WIRED Book Club: Sex Criminals Titillates and Teases Us

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Oh, to be young and touching yourself for the first time. You orgasm, and time stops. No, seriously. For a pubescent Suzie in Sex Criminals, the comic by writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky, that newfound superpower is real—and a cause for both excitement and confusion. Is she normal? Dangerous? Does it work like this for everyone else? Behold, ladies and gentleman: a metaphor! We had a blast with the comic’s first volume, in which Suzie and her BF Jon, who shares her power, find a use for their skill (in public). So let’s talk about sex—and don’t forget to read Bitch Planet (which promises a different kind of sexual liberation) for next week.

Be honest: Were you nervous to be reading this in public?
Sarah Fallon, Senior Editor: I was, for sure. But is it weirder to just be holding it like a normal book and hope no one notices? Or to be scrunched over it in the corner of the bus looking like a real weirdo? And I had to not leave it around the house either, because it looks to kids like something they would want to read.
Lexi Pandell, Assistant Research Editor: My partner bought the first volume at SFO and began reading it on a flight … aaaand it became clear by the first few pages that he had to put it down to read it in private later. So I went into this having carved out some nice private time at home to blow (heh) through this.
Katie Palmer, Senior Associate Editor: I’m kind of surprised to hear this! I read probably 75 percent of this while walking around in San Francisco—like, head down, definitely not tripping over anything on the sidewalk. The cover’s not super sexy like some of the individual comics, and also, San Francisco. But maybe I’m an exhibitionist?
Jason Kehe, Associate Editor: On that note, Katie, I thought I’d be proud to read it in public. Not just read, but performatively read—like, wild laughter, angling the pages so the greatest number of Muni commuters could see, etc. Look at me and my liberated sex positivity! Of course, then I find myself at breakfast on election day trying to distract the nice waitress from glimpsing Jon’s gloriously glowing dong.
Fallon:I told my husband about the glow stick and he laughed so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke. He thinks this club is potentially not a serious enterprise. He is wrong.
Jay Dayrit, Editorial Operations Manager Good God, yes! I’ve been reading it on my commute and feeling very self-conscious on the train. I try to lay the cover on my lap to conceal the title, but there is no hiding the interior images from people sitting next to me. Millennials? Fine. I figured they’re hip to this brand or should be. Women who could be my mother? I feel a sense of shame.

Was it tricky keeping the timelines straight?
Palmer: I had a little bit of trouble when the scenes flipped to the Sex Police, sometimes, but overall I felt the jumps between long-gone backstory, the origin of Suzie and Jon, and present-day narration were pretty comprehensible. Maybe because it followed a really familiar structure from narrator-driven sitcoms?
Dayrit: Yes and no. Let me start with the no. I didn’t grow up reading comic books, and as an adult, I don’t read graphic novels. That said, I fear I am not particularly learned in how to interact with panels; yes, there is left to right, top to bottom, but I often find myself disoriented, especially during location changes or flashbacks, of which there are many. Maybe I need a graphic analogy to the establishing shot or maybe an old-fashioned “Meanwhile, the Justice League…” Maybe because college-aged Suzie doesn’t look all that different from present-day Suzie. Also, am I the only one who thinks different characters look alike or not distinctive enough? Every time Rachel shows up, I’m like, “Who the hell is that?” I do like the graphic elements that indicate they are in “The Quiet.” Pretty! And clever. When I heard about the idea behind the story, I wondered how they would represent frozen time in a narrative art form of what is essentially still pictures.
Kehe: I agree that’s a major challenge, and while the execution felt more pretty than time-stop-y, I really liked it. As for Rachel, I kept forgetting who she was, but maybe that’s the point—she’s kinda personality-less and interchangeable. And then she betrays them! I’d like to believe my best friends would not sell me out to Kegelface.

