By Samantha Puc
Consider: you’re 24 years old and the elephant in every room is the anxiety that haunts you because of an ex-partner who ripped your trust to shreds. You pick up a jokey sex comic, thinking it will be a fun romp about people who stop time when they orgasm, and then the creative team does something you never expected and puts one of the protagonist’s mental health at the forefront of the story. Although you never expected it, that issue breaks you open and imprints on your brain as one of the best pop media representations of mental illness you’ve ever, ever seen.
Since it debuted in 2013, I’ve long said that Matt Fraction’s and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals is the best comic book around. This assertion usually gets one of two responses: an eye roll, from those who think Image Comics books other than Saga are hokey, or a “what’s that?” In both cases, my response is the same: Sex Criminals is the first comic I really, truly, fell head-over-heels in love with, and it’s because the format and basic premise leave so much to be discovered, hidden within the depths of its XXX variant covers and comedic timing.
In Sex Criminals issue #10, “Alone Together,” we see Jon dealing with two things simultaneously: his depression, which is represented with red, black, and white panels where he’s alone in a room with a pulsating box of nothing, and his feelings for Suzie, which are rapidly becoming more intense than he’s prepared to handle.
Setting aside the basic plot of this issue, I want to talk explicitly about those red, black, and white panels, which contrast so severely with the otherwise fully-fleshed out and colorful panels that surround them. These panels appear, primarily, when Jon is talking to his therapist, in a room that’s full of Earth tones, down to the clothing that both he and his therapist wear. The difference is quite startling, especially because their conversation carries through all of those panels — but that’s part of what makes those red, black, and white panels so evocative. As someone who deals with intrusive thoughts, the effect of those panels suddenly popping up from the pages of Sex Criminals is unparalleled.
Panels that feature only one or two colors aren’t uncommon in this series; when Jon and Suzie orgasm, their world takes on a hazy, pink appearance that’s highlighted with purple and white to emphasize that time is not moving normally and everything feels really, really good for them in those moments. However, the tricolor panels in issue #10 are different: flatter, less ethereal, and almost aggressive in their assertiveness on the page. It’s a unique use of color and line art that underscores not only the storytelling, but also Zdarsky’s ability to outline serious moments in a way that leaves a lasting impression.
Then, Fraction takes the impact one step further when Jon’s therapist tells him, flat-out, “It’s okay, not being okay,” but follows with, “What’s not okay is to be okay with that. Suffering, sickness. Sure. Acceptance. No. It’s like a parasite, Jon. After a while, it’ll kill you.”
In the years since this issue was released (at the end of 2014), my own therapist has expressed nearly the same sentiment, time and time again. Every time, I have to recontextualize my feelings about mental health — specifically, my mental health — and acknowledge that asking for help is a necessary step toward recovery. Furthermore, learning to deal with things in a healthy, productive manner is better for me than stewing in feelings of anxiety and helplessness. That’s difficult, repetitive work; recovery isn’t always an end goal, but a journey, pockmarked with sinkholes and speed bumps that can sometimes stall the engine. This, too, is something Jon experiences in Sex Criminals, which makes his journey even more remarkable for how real it is, even in a world where some people can stop time when they get off.
Jon’s red, black, and white room are the closest approximation to how I feel on the Bad Days that I’ve ever seen. Re-reading the issue now, three years into therapy and four years after its original release, that ultimately hasn’t changed. Sometimes, to avoid the hovering, vibrating tensions of Everything That I’m Afraid to Confront, I want to touch that black, pulsating box of nothing and disappear inside it. Sometimes, I want to stay in bed and turn off my phone and pretend that I no longer exist. On those days, I have to snap myself out of it or I’ll get stuck, the cyclical pattern of my anxious thoughts getting worse and worse until accomplishing even the most basic tasks feels impossible.
Jon struggling to snap himself out of that space in Sex Criminals #10 made me feel seen the first time I read the issue and it still makes me feel seen today.
Approximately a year after Sex Criminals #10 was released, I went to my first-ever therapy appointment with sweaty palms and heart racing so fast I feared I’d pass out before I made it in the door. Despite the sure knowledge that seeking treatment was a necessary step for dealing with my mounting anxiety and lingering self-hatred, going to therapy scared me. Not being okay scared me. It still scares me, sometimes, but with learned coping mechanisms and a medication that actually helps me level out and act like a person, rather than a hyper-vigilant monster, not being okay seems less terrifying than it was four years ago.
Likewise, Jon has progressed significantly in the 15 issues that have been released since “Alone Together,” his own recovery complicated by a reluctance to acknowledge his feelings and relationships with the people around him that make it difficult to do anything in a healthy way, even though Suzie encourages him to stay the course with his treatment and keep trying. Our trajectories, obviously, don’t look the same — but I’m grateful to have crossed paths with him when I did. I’m even more grateful that Fraction and Zdarsky saw the import of a story like Jon’s and incorporated it so beautifully into a book where it could have easily gone so, so wrong.
Sex Criminals #10 – Alone Together
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by Chip Zdarsky
Samantha Puc is a writer and critic hailing from Rhode Island, as well as the marketing director for Kymera Press. She’s currently writing pretty extensively over at The Beat, with bylines at Rogues Portal and Bustle, amongst many others. She can be found on Twitter here, and you can visit her website here!
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