Today, Ryan M. and Ryan D. are discussing Sex Criminals 14, originally released February 17th, 2016.
Ryan M.: Anyone can be charming at a dinner party. A sense of gaiety and a few well-placed bon mots, and you’re a hit! But dinner parties are not where deep connections are forged. That happens when you see beyond the public facade and get a deeper understanding of what a person is like when they don’t have anything clever to say. When they are struggling to articulate their ideas, but trust you enough to listen anyway. In Sex Criminals 14, writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky offer up that kind of vulnerability even as their characters struggle with it.
As a result, not a lot happens in terms of plot movement during the issue. The promised confrontation of Suzie and Ana is supplanted by a four page dramatization of a conversation between Fraction and Zdarsky. It’s almost too textual to be meta. By offering a story about the making of the story that we’re currently reading, Fraction lets us see his intentions explicitly and understand his difficulty in manifesting them. The series has always incorporated the authorial voice but this is a step beyond. We also get Dr. Glass catching Myrtle with Jon’s file and Suzie realizing that she doesn’t want to steal anymore, but those moments are overshadowed by the book’s choice to strip away all subtext to offer a direct communication from the creators.
What I find striking about the scene is that it feels like a real conversation. Or at least the kind of conversation when you really are just talking out your thoughts to a friend who is half-listening, half-topping their own jokes about coke money. The language as “Fraction” tries to explain why the scene he is writing isn’t working isn’t witty repartee meant to impress, it’s the kind of real talk that comes out of you when you feel like your work is shit. Though “Fraction” is the star of this interlude, Zdarsky’s art gives it power. The agony on “Fraction’s” face is so recognizable to anyone who has struggled with their art.
Zdarsky also injects the humor we’ve come to expect from this series. The setup of “Zdarsky” opening his Archie check and immediately changing into a fur and gold jewelry works precisely because it functions visually and doesn’t compete with “Fraction’s” expressions of frustration. If we are to take the events of this sequence at face value, Zdarsky has an advantage in knowing that he is being turned into a character as he is drawing the art. In the final panel above, “Zdarsky” looks directly at the fourth wall, the only instance of that in the scene. He exists outside of “Fraction’s” internal conflict as, as such, can offer solutions and a “fuck it” attitude, all the while injecting jokes and mythologizing the pair of them.
Within the primary narrative, Suzie’s behavior in the issue makes her the “Zdarsky” of the work. The issue begins and ends with her as a disengaged observer of strangers on the street. She cops to a sort of objectification of Jon as he uses a screwdriver to put together her project. She uses her break at work to masturbate herself into the Quiet. She allows herself emotional distance from the world at large. Even her mockery of Ana is rooted in something more than an enjoyment of the cock emoji. There is a sense of insecurity in her relationship with Jon.
In the bottom right panel above, she virtually dares him to reassure her. To repeat himself and be vulnerable to her. Her need for validation is rooted in her conflicted feelings about the criminal element of their relationship. Of course, she doesn’t realize that until after she zones out on her best friend for a couple of minutes.
The dynamic of the Fraction/Zdarsky discussion mirrors the way Rach talks to Suzie later in the issue. Rach uses Suzie as a sounding board for her thoughts about her boyfriend’s insecurity about his relative inexperience. It’s the kind of conversation that I’ve had hundreds of times and, though it’s probably rude to zone out in the middle of it, the primary benefit is the therapeutic value of saying those things aloud for Rach. Sure, if Suzie had some insight beyond “he thinks you’re diseased,” Rach might find that helpful, but I think she zones back in at the perfect point.
Of those hundreds of conversations that I mentioned earlier, a full 80% of them have the same conclusion that Rach reaches above. Of course, talking to your friend with whom you’ve developed emotional intimacy earned over years of support is way easier, but the other conversation, the “are you into it, or what?” conversation, is riskier and the only way to get the answers you seek. For Suzie, her issue-closing realization means she needs to have an honest conversation with Jon about what she wants. It may mean dropping some of her quips and saucy come-ons in favor of emotional honesty. The way the thought boxes kind of curve around Suzie and Rach adds to the impact of each successive level of Suzie’s realization. It’s enough to make someone want to retreat to the Quiet.
Ryan, what did you think of the resolution of the issue? Did you find the creator sequence as successful as I did? Do you think we are missing something from the narrative by not seeing the Ana/Suzie confrontation? What is the significance of the Dick newsletter guy? Also, am I a perv for being kind of disappointed that Suzie and Jon didn’t have a quickie before work? With their abilities are quickies inherently impossible?