How’s the sex talk? Fair and balanced?
Pandell: Yes! There’s female masturbation, cunnilingus, bisexual relationships, and lots and lots of kink. The only thing I was surprised by was that it felt surprising—because this stuff is normal! It shouldn’t seem radical anymore. And, god, I laughed out loud when Suzie asks “the slut” for sex advice and gets a series of increasingly bizarre doodles and descriptions, including “shrimping” and something called “queeps” where a guy goes down on a girl while she points a gun at him. Though, despite all this, I was a bit dubious about Suzie’s ability to bang out a vaginal orgasm pretty much anywhere at any time. But I will suspend my disbelief and simply say “good for her.”
Palmer: Yes to all that, especially when you start to dive into all the clutter and signage in the porn shop. I can’t even begin to list my favorites. OK, fine: the Obamacore section (medical/socialist-themed). Lexi, another challenging technical note: Do Suzie and Jon have to orgasm at the exact same time to enter the Quiet together? Curious.
Pandell: Spoiler for Volume 2: Indeed, that seems to be the case, though the rules of “The Quiet” are still rather mysterious ….
Dayrit: See, that’s the kind of stuff I am missing, Katie. I keep forgetting I need to do a deep dive into the panels. I just read the speech bubbles and move on.
Kehe: Let me add that Jon’s experimentation with a dude instantly endeared this (gay) reader to him, this comic, these creators, and life in general. If only more people felt comfortable testing out their orgasmic powers on same-sex strangers. More broadly, I was pretty impressed by how the comic handles a range of serious issues—adolescent sexuality, consent, mental health. Now I fear I’m being over-serious, but gosh, it’s just nice!
Dayrit: Both Jon and Suzie experimented. Ah, college. I found that pretty endearing too, how honest and blasé they were about it.

What does Sex Criminals have to say about sex ed?
Pandell: You might not want to talk about it, you might try to suppress it, but the kink comes out eventually. I’m lucky to have been raised by a family and within a parochial school system that believed in accurate and compassionate sex ed. (I even had a class called “Christian Sex,” which was a required, semester-long stand-in for our regularly scheduled religion class. For the record, lest the name of it convince you otherwise, it was LGBTQ+ friendly and anti-abstinence.) Anyway, “the Quiet” symbolizes a lot, but the phrase itself indicates that it’s something that you don’t talk about, that’s private. Because, holy hell, these two people can freeze time—and they want answers about why—but they can’t bring themselves to talk about it to other people.
Dayrit: Didn’t even occur to me that it could be seen as a commentary about sex ed. I guess it’s a pretty strong indictment given that Jon gets most of his sex ed from a pervy sex shop. Thank God, I, like Lexi, was lucky enough to go to a high school with a straightforward and honest sex ed class. I mean, we were learning about HIV transmission in 1984. 1984! Yes, I am old.
Pandell: Right? There are certainly a lot of people who, like Jon and Suzie, only learn about sex from misguided friends and/or porn … and never learn how to have real, honest conversations about it.

If given the chance, would you want to be able to enter “The Quiet”?
Pandell: Nope. It seems like a burden. Suzie is, more or less, stuck with Jon and all of his flaws (or someone else who can enter “The Quiet,” if she can find them). Because, now that she’s connected with someone who has this in common with her, how can she go back to her one-sided, alienated sex life? Ugh, I’ll pass.
Fallon: Is there a way where you only have to go there sometimes? Because people have to just get on with their days, on occasion.
Kehe: I mean, it seems a bit messy and tiresome, but of course I’d want this power.
Dayrit: I’m gonna be honest. I would steal shit. There. I said it.
Kehe: But do you really want to be having that much public sex?
Jay Dayrit: Yeah, you’re right. I don’t even own a car. And pleasuring myself in the back of an Uber Pool would be really awkward. Forget it.

Will you read Volume 2?
Pandell: Already have! Worth it.
Palmer: Definitely. For all the pleasure I got out of this volume, I don’t really feel like I got a complete emotional arc out of either of the characters. I mean, this was all the exposition, basically. I’m excited to see how Jon maybe does/maybe doesn’t resolve some of his stuff, and figuring out the ways that Suzie is damaged, since she seems pretty unimpeachable as a character despite her upbringing.
Dayrit: Yes. I find myself charmed by Suzie and Jon. Plus, I am kind of obsessed with uptight Kegelface and her creepy entourage. What is up with their crotch-enhancing outfits? It’s like a White Party in Palm Springs. Do those still exist? Again, I am dating myself.

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