Big Hard Sex Criminals sounds like a titillating treat, very possibly something the faint of heart might want to steer clear of—and indeed, there is sex, nudity, trips to adult bookstores, and references to pornography to spare in this book. If you aren’t up for encountering those, skip the book, and probably this review, too. However, Big Hard Sex Criminals goes far beyond titillation by creating a story where sex is smartly integral to plot and character development rather than plot being a flimsy excuse to flood the reader with soft-core scenes. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have hit on a cultural zeitgeist that has made Sex Criminals a critical and popular hit.
In our society, adult film stars are household names, the sex toy market has diversified to have something for just about every taste possible (if you don’t believe me, check out Erika Moen’s webcomic, Oh Joy Sex Toy!), and anyone with an internet connection has access to a million hours of adult content at a moment’s notice. Society is in many ways more open about sex than it has ever been before, but what’s not discussed, and what’s perhaps at the heart of our cultural fascination is that, really, sex is downright weird. Specifically, the moment of orgasm is powerful, vulnerable, and without parallel, and there might just be something literally supernatural about that moment. Fraction and Zdarsky brilliantly home in on this moment, creating a world in which a select group, including the titular Sex Criminals, freeze time when they orgasm and are able to travel through and manipulate this frozen world to their own ends.
The Sex Criminals themselves are Jon and Suzie, who find out during a hookup that they both have the power to freeze time—a “but I thought I was the only one!” meet-cute. They set about learning one another’s backstories and how they use this frozen moment. Suzie eloquently calls it the Quiet, while Jon has enjoyed his time in the less savory Cumworld. As they become a romantic couple and learn more about one another’s lives and values, they devise a plot to save Suzie’s library from the evil bank, but must commit many a felony to do so. And unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones in The Quiet. As it turns out, the Sex Police, who can also inhabit the Quiet, are hot, and hilariously, on their trail; their leader is a suburban, fondly referred to as Kegelface. Beyond the A-Plot, Sex Criminals spends lots of time getting to know its characters through the lens of their sexual histories. Centering the story on sex allows for reflections on youthful self-discovery, young adult uncertainty, ambitions and goals, self-identity and stereotyping, senses of sexual self-worth, and so forth. In the slightly goofy plot and in the more emotionally weighty subplot, the stakes are high, strange, and compelling—a rather unique concept with a lot of potential.
Big Hard Sex Criminals collects volumes 1 and 2 (issues #1-10) of the ongoing comic series, showing the strength of the first five issues and the directional confusion of the second five—as though Fraction and Zdarsky were not entirely sure they’d be allowed to continue with their story. Volume 1 establishes the main characters and their situational conflicts, as well as their personal issues. Volume 2 gets deeper into Suzie and Jon’s relationship, reveals Jon’s struggles with mental health, sees the couple argue, break up, reunite, and discover that there’s a whole new level of sexual weirdness to marvel over: SEX GHOSTS. It is crazy, and it is awesome. Furthermore, while volume 1 is a strong debut, budding with potential, volume 2 delves into secondary characters with mixed success: Suzie’s roommate is a bit of a snooze, but handsome gynecologist Robert Rainbow is a delight. As an ongoing comics series, Sex Criminals is working, with a few bumps and wrong turns, to find a sustainable storyline and a broader cast of characters for the long haul.
Perhaps I am burying the lede. I’ll bet you really want to know how much sex there is in a book called Sex Criminals, don’t you? The answer: plenty. There is regular old intercourse, as well as peep shows, busty porn stars, kink collectors, and idle self-exploration at many turns—one can’t get to The Quiet without sex, after all. But happily, Fraction’s story-pacing and Zdarsky’s cartooning keep it just weird enough and just above board enough that you don’t feel like you’re reading a porn comic. I particularly enjoyed Zdarsky’s funky rainbowy wobbly filter that signals the onset of The Quiet. It’s an effective and strangely beautiful visual shorthand that you’ve entered the world of the Sex Criminals. The other phenomenal visual aspect of Sex Criminals is the abundance of easter eggs, porn parody titles, jokes on sidewalk flyers, and the vast array of visual references and jokes at every turn, adding lightness to a story with a potential for pretty damn serious. Zdarsky and Fraction are clearly deeply committed to this project, and Big Hard Sex Criminals shows the manifold efforts of their hard work.
Of course, Sex Criminals is best for an adult audience, but for that audience it’s clever and innovative, and even a bit thought-provoking. I cannot wait to see what’s next for Suzie and Jon, though I do hope they get a consultant on how libraries work. For the librarian readers among us, there may be some serious eye rolls about the ways Suzie’s library system seems to be set up. Any takers for that very important task?
Big Hard Sex Criminals
by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics, 2015