Writing Sexy Well

99% of the time, when someone talks about the sexualization of pop culture, they mean it in a negative way. I’m guilty of this negative thinking, of course. I get annoyed when characters (especially female) are included in stories just to be sexy counterparts to the main character. The writer of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick, calls this the “sexy lamp” paradox — if a character could be replaced with a nice looking lamp and not really change the story at all, then you have a problem.

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t want a comic culture completely devoid of sex (or sexiness). After all, sex is a pretty natural and (nearly) universal aspect of humanity. It’s valuable to have art and stories that address sex in a comfortable and honest way, while still dealing with the strange social conventions (and shame and discomfort) that come with it.

That’s what Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky does.

When the book first began it’s monthly run, I was resistant. First of all, I had just read a book by Matt Fraction that I didn’t really like, so I was suspicious of all the hype he was getting as a writer on a new Image title. Secondly, there was just so much hype. After a while, reading comic journalistic outlets became frustrating. “We get it, already, Sex Criminals is starting soon…” Thirdly, I thought the concept of the book sounded kind of lame. The back cover reads: “Girl meets boy, girl hooks up with boy, and for the first time in their lives they find themselves alone, together. So they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

That summary is eye-roll inducing at best.

But I waited a few months and the hype didn’t die down. Every month Sex Criminals was getting rave reviews and was earning more and more buzz in the comics community. The first issue went into 5 print runs. That means it sold out at least 4 times before they quit selling it.

I wasn’t even convinced by its popularity until I saw the 4th printing cover of issue 1.

When I saw it, I was ready to pony up the dollars to check it out. Unfortunately my local comic book shop at the time sold out of that printing and so I didn’t get to read it until this past month when Volume 1 of Sex Criminals was released. It collects issues #1-5.

I don’t want to spoil the comic too much because it’s worth reading on your own another time but here’s the core concept: whenever Suzie (the female lead) or Jon (the male lead) orgasm, time stops around them. The first volume is mostly about the conditions under which they meet and decide to attempt the “crime” that earns the book its title.

Despite the setting, the majority of the book is actually a realistic (or at least believable) look at how adolescent-to-teenage people encounter sex. In Jon’s words, “Back then sex was everywhere… and, like, nowhere at the same time. Right?”

Suzie and Jon are introduced to sex in different ways. Perhaps both in ways that women and men can identify with respectively. Suzie “stops time” before she understands what sexuality is, and is met with resistance whenever she asks questions from those who might know. Her mother refuses to answer anything and offers only shame, her doctor dissuades her from experiencing (or asking about) sex until she’s married, even her peers can only offer more confusion – since they are equally uninformed.

Jon doesn’t get it either – he just understands sex as something adults did “like doing your taxes,” and then doesn’t understand why he wants so badly “to do his taxes.” Instead of seeking answers from someone who might know, Jon goes to the next best authority figure: porn. For both of them, sex is a secret and opens them up to a world of more secrets.

Suzie calls it “the Quiet” – the period after sex when the time stops around them – because the rest of the world stops making any sound. (Jon calls it something else, decidedly NSFW.) The Quiet seems like a good metaphor for the way adolescents and teens are exposed to sex for the first time. It’s secret, but it’s all around them; it’s private, and it’s weird; it’s confusing and it’s unfathomably desirable.

Suzie and Jon’s first time together in the Quiet.

Aside from the way Sex Criminals handles the attitudes of each character toward sex, and the development of each one’s sexuality, the book also does something impeccable. It is honest about how funny sex is! Let’s think for a second and be honest with ourselves – sex is weird and fun and awkward and it makes us giggle. While the humor in this book doesn’t always stem from sexual encounters, it’s disarming and makes the whole book feel more authentic.

When you pick up Sex Criminals, keep an eye out for the subtle (or not so subtle) jokes in the background. Plenty of the porn titles seen in the background of a sex shop had me laughing outloud while I read.

It’s refreshing to see a comic book that is so comfortable with sexuality. I was suspect of the campy, B-Reel movie plot that is teased on the back cover, but this book has a lot more going for it that can’t be summed up in cover quotes and blurbs. Pop-culture has a love-hate relationship with sex – it either falls into the trap of feigned maturity (masking immaturity) that oversexualizes characters and situations (usually female characters), or it avoids the topic of sex entirely. It’s not that every comic book has to mention sex to tell “real” stories, but telling stories about human experience must sometimes require acknowledging our sexual natures.

Sex Criminals is definitely the exception to the rule. It’s disarmingly tongue in-cheek, but without belittling sexuality; it speaks seriously about social conventions of sex, but without being a treatise on sex-positive child-rearing.

Comics have grown up. For real this time. Instead of pretending to be grown-up by being ridiculously violent, now they’re effortlessly comfortable with their own sexuality. That’s a good thing, and I’m interested to see if it’s a new trend or just a flash in the pan.

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Grand Theft Art – GTA and American Culture

$800 Million in a single day…

$1 Billion in three days…

Think about that for a bit.

