So I pretty quickly picked up the hardcover omnibus of Sex Criminals Vol. 1 & 2 after reading part one… and writing a whole review for it… so this is now a big ol’ double-post, reviewing both halves essentially. Of this monster of a hilarious-looking book:
Big Hard Sex Criminals, Volume One
I mean, right?
So, without further ado… Issues #1-5, collected as One Weird Trick:
The Short Version: Suzie is a pretty normal girl – except her orgasms can stop time. When she meets a guy named Jon who has the same ability, they immediately start to take advantage and end up robbing banks. Because, hey, why not?
The Review: Sometimes, the best ideas are the weirdest / craziest ones. Take, for example, the one-sentence pitch for this series: a couple stops time when they orgasm and so they decide to rob banks. The first half of that sentence is good enough but it’s the second half that makes it a masterpiece of an idea – it’s the “sure, why not” of it all.
I was actually rather reluctant to pick this one up, mainly because I didn’t think there was any way the comic could actually successfully pull off the setup. It’d be weird or it’d be gross or it’d be stupid in the way that most sex comedies usually are. There’s nothing wrong with most sex comedies, by the way, if that’s what you’re into – but it’s also not exactly what I tend to go in for. But after discussing The Wicked + the Divine with So Many Damn Books co-host Christopher Hermelin, he said “oh, you haven’t read Sex Criminals? Well, you have to.” So I walked out of our recording session with his copy of Volume One and I ended up reading it that very night.
And laughing. A lot.
Writer Matt Fraction seems to know just how ridiculous the idea is and he lets himself go crazy with whatever humor he can think up. There’s meta-humor, there’s sex humor, there’s sitcom humor, and just about any other humor you can think of – and all of it, bar none, will make you laugh. One of my favorite moments comes when Suzie breaks into Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” but they apparently couldn’t get the rights for it and so they did a gag with authorial post-its over the word bubbles. The gag has been updated from the original run of the comic, because they’d hoped they would get the rights but didn’t – and so there’s this hilarious narrative overlay on the story, a bit like some Robert Downey Jr. narration in a Shane Black film. I laughed, out loud, throughout.
The movie thing, by the way, is maybe the best way to describe this series’ presentation. I don’t think I’ve ever read a comic/graphic novel that uses the form to achieve an almost Arrested Development-esque visual humor – you know what I’m talking about, the quick cuts to a different scene that put a button on a joke or the visual framing that allows for an unexpected background gag. Sometimes, it’s simple: Suzie (our narrator, by the way) says “remember her?” about a character we’ve just been reintroduced to and the next cell is a zoomed-in look at that character from her introduction several pages back. Other times, it’s a little more complex, like the post-it gag. But all of it seems to take inspiration from great moments in visual humor being filtered through the particular constraints of the comic book form. And it’s awesome. I direct you also to the several-page bit with strange sexual positions being markered on a bathroom stall, as another example of tremendous hilarity. Chip Zdarsky just nails every panel.
The story itself is also interesting and heartfelt, by the way. It’s not all for laughs. The relationship between Jon and Suzie is as awkward and goofy as a normal human courtship – and as they discover more about their abilities while also discovering more about each other, the humor plays nicely off the romance. They’re both flawed, weird people and it’s nice to see reality reflected in such a way. Their first date, which lasts something like 55 hours, is a great example of something that is so rom-com ridiculous but that also does actually happen – and Fraction walks the line perfectly.
He also includes even more crazy-ridiculous stuff, though. Like the sex police, for example – led, apparently, by an overworked soccer mom (because of course they are). They have a fleshlight taser and their batons are dildos. And they also stop time, wearing crazy white get-ups, and police the other people who can stop time. It’s so bold in its ridiculousness, even beyond the original conceit of the comic, that you can only laugh and say “well, go on”, knowing that the authors haven’t let you down yet and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to start now.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Just sheer ballsy perfection, honestly. They come out of the gate with a bang (pun definitely intended) and never ease up. The humor suffuses the entire volume and if you don’t laugh out loud several times over the course of any issue, let alone whole collection, then I think there might be something wrong with your funny bone. Panel for panel, I can’t think of another comic that delivers on and compounds its own promise so well. It isn’t an epic like Sandman or Saga but it isn’t meant to be. This is the Arrested Development of graphic novels – just go laugh your ass off.
