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Monday, August 31, 2015

Bags & Boards Extra: Sex Criminals Volume 1

Sex Criminals
Vol. 1
One Weird Trick
by
Matt Fraction
Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics

Basic premise of Sex Criminals: some people stop time when they orgasm.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I stumbled on Sex Criminals issue 11 as an experimental pick-up. Also, as a general matter, almost anything Matt Fraction writes will get a looksee from me. It was a good issue, and I was intrigued. The letters column itself was gold. A ten issue backlog isn’t terribly large, so I went out and picked up Sex Criminals volume one: “One Weird Trick.”

“One Weird Trick” contains issues 1-5. Covers of each of those issues (and their extra printings) are included as well as a few extras. Letter columns weren’t included, and that omission has me wanting to pick up the individual issues.


Two parallel stories are told in “One Weird Trick;” short clips of the present are interspersed among long stretches of what is essentially flashback, and by the end of the book, the flashback has caught up to the present. Suzie narrates directly. She promises sex and jokes in the story but begins with her own biography. Suzie starts the story with her father being killed at the bank he works at. Suzie’s in high school. The tragedy ends any productive relationship between Suzie and her mother. Stuck growing up more or less on her own, Suzie has to answer a lot of questions by herself. Eventually she masturbates. And time stops. And she has no idea why. Suzie tries and fails to understand what that’s all about, and it takes her a while to realize it doesn’t happen to everybody.

We skip ahead and Suzie’s an adult. She’s at a party. She meets a guy named Jon. He’s an aspiring actor. He’s well-read. He’s charming. The two of them end up sleeping together. And when Suzie orgasms and time stops, Jon’s right there with her. Suzie and Jon are surprised the other is there in the frozen time; it turns out Jon stops time also.

Jon tells Suzie about himself, informing us by extension. His story isn’t as rife with trauma but he’s experienced the same solitude, and like her he’s searching for understanding and for someone like himself.

The five issues collected within this volume deal mainly with the burgeoning relationship between Suzie and Jon. Aside from the time freezing sex, it’s pretty basic stuff. Suzie’s already told Jon that she’s a librarian; she goes on to explain that her library is in danger of being foreclosed on by a bank—coincidentally the bank her father worked for and the bank that Jon current works for. This is where Jon floats the idea that connects our long flashback to the quick scenes in the present: to save Suzie’s library the two of them stop time and rob branches of the bank foreclosing on the library in order to pay off the library’s debt. It turns out, though, that there is a kind of sex police: people who stop time and monitor the others like them. They confront Suzie and Jon in the last bank and, using sex toys, apprehend them. Suzie and Jon just barely escape.


This may be the most unorthodox story I’ve ever read in comic books. But when you remove the time stopping, the bank robbing, and the erotica employing police, the heart of Sex Criminals’ first volume is about two people going through life and searching for understanding—of themselves, of others, of the world. It’s a search that began in adolescence and continued into adulthood. While Suzie and Jon couch this search in their particularly unique terms, it’s still just about sexuality. Is there anything else in adolescence that isolates people quite so much as the thought and worry about sexuality? As discombobulating as Suzie’s and Jon’s circumstances are, the curiosity and confusion they experience is not that far afield of what everyone goes through at the same time.

The bank robbery is a fun scenario, but the charm of “One Weird Trick” is Suzie and Jon—their lives, their foibles, their troubles. Their difficulties growing up and their excitement meeting someone they each feel understands them. They spend most of a weekend together sharing intimate details with each other, warts and all. The dialogue has the gentle pace of a romantic comedy but none of the too-cute, hardly-believable, we-know-how-it will-turn-out faux heart and soul that so many of those movies possess. Fraction pulls no punches; it’s mature sexual subject matter in a frequently comedic setting, and there might be the temptation to become either too cute or too crude for the sake of a bigger laugh. To be sure it straddles an interesting line at several points, but Fraction plays it straight all the way and never loses sight of the greater honesty behind the story of human connection.

Sex Criminals met with mixed reviews at Whatever Store, my weekly comic shop, because of the art. For me, though, Zdarsky’s pencils are one of the series’ high points. The art doesn’t feel stylized. I look at the panels and see subtlety and restraint; I see everyday people in everyday settings. Even the art during the frozen moments isn’t over the top—threatening in that direction only in the attire of the self-appointed sex police. Zdarsky’s mastered these characters; the range of expression on the faces, especially Suzie’s and Jon’s, reveals mood as well as Fraction’s dialogue. It’s the borderline ordinariness of the art that matches it to the story.

Sex Criminals is definitely on my pull list for the future, and I’ll grab the second collected volume soon. Whether subsequent issues have this level of earnestness I don’t know. But this first collected volume is a fun, reflective take on the solitude and the searching that is part and parcel of the human experience. I can’t imagine anyone reading “One Weird Trick” and not seeing a little bit of him or herself in its pages.

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