Sex Criminals, from that title and those covers alone, felt like a deliberate challenge. How to ask retailers for it with a straight face, or read it on your tablet on public transport without people moving a few seats away from you? How to tell people who haven’t read it that it’s one of the best comics of the year without them looking at you like Fredric Wertham was right all along?
Get past that hurdle, however, and here was something that was not only brilliant – but also utterly charming, in a delightful and surprising way. The better of Matt Fraction’s books, while full of character, have tended to have a wry sharpness to them – but Sex Criminals is unironically, honestly warm. And while Suzie and Jon might indeed technically be the “sex criminals” of the title – in that they use the near-unique abilities afforded to them by sex to commit a crime – they’re also two lovely, well-drawn and deeply human characters.
What’s more, despite the provocative title, the book’s approach to sex is actually refreshingly mature, especially for comics. The respective sexual histories of the characters are always looked at in terms of how they complement(ed) actual human relationships – and the sex itself is dealt with in a frank way, and as something to be enjoyed and celebrated, without a hint of grubbiness. Of course, there are elements of “fnarr” humour involved – how can there not be when at one point the characters watch a film called Hard-On Fink? – but the target is more often the unnecessary shame people place on sexuality, rather than sexuality itself.
As a comic itself, meanwhile, the series sees Fraction firmly in his Casanova/Hawkeye frame of mind (and incidentally, if you’re wondering whither the latter book in our list – we’ve left it out due to its placing last year and the fact that we’ve this other book by the writer as a runner up, but rest assured we loved it just as much in 2013 as 2012). That is, delighting in playing with the medium and form – from those relentlessly hilarious recap pages, to the fourth-wall-breaking “Fat Bottomed Girls” sequence in issue #3 (just about the best comics moment of the year, whether you believe the story it’s telling or think it was planned that way all along).
He’s aided in this by some astonishingly sure-footed visual storytelling by Chip Zdarsky – the cartoonist and humourist’s first major comics work proving something of a revelation. His style is still heavily cartoony, but with a huge amount of character expression and incidental detail that makes it a joy to read. Simply put, you wonder why it’s taken so long for someone to give him a book like this.
At a time when so many comics are being wilfully dark or serious, perhaps the greatest achievement of Sex Criminals is to be a silly and entertaining, yet intelligent and meaningful, treatise on an area of human experience that’s all-too-frequently made to feel shameful or dirty or even brushed under the carpet altogether. And while we are actually talking about sex when we say that, we could just as easily be talking about comics, too.