When it started two years ago, Sex Criminals seemed like it was going to be a crime caper comic with a lot of semen-centric humour and a soupcon of bittersweet romance. It's done those things really well, but has also morphed into something really special: an exploration of how we think about sex.
Note: This article contains content some readers might find objectionable.
There are 13 issues of Sex Criminals out so far — some of them banned on Apple's App Store — done by the team of Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, Spencer Afonso and others. The series' first storyline focuses on Jon and Suzie, two twentysomethings who meet cute and discover that they each have the power to stop time when they orgasm. When messed-up bank shenanigans threaten to shutter the library where Suzie works, the pair plot to use their powers rob the bank and use the funds to keep the library open.
Mild spoilers for recent issues of Sex Criminals follow.
But they get discovered by the Sex Police — self-anointed authoritarians who also have orgasm-induced abilities — and the series' meta-arc becomes a cat-and-mouse chase that sees Jon and Suzie trying to dig out a conspiracy while avoiding the clutches of the bad guys. After getting access to a database of other people like them, the couple start going to meet their erstwhile peers. As they have done so, Sex Criminals has become an increasingly weird and wonderful road trip into what does and doesn't turn people on.
The best thing about Sex Criminals is how it flattens everyone down to the same emphatic level. All the characters have secret thrills, hang-ups and neuroses. Robert Rainbow, the hunky gynecologist who showed up a while back? Turns out he's not as smooth as he seems and isn't open to just whatever might happen between the sheets.
On the same road trip, Jon and Suzie get freaked out by the hentai-style ejaculate angel/sex demon they encounter when they have tracking down another orgasm-mutant named Douglas D. Douglas.
But, as a piece of commentary, the comic itself is mostly non-judgmental about Douglas' fetish. It's how he uses his sex power — there's seemingly a pattern where he threatens and intimidates others — that gets cast as "evil."
Sex Criminals doesn't pass judgement on whatever gets people off. But that doesn't mean that its characters — especially those who should know better — aren't fucking their lives up with all kinds of bad, impulsive decisions. The conceit of sex-based superpowers imparts Sex Criminals with a flimsy connection to mainstream superhero comics but its players are all more flawed than Superman, Spider-Man or the X-Men will ever be. Jon and Suzie have been off again and on again in an endearingly believable way while main antagonist Myrtle Spurge has been an ultra-creepy study in repression and manipulation. The personalities here are exaggerated but still feel real where it counts.
Every so often, Sex Criminals will take a hard left and veer off into educational/therapy mode. Characters will expound on psychological disorders, mottled personal histories or repudiations of the uncriticized slants that inform sexual research. These divergences were jarring at first but I've grown to looking forward to them. They elevate Sex Criminals past any critiques that would dismiss the adolescent dingaling-and-boobs jokes and reveal part of the thematic machinery that the series' notional engine hum so well.
It should be noted that Fraction and Zdarsky haven't really touched the murkiness of pain/power-centric kink, kiddie porn or anything non-consensual. So far, the stable of characters are all grappling with the broad spectrum of acts and behaviours that people choose to do to themselves or others. Or not. In Sex Criminals #13, an asexual character gets the spotlight in the series' the latest issue, which offers a glimpse in what it might be like to be disinterested in a conversation that everyone seems intent on forcing you into.
Sex is a thing we want — or don't — in as many ways as there are people. Yet, depending on the people and spaces involved, conversations around that idea continue to feel stifled in public and scary in private. The fact that Sex Criminals is fitfully, funnily mapping out a broad range of sexual territory makes it singularly unique. You should go get some Sex Criminals. You might feel better after.