[NOTE: We had to censor a couple of images in this post due to crass commercial reasons.]
“Crawl over to me on your stomach, more, baby, more”
Sunstone is Stjepan Šejić’s epic ode to BDSM, and recently, the fifth and final volume came out, so I thought I’d actually sit down and read them all and review them. Good times! This is published by Image and Top Cow, and each volume is $14.99 despite the fact that they get progressively longer over the course of the series. So that’s nice. Image is selling a new hardcover combining the first three volumes (which I didn’t think made much sense, but looking at all of them, it’s clear that the first three are about the same amount of pages as the next two), so you can get that if you decide you like reading a romance between two very attractive women who enjoy some kinkiness in their sex.
Let’s get that part out of the way: if you are a heterosexual man or a gay woman, Sunstone will probably make you uncomfortable (in a good way) in some parts of your body. There is … a lot of nudity, and almost all of it the female variety (there are, I think, two panels where we just a glimpse of a penis), and there’s a lot of writing that deals with what the women are feeling as they’re having sex, even if the sex itself is fairly softcore … if you can get past the fetish gear and such, which you really should. I mean, there’s no drawings of penetration by anything, in other words, although Lisa, the point-of-view character, does write about the amazing orgasms she’s having quite a bit. So you’ll just have to deal with that, won’t you? I’m sure you can handle it.
This project started for Sejic (I’m going to skip the Croatian spelling of his name from now on, if you don’t mind) on DeviantArt, as a way to deal with burn-out and have some fun with young women wearing fetish gear. Then it became popular, and he found that he enjoyed it, so he started doing comic strips about the characters and building a world around them. Then he decided to actually create a long-form story about the characters, so he did. And now, he claims that five volumes is not enough, and while this particular story is done, the other characters who interact with Lisa and Ally have stories of their own that he’d like to tell! Well, good luck with that – I’d certainly read them – but for now, let’s concentrate on Lisa and Ally.
The hilarious thing about Sunstone is that so much of it is NOT about the dominatrix/submissive relationship between Ally and Lisa. They meet on-line when Lisa ventures into chat rooms and finds Ally, where they realize that they might actually be perfect for each other. Lisa is a true submissive, but she doesn’t know how to bring this up in her serious relationships, while Ally is a dominatrix who has never been able to find a submissive to match her. Sejic does a very interesting and crucial thing in the first volume – he separates love from sex. Too often in romances, the sex is all that matters, which, to anyone who has actually fallen in love, is ridiculous. Sure, sex is important, but it’s not the only thing. Lisa and Ally meet so they can have fulfilling sex – but that’s all it’s supposed to be. He goes a step further by never taking the sex too seriously – when Lisa first shows up at Ally’s house, she has to pee, so that’s the first thing she says to her. It’s supposed to be goofy, and it is, but that’s kind of the point, says Sejic – sex is great and all, but real life often gets in the way, and when you have to pee, you have to pee! They have amazing sex, sure, but they also realize they get along, so they become friends. It’s a clever way to defuse the sexual tension that wrecks so many romances – they meet solely to have sex, and so they can move ahead with their relationship without worrying whether or not they’re sexually compatible.
Sejic explores the world of somewhat kinky sex rather well, as he introduces several characters that connect to Ally and Lisa and, in their own ways, show the many facets of sex. Ally’s first serious lover, Alan, is also a dominating partner, so their relationship was poisoned from the start, and Sejic does a nice job explaining how they were able to get past it and remain friends (not without some problems, of course). Alan designs Ally’s sex gear for her, and he does that for others, too, including the owner of a fetish club, Crimson, where the group spends some time. His business partner, Chris, is not kinky in any way, but Chris’s sister, Cassie, and her husband, Tom, have gotten kinkier since Cassie met Alan and got some ideas from him. Cassie is getting a tattoo from Anne, who becomes more and more interested in the group’s sexual fetishes even though she claims she doesn’t want to try anything. It’s fairly clever that Sejic brings in all these other characters, because it means that Ally and Lisa can talk to others about what they’re doing (especially Lisa, who has a lot to learn) and we can see various different romances play out. As I noted, the sex is fairly softcore, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of it, and not only between Ally and Lisa. Sejic has a lot of fun showing the way different people can have different sex lives, and that’s perfectly fine. But, of course, the sex isn’t the important part of the book.
