For most of its history, comics have been a man’s man’s man’s world – or more accurately, a boy’s boy’s boy’s world. They’ve been the place where uncool boys went to escape the various rejections they found in the real world and live in a world of hulking he-men and impossibly beautiful, powerful (and, of course, half-naked) women. But something strange happened in the early ’90s. New creators like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton’sBatman, The Death of Superman, X-Men Volume 2and Image Comics all created a swirl of hype. Comics became collectibles, coveted like baseball cards. Cool people started to read them, and, even weirder, so did girls.
For all their readership over the years, girls haven’t been so warmly welcomed into the mainstream comics world, and female characters haven’t typically been written with as much attention to detail as they’ve been drawn. Though it’s saddled with a ridiculous title, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals looks to hack away at that perception by mixing sex and superpowers in a novel way, one that opens up a heretofore unmined deposit of dick and butt jokes that would make any teenage boy giddy. But the thing is, the main character isn’t a boy.
The first volume, One Weird Trick, covers the first five issues of the monthly series from Image. It follows the strange life of Suzie, a 20-something librarian who learns as a kid that she has a special power: She can stop time when she has an orgasm. It’s a feel-good-yet-scary place for her – one that she dubs “the Quiet.” She has questions, but none of the adults are willing to explain things to her. Turning to the school slut, Rach, for help, she proceeds to get a lesson full of the most absurd, hilarious sex positions ever penciled onto a bathroom stall wall: “bloobing,” “quisping,” “swaffling” and “E.T. the Sex Move” – but none of them explain the stopping-time business.
It’s not until adulthood that anyone can help, when she meets Jon, a handsome actor-slash-secretary who charms her by quoting Lolita. In her room, as she enters the Quiet, something new and alarming happens: He’s there too, glowing penis and all. It’s a startling but magnetic discovery for both of them, that they’re not alone in this strange, embarrassing world anymore.
Sex isn’t usually well-defined in comics. We’re aware that Mary Jane and Peter have sex, but there has never been a curiously tight-cropped panel of MJ’s eyes in any Spider-Man books. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have anal sex in Alias, but that was just some shock-and-awe for Marvel’s adult imprint, Max.
It starts to feel a bit like a cop-out by Fraction when Jon suggests they rob the bank he works at (where Suzie’s father also worked) to help save her library, but the idea is ill-conceived on purpose by Fraction. Things don’t go as planned, and Suzie and Jon find out the Quiet is a much larger place than either of them could have guessed, one that is even patrolled by its own superhero team.
As much as the Quiet becomes a place of revenge for Jon, it’s more complex for Suzie. It’s about sex, but it’s also wrapped up with her father’s death and her mother’s alcoholic near-catatonia. Like comics for uncool boys, the Quiet becomes her escape from rejection. She doesn’t use it for quiet; she uses it to scream at the top of her lungs because it’s the only place where she can. In that way, Sex Criminals goes far beyond novelty, maybe even far beyond what we think of when we think of comics.