist, with exploitative tropes to frame the story. There’s a lot to think about in this story, and a lot to enjoy.

Bitch Planet (2014)     Add to Goodreads or see more reviews
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Valentine de Landro

Bitch Planet is a highly-anticipated women-in-prison sci-fi exploitation riff. Think Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds.

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