Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review - Sex Criminals, Volume Three: Three the Hard Way by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Short review: Jon and Suzie enter an uneasy alliance with Kincaid to look for others with their abilities to oppose the Sex Police, with unexpected and dangerous results. Myrtle uses her sexual prowess to try to get information out of Jon's psychiatrist.

Let's break the fourth wall,
And put writer and artist
In the book as well

Full review: Three the Hard Way is the third volume in the Sex Criminals series, and while one would think that a story about people who stop time when they orgasm would already be far enough out on the edge that they couldn't make it much odder, Fraction and Zdarsky manage to do exactly that. In this volume the universe that Suzie and Jon inhabit expands even further, as characters with even stranger relationships with what Suzie the "Quiet" are introduced, but the book also takes a metatextual turn, as the author and artist play with the art form they are using to tell the story, even explicitly introducing themselves into the narrative at one point. To a certain extent, this volume is "more of the same" - at one point even repeating a visual motif used in all the way back in volume one - but it also takes the story in strange, unexpected, and entirely entertaining directions.

After a brief interlude to introduce an entirely new (and fairly creepy) character, the story mostly picks up where volume two left off, with Suzie and Jon now allied with sex researcher and former porn actress Jazmine Kincaid hunting through the stolen records of the Sex Police to try to find other people who share their strange ability. While this plot development leads in some interesting directions insomuch as it introduces some quirky new characters to the secret Sex Criminals universe, it doesn't really seem to be going anywhere in particular. The Sex Police are still hunting for Jon and Suzie (and by extension Kincaid), but the reason for their relentless pursuit is as yet completely unexplained. Jon and Suzie are trying to fend off their pursuers, but given that Suzie decides they should stop robbing banks, there doesn't seem to be any real reason for their conflict with the Sex Police any more, and their embryonic goal of assembling like-minded individuals to fight against the Sex Police seems somewhat counterproductive at this point. The plot, such as it is, in this volume, is pretty much the weakest part of this book, as the characters seem to be pushing forward with agendas without much reason for them to do so.

Where the book shines, though, is in the development of the characters and the weird world they inhabit. In their hunt for allies, Jon and Suzie locate others who can access the "Quiet", and who display even stranger powers than those that have thus far shown up in the series. Douglas D. Douglas turns into a sex ghost in a manner similar to that of Kincaid, but with the added twist that his personal fetishes turn him into an anime Lolita sex ghost who speaks in what appear to be unintelligible phrases and hides a dangerous secret. Alix is asexual, has a weird thing about Carl Sagan, and enters the "Quiet" by jumping off buildings. Their personal stories are interesting, giving a glimpse into the somewhat out of the mainstream lives that led them to where they are when they show up in the story, but neither of them really add much to the book otherwise, as they more of less just show up for a bit and then the larger story moves on without them. I suppose they might show up again in a later volume, but at this point, they are just some interesting background material to expand the fictional universe the protagonists live in.

Another character who gets some serious character development is Myrtle, the leader of the Sex Police, who has entered into a sexual relationship with Jon's psychiatrist in order to try to find information about Jon. The number of boundaries that Myrtle crosses in this hunt for Jon and Suzie is evidence of her Ahab-like obsession with catching them, but due to the fact that her motivation for this obsessive quest is thus far unexplained, she seems bizarrely creepy rather than ominous. The fact that her two minions are almost buffoonishly stupid is somewhat disappointing, as it makes Myrtle really the only member of the Sex Police who is even remotely interesting. The fact that they are spend most of their time openly ogling her while she whips them into actually working is a kind of unexpected wrinkle that makes their whole relationship seem even more warped than one might have originally thought, but this doesn't really amount to much more than a quirk. Everything about the plot-line involving Myrtle and her minions serves to illustrate that the book is largely composed of quirky little moments highlighted for the reader, and while this works really well some times, by the end of this volume I was really hoping for something a little more significant.

One of the running themes established in the previous volume is that despite the fact that the various individuals in the story share a common ability, they are often not particularly compatible with one another otherwise. The foundation of Suzie and Jon's relationship is their shared ability to enter the "Quiet" post-orgasm, but time and again, the cracks engendered by their almost comical incompatibility show up. They both work with Kincaid, but the academic holds both Jon and Suzie in barely concealed contempt, at one point exploding into anger when she discovers what the pair use their abilities to do. The interaction between Kincaid and Jon also serves to put an additional strain upon Jon and Suzie's relationship, as Kincaid essentially ignores Suzie and talks only to Jon, while Jon behaves like an adoring fan of the former porn performer. On the other side of the metaphorical street, Myrtle clearly loathes the pair of henchmen who serve as the muscle in her Sex Police activities, and they regard her with poorly hidden lust. Even Douglas and Alix have a relationship of sorts, and it is just as dysfunctional as all the others portrayed in the book. Time and again Sex Criminals highlights just how emotionally broken the characters that inhabit its world are, and how this has twisted and warped their ability to interact with other people to such an extent that even when they find someone who shares their ability, they often struggle to make their relationships function.

What really sets this story apart from the norm is its copious amounts of metatextual material. Sex Criminals has dabbled in metatextual elements from the first volume in which the lyrics to Fat Bottomed Girls were replaced by post-it notes over the speech bubbles explaining what would have been in them but for copyright issues, or scenes in which one character or another breaks the fourth wall to explain something directly to the reader. But while earlier volumes have included metatextual material, Three the Hard Way positively revels in it. Some scenes are entirely omitted in favor of black panels with text explaining what would have been happening. Some of these skips are of trivial scenes, such as a character shopping at an Asian market, while others involve substantive sequences involving characters resolving their differences. Most of the tricks used in previous volumes show up again, including the post-it notes, although this time with a note explaining that they know they are reusing the device. At one point, the book includes an extended sequence in which Fraction and Zdarsky themselves appear in the book to discuss the author's struggles in coming up with a way to advance a particular scene. Some of these metatextual elements work better than others, but what makes them all so interesting is that they amount to telling the story in a manner that would be impossible with any other medium and that is what sets this book apart from many other graphic stories. For any other flaws it might have, Sex Criminals is a story that simply could not exist as anything other than a graphic novel.

Three volumes in, Sex Criminals is a sprawling, ramshackle story told in a quirky and offbeat manner. Full of odd characters - many of whom one would never want to actually meet or interact with - and with a plot that seems to wander almost aimlessly at times, this is a book that simply should not work. However, despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, this book is eminently readable, and at times compelling. Coming into this volume, Sex Criminals was an odd series about odd people told in odd ways, and by the end it had become an odder series about odder people told in even odder ways. This volume is, in the end, a glorious, albeit slightly unfocused and more exuberant continuation of the story and anyone who enjoyed the first two is likely to find this enchanting in its weirdness.

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

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