Ryan D.: Well, Ryan, I would guess that a quickie between Jon and Suzie would actually help them get to work faster as they would get a head-start on a commute frozen in time — provided they do not use the frozen public transportation. But this brings up a great point which you tapped into earlier: Jon and Suzie, like two ships passing in the night, make no physical contact with each other the entire issue, and even their non-physical interactions like Jon throwing out that furtive “I love you” or the one-sided and unrequited sexting both seem to miss their intended target by inches. While the Honeymoon phase of their relationship has long been over, Fraction scatters breadcrumbs for Suzie’s reveal of “not being into it anymore” at the end of the issue in these unrealized moments. I hazard that I am not the only person who has been in a flagging long-term relationship wherein the accumulation of these instances and the subtle, building stress resulting function as a harbinger or impetus for the impending break-up. Either I am projecting my own experiences on the comic, or Fraction is nailing these fickle relationship dynamics. Maybe both, but that does not make the writing any less spot-on.
Before we give too many kudos to Fraction, let’s talk some about Zdarsky. This may well be his best issue yet, and not just of SexCrims. I mean ever (Howard the Duck and Jughead included). Before we even get to the big creative risk the team took this issue, let’s just take a look at some of the smaller lovely things which Zdarsky did this issue. Take this scene with the Sex Police, for example:
Zdarsky indulges this page with some really lovely colors, which is nice to see when much of SexCrims takes place in peoples’ living rooms or sterile libraries, banks, and other day-to-day locales. On top of the rich colors rests the shadows, adding depth to the page. I also enjoy the structure of the speech balloons on the page, drawing the reader’s eye from panel to panel. Fraction and Zdarsky play with simultaneous narration on this page, as the act which the bad guys discuss is being performed for us in real-time. Lately I have been rejoicing in how comics like Velvet or Descender utilize non-traditional panels to tell the story, but the Zdarsky here uses very standard, clean, and consistent paneling to present the sequences in a geometric way which gives the reader a sense of tempo and pacing.
This page structure shines through again in a bit which addresses another one of Ryan’s questions regarding “the Dick newsletter guy”. While some may have seen that episode as a bit of a throw-away moment included for the laughs of Suzie pepper spraying a seemingly well-intentioned dude, the fact that the picture haunts her through the issue lets the audience — particularly the male readers — understand that there are repercussions for this kind of casual sexual harassment. Here we see Suzie trying to rub one out during a sexy moment at work:
The picture, shown to her without consent, haunts her through her day to the point that it ruins her mojo during her private moments, as seen in this clean paneling which is not afraid to take seven fairly similar images to breathe and use this page to show the process of sexual arousal and not just the result. The page serves as a wonderful reminder that, despite the lessons which the preponderance of hetero porn might teach us, very few people actually want to see an unexpected penis. Fraction and Zdarsky also use this thread to point out the fact that even if someone is as sex-positive as Suzie is, that still does not give someone the right to expose their genitals to them, no matter how well-curated one’s pubic hair might be. Not cool, “Neighborhood Notes” guy!!
Finally, in regards to the in-issue Zdarsky/Fraction interaction: I loved it. I love how it shouldn’t have worked. I hate how I ate it up so easily. I love how they get away with it. I like to think that the development of that scene devolved into a game of one-upsmanship between the two, first with Fraction writing Zdarsky to be a hyper-Canadian blowhard and then Zdarsky getting the last “word” by illustrating everything with as much absurd bombast as he could muster. How do you even label this scene? Post-postmodern? Metamodern? Of this, I am unsure, but it is a testimony to the creative team that they can basically tell the audience, “Hey, this scene was not going to be very good, so we’ll deal with it this way” and turn that narrative and thematic weakness into a charming strength.
Despite the fact that the issue, as Ryan said, hardly moved the plot forward, SexCrims 14 offered an interesting and extremely well written and drawn exploration of the shifting sands that are relationship dynamics, setting up some potentially big things in the coming issues. Though Jon’s mental health has stabilized thanks to therapy and exercise, how will he take Suzie’s realization? What is the next big move from the nefarious Sex Police? I, like many other brimpers, am excited to find out; however, I must admit that this issue made me a little sad, as I do not want to live in a world in which gun-shaped donuts and all of those cock emojis do not exist. Could someone fix that for me quickly, please?
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