Maybe somebody out there can fill me in: is Image part of a competition to put out the most comics with "sex" in the title and plot? Or maybe a contest of suggestive covers with logos reminiscent of human anatomy? Because they've got to be leading the market in both.
When I first snagged "Sex Criminals" #1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, I thought it might be a spin-off of Joe Casey and Pitor Kowalski's "Sex," which premiered a few months ago, focusing on the bad guys. Instead, I found a book that reads a bit like a pastiche of indie influences: the cover is reminiscent of "Phonogram," and the book itself clearly owes a lot to Daniel Clowes and Los Bros Hernandez, both in the art and the confessional, first-person narrative.
The plot, and the comic's punning title, revolve around Suzie, a woman who discovered as a child that when she orgasms, time stops for a few minutes. She meets Jon, a guy with the same power, and together they rob banks to save Suzie's library from foreclosure by the same bank she blames for her father's death. (How the bank could foreclose on a public building is unclear, but I guess anything is possible in this post-2008 world.)
Previews for "Sex Criminals" pitched it as a romantic comedy in the Judd Apatow vein, and you can see the remnants of that concept in the first issue. There's an extended scene of young Suzie's cigarette-smoking new friend showing her sex acts with funny names in Sharpie on a bathroom wall. But like later Apatow movies (see "This Is 40" -- actually, don't see it) there's a heart of real angst that overwhelms the humor and subsumes it, giving the whole comic a sort of bummed-out vibe. In other words, it's much more serious than it makes itself out to be, and that's where it comes up short: it exists in a sort of limbo between serious and funny, light-hearted and heavy-handed.
As I mentioned above, the art as well as the writing owes a great deal to comics like "Ghost World" and "Love and Rockets." Its characters, Suzie especially, are sometimes beautiful and sometimes plain; sometimes they look tired and worn and sometimes young and fresh. In other words, they're like real people, which is nice to see in a comic from a major publisher. (It's also nice to see a comic about sex that focuses entirely on a female protagonist.)
That Chip Zdarsky did everything from pencils to colors gives the book a lovely coherency; his colors are especially beautiful, and there's a nice contrast between the hand-markered look of the real world and the digital flash of the time-stopped limbo. There's also a lot of attention to detail that really make's Suzie world feel real, and rewards repeated read-throughs.
Overall, then, "Sex Criminals" has a ways to go. The art is lovely and mature, but the writing suffers from first issue syndrome: all the time setting up the dark backstory creates a bleak situation at odds with the comics purported rom-com feel, making the humorous moments feel a bit awkward and out-of-place. Hopefully "Sex Criminals" will hit its stride in future issues, but the first issue is worth reading (by adults only!). And hey, you get 32 pages of comic for only $3.50, a better deal than almost anything on the stands, which seems somehow appropriate for a book about people who love books.