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A Sweet (Atypical) Love Story In “Sugar”

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Not every love story begins with a daring rescue followed by a witty exchange, culminating in an act of passionate lovemaking. Fairy tales and romantic comedies tend to present an obscenely skewed picture of how love actually manifests. In the same way porn gives fanciful depictions of sex, most love stories present an idealized, but flawed understanding of romance.

To be fair, though, love in the real world tends to lack that magical nuance. That’s why those fanciful depictions have so much appeal in the first place. It’s also why “Sugar,” the latest slice-of-life graphic novel from Matt Hawkins and Jenni Cheung, brings something interesting to the world of romance.

It doesn’t involve superheroes. It doesn’t involve elaborate emotional entanglements, either. It’s just a unique, engaging, and distinctly sexy story that resonates in the current year. This being the same creative team behind “Swing,” another novel love story that I lauded earlier this year, the bar is higher than most.

While I’ll won’t say “Sugar” is better than “Swing,” it has plenty to offer for those looking for a different kind of love story. This is not one of those boy-meets-girl or girl-crushes-on-cute-guy narratives that follows a familiar script. It doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, either. Instead, it takes two characters who find themselves in frustrating, but believable predicaments and has them find each other in a unique way.

Julia Capello and John Markham aren’t eccentric personalities with extreme quirks. Julia is a 23-year-old college student working multiple jobs, constantly worrying about tuition and her financially struggling mother. It’s not a ground-breaking basis for a young woman, but it never comes off as overly-tragic. Hers is a story that many young people today can relate to.

The same goes for John, a middle-aged businessman who thought he did everything right. He married his high-school love, created a thriving business, and played by the rules that men believe they’re supposed to follow. Then, out of nowhere, he finds out his wife is cheating on him and she serves him with divorce papers. In an instant, everything he thinks he knows about love is shattered.

These are two people with significant emotional deficits. Julia makes it clear that being alone doesn’t sit well with her. Her love of romance movies and her reactions to her roommates kinky antics with her boyfriend make that apparent. John is broken and lonely, needing a new connection to fill the void that his ex-wife left in his heart.

How they come together isn’t that romantic, in terms of logistics. Their first interaction is an otherwise forgettable joke in diner. However, their paths eventually cross again, this time with much sexier interactions. Instead of turning into a traditional relationship, though, these two follow a different path.

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This is where “Sugar” twists the standard romantic narrative. Instead of two people coming together in moments that go onto inspire Taylor Swift songs, they end up following a much messier path. John, who is still very hung up on his wife, doesn’t jump into another relationship. Instead, he seeks an “arrangement,” of sorts.

Instead of an actual girlfriend, he asks Julia to be her sugar baby. That’s a term that exists in the real world and often gets conflated with prostitution. In fact, that’s a common refrain throughout “Sugar.” Julia goes out of her way to belabor the fact that she’s not just exchanging sex for money. It’s worth belaboring too because that’s not the crux of their arrangement.

Yes, the arrangement does involve sex.

Yes, the arrangement does involve activities associated with dating and relationship.

No, the arrangement does not involve the promise of marriage, kids, and a white picket fence.

No, the arrangement does not involve contracts, dungeons, and bondage in the mold of “50 Shades of Grey.”

In practice, it doesn’t necessarily convey the traits of an epic love story. It doesn’t depict that of a kinky porno, either. The arrangement between Julia and John serves a defined purpose that benefits them both.

John is someone who has spent most of his life in a relationship. Being alone for him is untenable. Julia is someone who clearly wants intimacy, but struggles to fit it into her hectic life. The arrangement they pursue together fulfills them both in a particular way. John gets companionship. Julia gets intimacy and some badly-needed financial support.

If that were the only result of the arrangement, though, there wouldn’t be much of a story. It doesn’t take long before Julia and John encounter various complications to their arrangement. Emotional entanglements do enter the picture. Some of them are a bit predictable, but others are less obvious.

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There’s an underlying sense that neither character really understands what they feel for one another. John often finds himself pulled in multiple directions by his emotions whereas Julia tends to make more assumptions than she should. It makes for an eventful emotional journey, which leads to some interesting choices in the end.

When all is said and done, “Sugar” comes off as a real love story, but in an indirect sort of way. It take a strange, meandering path to get to that point, but it still gets there. While a second volume of the story is teased at the end, the story feels complete. There’s a sense that both Julia and John take a step forward in their lives, both together and as individuals.

