As I spend time reading the letters pages, more so than the actual comic these days, I noticed a very negative letter. I must say I am impressed that Matt and Chip published it and gave such witty responses. It is a very healthy response to an everyday constant that all creators have to learn to manage. However the letter described a criticism of the modern day comic, as he discussed the failure of writers to pull their story into concise single issue bites. He even mentions the first issue of Fantastic Four as a classic example of how it should be done. Though his criticisms are not invalid there is a definite flaw to his argument, and that is Sex Criminals is not really a comic about amazing heroes or deftly story lines. It is not even about incredible people, despite there being a fantasy element to the protagonists. The most poignant line that made my mind scramble was, “Your two main characters have an interesting power, but they themselves are not interesting.” My only reply to that comment is, welcome to the real world. This is a comic about us.
The premise, the characters and the title are a complete subterfuge and a way of bringing humour into a comic that is about sex. If you look at the book critically then the plotline and events are far from important, what matters are Jon and Suzie. Let’s face it, a book about two people having intercourse and exploring their sexual experiences may simply be quite unrealistic and unattractive. It may have even lead people to fall into the pre-conditioned guilt traps laid down by our parents and culture. Bring in an amusing and weirdly exciting idea called Cumworld, and you have a license to discuss whatever you like. This aspect of the plot makes the fictional part of the book more ridiculous than the true life stories it so accurately depicts. Jon and Suzie are so relatable because they are people we know in our daily lives, we just don’t happen to know how they lost their virginity. Even Chip’s art is testament to this because our couple look very real and don’t suffer the narcissistic aspects of superhero art. Because sex is so taboo in society, the youth of today rely on fumbling around in the dark or becoming obsessed with pornography. It is not healthy and it leads to terrible habits and potentially to more serious problems. The outlet this book provides is so refreshing as it acts as a release from the “we can’t talk about that” chains that have lingered for far too long.
There is some truth to the comments regarding the story and plot. It is slow and very little has happened since the revelations of the Sex Police. The premise is a quirky and jocular one but I cannot see it keeping our intention for much longer. In fact the balance between relationship foibles and plot is skewed towards the former, and welcomingly so. Chip’s art is so enjoyable to look at because he keeps it normal and the characters act like any of us would. The fighting scenes are far from picturesque or heroic, quite frankly they are messy and scrappy. The expressions are brilliantly rendered, especially Jon’s angry face and Suze’ surprised stare. He even draws her heavier in issue seven because she starts to use the contraceptive pill again. Personally I do not read this book for the story but for the same reason why I devote so much time to the letters pages: I like to read about people.
This may not be the case for everyone because as a comic book, this sits far away from the classic superhero tomes. There aren’t really any good guys or bad guys, even the “villains” are completely ordinary people. There is no fantastical escapism and the art will not make you sit in awe of human anatomy or surgical cosmetics. The letters pages are the same as the comic, because the fans of the book have written their porn in the woods stories, which could have easily featured in the comic itself. What Matt and Chip have done is provided a format for readers to reveal their sexual secrets and not feel ostracised for them. There are some incredible tales out there and the deliberate facetiousness of the responses serves to normalise the whole conversation. It is fine to talk about sex and it is not depraved to “rub one out” to a picture of Pamela Anderson. I do wonder whether both creators realised how much of an impact they would have because there are some remarkably honest and sad stories in the back. This all stemmed from Fraction & Zdarsky’s ability to portray the teenage sexual experiences of boys and girls. From this we, as readers, were able to empathise with Suzie and Jon because we recognised exactly what they were going through. But then it became all too real.
Issue six was used a fantastic plot device called a Cumpass. Every time they both entered Cumworld, an app on his phone would beep indicating that they could be tracked. Their lives became devoid of rampant sex and life became boring. What this is actually depicting is the end of the honeymoon period of a relationship where everything slows. They even have a scene where they have sex and she fails to come, meaning that Jon enters The Quiet alone. This triggered another real aspect of peoples lives, one that is also frowned upon by society, mental illness. Jon’s descriptions of his feelings and anxieties shoot straight from the heart. In fact the numbness and flat affect was captured sensitively by Chip who had him coloured appropriately grey. The degree of recognition and honesty was so profound that a fair few people instantly bonded with Jon, as demonstrated, once again in issue seven’s letters page.
There was a not so delicate balance of depression and sexual escapades in the responses this week. It is very difficult to mix both themes but it was kept tactful and sweet. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksy have spoken to the people and they spoke back. The amount of fan resonance is intense and I feel quite privileged to read about other people’s personal problems. The comic provides a rich and diverse view on the problems of youth, and that of adulthood and affords the creators a chance to actually help their fans. It’s a big ask to be honest, and one I am sure they were not ready for. But Matt Fraction is doing his best and replies attentively without pandering to his readers. Where there is a point to be made, or a flaw in someone’s thinking, he readily points it out. It would be a disservice to his comic and readers not to. It is heartfelt and amusing at times and I have never read such contrasting Dear Deidre letters before (British reference for you there!). They even brought in an expert on sex to write a discourse on the problems of societal pressures and sexual expectations. It was surprisingly well written, because it sounded more like a young frustrated teacher than a lecturing old man. There may need to be some helplines for mental health problems or a resident educator on board in the future.
The Letter Daddies pages to issue six began with Matt Fraction regaling us all with praise. It was somewhat aggrandised but the passion was certainly there because Sex Criminals has become a cathartic process for all involved. The readers enjoy the loss of alienation and the creators love the positive responses and the ability to make a small impact on people’s lives. You may think me exaggerating here but if you read the letters and responses, then you realise I am being very accurate. If we relate this to the very beginning of this post then it is abundantly clear how it is not possible to compare this comic to the Fantastic Four. This is a comic that broke the social taboos of sexual intercourse and chipped away at the locks on mental illness. There is a readership out there who enjoy this book for its accurate reflection of everyday life and the issues that are very difficult to discuss, and markedly skewed on the internet. In Sex Criminals it allows people a voice, a place to be heard and that is such an incredible achievement. It may not be a comic for everyone to enjoy, the writing may be far too crass, the art far too comedic, but there is no one that can take away its place on the comic shelves. For it sits there alone but full of pride, as it should, as we all should.