SUNSTONE Volume 4
Written by Stjepan Šejić
Art by Stjepan Šejić
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: February 24, 2016
Despite being the fourth volume of a long-form journey of self discovery through BDSM, the latest Sunstone release is an ideal entry point for new readers that stands surprisingly well on its own.
The story picks up with Lisa, the sub in the central relationship, moving in with her domme Allison as the next step in their relationship, but this isn’t the typical couple moving in together narrative. To outsiders, the pair present themselves as friends, characterizing the sex they have together in the context of BDSM play as being the pursuit of a shared hobby and not the nucleus of a romantic relationship. Their relationship arc is roughly judged against “The Curve,” a metaphor coined by Lisa’s ex Alan used to describe the desire to chase the next biggest thrill, the next most elaborate scenario or unexplored kink.
At the outset of the current volume, the time Lisa and Allison spend together in Lisa’s increasingly elaborate (and expensive) playroom is like writing the Great American Novel or conspiring to break a Guinness World Record. That gets complicated as they begin to fall in love and struggle to find a way articulate it with the most formative relationship of their lives hanging in the balance if those feelings prove to be unrequited on either side.
It’s an utterly unique set of circumstances in comics storytelling, a long burn workplace romance told in reverse. The source of the tension that mounts across the entire volume is, to some degree, the same as what TV watchers go through waiting for Mulder and Scully, Booth and Brennan, or Korra and Asami to finally get together. “Just kiss already,” millions have hissed at their television sets -or whatever they substitute for one these days.
But Lisa and Allison have already kissed a lot, and done just about anything, you, I or, anyone else has or ever could do with a sexual partner. Looking at it with the benefit of the distance that comes from having read and processed it, the dynamic seems bizarre, but writer-artist-everything Stjepan Šejić crafts a story so immersive that the reader is swept up in an emotional tide that erases that distinction.
It’s no easy task to construct an easily accessible and powerfully moving romance within the context of an idiosyncratic BDSM relationship and Šejić is meticulous in his construction of a world that is open to outsiders without becoming dull or repetitive for the enthusiast. Key to that is Lisa’s friend and tattoo artist Anne, who with no prior knowledge or experience in BDSM, is drawn in by Lisa’s erotica, the same spark that lit the flame between her and Allison. Wanting to feed Anne’s growing passion and make it easily accessible to her, Lisa creates a new character based on her, adding a second sub into a narrative space that had, until then, only included the pair modeled after herself and Lisa.
Anne serves a dual purpose, creating the opportunity for Šejić to reiterate the line between fantasy and reality by drawing a clear distinction between Lisa’s fiction and her actual BDSM play with Anna. The initial story that Lisa writes is between Allison and Anna’s characters, creating the context for Lisa to ignite a new passion for her work by discovering the joys of guiding a newcomer into her world, but it also provides the context for a reassertion of how a healthy BDSM relationship should work for new and returning readers alike. The second purpose that Anne serves in the story is to, unknowingly, become the focus of the widening rift between Allison and Lisa that tears open in the climactic Halloween party at Crimson.
As the pair adapt to their new living situation a different kind of intimacy begins growing between them and, despite having bedrooms of their own, they start sleeping together. Just as Lisa starts slowly bringing Anne into their world, Allison and Lisa begin to understand each other’s worlds outside the playroom.
In one of the most beautiful spreads in the volume, Lisa explains how, even as their romantic feelings for each other blossomed, they retreated from verbalizing them. Instead, they are intensifying their play in an unspoken effort for each to get the other to notice that the intensification is a manifestation of love, the one thing they’d never previously contemplated bringing into the room. Šejić renders it as the pair blindfolded and holding up placards with hearts scrawled on them to each other, framed in a heart shaped harness brimming with roses and a montage of their most intimate sex.
Šejić uses Lisa’s voice to carefully and beautifully articulate the complex psychology behind the barrier that holding them back, beginning at their mutual insecurity and the unwillingness to jeopardize what they’ve accomplished together as self described friends. Across that spread Lisa articulates the specific difficulty she perceives Allison having in being able to articulate those feelings. As the domme, there’s the perceived risk of harming that performance by stepping outside of it to display the vulnerability needed to say it first and the further fear that Lisa, as the sub, could feel pressured by it. The irony of their predicament is that it’s in part fueled by how meticulously they maintain the health, safety, and integrity of their play.