There are a number of flaws with how “Sugar” goes about guiding Julia and John through the story, though. Neither character has much of a supporting cast. Both Julia and John are surrounded by archetypes with the personality depth of meathead jocks from 80s teen movies.

John’s business partner, Richard, is basically a well-dressed frat boy whose only role is to present the idea of an “arrangement.” His ex-wife, Karen, is even less developed. She is the personification of everything that rabid anti-feminists dread, a callous bitch who preys on the emotions of rich men while indulging her hedonistic proclivities on the side.

Julia’s supporting cast isn’t much better. Aside from a roommate who constantly encourages her to get laid and bosses that see her as nothing more than a cog with a pretty face, there’s nobody that really complements her. The people around her are just extra and bring little to the table.

On top of that, there are times when Julia and John rely too heavily on tired tropes. John has a few moments where he tries to be a White Knight and Julia has a few moments where she tries to be overly independent to the point of being an asshole about it. While these parts of the story can be eye-rolling at times, they don’t take away from the overall story.

At its core, “Sugar” is still a love story. It’s just a very different kind of love story. It takes two people in need of love and brings them together, albeit in an unorthodox way. It still works, though. It still evokes just the right emotion without resorting to princesses and dragon-slaying.

If I had to score “Sugar,” I would give it a 7 out of 10. It’s a solid, above-average story that applies just the right amount of romance and sex appeal. It has a novel concept that has plenty of potential, sexy and otherwise. It lacks the various support structures necessary to make it feel complete. Compared to “Swing,” it doesn’t quite measure up in terms of refinement.

Unlike “Swing,” this is a love story that feels more definitive. It’s concise, streamlined, and genuine in ways that few love stories dare to be in an era where one or more love interests has to be a superhero. Hawkins and Cheung once again achieve something special and sexy with “Sugar.” It may never be an epic love story that inspires a James Cameron movie, but it doesn’t have to in order to be sweet.

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A Compelling (And Balanced) Insight Into Open Relationships: A Review Of “Swing”

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When it comes to my love of comics, I sometimes give the impression that I’m overly narrow with my tastes. Given how much I’ve made my love of X-men, Wonder Woman, and Superman known, I wouldn’t blame anyone for believing my collection consists entirely of the kinds of superhero comics that big movie studios are using to rake in billions at the box office.

While I don’t deny that comics featuring mutants, aliens, and super-powered demigods make up a significant portion of my collection, there are a few other comics that stand out. I’m the kind of person who will go out of his way to look for something different every now and then, if only to take a break from seeing Batman fight killer clowns.

Most of the time, I don’t find anything that warrants more than a quick skim. Then, there are those rare, special occasions when I do find a comic that stands out and does it without resorting to superpowers, spandex, or ripping off Jack Kirby. Those books are as rare as they are special and I’m proud to report that I’ve uncovered such a title.

It’s called “Swing,” written by Matt Hawkins and Jenni Cheung with gorgeous art done by Linda Sejic. It’s not a superhero comic. It’s not a comic published by Marvel or DC. It’s a publication by Image Comics, a publisher known for supporting creator-owned comics and letting creators maintain the rights to their creations. It’s also a publisher that dares to tell stories about mature themes that would offend any Disney-owned company.

In other words, it’s the perfect place to tell a story about love, sex, and open relationships. Those aren’t just the underlying themes of “Swing.” They’re topics I’ve discussed on multiple occasions. I’ve even incorporated it into one of my books. How can a comic like this not appeal to me? Moreover, I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to review it, if only to determine whether the story deals with these themes in a compelling way.

If you’re looking for the kind of love story that involves tragedy, magic spells, or curses by evil witches, then “Swing” probably won’t appeal to you. If you’re in the mood for a love story that feels real, genuine, and overtly sexy, then this comic is for you. It’s a story that tries to be real by providing insight into a world that is still taboo and associated with one too many bad pornos.

The characters involved in “Swing” are not porn stars, though. They’re not exceedingly deviant or damaged either. Cathy Chang and Dan Lincoln are two healthy, affable, multi-layered individuals. Cathy starts off as a wide-eyed college student eager to start building a life of her own. Dan is grad student and aspiring writer. Their paths cross, they fall in love, and things evolve from there.

