The creators of saucy, subversive Sex Criminals talk mental health, in‑jokes and, er, brimping.
It’s the sauciest, most subversive cult comic on the stands. Will Salmon meets Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the creators of Sex Criminals...
One of Image’s boldest, quirkiest books has also become one of its biggest. Sex Criminals – the cheerfully horny comedy about Suzie and Jon, a couple who discover that they can freeze time when they orgasm, and promptly use that ability to rob banks – is both as filthy as you’d expect with that premise, and also tender and nuanced.
As the book has grown in scope, other characters with diverse powers have emerged, as have the repressive Sex Police, who have become the bane of our heroes’ lives. And while the premise sounds wild, the book has dug deep into the minds of its characters and tackled issues of mental health in a sincere, funny way. You come for the sex and stay for the characters and hilarious gags. As book four has recently begun, we sat down with Fraction and Zdarsky...
Comic Heroes: So... volume four. What’s the theme this time?
Matt Fraction: It’s like it says on the first cover: goals. The characters are figuring out what they want, both for themselves and within their relationships with each other and their relationships with society. We’re reaching the end of the second act. This is the characters figuring out how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, if they even know what they want. So there’s a lot of internal drama. There’s a lot of personal stuff. There’s a lot of relationship stuff. But at the same time, we’ve pushed the “criminal” part of the comic forward, and we see the Sex Police become more aggressive. All the stakes get raised.
CH: With the new issues it feels like you’re bringing the story back to Jon and Suzie again...
MF: Yeah, absolutely. They’re always the centre of the book. It’s just that sometimes we can look at other things. In fact, I think Chip and I started to miss Jon and Suzie, too. So we’re going to start doing annuals to both bridge the gap between arcs and give us a chance to meet other characters apart from Jon and Suzie. There’s a really big world we’ve built and imagined, but pages are finite. You can only get so far away from your core cast and your core story before things start to feel adrift.
CH: Will we be meeting any new characters with sex powers?
MF: My most favourite – and Chip’s least favourite – comes in our next issue. CHIP ZDAR SKY : Oh God, I hate that character so much.
CH: Really? Why?
CZ: There’s a few reasons, but I don’t want to spoil anything. There’s an element of it that I have to draw over and over again that’s so gross, but in a restrictive gross way. I love the character. I hate the power.
CH: Do you have a big list of these different powers, like
sexual X-Men mutations?
MF: Yeah! That’s one of the things we’ll get to with the idea of the annuals. There’s other characters we could meet, but it would just take momentum away from the core story. But we still want to tell these stories. My mission is now to make Chip love this character, in spite of how much he hates the character. I think it’s a challenge.
CZ: Drawing the character is fun because he’s like a big, kind of dumb, Will Ferrell-style character. I actually enjoy drawing him, and I think the story that Matt’s crafted for him is pretty fantastic.
CH: This new character, is he stranger than the anime sex demon dude? Because that was pretty wild...! MF: He’s based on an actual dude. We call him the Little Man.
CH: You mentioned that this is the end of Act 2. Does that mean you’ve got a fixed end point for the series in mind? Is that coming up or still way off?
MF: It’s a way off. But yeah, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end, for sure. This is really the story of Jon and Suzie and whatever their “ever after” is. When we get there, we’ll get there. But there’s also a structure to it. There’s a plan to it. This is the second act.
CZ: There’s always the option to keep it open ended, but I think that might be not as satisfying for the reader. It’s nice to have a plan and be able to visualise the end point and know where you’ve got to be by a certain time.
MF: And the whole joy of publishing through Image is, you escape the Marvel or DC thing of the perpetual second act. SpiderMan comics will never end. Batman will never end. We have a beginning and a middle and an ending. That makes it a different kind of story and a different kind of comic and a different kind of experience to create and read.
CZ: Spider-Man might end, because I’m writing it now. So there’s that.
MF: Oh, Chip! I came up with a good character for you. He’s a super-powered theatre critic – The Culture! He has little suede elbow patches and a monocle.
CZ: Every once in a while, Matt will text me random Marvel ideas that could never be published. And I can’t tell if he’s doing it in order to get me fired or just to point out how stupid our jobs are.