Still, they get even closer, turning Lisa’s aftercare for her healing nipple piercings into a different kind of play as they start spending more and more time together, going to movies and dinner like normal couples go on dates. But trouble lurks as the introduction of Anne’s fictional surrogate begins to have Allison wondering whether she’s just the physical incarnation of the fantasy that Lisa built out of their first flirty exchanges, having no idea that Lisa is deeply in love with her, having captured both what she projected in those stories and the brand new facets of Allison that she’s been exposed to living together. Lisa feels a sense of completeness about Allison that she hasn’t the merest clue of.
Allison responds by overcompensating, bringing out her domme personality when meeting Anne to cover for the insecurity that opened up when Lisa wrote the first story including her. This begins driving the wedge in the other direction, with Lisa growing quietly jealous of Anne, fearing that Allison will eventually replace her with Anne. But the pair pull Anne deeper and deeper into their world. As they feel each other slipping away, they return to what they know in a last ditch effort to repair the damage. They push harder than ever at chasing the curve by introducing rope play into their repertoire for the first time, rekindling an old passion of Allison’s that she discovered at her first fetish convention.
The result is one of the greatest encounters that they’d ever had or ever would, but a misreading of Lisa’s thank you to Allison pulls them further apart than they’ve ever been, creating the rift that becomes an open wound when their trip to a Halloween party at Crimson brings all of their lingering insecurities to the forefront in the worst way. This explosive confrontation, when it happens, isn’t the product of goofy rom-com miscommunications or artificial drama, but the inescapable conclusion of all too relatable self doubts sewn into the narrative early on. Much of the fourth volume elapses like watching a pair of trains on a collision course miles, or even days away at the outset. The tension builds and subsides as Šejić masterfully captures the swings between moments of intense passion and creeping insecurity.
There’s minute and powerful details worked into the storytelling like the realization with them having just moved in together, their periods won’t synch up for some time and so they’re limited to roughly two weeks of play a month, which Allison calculates and schedules meticulously. This tiny detail is one of the many woven into the climax as Lisa laments that she’ll be on her period when they go to Crimson for the Halloween party, leading to one of the most cutting and painful remarks i the explosive confrontation between the pair. Drunk and feeling insecure, Lisa lashes out, suggesting that since she’s on her period, Allison might as well play with Anne instead, painting herself as interchangeable to hurt Allison. Two hundred plus pages makes for a sprawling narrative, but nothing is inconsequential.
There’s an inescapable and powerful symmetry between this volume and Julie Maroh’s international phenomenon Blue is the Warmest Color. Maroh plays powerfully with the electric intensity of her sex scenes and the insecurities and self doubts of her heroines that eventually cause a permanent rupture between them much like Šejić does here, but they’re also distinctly different works. Maroh’s graphic novel is a deeply political work set against the backdrop of Nicholas Sarkozy’s rise to power that charts a young queer woman’s struggle to overcome the societal forces arrayed against her in asserting a queer identity that results in her death, eaten away from the inside.
Šejić’s narrative is a distinctly apolitical work that seeks to explore the emotional struggles in maintaining healthy boundaries in a BDSM relationship striving towards the romantic, but both authors build up incredibly intimate inner voices for their characters in service to intense emotional catharsis.
Šejić builds up several analogies to connect the community and practice of BDSM with comics fandom, but it’s the emotional journey that plays out across the volume that connects the dots between BDSM and great storytelling. A comic like Sunstone or Blue is the Warmest Color creates a controlled space, like BDSM does, to explore extremes of sensation, in this case purely emotional rather than physical. Šejić uses dominant tones of soft yellows and reds to create an intimate and welcoming atmosphere for the emotional peaks and valleys to come, but he builds them up and sets them against each other to deliver the most intense moments of the story both ecstatic and excruciating.
As much as the expansive shared worlds at the core of Marvel and DC’s output can lull readers into wanting to protect their favourite characters and indulge in shallow wish fulfillment, the most powerful and consequential work in the medium is in service to drawing out extremes of emotion in the audience and what better framework could there be to accomplish that in than BDSM?
The most powerful tool in his arsenal across the volume is by far his rendering, which he carefully modulates to communicate the sharpness of the experiences being portrayed. It’s in the BDSM scenes between Allison and Lisa that details come into the sharpest focus and pop out of the page in the most depth. The reader can have no interest or investment in the scene and still cleanly intuit, even emotionally invest in, just how sharply these moments define Allison and Lisa’s relationship. There’s a power and passion in these pages that overcomes the need for explicit detail. There are boobs, butts, and the occasional vulva on display that are lovingly rendered and obvious in their appeal, but Šejić invests in the cartooning of his characters’ faces to carry the weight of the erotic and emotional power of the sequences.