This isn’t a case of a student falling in love with a teacher or a teacher becoming infatuated with a student. Dan and Cathy come off as two functioning adults who develop a very healthy attraction to one another for all the right reasons. It’s the kind of romance that most people can easily picture unfolding in the real world.

That’s a critical element for the drama that later unfolds between these characters. By most measures, Dan and Cathy’s romance follows much of the standard model for romance. They meet, they feel attraction, they fall in love, and they immerse themselves in that passion. Yes, that passion involves sex, but never in an overly gratuitous way. The sex, in this case, is a product of the passion and not the end result.

Then, like many other real-world romances, that initial spark fades after life gets in the way. Cathy becomes pregnant, she and Dan get married, and they build a stable family life together that involves considerably less sex. According to traditional models of modern romance, this is where the story ends. However, this is where the story in “Swing” starts to escalate.

Cathy is not content to let stable family life define her love life. She wants to maintain that passion. She wants to still experience an exciting sex life. However, she and Dan just aren’t on the same page anymore. It makes for some awkward/hilarious moments, but it also helps establish that Dan shares those wants too. They both seek to sustain that passion, but they’re not sure how at this point in their relationship.

It effects them both and not just in terms of their sex life, although that does make for a few other awkward/hilarious moments. This is where polyamory enter the picture. Within their respective lives, Dan and Cathy aren’t immune to temptation. Dan attracts cute girls. Cathy attracts cute guys. They never cheat, though.

They make clear that they love each other. Resisting the urge to sleep with co-workers not that hard, but recapturing some of that passion makes it seem so much harder. They’re sticking to the script of what they think a married couple with children is supposed to be, but it’s just not working for them.

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That’s when Cathy brings up the idea of swinging. It’s an idea that seems crazy and evokes plenty of mixed emotions in both of them. Again, the feelings come off as real. There’s uncertainty, anxiety, jealousy, and outright paranoia at times. Both of them feel it, but both of them also want that passion again.

Together, they start to explore the world of swinging. It doesn’t directly lead to the kind of decadent antics once reserved for the letters section of Hustler Magazine. Dan and Cathy’s journey is a bit bumpier than that, but never stops feeling sincere or genuine. Without spoiling the outcome, I’ll just say that “Swing” sets these two lovers on a path that’s both intriguing and sexy.

This comic achieves something remarkable, both as a love story and one built around mature themes. It presents both monogamy and polyamory in a way that’s balanced. Neither is overly glorified. The benefits and flaws of both are laid out for all to see. There aren’t any moral judgments or social agendas being pushed. It’s a personal journey between two characters with a shared desire.

It’s not just sex positive in how it presents sexuality. It’s positive in how it conveys romance, as well. The love Dan and Cathy share is healthy, mutual, and strong. The sexual component helps complement that. One doesn’t depend on the other, but one certainly helps the other.

The story in “Swing” does not attempt to redefine romance. Through Dan and Cathy, it reveals the inherent struggle two people have when they want to maintain the passion in their lives, but aren’t sure how. If there’s an underlying message to the overall story, it’s that the pursuit sometimes requires nuanced thinking.

 

Hawkins and Cheung clearly put a lot of thought and effort into balancing the romance, the sex, and the inherent kink that comes with polyamory. Thanks to Sejic’s masterful artwork, there’s an undeniable beauty to that balance. Whether you’re a fan of love, sex, or comics that aren’t afraid to depict female nipples, “Swing” brings something special to the table.

If I had to score this comic, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10. I can’t give it too high a score because the story is incomplete. That’s a given since this was just Volume 1 of “Swing.” At the same time, there were other parts of the narrative that weren’t as well-developed.

Dan and Cathy’s surrounding cast didn’t get much depth beyond Cathy’s mom. Dan’s backstory isn’t really touched on, even though his personality is nicely fleshed out. In addition, the pace was uneven at times, but never to the point of being confusing. As a whole, the flaws are minor and do little to detract from the finished product.

As a fan of comics, romance, and all things sexy, “Swing” really surprised me in the best possible way. Regardless of how you feel about polyamory or open relationships, there’s a good story here that’s brought to life with amazing artwork. There will always be a place for comics with superheroes in spandex uniforms, but “Swing” fills a special role that even the greatest superhero can’t hope to fill.

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