Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review - Sex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Short Review: Suzie thinks she is the only one who can stop time when she orgasms. Then she meets Jon and they rob banks together.

Orgasm and then
All alone in "the Quiet"
But then another

Full Review: The difficult thing about discussing Sex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick is that explaining the plot of the story simply does not give the correct impression of what the graphic novel is about. If one says "Sex Criminals is about a couple who can stop time when they orgasm who decide to rob banks", the description is technically true, but it not only misses so much about what makes this graphic novel so good, it gives a misleading impression to boot. No matter how one tries to describe the story, it sounds much cruder, crasser, and more exploitative than it really is, and misses the beautiful coming-of-age story - actually two coming of age stories - that perfectly capture the confusion and consternation of adolescence and the subsequent maturity into some semblance of adulthood.

Sex Criminals opens with a scene in which two people are hurriedly having sex in a public restroom while someone outside issues threats. And then the scene shifts backwards in time by almost two decades. With that, the graphic novel introduces the reader to the fact that the story is told out of temporal sequence. There is only a very tiny amount of the book that takes place in the "present", as almost all of it is flashbacks, or flashbacks within flashbacks, detailing how the central characters got to the point where they were screwing in the bathroom of a bank headquarters while the sex police hammered on the door.

So the story jumps back to when Suzie, the woman in the couple having sex in a restroom, was a preteen girl and starts up on the day her father died. Or rather, was killed in the same bank headquarters she and her partner were copulating in. After her father's death, Suzie's mother withdraws into grief, and when the young girl starts to discover her sexuality, she is emotionally alone and isolated. Through the story of Suzie growing up and trying to come to grips with the fact that when she orgasms time stops and she enters what she calls "the Quiet", Sex Criminals displays its brilliance. For all adolescents figuring out sex is a scary and difficult process, and it is for Suzie too, but she has the added burden of a side-effect that no one else seems to share which isolates her even further. The story shows her trying to research her unique condition, but no one else is able to help her - not her mother, not her teachers, not even the "dirty girls" at her school. As one would expect, her fumbling teenage attempts at actual sex yield decidedly unsatisfying results, which seems par for the course when one considers that they all become entirely immobile at the moment Suzie orgasms.

But then Suzie meets Jon, and unexpectedly they discover out they share the same power. This causes them to fall almost immediately into a relationship of sorts. This also allows Sex Criminals to go back and tell the story of a confused youth getting in touch with their sexuality while grappling with a side-effect that no one else seems to share. And even though the story is covering much of the same thematic territory, it manages to do so with an entirely different sensibility, which can be summed up by Jon's name for the twilight time-stopped world that Suzie calls "The Quiet", but which he calls "Cumworld". While Suzie's story included hot baths with interesting use of the flowing water, trips to the library to try to research her problem, and awkward attempts to figure things out by hooking up with her boyfriends, Jon's story involves masturbation in public rest rooms so he could rush across the street into a sex shop named Cumworld and peruse the large collection of pornography. Jon's story also involves being twelve and accidentally popping out of "Cumworld" while still standing in Cumworld, which is quite amusing. Part of the brilliance of Sex Criminals is how it manages to pull off telling the same story of growth and experimentation twice in the same volume, and make both stories both entirely believable, entirely humorous, and entirely different.

Despite telling both Suzie and Jon's coming of age stories, Sex Criminals remains very definitely Suzie's story. Not only that, the book is written in such a way that she is aware that it is her story, with her adult self popping up in flashbacks to break the fourth wall and address the reader directly. Furthermore, the graphic novel is aware that it is a graphic novel, using the format to tell the story in ways that would be difficult in another medium - such as when Suzie sings along to Fat Bottomed Girls in a pool hall, and instead of putting the lyrics in her speech bubbles, they are covered with yellow post-it notes explaining that the author couldn't get the rights to use the song in his book. Throughout the book Fraction and Zdarsky play with the unique elements of the medium to enhance the telling of the story.

With all of these things going on in the story, the actual plot in which Jon and Suzie decide to rob the bank where Jon is an unhappy employee to pay off the mortgage for the library where Suzie is a happy employee, seems almost superfluous. There are interesting elements to it - during their preparations for their main heist Suzie discovers something about Jon that suggests they may not necessarily be ideally suited to one another as long-term partners, and the story introduces the "sex police", made up of yet more people who share Suzie and Jon's unique gift and seem to have appointed themselves the arbiters of what people may or may not do in "The Quiet/Cumworld". But all of this is secondary at this point to the development of Suzie and Jon's characters and the story of how they each came to terms with their own sexuality and with their relationship with one another.

Sex Criminals is an oddly sweet, oddly bawdy, and oddly touching exploration of how people deal with love, sex, and stress. Though this story could have been crude or crass, it deftly manages to avoid that in favor of a deeply immersive tale of self-discovery, which is kind of a feat when one considers that a decent portion of the book takes place in a sex shop named Cumworld. This graphic novel manages to deal with sex in a distinctly adult manner that captures the awkwardness, embarrassment, and humor inherent in the life of a teenager, and combines it with a fantastical story that is both bizarre and endearing.

Subsequent volume in the series: Sex Criminals, Volume Two: Two Worlds, One Cop

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