MF: There’s no “off” position on the genius switch. He doesn’t need these ideas anymore, so I’m giving them to you. Like the ManSpider – a spider with the proportionate speed and strength of a man. It’s basically a spider that drives a car.
This is the story of Jon and Suzie and whatever their ‘ever after’ is, but there is a plan
CH: You guys push the meta elements quite far. Will that continue in this volume?
MF: Inasmuch as we ever have. Putting us in the book took it far. But whether it’s the Post-It notes in volume 1 or the characters taking narration back and forth from each other in volume 2; there’s something very base-level when you’re dealing with a comic book about characters who freeze time in a medium where time, by nature, is frozen. The joke is, it’s comics – it’s all frozen time. I think it’s just keeping with the spirit of the book.
CZ: Whereas some comics might break the fourth wall once in a while, I think what we do is break the fourth wall but we’re sitting next to the reader. It’s not doing it just for the reader; we’re doing it for us as well, if that makes sense.
CH: The book deals with mental health as much as with sex. Why was that important to include?
MF: Chip adds all that stuff, and I have to letter it. What the fuck is going on? CZ: A true partnership. MF: I feel like if you could boil the book down to a motif, it’s: “Yes, but not like that”. It’s called Sex Criminals, but not like that. It’s a sex comic, but it’s not sexy. It’s not prurient. It’s not designed to arouse or titillate. It’s really a romance comic. It’s a relationship comic. It was a chance to talk about the stuff and write about the stuff in a way I hadn’t seen before, at least in comics. And I think... I don’t know, it’s important.
CZ: I think also, once the comic became more about relationships, that’s a huge thing in relationships: introducing your issues to your partner. So many people have either severe cases of things or minor cases of things, but it’s still usually something you keep from someone on the second date. But as it goes on, it becomes part of a relationship – you need to explore that.
MF: Yeah, that’s exactly right. My wife pointed out that me and Chip’s relationship with the book charts Jon and Suzie’s relationship with each other. It’s like: “Oh look! It’s going to be a relationship. It’s going to last for a while. Oh shit – what are we doing? Who are you really? What do we want out of this? What are we here for?” We really thought it was going to be four issues. We thought Image would do the
We really thought it would be four issues and that would be that
first three, and we would pay for the fourth and beg them to collect it. We’d sell 1,100 copies, and we’d have made our funny little book. And that would be that. But I think there’s some kind of mapping you can do between our creative relationship with the book, and Jon and Suzie’s relationship with one another.
CZ: I hope they make it as a couple, then...
MF: Well, if one of them wouldn’t mouth off so goddamn much.
CZ: I’m so sorry. Please don’t leave me.
CH: How do you guys actually collaborate? Is it lots of email, lots of Skype?
CZ: Yeah, the first issue especially. In the first few, there was a lot more back-and-forth because we were trying to figure out the whole world of it. We’d have phone calls that were a bit more general about our own sexual histories and feelings on things and what we should be doing. After that, we ended up in a bit more of a routine. Basically, once an issue, Matt and I usually get on the phone. Matt will tell me what’s coming up, and I’ll give my two cents. But it’s primarily Matt driving everything. I still enjoy the feeling of withholding all the artwork until it’s done, as a surprise to Matt.
MF: I really try to wait until it’s all finished, so I can just take it all in. It’s my favourite thing; I get to be the first person to read Sex Criminals.
CZ: I have the thing too, like when Matt’s working on the script, he’ll sometimes text me bits of it. I love it, but there’s also a part of me that’s like, “I want to get it all in the one chunk. But these are so funny, I never want the bits and pieces of it to stop.”
MF: Yeah. It’s really a comic that I write to make Chip laugh. I think it’s a comic that Chip draws to make me laugh. Everything else is gravy. Literally everything else.
