Generally speaking, I am not a great reader of comics and graphic novels. Don’t get me wrong, I have read some! And enjoyed them. The Kurt Cobain graphic novel, GodSpeed, which my brother brought home hidden in his school bag some years ago, appealed, at the time, to my teenage angst; I will also confess to having actively sought out the filthiest, most depraved volume of Battle Royale which now sits proudly amongst my porn stash – forgive me for conflating graphic novels and comics and anime; I know they are different and which is which, but to my untrained eye they occupy a very similar space – and I was happy to see that in my reading list for university next year I will finally have an excuse to read Watchmen. But despite these fleeting, graphic pleasures, I still have to say that this is not my go-to reading material.
However! a couple of weeks ago I was listening to an episode of the Sex Nerd Sandra podcast in which she, that is Sandra, delved into the world of comic books, superheroes, and sex, and I was introduced to a comic called Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. My interest piqued, I sought it out, and happily found the first five issues in one glossy volume, (which, by the by, just happens to be the perfect length when you have a 90 minute train journey with a bag full of sex toys).
Sex Criminals tells the story of a librarian named Suzie whose orgasms literally freeze time. She soon figures out that this is not the case for everyone else, and is stunned when she falls into bed with Jon, a man whose orgasm does exactly the same. Bibliophiles that they are, the two are keen to save Suzie’s library, and decide to use their special powers to rob banks.
The premise is appropriately humorous, the artwork masterful, and who wouldn’t love a couple who fuck in public, and steal money to save books? Furthermore, quite apart from the engaging and entertaining storyline, the comics also hold a very real (time-stopping orgasms aside), but positive view of sex. Suzie has sexual agency; as a young teenager she is masturbating in the bath, and, a little later, has a realistically unsatisfying first sexual experience with her high school boyfriend. Likewise, when Jon recounts his early sex life, it is equally pedestrian. Suzie also meets with a some sex negativity; first in her Mother whose comments begin and end with “Great. Now I’m raising a whore.” and her gynaecologist, who, when she asks “DOCTOR WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU HAVE AN ORGASM I’M ASKING FOR A FRIEND,” answers with a rather narrow-minded “Usually fall asleep, Suzanne. With your husband.” It’s all fairly normal, but fortunately, Suzie has more wherewithal than to rely on the adults in her life. (There is also some humour to be found in the instruction she receives from her friend Rachel, which is significantly less judgemental, but no better informed.)
The sex in the comics is not particularly graphically explicit – we do see Jon’s cock, but not hard or or during sexual intercourse. Nevertheless, the sex between the two protagonists is still passionate and filthy, and I’m sure Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have no end of fun creating the sex toy shop and porn panels which feature in the story. The sex scenes between Jon and Suzie are, perhaps, not quite sustained enough to conjure real eroticism, but the images do enough to capture clothes being ripped off, and the movements of two bodies deeply engaged. The semi-public nature of the sex also adds an extra thrill to it, and the first comic in fact opens with a rather steamy public-bathroom fucking. Although personally, what really makes these comics (if not arousing then at least) sexy to me is the physical imperfections of Suzie and Jon. Neither of them are that far from superhero-hot, but Suzie often looks a little fatter than your average female hero, and Jon’s nose would be much too large for a Batman type. The fact that they are both so physically normal – hot, but normal – makes them more real, which in turns makes the sex more real, which in turn makes the sex hotter.
Overall, I wouldn’t call Sex Criminals erotica, or even that erotic; but there is no denying it is a sexy and fun read; and it is infinitely delightful to come across (pun intended) something that explicitly discusses and depicts sex, and isn’t afraid of drawing both its male and female protagonists with sexual agency. And yes, okay, the purpose of the sex within the story is utterly contrived, but it is comic-book-contrived; it is fun and kitsch and it works! And in the end, if you really think about it, with all the superheroes out there, and all their manifold talents, there were bound to be a few whose powers stemmed from sexual activity.