At the beginning of their Eisner Award-winning run on “Sex Criminals” back in 2013, writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky thought they were just writing a miniseries. Their comic had an intriguing premise — a passionate librarian named Suzie and an actor named Jon discovering they have the ability to freeze time when they’re sexually satisfied — but weren’t sure how far they could take the idea.
But as Suzie and Jon discovered they’re not alone in the world when it comes to their abilities, “Sex Criminals” became a full-blown ongoing series, veering from comedy to romantic sex-thriller to mysterious drama. Suzie and Jon began a Robin Hood-like crime spree taking advantage of their time-stopping powers, battling a secret police force that was trying to deter people with such powers from taking advantage of them.
Last week, Image Comics published the fourth volume of “Sex Criminals,” titled “Fourgy” (which includes issues No. 16-20) in print and digitally. Fraction and Zdarsky spoke to The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs (over email, collaborating on their responses) about how their idea for a sex powers comedy/drama came to be, how much longer the series can last and whether fans will be seeing a live-action adaptation anytime soon.
Note: This interview was edited for length.
Q: How does an idea like this originally come to be? Who pitched what to who?
A: We had been threatening one another with terrible ideas for a long time before landing on this one. It was like a game of chicken and neither of us have flinched. The idea of its inception, the literal actual email, ran as a cover for the second printing of our fifth issue.
Q: When the visual act of sex is such a major part of your story, when sex is in the title, how do you make sure that when there isn’t sex going on, the reader remains intrigued?
A: We create a book about sex that is not in fact sexy, a book about prurience that is not in fact prurient. Rather than rely on titillation, or trying to titillate, or simply pandering, the sex obfuscates the real story. The sex is the text, and we think what people respond to during those sequences is the subtextual — the characters, the aforementioned obligation and obstruction within them all and how, if we’re doing it right, they all spin against the way they drive. As we have said before: We are in the business of hardcore romance.
Q: Both of you have been involved in mainstream superhero comics. As a creator do you get to a point where you don’t want to leave comics but want to see it grow up a little bit? Do you say to yourself, I want to make something no one has ever seen before?
A: We hope people say that even when doing superhero comics. It’s all good fun to be a Black Sabbath cover band, but sooner or later you have to start trying to beat Black Sabbath or you’ll never be anything more than kids goofing off in a garage. Which is fine and great if that’s your goal. At some point, though, one may want for a more satisfying goal beyond the garage. And we’d like it if comics could better recognize the difference between enormity and gravity but, hey, we’d like universal single-payer, too. I think. Is that the good one? Is that the one we want? Which one protects Planned Parenthood best?
Q: There was a time when a comic book story like this maybe didn’t have a place to be told. As Image celebrates 25 years, does it mean something that you guys have a place like Image Comics to tell this tale?
A: It means that contrary to perceived and received wisdom 25, 20, 15, 10, even five years ago, that mainstream American comics don’t have to cut the pie smaller but rather bake the pie bigger.
Q: How do you guys handle creating sex scenes? And artistically, what’s it like going from mainstream superhero comics to much more mature content?
A: In the visuals, the two leads are real people of whom we are quite fond, and they model in-studio for every issue. They are not, in fact, a couple and are, in fact, nice people, and the idea of making them uncomfortable or exploiting them in some way nauseates. It’s easy to resist the titillating when your friend is air-humping another friend and the onus is on you to make them look good.
In terms of going from one genre to another, both of us began our careers doing comics with varying degrees of mature content. Going from mainstream superhero comics to “Sex Criminals” was like a homecoming.
Q: Do you know how many issues you want “Sex Criminals” to be? Has that number grown because of the popularity of the series?
A: Yes. And yes, in the very beginning. We wish we could redo our first five issues, as we feel it clearly sags in issue one as we lurched back on our heels and recalibrated what we were certain would be four issues long into a long-running series.
A: Will this story be coming to television or a streaming device soon? Any updates?
Yes. And no.