The first two volumes of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals were a dirty romp: a pair of lovers who discover that they can stop time at the moment of orgasm start robbing banks to save a local library from demolition, and run into a posse of other time-stopping fuckers who are set against them. But in volume three, Three the Hard Way, the story transcends the sex and the jokes to take a hard, wet look at what humans do when we do sex.

Zdarsky and Fraction's expanding cast of characters include an asexual person, kinky people, gay people, sex workers, and people who question the whole nature of sex and sexuality. The story's dirty-joke humor, boner-and-boobie drawings, and sexy talk ensure that the surprisingly nuanced and critical treatment of human sexuality never drag the story down into mere lectures, but still manage to provoke and challenge.

Zdarsky's work on these comics was simultaneous with his irreverent Jughead Jones reboot, and having read both volumes in the same week, I found that they blended together in a delightful way in my imagination, revealing the explicit subtext of Jughead's own asexuality — depicted in the midst of his intense pleasure from other realms.

There's a remarkable passage in this volume in which the action stops and turns into a (funny, Mad Magazine-ish) fugue in which Fraction and Zdarsky have an intense phone conversation about the slut shaming they engaged in when they introduced a character who was a former sex worker, and express a thorough regret that brings the reader along on their own maturing understanding of the difference between punching up and punching down, and the perils of working on a humor comic that delves so deeply into human sexuality.

Its sections like this, where serious material is countersunk with bawdy humor, that makes Sex Criminals such an astounding read, an improbable juggling act that keeps all its balls in the air (heh): sex, comedy, and social commentary.

Sex Criminals Volume 3: Three the Hard Way [Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky/Image]