The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 203 | Sexy Time: On Fraction and Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals

Leaving Proof 203 | Sexy Time: On Fraction and Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals
Published on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by
Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s funny and provocative Sex Criminals is another step for the mainstream comics industry away from the long shadow cast by the moralistic prescriptions of the Comics Code Authority. ALSO: Support the CBLDF with this year’s CBLDF Liberty Annual.

They were bored in America because their superheroes had big muscles but no dick—sorry about that—the women had no genitals. That’s why I hate superheroes.

– Philippe Druillet, Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures

Mainstream comics, despite any appearance to the contrary, are enormously socially conservative.

– Howard Chaykin, Print interview [NSFW image warning]

I grew up reading [Howard Chaykin’s] Black Kiss, for God’s sake, and look what happened to me.

– Matt Fraction, Comics Alliance interview

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Daredevil and Batman artist David Mazzucchelli’s illustrated explanation of the stunted emotional and sexual maturity of Batman and Robin is simultaneously supportive of and a well-reasoned counterpoint to Druillet’s criticism of American superhero comics.

Acclaimed French comic creator and Les Humanoïdes Associés co-founder Philippe Druillet’s out of hand dismissal of American superhero comics as childish, ungendered pap, harsh and unfairly sweeping as it is, isn’t entirely without merit. A casual examination of the comic book covers at the local comics shop will reveal the grossly exaggerated secondary sex characteristics (the superhero’s “big muscles” that Druillet refers to, among other things) that dominate superhero character design. It’s an ironic phenomenon in a way, given that many superhero stories are largely devoid of meaningful portrayals of human sexual behavior, in the sense that the characters inhabit a narrative space where sexual intimacy exists as a vague preadolescent concept or alternatively, as a subject of adolescent leering. This is the seeming standard state of affairs, even as we’ve come to learn and accept that the vast majority of today’s superhero comics readers (and readers of comics in general) are adults who, in theory, should find no real issue with the idea of at least some appropriately-labeled superhero comics addressing themes of a sexual nature on more than just a basic “boys have a penis, girls have a vagina” level. Obviously, I’m not asking for the incorporation of sex-positive changes in all superhero comics regardless of their intended audience, just that some superhero and action/adventure comics clearly intended for adult readers tackle sexual themes in a manner that goes beyond juvenile fanservice, rote, occasional sex scenes; and lazy Freudian psychosexual babble. A little strange to break up the monotony of routine, if you will.

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Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals #1 was released last week, to wide critical acclaim and unqualified commercial success: It sold out its initial 46,000 print run, surpassing the previous first-week high for a Fraction-written #1 comic set by last summer’s Hawkeye #1.

But it’s difficult to tease apart what aspect of this arrested emotional and sexual development in superhero comics is the result of creators and publishers being unwilling or unable to focus on sex as an interesting aspect of normative human behavior and what portion of it is a legacy of creative inertia from the days when the moralistic prescriptions of the Comics Code Authority still held sway over the industry. Even now, years after the biggest comics publishers have long discarded the stifling creative restrictions of the Code, I sometimes wonder if their output is still being defined and bounded by it: A lot of the sexually-themed content I’ve encountered in modern, post-Comics Code superhero comics rated for supposedly “Mature Readers” strikes me as belated, adolescent-minded reactions to the Code, titillation-for-titillation’s sake that is frequently embedded in a violent context, artless and empty sex scenes that merely function as filler between the fights and cheap explosions in a B-grade action movie script.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with how sex and sexual themes are portrayed and addressed in many comics, I suppose, except for the banality of it all when viewed against the backdrop of a multitude of creators doing the same thing—what’s humorously referred to as the “Coitus Ensues” trope in certain circles—in superhero and non-superhero comics alike. And this includes many of Druillet’s peers across the Atlantic and Chaykin’s fellows in the “indie” comics industry, this isn’t an issue exclusive to mainstream American comics.

