Shouldn’t a comic series and a (first) issue dealing with female sexuality be written by a woman? And, even if one is BDSM friendly, shouldn’t the flogger on the cover be cause for concern? The answers are no and no. My personal headache in the form of E.L. James’ 50 Shades trilogy should be enough to answer both of those questions but continue on below the cut for my review of the first issue of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals.
Warnings for some slight spoilers and potential NSFW content below the cut. Also …
The first issue has already merited a second printing and issue two is out on Wednesday so why write a review now when I was not able to closer to the issue’s actual release? The answer is that this first issue and what Fraction and Zdarsky are setting up is so good and good in ways beyond “just” an enjoyable read that I need to comment upon and share it so that others can enjoy, appreciate, and, if possible, support the series. Also, there is a glowing penis and a ridiculous, smiling speculum, plus other fun little art details to keep an eye out for.
It can be really difficult to find representations of female sexuality and female sexual exploration in American media and, further, to find ‘good’ representations of those and comics are no exception. Sexualized women and sexualized scenarios featuring women are plentiful but contrary to what some people try to argue when drawing false equivalences between the way women are often drawn in comics and how men are drawn those ways of representation are not the same as the women having (and acting on) their own sexuality. And films showing (and celebrating or at least treating as normal and natural) male adolescence and sexual development and exploration, including masturbation and the pursuit of sexual partners, are common and lucrative, if looked upon as low-brow comedy, but films doing the same for women are rare and the result of smaller, more private endeavours and are viewed much differently (in keeping with different cultural attitudes towards women and their sexuality and bodies and knowledge thereof). So Sex Criminals and its first issue is a welcome breath of fresh, well written air and, for me, a nice thematic follow up to the summer’s The To-Do List.
The series ‘is’ going to be a bit of a penis party based upon how much penis-in-vagina intercourse happens in this issue but one of the things I appreciate with Fraction’s writing and Zdarsky’s art in this issue is that it does not fall into the magic penis trap. There is a glowing penis at the end and that same penis can stop time but the book and its team do not fall into the admittedly easy and culturally perpetuated and reinforced belief that penises are magical orgasm machines and that PIV intercourse is the best thing ever for both partners … and a whole bunch of other b.s. that ignores personal preferences and feelings and anatomy and how awesome it is when you don’t engage in generalizations or terrible sports-based metaphors.
This is really refreshing and especially awesome since this first issue is written from Suzie’s perspective and it actually sounds authentic, down to Suzie taking on a knowing and wise tone when relating her first experience of orgasm and (accidentally) masturbating … and then admitting that, no, she actually had no idea what had just happened and it freaked her out. And to Suzie relating the first time she had sex, which I will just share in the form of the page itself because it is so well done and encapsulates a lot of things that women especially get told about sex and about their “first time.”
And while it does not come out and directly correct all the widely spread and perpetuated information about the hymen, it also does not go with it either. Suzie mentions associating a specific song with her hymen and that (PIV) sex hurt and then didn’t, but she never says anything about (and I hate using this phrase but it’s a common one) “popping” her “cherry” or tearing her hymen or anything like that. I have no intention of terrorizing anyone with 50 Shades of Grey or its sequels, but simply having a female writer on this series would not have guaranteed even that, so kudos to Fraction and Zdarsky. And, also, being hit in the cervix does not feel good at all, no less amazingly pleasurable, so ‘very’ big grain of salt to go with the novel series I just mentioned.
It will probably tip this post well over into being NSFW but I loved the bathroom scene. Not only is it hilarious but it, and the story sequence it is a part of, is also earnest and honest in what it conveys. Your mileage may vary (and another of the good things about this issue and why it works so well is that Suzie is not meant to represent Women as some kind of mythic whole. These are her individual experiences which reflect and represent general patterns of female experience) but very poor or no sex education is common in the United States and within that girls tend to get even less and to get even more severe messages about their bodies and sexualities. Even menstruation (and what to do about it) was barely touched upon in the health and not-sex-ed lessons I received in public school and female anatomy was also barely touched upon (yes, there is probably a joke to make there) and left incomplete and vague and I highly doubt that experience and educational attitude are anomalous, especially in the common and increasing in prevalence abstinence-only education pushed in many counties, states, and school systems. So Suzie’s ill-fated adventure in trying to find out what happened to her after her first orgasm feels very honest and real besides also being hilarious, touching, and a sad reflection on matters related to sex and sexuality. The adults (both her parental figure and her doctor) won’t give her answers, her peers have an unhelpful mishmash of gleaned ideas, and she isn’t having much luck finding information from other sources either.
Some of the positions are downright ridiculous and remind me of ones offered up by popular (and problematic) “women’s” magazines as “hot” sex moves (which magazines often also offer up “touch him on the penis” as a super-secret, super-sexy sex tip) and which would honestly be hard to do at all and likely uncomfortable for the woman at least and likely the man too … but others are more plausible and simply vary in how “acceptable” they are. And in how much of an ability to multi-task they require (The User Agreement doesn’t seem “weird” to me at all, but it does seem to have potential for laptop/floor makeouts). And there are the sex positions I would like to say are pure, hilarious imagination … except that I can successfully imagine those “women’s” magazines including them as super hot, super secret, guaranteed to wow your man sex tips. Which is part of why those two pages of drawings on a stall in the girls’ bathroom (which are incidentally the only “sex ed” Suzie gets in the course of her adolescent quest) are so great. The scenario and imagery are really funny and also, again, honest … and also not judgemental towards “weird,” “deviant,” etc sex and sexual expression.
This point comes back up with the traces of BDSM and BDSM trappings in this issue and the promo materials and issue previews for the series and my hopes and feelings about those future issues. BDSM representation is very important to me, especially as regards femdom and male submission, and simply including it is not enough for me. Representation is rare and when it does occur it is often problematic in various ways, but this is not a post or talk specifically on that so I will just say that that is not the case here. The BDSM is not a heavy element in this issue or in the previews I have seen and it may not show up heavily in future issues or be gone into specifically but in what I have seen it is treated respectfully and without stigma. Suzie and Jon are ‘not’ wonderfully moral, upstanding protagonists and characters and they do not need to be, either for a good story or for a good representation of BDSM. They are flawed, interesting people and the BDSM is not treated as a joke or “explained” by personal deficiencies and it also does not seem to exist in a male dominant-female submissive only world. One image I mistakenly thought was in issue 1 until I reread it for this review is a lovely one of Suzie and Jon just after they’ve finished with sex and the bed is partly covered in BDSM trappings … and there is no indication of who used what and on who and how, just that kinky things happened and that both people enjoyed themselves.
I was going to go more casual and peppy with this review but, in sum, reading the comic itself is the best way to get across how great the art, writing, and the combination of the two are and how well it succeeds at being a wonderfully feminist comic and also a great read on top of and because of that. Well done dudes, well done.
All images used in this post are property of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Inc. and Chip Zdarsky and are used for review purposes.