What’s absolutely critical to Sunstone is that the role of sex in the comic isn’t to deliver a voyeuristic thrill, to entertain with an external view. It’s to build an erotic thrill and emotional attachment with the characters by, as fully as possible, making Allison and Lisa’s internal worlds plainly visible. Outside the playroom, Šejić draws on the whole range of emotion in his cartooning to build a complete and endearing world.
Central to Lisa falling in love with Allison is reconciling how she’s fulfilled her greatest fantasy as a domme while also being an endearing goofball, returning again and again to the image of Lisa pulling a face with a puzzle piece stuck to her forehead. The result is a holistic portrait of Allison that goes far beyond what she’s able to recognize about herself and her role in Lisa’s life. In presenting these portraits and interleaving them in sex scenes and moments of quiet contemplation, Šejić avoids the construction of their romantic feelings being more than or beyond sex and BDSM play, but a part of a gestalt that cannot be easily or inconsequentially disentangled.
Sunstone occupies a unique place in the comics mainstream. As the battle to enrich the use of sex in the medium and push the envelope of what can be depicted in the direct and digital markets has raged at its fiercest since the collapse of the Comics Code Authority in the 1980s, Image has claimed center stage by butting heads over Saga and Sex Criminals, emerging with critical and sales darlings in both as Šejić much more quietly produced a stunning body of work at the Top Cow imprint.
While that initial rush of controversial work displayed a maturity and craftsmanship rarely seen in the mainstream and rivaled only by the best work to emerge out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, a gaping hole soon emerged. There was, and has been until quite recently, a distinct lack of female centered sexuality both on and off the page. While aided and nuanced by artist Fiona Staples, Saga remains a distinctly masculine centered title in Brian K Vaughan’s hands. Until Šejić himself was ultimately replaced by Tess Fowler and Tamra Bonvillain, even Rat Queens, Image’s boldest and brightest attempt to capture female sexuality in all of its craven glory, fell to entirely male creative voices.
While there remains a paucity of female voices leading the charge for broadened and richer depictions of sexuality in mainstream comics, Sunstone stands as a singular and mystifying achievement. Emanating from the Top Cow imprint is somewhat baffling but also oddly to be expected. Top Cow has always, out of the various Image offices, had the most success in playing with BDSM imagery and tinges of transgressive sexuality in a line that has mostly produced horror and post humanist superhero adjacent narratives, attracting some of the most dedicated female fans despite the frequently crass artwork.
The marquee voices at the imprint over the years, including founder Marc Silvestri whose Wolverine in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run still draws fond memories of skin tight jeans, Michael Turner, and now Šejić have all attracted a significant amount of female fans. Šejić’s tenure on The Witchblade also included the first same gender relationship in Top Cow’s flagship title between then-bearer Danielle Baptiste and Finch, so there’s a trajectory, however faint, leading to Sunstone but there’s little to no precedent for its execution.
There have been several male creators to embark, either alone or with collaborators on personal visions that intend to examine femininity and female sexuality, but Sunstone is utterly unique among the likes of Jim Balent’s Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose or Joseph Michael Linsner’s Dawn for having no easily discernable self insert character to offer a clear vehicle for male authority or voyeurism.
Šejić’s wit and humor are easily discernible through the elastic faces of his cast of characters and idiosyncratic self awareness of the narrators, but his viewpoint, whatever it is, disappears in the work, confounding the normative conception of how the male gaze operates in comics. With rare exception, the general use of the term in comics brings to mind disingenuous cartooning that twists women’s bodies into all kinds of contorted ways to gain a simultaneously unobstructed view of boobs and butts.
There’s a whole spectrum of work created from a masculine viewpoint, the actual totality of the male gaze, and you can see it clearly at work by comparing Guillem March’s infamous Catwoman #1 cover to Inaki Miranda’s homage of it for Catwoman #52, but the bulk of the male creative impulse in comics remains to the detriment of women both real and imagined.
Sunstone evades these normative conceptions in shocking ways. In a comic with kinky sex at the nucleus of the story, this one man show dares to de-emphasize nudity as the key to eroticism, choosing instead to emphasize the rendering of facial expressions and using the page layouts to contextualize the sex with the complex and contradictory emotions swirling around the act. We desperately need more female voices bringing material like this into the mainstream, but there’s a reminder writ large across the pages of Sunstone that the creative potential of male artists is crushed by the expectations of patriarchal norms in much the same way as it stifles female voices.
Sunstone is a remarkable comic that defies just about any expectations you could place on it, and the fourth volume in particular resists the urge to turn further inwards and chase the curve, instead opening itself up to welcome new readers and stand on it’s own as a complete narrative. There’s a lot more to learn from it than just how to draw nipple clamps.
The Verdict: 10/10