And then there was Issues #6-10, collected as Two Worlds, One Cop:
The Short Version: What happens when the spark fades? You can’t just constantly bone all the time – and all relationships take work. But Jon and Suzie aren’t like any ordinary couple and so maybe the work is… a bit more work. Oh and they’re still maybe on the run.
The Review: Well that got heavy pretty fast.
This is not to say that the humor and visual delight of the first five issues is gone – au contraire, there are still plenty of laugh-out-loud delightful moments – but it is pushed aside for a way-more-serious look at… well, a lot of things, actually. Relationships, mental health, sexual health, the differences of our bodies and sexual responses. Light, easy, comic reading, right?
I have to say that there are almost two parallel ways to read/experience/review/etc these issues: one, as the continuation of the story itself that was started earlier, and the other being the comic’s exploration of the aforementioned issues. Let’s start with the weaker of the two, which is the continuation of the story itself.
Also, should be said: not weaker by much. There’s a bit more of a scattered quality to this half of the book, which seems to be a result of having to put a lot more pieces on the board than we had in the initial half. suddenly, other characters are narrating and the world is expanding with some speed. There’s a moment of narrative too-much-serendipity near the end when the pornstar with whom Jon was infatuated from an early age enters the narrative – but the book-ending WTF moment involving her makes it all worth it and reveals that there’s still a lot to know about the world of this series.
But I wish that there had been a little more commitment to the repercussions of the psychological/personal issues being explored. Suzie and Jon break up and get back together without much fuss, onscreen at least. And several of the big moments in the book feel like they’re vignettes as opposed to a thoroughly connected narrative. Part of that could be due, I suppose, to the format: graphic novels/comics are, after all, broken up and compartmentalized by nature – the white bars, the single moments captured in pen & ink. But there was a sense, behind all that, of the creators marking time as they waited for their imaginations to produce the next wacky plot twist.
Of course, that doesn’t give them enough credit in the slightest – because they spend a lot of time on some very small/intangible moments and ideas. The first couple issues in this second half of BHSC are devoted to Jon and his brain, which not only suffers from ADHD and some comorbid afflictions, but some pharmacological reactions that lead to depression and anger. A scene where he’s greyed out and pulls down his pants to reveal a Ken doll-esque pelvis is genuinely shocking, not in the “heavens!” way but in the “I never thought how perfect a representation that is” way. It was such a powerful image, capturing the realities of depression in a new way – and that thoughtfulness runs throughout the book. Even when the creators are having fun, like with the contraception panels (you’ll see), they’re being incredibly thoughtful and careful to make sure that not only are the characters human but that their issues are treated with humanity too. It makes the cooled-off plot easier to handle, because it’s like they took a couple near-bottle episodes and decided that they’d really jump into these peoples’ brains, to surprisingly potent effect.
They’re still just having fun for fun’s sake, too, though. Like the porn version of The Wicked + the Divine – an absolutely tremendous and hilarious comix in-joke/hat tip – or the detail (shown at the end of the omnibus) that goes into the posters and books and ephemera floating around the background of any given panel. The jokes here are AMAZING and completely off-the-wall. I laughed at nearly each and every one of them.
Rating: 4 out of 5, for both Two Worlds, One Cop and for Big Hard Sex Criminals as a collection. The second installment in this series just doesn’t pack the same hilarity that those initial issues had. There’s a bit of a worthwhile trade-off, for the surprisingly deft handling of serious emotional issues, but the ebullient craziness of those early issues was part of the charm. Now that the blush has worn off, both for the reader and the creative team, the relationship has to figure out where it’s going to land. And we’re all figuring things out here, right there on the page, and that’s great. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.