Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are Sex #19, written by Joe Casey with art by Piotr Kowalski, Ian MacEwan, and colorist Brad Simpson, and Sex Criminals #10, written by Matt Fraction with art by Chip Zdarsky. These titles have eroticism as a central part of their concepts, but they offer far more than just sexual thrills. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
The works of Joe Casey and Matt Fraction have never shied away from sexuality—Casey’s run on Uncanny X-Men added mutant prostitute Stacy X to the team and one of Fraction’s most popular characters is named Casanova—but they’ve delivered two of the strongest comics of their careers by fully embracing the erotic as a storytelling foundation. Casey’s Sex is a fascinating superhero title that takes the erotic subtext of the genre and brings it to the surface, exploring the lives of various characters in a Gotham City-esque environment and revealing how they use sex as a weapon, defense, and escape. Fraction’s Sex Criminals is a crime comic about two people who stop time when they orgasm, decide to rob a bank, and encounter unforeseen obstacles as their relationship develops.
Each title dramatically different in terms of plot, tone, and visual style, but they are united by a shared passion for the erotic and the ways it can be used to enhance the impact of a narrative. (They are also united by “The Basement Tapes,” the Comic Book Resources column that Casey and Fraction co-wrote from 2004 to 2005.) In Sex, the erotic content is often used to shock and disturb, but it can also be comforting and invigorating, showing different perspectives of sex in a superhero world where everything is just a bit more heightened than reality. Sex Criminals uses eroticism as an entryway into the most private, personal aspects of the characters and their relationships, making it more grounded than Sex even though it has more overtly fantastic elements like people stopping time when they climax. Both titles have their titillating qualities, but those are ultimately used in service of larger ideas about love, lust, fear, and power.
Superhero comics regularly turn to violence to show the heights of human triumph and the depths of human depravity, but Casey’s title makes sex the primary focus in depicting these highs and lows. A retired superhero tries to recapture the thrill of his past life through sexual deviance; two aspiring crime kingpins engage in over-the-top sexual situations to display their ruthlessness to the world; a young man gaining power in the streets exhibits his strength as both a lover and a fighter. The sex is only a part of a bigger story involving the emotional changes brought upon by age and the way a city transforms with its citizens, but it’s a quintessential part. Every issue tends to have at least one big sex scene, and there’s no holding back from the art team when it comes to the graphic details.
Main artist Piotr Kowalski has had to create plenty of intensely erotic images for this title, but he’s not responsible for any of the sexual content in this week’s Sex #19. Kowalski draws the opening and closing sequences surrounding main character Simon Cooke (although that status could be debated at this point), but the majority of this issue is handled by Ian MacEwan, a relative newcomer to the world of comics. MacEwan has a more animated style than Kowalski, but the transition between artists is very smooth thanks to Brad Simpson’s coloring, which maintains consistency with its vivid, saturated palette. Simpson’s work gives the impression that the neon signs of a red-light district are the primary light source in this world, pushing the atmosphere away from reality by blanketing the environment in intense shades of all the primary and secondary colors, often used in striking combinations.
Like Kowalski, MacEwan does remarkable work realizing this book’s sprawling urban environment, beginning with a meticulously detailed full-page aerial shot of Saturn City. The world of this title is expertly defined by the creative team; the scripts examine different levels of the city’s class system, from the downtown elite to the ordinary citizens in the crime-ridden outer neighborhoods, and the design of clothing and architecture changes depending on the setting. It’s a visually rich title, and MacEwan keeps the quality high while bringing his own flavor to the book. His framing is a bit more dynamic than Kowalski’s, and his exaggerated expressions amplify the emotional beats of the script.
For the first appearance of the Alpha Brothers in the issue, MacEwan places the two men against an abstract background of clashing shapes and colors to visualize their chaotic nature, and that chaos is further accentuated by the massive orgy the brothers engage in later in the issue. The two-page spread is full of private parts and penetration, highlighting the excess that dictates the Alpha Brothers’ criminal actions. There’s beauty in that explicit image, in the attention MacEwan devotes to these bodies and how they fit together to form an overwhelming portrait of unbridled erotic energy. In general, Sex has done very well with fill-in artists. It doesn’t feel like somebody filling in for another person, but more like these creators are being invited to contribute their distinct perspective to this world, which fleshes out the character of Saturn City even further.
Both of these titles have grown considerably since their debuts, gaining more dimensions as they expand their scope and explore different story avenues. The second arc of Sex Criminals has been a dramatic shift from the playfulness of the opening storyline, devoting considerable time to the turbulent mental state of Jon and how it changes his relationship with Suze. The book is still very funny, but the undercurrent of darkness has made the story heavier and more satisfying. Those first five issues captured the thrill of a new, sexually exciting relationship, but the last five have looked at what happens when the high wears off and you learn just what it means to be in a relationship with a person who is carrying a lot of emotional and mental baggage.
Everyone is carrying this baggage, and sometimes it’s easy to deal with and sometimes it isn’t. For Jon and Suze, it’s been a difficult adjustment period, but they’re trying to make it work while plotting against the vigilante Sex Police that has been tracking their movement. In Sex Criminals #10, that plan involves finding a way to enter The Quiet/Cumworld (the names given to the post-orgasm state of stopped time by Suze and Jon, respectively) with Dr. Ana Kincaid, a former porn star who has her own special ability triggered by getting off. The three need to orgasm at the same time, which poses some problems that are exacerbated by Jon’s growing anxiety regarding his affection for his girlfriend.
Artist Chip Zdarsky continues to fill the pages of Sex Criminals with hilarious sight gags—anytime a character is in a store, pay attention to what is written in the background—but his visuals have gained more subtlety and nuance with each issue. Working with variations of a 16-panel grid gives Zdarsky a lot of freedom to play with timing; he can use smaller panels to stretch out specific moments in a conversation to give them added emphasis, or switch to larger panels to create a more rapid rhythm on the page. The big sexual moment of Sex Criminals #10 involves Jon, Suze, and Ana trying to reach orgasm together from different motel rooms, and it’s a hectic assortment of panels that doesn’t glamorize the activity. It’s uncomfortable and, in Jon’s case, mentally and emotionally exhausting, but once he overcomes that hurdle, the rhythm of the panels evens out to a solid eight-panel grid as all three reach that endpoint together.
American culture has a strange relationship with the erotic. A film can feature a character killing hundreds of people and be shown to teenagers, but reveal a breast or, god forbid, a penis or vagina, and it becomes restricted. This country is certainly more liberal than many other places when it comes to sexual expression in the media, but there’s still a reluctance to firmly commit to erotic content in a non-pornographic way. Sex and Sex Criminals aren’t afraid; this week’s Sex #19 has a graphic group sex scene and Sex Criminals #10 features an assortment of penis and vagina close-ups. These aren’t books appropriate for all ages, but they certainly have something to offer teen readers dealing with their own developing sexual feelings. Sex is a part of life, and stories help people deal with things in life that they don’t understand. Not every narrative needs to have sexual content, but these two comics show that eroticism can be a valuable storytelling tool when used intelligently.