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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Friday Feature: Pretty Deadly

I’ve briefly mentioned Pretty Deadly before on the blog, but it’s never been the subject of a Friday Feature. Part of my reasoning behind not featuring it until now was that I wasn’t certain about where it was going or how I felt about it.

Before issue #1 came out, Pretty Deadly had already experienced a higher-than-average hyping up. Part of this came from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who was excited to be working with artist Emma Rios on an all-female creative team.

Who can really blame her? Female creatorship is still pretty rare in the industry and having a creative team that passes the Bechdel test is even more unusual than having a book that does.

But the other side of that coin is that a lot of the hype came for this book just based on her excitement to be working with another woman. Again, not a bad thing, but we didn’t really know anything about the story (unless you dug deep through comics journalism) until after the book debuted.

Plenty of people ordered the book just because of the creative team with no other information. I was one of them. I wanted to support these creators (and publishers that support their creators and let the creators keep ownership of their work).

But when I read issue #1, I was a bit confused at the end of it. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t really have a good idea of where the story was headed. Debut issues of new comic titles are difficult – you have to both sell the audience on a new story and end on a compelling enough cliffhanger that they feel like they’re going to get their money’s worth out of the next issue.

I’m not totally sure that Pretty Deadly #1 did that. But after finishing issue #5 this week, I’m certain that despite my early misgivings Pretty Deadly is a solid book that lives up to promises it made in issue #1 that I didn’t even realize it was making.

DeConnick and Rios create a new mythology of the wild west in Pretty Deadly. With characters like “the Mason,” his wife “Beauty,” Death and his Daughter, Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote – this book his strongly on prototypically mythological beats. Gods or godlike characters clash with one another in a cosmic drama that plays out before us, with ramifications on a human scale.

One of Pretty Deadly’s mythic story beats: Beauty asks Death for her freedom.

Pretty Deadly is still somewhat of an all-or-nothing book. Most people either love it or hate it. The haters out there are saying that not enough happens, the characters are too vague, or that DeConnick is trying to mask a lack of drama with poetic writing.

They’re outright wrong about not enough happening. The pace of the book is variable, but there’s never an issue when the plot doesn’t advance. As far as vague characters and poetic writing go, these are characteristics of mythologies. No one story can tell you everything about a deity, why should we know everything about Ginny (Death’s Daughter) after one comic arc.

The art of Pretty Deadly is unparalleled in the industry. One of its primary colors is orange – which paints beautiful sunsets and assigns color to the arid feel of the western plains. Aside from the use of color, Rios’ penciling is beautiful, detailed, and emotional.

All in all, I think Pretty Deadly is one of the best books on shelves these days – but it does appeal very strongly to my taste for the mythic. Many will think the art is worth the cover price, and I would agree there, but if you look for story in your comic book purchase, know what you’re getting into.