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Sex Criminals #3 is a phenomenal exploration of intimate relationships with a meta twist

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Sex Criminals #3. Written by Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Satellite Sam) and drawn by Chip Zdarsky (Prison Funnies, Rumble Royale), this issue looks at the emotional undercurrents of sexual relationships with an incredible sense of humor and dazzling artwork. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Imagine a world where, every time you orgasmed, time stopped and everything froze in place. Sure, it would be pretty damn cool, but also alienating, separating you from the person(s) who just a moment ago had become a part of you. After years of this, sex would be an isolating, lonely experience, but what happens when someone comes along who has the same mystical reaction when they come along? That’s the question posed by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s high-concept Image Comics series Sex Criminals, which follows two time-freezing lovers from their confused youths to the present day, where they’ve decided to use their shared ability to rob a bank. A sex comedy with a splash of crime thriller, the title is a fascinating examination of the pleasures and pitfalls of intimate relationships, using the central fantastic conceit as a metaphor for the way sex distances people but also, under the right circumstances, brings them together.  

The first two issues were largely focused on the Suzie and Jon’s initial discoveries of their extraordinary abilities, emphasizing the sex more than the criminal element of the book. Those two opening chapters—the first spotlighting Suzie, the second spotlighting Jon—detailed the differences between their adolescent sexual developments: Suzie’s first orgasm was incited by a natural curiosity to explore her body and feel something pleasant during a particularly troubling time, whereas Jon was motivated by the presence of sex everywhere around him, from the Cumworld erotica shop near his home to the pornography on the television and Internet. Those contrasting experiences have also influenced how the two view the place they go to when they achieve climax: Suzie refers to it as “The Quiet,” while Jon gives it the far less poetic title of “Cumworld.” 

Each issue has been framed by the bank robbery occurring in the present, but Sex Criminals #3 is where the illegal plot is finally introduced in the past events. Before that happens, there’s still a bit of sexual backstory to deal with, specifically the first time Jon lost his virginity and his subsequent efforts to find someone who wouldn’t freeze when he ejaculates. (Suzie had the benefit of an oversized first issue to provide a comprehensive description of her sexual history.) Fraction’s skill for dialogue shines through in Suzie and Jon’s discussions of these past experiences, establishing an immediate sense of comfort between the two new lovers as they connect with someone who shares their special power for the very first time. It’s notable that Jon wasn’t able to climax during his first time, likely because his bedmate Cara said, “I love you,” immediately after penetration. The second time was similarly anticlimactic, but he didn’t feel any better after coming during the third time, which just proved that there was something wrong with him and no one else. 

While the humor is at the forefront of this book, the way it looks at the fears and anxieties of entering a sexual relationship provides emotional depth and makes it more than just a parade of pornographic gags. Sometimes all it takes is a quick visual shift to evoke this underlying tension; when Jon is telling Suzie about the time he slept with a man in his movement class, their sexual partners appear behind them at the kitchen table, naked and looking not particularly pleased that the intimate details of their personal lives are being shared with a relative stranger. These deeper moments aren’t the focus, though, as Fraction and Zdarsky are far more concerned about making the reader laugh as much as possible, and make no mistake, this book is fucking hilarious. 

In the letters column, Fraction mentions that he told Zdarsky early on that he needed to channel classic Mad artist Will Elder in his art, and that influence is clear in the massive amount of tiny background details that do little to advance the plot, but add lots of flavor to the book. (Elder described this overload of humorous detail as “chicken fat.”) Those Easter eggs are a huge part of this book’s appeal, making each issue an immersive experience, as the reader is encouraged to take a magnifying glass to panels filled with wonderful small details. When Jon takes Suzie to Cumworld (the shop) for their first real date, Zdarky goes all-out with the chicken fat, beginning with a panel showing sex toys called The Eiffel Plower and Boing Balls along with a poster outlining a half-off bisexual DVDs sale with the purchase of one straight and one gay DVD. 

Inside Cumworld, the videos are split into sections with labels like “All Fluids,” “Mediumcore,” and “Obamacore (Medical/Socialist Themed)” and there are parody posters all over the store for porn flicks like Poon (Duncan Jones’ Moon), Fill Bill, The Squirt Locker, and Upream Colon. The highlight of the Cumworld scene is when Jon and Suzie go up to the video booths (the Os on the video booth sign are drawn as boobs, of course) and watch Hard-On Fink, a 1991 Cans Film Festival Winner starring Johnny Spurturro and directed by Joel and Ethan Boen. Inside the booth, Jon and Suzie decide to go at it and freeze the world, reaching climax at the moment when porn starlet Jazmine St. Cocaine is being fingered while saying, “Shoot upon me! Show me the life of the miiiiiiiiii—”. With everyone frozen in time, Jon and Suzie decide to play around in the shop, throwing dildos at each other and squirting water from plastic vaginas. Hell, Apple already banned this book from being sold on iOS devices, so why not just go balls-to-the-wall? 

Sex Criminals is a book that embraces the meta, with Suzie constantly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly. The meta element reaches a new high during this issue’s musical sequence (yes, a musical sequence in a comic book), which features Suzie breaking into song when Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” begins playing at White Balls billiard hall. Fraction and Zdarsky weren’t able to obtain the rights to the lyrics in time, so instead Fraction overlays the story of how they tried to get rights approval on top of the song balloons. “We even had to send in script pages and everything,” Fraction writes. “Just think—BRIAN MAY might have read this page before you did.” It’s a compelling look at the behind-the-scenes process for this book, laid on top of a gorgeous choreographed dance sequence that captures the larger-than-life allure of Suzie in this moment.  When the script includes her singing “Ohhhhhh,” “I know!”, and “Pleeease!”, Fraction wonders if that will get them in trouble. “We’ll see I suppose,” he writes. “BANNED BY ITUNES! SUED BY QUEEN! We just keep throwing awesome-fuel on the hit-fire.” 

That irreverent sense of humor and creative transparency is the real awesome-fuel of this book, which also happens to have the best letters column currently published in comics. There are seven pages of letters in Sex Criminals #3, many of which outline readers’ experiences with discovering pornography in the woods after reading Jon’s story last issue. This book is almost worth it for just the letters pages alone, which also include handy sex tips running across the top. These include: “When there was only one pair of footprints that’s when you were just crazy bouncin’ on my big ol’ rod,” “Nipple clamps are excellent for keeping nipples in place,” and “Have sex with me please.” And while there are plenty of cheeky responses from Fraction and Zdarsky, the letters also provide a valuable place to discuss more serious topics, like how easy access to sexual material has potentially led to horrific sexual behavior in teenagers. 

This book’s explicit view of sex may have garnered the negative attention of Apple, but it’s not much worse than what can be found in the R-rated movie section of the iTunes store. (For those looking for digital copies, the Image website sells DRM-free digital comics that can be viewed on any mobile device.) Sex Criminals is clearly designated as being for mature readers only, and it offers a look at intimate relationships that is as funny as it is thought provoking, making it a book that is about much more than just sex and crime. It’s the kind of story that isn’t being told anywhere else in comics, and the perfect read for anyone looking for a captivating, unique title by two creators at the top of their game.