MF: I remember the issue where Jon gets his heart broken and is crying in the movie theatre. I was on an airplane. I kept my phone on longer than I should have to download the PDF. So I’m reading it on my phone, which is a terrible way to read a comic, and I’m zooming into each panel, and there’s a shot of a guy having sex in a car. It’s just a dude’s butt and his balls. And it’s just so lovingly rendered, for no other reason than: I’m going to see this and laugh, so Chip’s going to take however long it takes to draw it.
A lazy artist would have drawn a handprint and made it look like there was fog in the windows, or maybe two feet. But no, Chip just went full grundle.
CH: You put in a lot of sight gags. What are your favourites?
CZ: At some point, it becomes so automatic that it’s even harder for me to remember. “Obamacore, softcore and hardcore.” That’s the one that still makes me chuckle.
MF: My favourite kinds of jokes are the ones where you’re clearly at the end of your rope. The jokes where I can tell that you hate yourself for deciding to do it, but you’re not letting yourself quit. Like, one of the sex toys is called “Just Half A Tit – Why Not?” The ones that are both funny and a cry for help are my favourites.
CZ: There’s one where Ana’s reading a newspaper. It must be the classifieds section. I knew even as I was putting these jokes in, they weren’t going to be seen. But I basically created a dozen different job listings for the classifieds pages. Even if you zoomed in, you wouldn’t be able to see them. CH: It’s obviously working – it’s got a huge following. I guess you didn’t anticipate that?
MF: Who would anticipate this? Anyone who says they would anticipate it is lying. “Of course, I knew the book with all the dicks was going to be huge.” CH: The letters page feels like a place where you guys can be really open with your readers. Does it ever feel exposing?
MF: Yeah. I mean, I’m wildly unqualified for most of it. I can speak from experience, and I can speak from a sense of morality. But I’m not a sex therapist. There’s a suicidal guy who wrote to me once on my blog. I said, “Listen, you’re writing to a dude you don’t know on a blog. You need help. You need a doctor. You need a medical professional. That’s the definition of a cry for help.”
What I love is that no matter what the sexuality reflected in our letters, it ties us all together. Asexuals write in with their experience and I’m like, “I get that! I know what that feels like!” It’s kind of great. It proves the thesis of the book: we’re all alone together, and no matter what your taste or level of experience is, everyone has these same kinds of awkward experiences in life. It’s a wonderful reminder about humanity.
CH: It always seems there’s a warmth and an acceptance there, which is really heartening.
CZ: Yeah. It’s a nice mix of warmth and community and jokes. Half the letters will completely touch my heart, and the other half make me giggle.
CH: Brimping. Discuss.
MF: It’s when you have sex with hair.
CZ: There’s a couple who went through a few of the poses, and then posted photos on their blog, and then gave me their brimping one at a signing. MF: You’ve met? CZ: Yeah, I’ve met them. They physically handed me the photo. I’ve probably got it kicking around here somewhere. You know, full nudity, just going for it. At conventions, we get a lot of fan art and weird things. My favourite – I’m actually holding it right now – is a crochet naked Jon doll, where if you flick the penis up, it lights up.
MF: It’s the kind of book we wanted to write, to draw, to spend time on. That’s the thing about comics – it’s really hard. If mistakes happen, nothing hurts worse. Believe me. You work so hard on these things. But then when we turned it into something we wanted to read, it felt like the book worked for us. But again, we just thought it was going to be four issues – “no one’s going to like this but us.” So it’s nice to have other people be like, “Yeah, this is what I like too. This is what I want. I wanted a dirty romance comic.”
Below left: For all the rude bits, the series has always been very much character-focused.
Below: Double-entendre is never very far away.
Above right: The latest series makes a point of filling newcomers in.
Above: Like all the best creator-owned titles,
Sex Criminals gives its writer and artist the opportunity to enjoy themselves and often throw in background details and little bits of business just for fun.
Left: Stylish, highly designed covers have been a feature right from the start.
Right: Chip and Matt get a cameo as Volume 3 gets a bit meta-fictional.
Above right: It’s a sex comedy and a crime thriller, but Suzie is at its heart either way.
Above: Sex Criminals won the respected Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2014.
Right: Suzie and Jon’s ability gives a new meaning to “afterglow”.
Below: The series has introduced more characters with sexrelated abilities.