CRAIG’S PICK :: SEX CRIMINALS #5: In 1970s fandom, we used the term “groundlevels” to describe comics that combined fan genres like science fiction and fantasy with adult visuals and subject matter(s). “Groundlevel” refers to the middle position these comics occupied between the DC-Marvel “mainstream” and the excesses of Crumbian undergrounds. Dave Sim’s Cerebus was one early groundlevel comic, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest another, and nowadays, when I look at the artistic and commercial renaissance at Image Comics, I see the rebirth of the groundlevel aesthetic. Saga gives us adult science fiction–adult enough to precipitate an iPhone and iPad ban on the images of gay sex in Saga #12–while Pretty Deadly splices the Western to hallucinogenic storytelling à la Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult movie El Topo (1970). These comics are weird and adventurous, but the genres are familiar.
A big part of the adult content of the groundlevels was sex. I bought Star*Reach #1, my first groundlevel, in 1975, when I was twelve years old and too young to know what sex was. Star*Reach #1 was edited by Mike Friedrich, the man who coined the word “groundlevel” and who convinced Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Steve Skeates, and other pros to contribute to his comic and exercise creative freedoms mostly not available at the Big Two. One artist who ran with the freedoms Friedrich offered was Jim Starlin. His contribution to that first issue of Star*Reach have a lot in common with his trippy work on Captain Marvel (both feature Death as an actual character in their stories), but Starlin drew his green-skinned Star*Reach girls topless, something Stan “the Man” Lee never brought to the pages of the Fantastic Four. I paid a pricey 75 cents for Star*Reach #1, took my dirty book home, read it, and immediately grew hair where there wasn’t hair before.
The Image comic that would seem to carry forward that “dirty” groundlevel tradition is writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, a book with a highly-publicized high concept: it’s about a couple (Suzie and Jon) whose orgasms freeze time. The book gets funky quickly–the second interior page of Sex Criminals #1 is a full-page splash of our protagonists bangin’ in a public bathroom–but sex actually isn’t what this book is about. After the bathroom scene, Sex Criminals #1 shifts abruptly to a direct-address monologue by Suzie, who tells us about her troubled past (her father’s murder, her mother’s grief), her oddball adolescent school days, her early sex life, and her meet-cute with Jon. She also talks about masturbation, and her discovery of the magic properties of her orgasm, but even that deepens our sense of her as a character, as in the scene where Suzie pauses reality so she can scream at her mother about all the emotions they repress and leave unsaid during the normal flow of time. Sex Criminals incorporates elements from many genres–pornography, crime, a cadre of “Sex Police” out of a Norman Spinrad science fiction novel–but the twin hearts of the book are its characterization and its focus on the emerging intimacy between Suzie and Jon. Sex Criminals is more a rom-com than any other genre.
(If you’re at least 18 years old, and want a more rough trade Fraction, read Satellite Sam, Fraction’s collaboration with Howard Chaykin. For me, Chaykin was there at the beginning, with his hard-R “Cody Starbuck” story in Star*Reach #1, and I’ll probably be ogling a Chaykin drawing of a woman in lingerie and garters when that anvil falls from the sky and pulverizes me. There are worse ways to live and die.)
One element that unites Sex Criminals, Satellite Sam, and almost all of Fraction’s writing is autobiographical passion. In “Avaritia,” the last (so far) volume of Casanova, Fraction’s ambivalence about his status as a star scripter/caretaker of the Marvel Universe inspired Cass’ horrible job as the guilt-ridden destroyer of a dozen universes and continuities. (Every time Cass eliminates a timeline, Fraction repeats like a mantra a hyperbolic, Stan Lee-esque phrase–“sound of spatiotemporal holocaust”–decorated at the panel margins with Kirby Krackle.) The pseudo-autobiography in Sex Criminals is less angst-y, and played more for comedy, with Fraction confessing (in the letter pages) that Jon’s sexual history in issue #2 “is verrry close to my own,” and that a Halloween egg attack came from an incident in his own life. Even as Fraction cannibalizes various genres for the Ballad of Suzie and Jon, he anchors his stories in personal experience.
In the visuals, Zdarsky likewise balances reality and fantasy. On his tumblr site recently, Zdarsky posted pictures of his real-life models for Suzie and Jon, and the resemblance between the models and the drawings is remarkable. The realism of Zdarsky’s figure drawing extends to subtle, highly communicative changes in body language, as in this sequence of panels from issue #3 where Suzie waits for Jon to text or call:
Yet Sex Criminals isn’t a kitchen-sink drama, and Zdarsky makes his pictures bizarre and funny too. The soft, colorful, swirling Photoshop effects that represent Suzie and Jon’s orgasms (and their transition to the frozen world that Suzie calls “The Quiet”) are lovely to look at, as are Zdarsky’s bold, monochromatic, almost-abstract covers. (More info from Zdarsky’s tumblr: each of the original covers for Sex Criminals #1-4 is designed around a single color from the CMYK model, and this week’s #5 incorporates all the CMYK colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and key/black.) Maybe my favorite element of Zdarsky’s art, though, is the incidental detail (or in comics slang, “chicken fat”) he sneaks into his picture backgrounds. When a teenaged Jon stops time to sneak into a sex shop in #2, Zdarsky packs his panels with all kinds of sight gags–one of which is an unexpectedly poignant poster for an X-rated video titled “Not the Life I Anticipated,” subtitled “But Here I Am I Guess” and featuring a topless, frowning woman half-turned away from the camera, shyly covering her breasts with her arms. In Star*Reach #1, Jim Starlin put his green-skinned Servants of Death on display for a uncomplicated voyeuristic gaze, and my 12-year-old self was (and is) grateful, but these days I prefer Sex Criminal‘s ironic, witty raunch.
So: viva the new groundlevels, and viva la Sex Criminals. If you haven’t read the comic before, you should know that the first trade, collecting #1-5, is priced at $9.99 and set to drop in a month or so. I prefer the single issues, because though the trade will feature a process section (titled, ahem, “Making Sausage”) with sketches and commentary, it probably won’t include “Letter Daddies,” Sex Criminal ‘s hilarious letters column, and I need to read Fraction and Zdarsky’s “Sex Tips.” (One example: “Sex is a wonderful and natural way to discover if your partner is a lousy lay or not.” Thanks, fellas!) These days, an active comics letters page is almost quaint and old-fashioned, and maybe Sex Criminals as a whole is old-fashioned too: despite the book’s playfully crude sense of humor, Fraction and Zdarsky insist on humanizing Suzie and Jon and using their fantastic premise as a pretext to explore the thrilling, terrifying experience of falling in love and starting a relationship. Works for me, baby.