When this comic first came out in 2013, there was a flood of praise for it, citing the story as revolutionary in the way it depicted sex and relationships and hilarious in its hijinks. I picked it up later when the compiled volume came out, but surprisingly put it down after about three issues in. Sex Criminals has been hailed as one of the first comics to depict real people in real relationships, showing not only the good moments but the messy ones as well. Honestly, I can give Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky props for some things, but I don’t think of them as trailblazers when it comes to romance or comedy. Maybe their type of comedy just isn’t for me, but whether or not the comic is good is up to you. I’m just here to talk about what I thought was good and bad about this comic.
I’ve discussed a few major points in my previous issue by issue reviews, but I’ll be glossing over those again for this wrap-up review as well. If you want to see some more in-depth opinions on my problems with issues one and two, you can always look back at those. For anyone who hasn’t read Sex Criminals before, the story centers around two people, Suzanne and Jon, who can stop time when they orgasm. Both of them discover this power through the confusing and awkward nature of puberty and come to meet each other by happenstance at a party. Realizing they can stop time together after having sex, Suzie and Jon decide to use their ability to rob banks in order to save the library that Suzie works at. But, they realize too late that they’re in way over their heads. To call this a caper story would be misleading, though its main plot involves robbing a bank. Sex Criminals’ main focus is relationships and sex, framed by the narrative of a bank robbery. Each issue begins and ends in the present, showing just a little more of the frame narrative to keep the suspense going as it lays on the heavy themes that have won it so much critical praise.
One of the first things I noticed that happens throughout the story is the fact that Suzie is there narrating every step of the way. Sometimes this is used at the expense of real dialogue, choosing to instead throw in “witty” and meta clips to the reader, such as: “I swear, this all gets funnier in a second,” and, “I swear the jokes are coming. Hang on.” This just makes me get annoyed more with Suzie as a narrator and makes it seem like Fraction is trying to force comedy into a space that doesn’t necessarily need it. And this kind of sense of forced comedy shows in pretty much all the issues of this volume. It rears it’s ugly head the most in issue 3 with the inclusion of the musical number that never should have been. I think this is where I put the volume down. This scene has been hailed by fans as a work of genius, many people saying that they purposely planned not to include any lyrics from the song in the first place. All I see though, is another drawn-out, overdone gag that just doesn’t fit with the characters or story for that matter. What does a musical number have anything to do with this story in the first place, particularly in the comic medium where it’s very hard to pull off if at all? The choice to use sticky notes with narration from the creators instead of lyrics just sits as a blow to the face of the readers for me. I know it’s only four pages out of the issue, but keeping readers engaged is all about controlling immersion, and they consistently break their immersion throughout the narrative with no real interesting characters to keep pulling me back in.
Which is the other huge drawback for me. For all Sex Criminals being hailed as the next greatest romance, the characters of Suzie and Jon are just generally unlikable. I know they’re supposed to be these “real” characters with messy views of sex and relationships, but you know what also had “real” characters and messy views of sex and relationships that I didn’t hate? Bojack Horseman. Those characters are arguably more messed up, and yet work better at keeping me engaged. Probably the main reason being that the characters of Bojack Horseman actively know they have problems that need to improve on. While Sex Criminals does touch on some very important points, I think the way Suzie and Jon are portrayed allows their more serious problems to become jokes that don’t quite hit as hard as necessary or are displayed in a way that comes off as condescending on the part of Suzie mostly. I think the character of Suzie is probably the one who troubled me the most throughout the volume. From comments that being a porn star with child sexual abuse to her continual comments about her best friend’s sexual history who we then find out was raped in the past in issue four. As much as people want to say that it can be explained as Fraction creating a character with a messy and sometimes twisted view of sex, I don’t think her comments or her treatment of a rape survivor makes her any more likable. I also found myself not liking Jon after a while as well, but I don’t really find him as annoying as Suzie, just generally uninteresting. However, I don’t know if I like him being a face of Operant Defiant Disorder either, at least not how they display it in this volume. It’s a messy disorder that has the statistical likelihood to lead to Antisocial Personality Disorder, and in some ways it feels like it gets treated more as a gag. “Look at Jon shitting in his boss’ plant, isn’t that crazy??”
But for all that I don’t like about this comic, there are a few things that I will give props to Fraction and Zdarsky for, mainly the themes and topics they choose to cover. The first two issues paint the picture of the difference boys and girls face when learning about puberty and sex. It displays the often convoluted and misconstrued information young people learn about their own bodies that the US education system doesn’t take the time to correct. It shows us that even at a young age, kids are learning that sex is shameful and isn’t something you talk openly about. You can also say that their portrayal of each of their “first times” is also realistic as it’s not painted as this highly romantic moment, but more as it actually is: awkward, messy, and a bit painful at times. Though when they get to Suzie and Jon’s first time together, it becomes this very romantic moment rather than a more messy portrayal.
Finally, I can’t review a comic without talking at least a little bit about the art. Overall, I think it could use a little work. There were times when the age of a character, particularly Suzie, was hard to distinguish because of the amount of shading on the face. There were also times when I thought her face was just generally over shaded and it made the character designs pretty messy. But the vibrant colors throughout the volume added a nice kick to a lot of scenes, especially when time stops and those glowing tendrils start floating through the panels. Zdarsky could have definitely taken it more to the extreme with those though, making those moments more trippy and impactful.
Overall, I’m not a huge fan of this comic, but it does have its good moments among the generally unlikable characters and questionable displays of a few topics. But there are two more volumes, and I have heard it gets a little better as it goes on. Honestly, though, I don’t know if I have the patience to read the other two volumes. It would certainly give me a lot to talk about, but that time can also be spent on other comics. If you’d like to read my opinions on the next two volumes, you can let me know in the comments.
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