Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review - Sex Criminals, Volume Two: Two Worlds, One Cop by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Short Review: Despite getting away from the Sex Police, Jon and Suzie's problems are only beginning. Then they discover that there are more people with sex-related powers than they ever thought possible.

Jon can feel nothing
Suzie really needs a friend
Ana's a sex ghost

Full Review: The second volume of Sex Criminals picks up immediately after the events of the first. Sort of. As per the established pattern of this series, Sex Criminals, Volume Two plays with the format as part of its means of telling the story, and in this volume the story jumps around in time, and shifts points of view between characters, self-consciously using the fact that this is a graphic story in creative ways to connect with the reader.

To sum up the background of Sex Criminals, Suzie and Jon can both stop time when they orgasm. Growing up with this odd power, they both felt alone and isolated until they found one another and realized they shared the same gift. To save the library where Suzie works from foreclosure, they started using their powers to rob banks, but ran afoul of a trio of similarly empowered people who call themselves the sex police. In the climax of Volume One, the sex police caught up with the miscreant pair at a bank robbery, and Suzie and Jon were barely able to make their escape. At the start of volume two, Suzie explains to the reader that everything from volume one worked out okay, and apologizes for not wrapping all of that up in the first book. Except she's wrong, everything is not okay, and they didn't wrap everything up in the last volume - what isn't immediately apparent in her speech is that it takes place some time after the events in volume one, and there is some intervening material that the story needs to flash back to cover.

One of the most critical elements of this volume is that while Jon and Suzie must deal with the fallout from their near escape, they must also figure out if they have a relationship that consists of more than a weird quirk involving sex. While Suzie has some body image issues and rather understandable doubts relating to how quickly her relationship with Jon became so intense, the real problems mostly seem to stem from the fact that Jon is an emotional basket case. Jon spends a fair amount of his portion of the book talking directly to the reader as a sexless ghost, drained of all emotion by the medications he takes for his mental health issues. Jon's various mental ailments were touched on briefly in the first volume, mostly manifesting as a moderately humorous recurring bit where Jon would defecate into his boss' plant after he had stopped time, but in this volume they come to the fore, and they are anything but humorous. Jon struggles with mental illness in this volume, and it is anything but humorous, as his personal demons threaten to consume him entirely.

Jon's struggles serve to alienate him from Suzie, which drives him to make some rather foolhardy decisions that cause the pair more problems, but also expand the universe they inhabit. While Jon deals with his personal issues, and while Suzie explores whether she wants to continue to be in a relationship with Jon or perhaps have a fling with her rather attractive gynecologist, events continue to move along without them, and the Sex Police haven't been simply sitting around waiting for the pair to make their next move. But what Jon discovers with a moderately ill-advised foray into the stronghold of the Sex Police is that he and Suzie (and the three Sex Police) are not only not alone with respect to their particular power, but that there is an entire filing cabinet full of folders about people who share their power. This raises interesting questions - as Suzie asks at one point, how did the Sex Police figure out who had this particular power - and opens up new possibilities: It turns out that one of the people with the ability to stop time with their orgasms is Jon's favorite adult performer Jazmine St. Cocaine, also known as Rae Anne Toots and Dr. Ana Kincaid.

The book then goes on to do what this series does best - rewinding Ana's life and then following her as she navigates her way through her sexual education, starting with a childhood injury, moving through her teen years where she had lots of unsatisfying sex but became a popular party girl, and then finally watching as she finds herself on an adult film set after she entered the industry to try to pay for an education her family could not afford. And it is at this point that Ana discovers her unusual power, because this is apparently the first time she had an orgasm. One would think that telling the story of a person's sexual awakening into a time-stopping superpower would become stale over three different accounts, but Fraction and Zdarsky have managed to find a way to tell three completely different stories about sex and relationships that are all equally compelling. For Ana, teen sex was an empty experience which eventually became a means to an end, in contrast to the stories told by Suzie and Jon, both of whom had their own confusing and sometimes harrowing experiences. By the time Ana found the time-stopped post-orgasm place that Suzie calls "the Quiet" and Jon calls "Cumworld", she was an experienced adult, and so found this new ability exhilarating and empowering, as opposed to finding it disorienting as Suzie had, or finding it to be an opportunity for mischief as Jon had. Ana's power also manifests in a completely different way than that of Jon, Suzie, or the Sex Police, raising the questions of how many different forms of time-stopping sex powers there might be, and exactly how Ana might shift the balance of power in the sex-powered world.

Throughout the book, the creators use the graphic novel format in interesting ways to help tell the story. In addition to Jon's ghostly narration, Suzie often breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly. During an argument between the couple, mostly blank panels are interjected by the authors to offer commentary and admonish the pair not to say things that they will regret later. When Suzie has an appointment with her attractive OBGYN Doctor Robert Rainbow, she watches him go through an entire imaginary striptease as he explains her birth control options. When Ana's powers manifest, she becomes a sex ghost, the result of her desperation to feel something; she is in a very real sense a thematic opposite to Jon's sexless and emotionally empty ghost who feels nothing and doesn't care that he feels nothing. Many graphic novels merely use the pictures to illustrate the story, but Sex Criminals uses the fact that it is a graphic novel as an active part of the way the story is told, setting it apart from many other examples of the format.

As good as this volume is, it isn't perfect. It suffers to a certain extent from "middle book syndrome". There isn't really a beginning to the story in the volume, and just as things get interesting between Jon, Suzie, and Ana, the volume ends without really resolving much of anything. The strength of the book is in the character development as even the secondary characters such as Robert Rainbow, Suzie's friend Rachel, and Jon's therapist all feel very real, in their individually screwed up ways. In fact, the only characters who don't seem particularly well realized are the Sex Police, who remain shadowy and mysterious, only revealing tantalizing snippets of there agenda here and there. Despite having a plot that doesn't really pay off in this volume, and a set of villains who are, thus far, mostly wooden, the way the story presents the characters, the way it handles their often befuddled attempts to deal with sexual issues, and the way it uses the fact that it is a graphic story to full effect serves to overcome those deficiencies. Overall, this book is a well-made continuation to the first volume in the series, and a strong set-up for the next, providing plenty of character development, a lot of exploration of how people deal with sexual issues and hang-ups, and a little bit of wrestling with sex-related super-powers.

Previous volume in the series: Sex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick
Subsequent volume in the series: Sex Criminals, Volume Three: Three the Hard Way

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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