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Page detail from Sex Criminals #1

Such a charge can’t be levied against writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, at least with specific regard to the debut issue of the Image Comics-published title. (Whether it counts as a “superhero” title is open to question—a largely irrelevant one, in my opinion—although it is clear that the protagonists have superpowers.) Fraction described the title’s premise during the summer’s Image Expo 2013 as “a girl finds out that time stops when she ‘makes whoopee.’ She meets a boy with the same power. They start robbing banks,” but that really undersells how effective the first issue is in establishing sex not just as a storytelling device, but as the narrative’s thematic foundation. Fraction’s story, told from the first-person narration of protagonist Suzie, touches on topics like sublimated grief, masturbation as an emotional refuge, the difficulty adolescents have in finding accurate information about sex, the broader subject of sexual exploration, among others, all against a backdrop of efficient and genuinely affecting character development. The draw of Sex Criminals might be in the novelty of the offbeat premise, but long before the end of the first issue, readers will have found themselves empathizing with Suzie and her often funny, sometimes sad, frequently awkward journey towards self-realization as a person defined not just by her sexuality, but by her upbringing, family, intellect, interpersonal relationships, and interests.

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Page detail from Sex Criminals #1

ourloveisrealcoverI don’t want to paint the picture that the current mainstream American “Mature Readers” comics scene is devoid of thoughtful, funny, provocative, and intelligent examination of sex and sexual themes and that Sex Criminals stands alone as a leading work, of course. We’ve discussed before how Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga continues to advance the discourse on sex and censorship in comics, and Adam Warren’s work on Empowered (Dark Horse Books) has me constantly recalibrating my personal guidelines for what constitutes fanservice, tastefully sexy sequential art, and satire in superhero comics. And while Sam Humphries might be known to readers these days more for his work on Marvel’s Avengers A.I. and Uncanny X-Force, I thought 2011’s hilarious Our Love is Real one-shot (originally self-published by Humphries and artist Steven Sanders, eventually picked up by Image Comics) was a tightly-executed Rorschach inkblot test of a comic book: Readers’ varied and vocal reactions to the challenges proffered by the sci-fi satire—a story set in a future where discrimination and persecution based on sexual preference continues to exist, even at a time when sex with animals, vegetables, and crystals have become common practice—said as much about the readers’ beliefs and experiences as they did about Humphries and Sanders’ work. Then there’s Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It!—A Time Travel Memoir (Top Shelf Productions) which, like Sex Criminals‘ premiere issue, employs a time manipulation plot device in the service of a story that is about sexual self-discovery and emotional growth.

Maybe Druillet and Chaykin’s criticisms of mainstream American comics still apply, but despite the repeated missteps of certain major publishers (you know who I’m talking about), I also think it fair to say that we’re seeing a slow but noticeable shift in creator and publisher attitudes, one that will ultimately lead to more diversity and creativity in how sexual themes and topics are addressed in comics intended for older readers.

On the CBLDF and this year’s CBLDF Liberty Annual

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is a non-profit organization committed to defending the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers, readers, librarians, retailers, and all other people involved in comics. The CBLDF provides legal support and legal advocacy for individuals whose First Amendment rights are threatened for making, selling, or even reading comic books. Additionally, the organization supports libraries in defending user access to graphic novels and is involved in the development of resources to assist in collection development and defense of comics and graphic novels. The CBLDF also conducts lectures and presentations across the United States and all over the world about the history of comics censorship and First Amendment rights issues facing the medium and its users.

CBLDF-liberty-annual-2013Show your support for the CBLDF by buying the CBLDF Annual Liberty 2013 one-shot ($4.99, Image Comics) out today online and in shops everywhere. This year’s edition features contributions by horror comics legend and Eisner Hall of Famer Richard Corben, Eisner Award winners Art Baltazar and Franco (Tiny Titans, Itty Bitty Hellboy), Eisner Award winner Paul Tobin (Bandette), Eisner Award winning colorist Dave Stewart (Conan the Barbarian, Abe Sapien), Fábio Moon (Casanova, B.P.R.D. 1947), Juan Ferreyra (Rex Mundi, Kiss, Me Satan!), Josh Williamson (Captain Midnight, Ghosted), Tim Seeley (Hack/Slash, Ex Sanguine), Steve Seeley (Hoax Hunters), Emi Lenox (Emitown, Justice League), Corinna Bechko (Heathentown, Planet of the Apes: Cataclysm), Gabriel Hardman (Heathentown, Station to Station), Michael Moreci (Hack/Slash), Joe Eisma (Higher Earth, Morning Glories), Dennis Culver (Edison Rex), and more. All proceeds from sales of the title benefit the CBLDF, which has been fighting comics censorship and safeguarding the public’s access to comics and graphic novels for over 25 years.

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