Sex Criminals jokingly bills itself as a classic boy-meets-girl story, and in a way it is. Suzie and Jon meet at a party and are instantly attracted to each other (partly based on his ability to quote her favorite book, Lolita, but that small fact is easy to ignore). They hook up, as 20-somethings are wont to do, but then discover that they each have a… thing: When they orgasm, time stops. No, it doesn’t metaphorically stop, the way it would in the flowery language of romance novels — it literally stops, allowing Suzie and Jon to wander around a frozen world. What they each previously believed was a superpower unique him or her is now a shared oddity, bringing them closer together — “alone together” is a recurring motif — but also allowing them to go on a bank-robbing spree. See: Classic story.
Written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, Sex Criminals is one of the most original, clever, feminist, and sex-positive comics that I’ve ever read. The basic story is interesting enough to enthrall readers: Suzie’s library is in danger of being shut down, so she and Jon decide to rob the bank where Jon works — by having sex in public to freeze time — in order to get the money to save it. They get caught by the Sex Police (essentially an actual police force within the novel, rather than just Conservative pundits), who begin to heavily monitor them.
But what’s even more fascinating are the deeper character stories. Through the series (which runs ten issues in total; Volume 2, Two Worlds, One Cop, was released today), we discover how Suzie and Jon first learned of the strange ability that allows them to enter this new world where time has stopped (she poetically refers to this post-orgasm place as “The Quiet,” while he goes with the cruder “Cumworld”), and their individual reactions to the discovery. Suzie is an immensely likable character from the beginning, a woman with tragedy in her past but the ability to joke about it in her own warped little way. Jon is a great foil, as a childish man struggling with mental illness and the decision of whether or not to medicate.
They are best when they come together — pun intended — to face the strangeness around them, both when the world is frozen and when it’s moving at its normal speed. Sex Criminals likes to break the fourth wall and have Suzie speak directly to the reader (a device that can get a bit too pun-tastic at times), and she’s very open about her feelings, even when she can’t exactly articulate them. She loves Jon, she thinks, and it’s clear that he loves her, but there are always communication issues within any couple, and their sex fest/bank-robbery spree only complicates things further.
Sex Criminals, for all of its inherent absurdity, silly dildo-centric panels, and groan-worthy puns, is stealthily intelligent and feminist. The story makes it clear from the beginning that masturbation and sex aren’t shameful acts, as Suzie goes from person to person trying to learn more about what’s happening to her and her body. At one point, when Suzie jokes about a porn actress while reading her Wikipedia page, the actress shoots back via the computer: “I’m a real person, y’know. And, just because I’m a sex worker, you don’t get to shame me or insult me or insist I came from a background of molestation and abuse.” But Sex Criminals never loses its sense of humor; the porn actress is later seen starring in a parody of The Wicked + The Divine (a separate, and also brilliant, comic series that Fraction and Zdarsky are fans of) titled, of course, The Lick-ed + The Divine.
In a later issue, when Suzie is having a poor reaction to her birth control pills, she visits her gynecologist to learn about alternate methods of contraception. It’s simultaneously funny and informative, with the super-attractive Dr. Robert Rainbow reeling off the various pros and cons of different contraceptives as Suzie fantasizes about him stripping down. Her doctor whips off his belt while talking about condoms, and is down to his underwear when he gets to diaphragms. It’s funny but slyly educational, and all of the information, as Fraction says in a footnote, is taken directly from Planned Parenthood.
Above all, Sex Criminals is a fantastic comic series, one where every issue feels too short and the wait between releases feels excruciatingly long. It’s also a series that’s poised to take over — just today, news broke of a television adaptation — and every bit of success is well deserved: It’s a comic that’s beautiful and addictive but, more importantly, both funny and empowering.