Greg: Let’s have fun with oversimplifications: Life is messy. To distract us from this messiness, humans create and consume media. Some media is tidy, to help us escape. Some media is messy, to help us examine. The best media, like the latest issue of Sex Criminals, has a balance of both elements. Now, let’s have fun with overcomplications.
Suzie and Jon are taking a messy breakish kind of thing, which allows Suzie to ogle and fantasize about her substitute gynecologist Robert Rainbow (great character name or greatest character name?) without too much justification (the fantasy sequence where he strips while citing Planned Parenthood-provided birth control statistics is just delightful). Eventually, after an awkward moment involving every medical intern taking a look at her perfect cervix, Suzie asks Robert for coffee, who goes for it despite it being an “ethical thing”. By coincidence, Robert and Jon happen to know each other, and happen to bump into Suzie at the same time. Luckily (again while coincidence and luck factoring so heavy into narrative would normally irk me as being too tidy, it doesn’t bother me here, as it gets us to the messy effectively), they bump into Rachelle while on their awkward three-person date, and as the two R’s make small talk, Jon and Suzie have a brief reconciliatory hand-holding. The nice moment is short-lived, sadly, as the quartet runs into a wrecking ball slamming into the library where Suzie works.
Showing a key moment of backstory to explain something in the present can be tricky. At its worst, it feels like a shoehorned, cliched, and over-convenient way to quickly explain an otherwise unmotivated character decision. At its best, like Matt Fraction’s brilliant use of the device, it is both explanatory and complicating, adding wrinkles to a character while simultaneously adding depth. When Jon and Robert run into each other, and Jon grumbles angrily that he “fucking knows Robert Rainbow”, Fraction moves to a flashback — yet not initially from Jon’s point of view. Instead, he takes us into a trauma of Robert’s, where he walks in on his parents doing some kinky BDSM sexual stuff, then is rebuked by his brother’s girlfriend in a way that’s both sadistic and arousing to Robert (is it creepy of me to say like father like son?). This experience is, understandably, enough to make Robert want to remove his Halloween costume and tell his friends he’s gonna bail. Now, Fraction finally shifts the point of view to Jon, where we see his feelings of abandonment and torment understandably make him less than happy with Robert. If this latter part of the sequence was all we had seen, it would’ve felt underdeveloped and too on-the-nose. Thank goodness, then, for these shifting points of view, which provide us with clear empathy towards both characters.
Another standout sequence comes after Jon storms out of his old therapist’s office and inadvertently runs into his new one. While one could argue that the device of “a therapist telling us bluntly big ideas and themes” is clunky and obvious, I’d argue it’s blunt but necessarily, and wholly effective. Maybe I’m just in the kind of mood where I needed to hear this bit of tough love, but I’ve not heard a more succinct and accurate view of staying sane in the face of the insanity of life than this food court therapist. Realistic yet optimistic. Tough yet inspiring. Just what the doctor ordered, in other words. Also, as a person who’s added this to his life regiment recently, I concur about regular aerobic exercise making you feel better. It’s ridiculous how much it works. I look forward to Jon getting some more truth bombs in future issues to come.
I did mostly enjoy this issue, but want to touch on one small comedy pet peeve. I tend to love realistic, jokey banter between characters who get along, and Fraction usually nails this level of flirtatious intimacy expertly. However, in the initial sequence between Suzie and Robert where they start comparing hyper-specific monsters and mythical creatures, their dialogue spiralled out of the realm of the real, and into the realm of “these characters sure are smart and want to show off how smart they are.” Humor that propagates a feeling of self-superiority at the expense of others (look at how many fancy monster words I know! aren’t I clever? I’m more clever than you!) feels condescending to me, and makes me feel like the author is patting himself on the back a little too heavily. I’d love to see Fraction dial this instinct back a bit in future issues.
Hi Ryan! Did you like this as much as me? There’s one sequence I didn’t touch on that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. Towards the beginning of the issue, Suzie breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the reader, a trope wherein we’re conditioned to understand the other characters can’t hear her. Then, Robert responds to her as if he could hear her the entire time! What do you make of these brazen metatextual shenanigans?
Ryan: Greg, I love the metatextual tomfoolery. Matt Fraction subverting readers’ expectations by mixing up the “aside” conceit which he firmly established back in issue 1 illustrates how remarkably comfortable the creative team is with the world they have created. This title swims in its own unique style in fearless fashion. For this reason, I did not mind the seemingly tangential or self-indulgent “I-played-RPGs-through-med-school” dialogue of which Greg was not a fan. Fraction seems so self-aware of this preposterous section of the script, I cannot help but feel as if it is just one more unabashed wink and nod to the audience letting us know that he is experimenting with this comic, and you are riding shotgun for the journey.
No matter the medium, I have seldom seen a work reward the audience more with consistent in-jokes that do not distract from the narrative, but serve to saturate and consistently define the tone — another notable example being the “every inanimate object knocked over explodes” gimmick in Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The disconnect comes if the audience does not feel let in on the joke, and if one fails to land, than the rest of the comic holds plenty more. Whether it be the ubiquitous “Sexual Gary” face on hospital gowns and posters, the atypical summery page, or the (hopefully) facetious sex tips on the letter page, Sex Criminals is 100% Sex Criminals all the time.
However, that last reflexive statement calls to attention how much this book morphs over time. Sex Criminals never was solely a comic about people’s sexual peccadillos couched in an absurd over-arching plot featuring sci-fi time-stopping stuff, but we now see it move into deeper waters. As this issue deals extensively with therapy after the series brings into focus mental disorders, I cannot help but feel as if the reader is playing therapist to the characters as we receive more and more of our direct exposition from characters laying recumbent and emotionally vomiting. We are privy to not only all of the sexual “firsts” of many of our protagonists, but also the latent scars caused by these encounters. Particularly well-handled is the inclusion of Robert Rainbow’s eye-opening introduction to sex.
This situation is complicated; Greg asserted correctly that life is messy. On one hand, sure, maybe the situation damaged Robert and helped turn him down the dark path of gynecology (I jest). On the other hand, the Rainbows — as pointed out so eloquently by Robert — are the only example given in Sex Criminals of a healthy, functioning parental unit. They embody the American dream as a white picket fence owning, two child, interracial, upper-middle class family. The parents’ proclivity for kink, as jarring though it may be to the young son and how questionable their timing to make sweet, nipple-clamp love on the evening of Halloween while both of their children are home, illustrates that bondage and sadomasochism belong not only in sleazy dungeons, but can be part of regular, healthy sexual habits. I marvel at how this sex-positive comic successfully vacillates between depicting sex anywhere on the spectrum from formative and ecstatic to scarring and shameful.
Ultimately, Sex Criminals 8 dutifully rose to the occasion to introduce a new character, educate the readers on the current state of non-hormonal contraceptives, and, in the very last page, move the plot forward and raise the stakes in the on-going war with the Sex Police.
I love the stylistic choice to individually color the caption boxes to distinguish between the voices of our four characters featured. This could hint at the Suzie and Jon’s army expanding to a cadre of four, which would be an interesting change to the dynamic of the series. I welcome any changes that Fraction and Zdarsky bring to their already golden formula as growth. Can our protagonist stage a fitting rebuttal against their wrongdoers? Will the possibility of a love quadrangle complicate the situation further? Did the food court therapist remind anyone else of comedian/podcaster Marc Meron? Only time can tell how much messier these lives can get.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?