Ally and Lisa begin to fall in love with each other. The book turns into a grand romance fairly quickly, as they are very nicely matched and Lisa, who tells most of the story, falls hard early on. But they’re also friends, so the book becomes much more traditional as it goes on, which isn’t a bad thing. Sejic isn’t the greatest writer in the world, so his writing can be clunky at times, especially as the characters occasionally lapse into a weird kind of exposition, using dialogue that almost no one has ever said out loud just so they can advance the plot. At other times, however, his dialogue is really good, as characters say things freighted with meaning that they can’t express openly because they fear the consequences. Because the plot becomes a question of whether Lisa and Ally are brave enough to express their love, with the risk that it won’t be reciprocated and their friendship will be wrecked. This is the plot of dozens of romances, but what makes Sunstone better than most is the way Sejic gets there. He uses some standard tropes – Anne seemingly gets in the way of the friendship, but it’s clear that’s it’s all in Lisa’s head – but because he has Lisa explain early on that love makes us do irrational things (which it totally does), we can forgive some of the dumber things she (and Ally, to a lesser degree) do. Lisa is a writer, fairly popular on-line for her softcore porn stories, and she begins to write Anne into her fiction because she wants to repay some of her kindness … but that leads to her believing that fiction is sliding into reality, and it leads to problems. Obviously, all of this could have been solved if Lisa and Ally were braver with each other, but Sejic does a nice job giving us their histories and examining their thoughts (especially Lisa’s) so it’s not as annoying as when it happens in other romances. Yes, we know they should talk to each other, but Sejic shows how much baggage they bring to the relationship, so it becomes much harder for them to break through.
I wrote that Sejic gives the two main characters a lot of others to play off of, and this is another reason why the book works so well. Lisa is shy around new people, especially because of her sexual tastes, and it means she tends to judge people a bit too quickly before realizing it. This is another clever way for Sejic to humanize the people – they make mistakes, but they also learn from their mistakes. Ally pretends to be a cold dominatrix, but she’s a big nerd at heart, which is why Lisa falls in love with her. Alan is kind of a douchebag, but there’s a good reason for it, as we learn later in the story, and he’s still a nice guy, just not as warm as Lisa would like. The friendships that these characters have make the book a lot of fun to read, even as we get annoyed with the two leads for not expressing their feelings or we watch the train wreck when Lisa gets jealous about Anne. Lisa’s scheme to apologize to Ally in volume 5 is painful because it’s so convoluted, but she finally realizes what she really has to do, and because Sejic has done such a nice job with Lisa and Ally, it’s a wonderfully triumphant moment. Sejic even makes sure it’s not overly romantic, because, again, he’s trying to keep it true to life, and circumstances don’t always line up the way you want them to. But that just makes it more beautiful, and Sejic earns the final scenes of the story.
Sejic has always been an interesting artist, mainly because his Top Cow stuff is usually fully painted (digitally, of course), so it looks lush and a bit cool. There’s no denying his talent, however, and for Sunstone, he strips down the art a bit to rough pencils and inks, grounding the material nicely in a realistic world. Obviously, all his people are beautiful and in good shape, so it’s not totally realistic, but the way he has the characters interact non-verbally is a wonderful addition to the story. Lisa’s adorable lip-biting is the most obvious manifestation of this, but Sejic is excellent at showing the full spectrum of emotions in his characters, from unabashed glee to melancholic depths. He’s able to show Ally’s nerdiness very well, even during her sessions with Lisa, but he also is very good at showing the heightened “acting” in their sexual playing, as both of them acknowledge that it’s a role, but one that requires the same commitment as something staged for the public. These are people with regular lives, so when Lisa, Ally, and Anne drunk-call Cassie while she’s having sex with Tom, we get the childlike goofiness from the inebriated ladies and the growing exasperation of Cassie, and it’s very funny. Sejic does some nifty things with the artwork – he colors Lisa’s self-loathing a nauseating blue, he crosses out word balloons when a character tries to find the right thing to say, and he blurs the line between fantasy and reality very well, from Ally’s video games to Lisa’s writing. These things are such a big part of their worlds that it’s not surprising he does it, and it keeps us on our toes, too. Sejic also breaks out the painted style of his art for big moments, usually (but not always) for big romantic moments, either with or without fetish gear (which looks much sleeker when it’s painted), and it’s an interesting shift whenever it happens, as it heightens the fantasy aspects of the story (not that the story is in any way fantastical, just that the role-playing part is a sexual fantasy). Sejic also uses ropes and roses and puzzle pieces as panel borders occasionally, which is another clever device. Despite featuring a LOT of people talking to each other, Sunstone is never boring to look at, and of course, there’s plenty of nudity to get you through.
Sunstone is departure for Sejic, but it’s a good departure, and if he wants to keep writing about these characters, more power to him. These five volumes (I’m not going to count how many pages there are, so deal with it) give us a wonderful love story, one that’s clichéd in parts but still works because Sejic does such a good job creating the characters, so their occasionally stereotypical behavior isn’t as annoying as it might otherwise be. Sejic not only gives us two wonderful main characters, but he puts them in an entire world populated by interesting characters who help make the story far better. It’s a beautiful book, which probably isn’t surprising, and yes, the nudity of many very attractive female characters is a plus (if you like that sort of thing, I guess), but Sejic does a great job making the nudity simply part of the story – occasionally people are naked because they’re having sex, but then they sit around and talk without any clothes on, which makes perfect sense if you’re in a relationship. It’s a charming, emotional love story, and it’s a lot of fun to read. So go read it! I even provided you with a link to Amazon, where it’s cheaper than cover price!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