Whether you care to admit or not, Grand Theft Auto V is a cultural event. A zeitgeist that transcends the medium it resides in and reaches out to the culture as a whole. By its nature, it is a lightning rod for controversy, and it willingly takes the target that gets painted on its back.

It is a game about crime, its consequences, and the morally reprehensible men that succeed and suffer from it. The player steals cars, robs banks, visits the strip club, tortures, assassinates, and so much more in the name of finally getting that “big score.” It is dark, twisted, and completely unabashed about all of it.

In other words, it’s a fantastic work of art.

Grand Theft Auto V is a technical achievement on many different levels, and for that it should be lauded, but the real accomplishment is what it does for gaming as a medium. It elevates the conversation beyond mechanics and gameplay; to ideas, to public reaction, and to proper criticism.

The game is a critique of the American present. A breakdown of a post 9/11, occupy Wall Street, economically collapsed world; where everyone is entitled and even the government is seen in shades of grey. It is where your teenage son plays “Righteous Kill” on his video game system all day, with “Entitled” tattooed around his neck. It is a place where the paparazzi beg for your help to make the next big celebrity sex tape. It shows the player a beautiful Los Angeles skyline, riddled with empty homes from a housing crisis that took the city. It is a rage fueled satire of America that hits the mark far more often than it misses.

Yet, for all of its achievements, for all of its technical prowess; all that the majority of America hears about Grand Theft Auto V is this…

If it doesn’t load properly, skip ahead to 2.03

News stories like this flourish in the echo chamber that is the public media. Anytime a video game console is found in the home of an assailant it is instantly correlated to the act of violence perpetrated. The video game is instantly seen as the cause, or at least an enabler of some sort.

Yet, is this fair? Should we be throwing this at the feet of Grand Theft Auto and other pieces of this fledgeling art form? More appropriately, should we be passing blame on these creative endeavors or should we be looking more closely at ourselves?

Steven Ogg plays the voice of Trevor, the most sociopathic character in GTAV. He said it like this…

“The hypocrisy drives me crazy, it just sets the wrong focus. Why not talk about gun control? Why not talk about parenting? Why not talk of lack of family values? There are so many other things to talk about. Look at what’s on TV. Breaking Bad had that episode where ******** got his face blown off. There’s a lot of intense stuff out there. Video games are just an easy scapegoat.”

In America, we have a hobby of not accepting blame for our own actions. For us, it is always someone else’s fault. It is not the fact that the parents had no interest in their teen’s life and didn’t know what he was spending his time doing. It was not the issue that someone who had a mental dysfunction had easy access to firearms. No, it was because they played video games.

The silver lining in all of this is that this is not unique to this modern art form. All recent forms of entertainment have gone through such superfluous scrutiny and come out on the other side successful. Yet, for each it took time and, in some cases, generations to pass before popular consensus changed.

Warren Spector is one of the most influential and prolific game makers of our generation. His work includes names like Wing CommanderThiefSystem ShockEpic Mickey, and most famously Deus Ex. His influence can be felt even in modern games. In an article he wrote for GamesIndustry.biz, he summed up this generational issue concisely.

“More recently, many of you reading this will remember a time when comic books, pinball, television and that evil known as “rock n roll” music spelled the end of western civilization as we knew it.

For some time now it’s been gaming’s turn in the cultural crosshairs. We’re the ones blamed for all the things earlier media supposedly caused. Sigh.

On the one hand, we could all just sit back and wait for the hysteria to pass – I mean, once everyone became a film fan, a TV viewer, a rock music listener, a reader, it became awfully hard to say with a straight face – “That thing we all do… um… er… well… it turns people into monsters!… Not me, of course, or you… or those 200 million consumers who are just fine… But THEM… THEY… THEY’RE monsters and it’s all Mario Kart’s fault!”

As it should, this brings me back to Grand Theft Auto. GTAV is not to blame for the societal ills that plague us, and nor should it be blamed. It, and many other games like it, do not turn perfectly normal people into murder machines bent on getting a “high score.” Humanity was fully capable of committing terrible acts long before video game existed, and we still are just as capable today regardless of the existence of video games.

Shakespeare wrote about suicide, murder, treachery, sex, and was celebrated for it during his lifetime. His work was never blamed for the suicide, murder, etc. that happened around him. Now, I would never compare Grand Theft Auto to Hamlet. Mainly because, GTA still has a tendency to lean towards misogyny, homophobia, and crude humor, but the argument still stands.

It is easy to cast stones at a game where you can senselessly run down hundreds of pedestrians. It’s easy to cast blame for society’s violence on a piece of art where simulacrums of that violence can be experienced. It is much much harder to examine one’s self in the mirror and ask the tough questions.

So before the “evils” of video games are decried again, keep in mind that at some point many of the hobbies that you enjoy today were considered to be rotting society years ago. So if you’ll excuse me, I have a game waiting for me to play.

Rotting away society’s core has never been so much fun…

NSFW: Language

Read All of Warren Spector’s Article HERE

Read More of GTA’s Actor’s Thoughts on the Game HERE