In the final story in Sophia Foster-Dimino's 10-story collection Sex Fantasy, a man and a woman walk along a beach to a cave. They share some illicit kisses, and they talk about their mutual fantasies of being together -- something they both agree can never, ever happen. Instead, they make out a little and each share a sex fantasy they've had about the other. It's a confusing, dream-like space, but in it these fantasies are simply narrated -- single sentences under a series of escalating full-page illustrations. They're rooted in the mundane, fantasies that come from the shrug of living more than the unhindered erotic. Fantasies like sex after an afternoon baking, or sex squeezed in before others arrive. Fantasies of the sort of practical-but-sexual sex actual people really have, but these two never can.
But the talking can happen. The man says, "It's a fantasy. It doesn't hurt anyone. When we go outside we wake up."
These are the last words spoken in the story and the collection. Are they true? He speaks them and there are two panels of the sea rushing in and out, perhaps like when a train enters a tunnel after a man and woman start kissing in an old movie. Or maybe it’s just the sea rolling into the cave, followed by pages of silent body language as the two return to their friends, partners and a dinner. He looks at her earnestly, she frowns and looks away until a cupcake catches her eye, and she smiles again. The reality of the fantasy has curdled, but the reality of the cupcake promises everything.
Foster-Dimino excels at taking the fantastic and anchoring it to earth with well chosen details and physical stuff. Too much whimsy and nothing connects, but too much reality and nothing delights. With the right mix, though, the emotional stakes of every mode get raised for the reader: the comic, the tragic, the erotic.
In another story, a man has coerced a woman to flash him in a grocery store so he can photograph her topless. While they wait for the aisle to clear for the illicit photography, the woman is listing off all the cereals. Then, she lists an assortment of groceries she wants in return for the pictures, and the list includes everything from a papaya to two pounds of parmesan. Visually, the grocery aisle goes from a detailed place of boxes to an implied series of parallel lines in perspective. And likewise when she's topless, her nudity becomes the sparsest possible drawing -- a curve with a circle for a nipple. With only the necessary details, the scene is captured, and it makes the page’s focus the woman’s posture of nerves and shame. It's not sexy, is not supposed to feel sexy, but is something confused and hurt and mundane heightened by the stuff of sex, and list after list of product.
Foster-Dimino uses the collection as a platform to experiment with the shape and feel of her work. Story by story, line weights change, character designs simplify to the iconic, then begin accruing detail again. She tries different sorts of word balloons to convey dialogue, different lettering styles. The best innovations come back around: at one point she uses a kind of textured black that looks like a copy from a dying Xerox machine to fill in some hair on a story’s cover. In the final story, this same black is used to add a continuous shifting texture to the dark cave walls. The look for this series is always shifting, never settles. Characters flow and shift. In one story, a lover turns into a bird. There's no warning other than the tone -- a tone that says these are the kinds of stories where sometimes the person you love can become a bird -- and it's just as much as surprise to their lover as it is to the reader. The story's fantasy becomes not just that someone would choose you, but that the same person can become a bird when what you needed was a bird. Fantasy is possibility and another person is always full of new possibilities.
The first three stories in the collection are purely lists of possibilities. There's a speaker, an "I," and a "you," but the identity of the speaker as drawn on each page shifts. The I announces a thing they can or would do. They tell us who they would be. "I keep you safe from brigands," one tells us, "I can make a wide variety of facial expressions," another says -- all of it a line of text with a single page image, like a children's book, or a catalog of possibilities available. Are these pledges? A résumé? Are we the teller or the told? Would we be attracted to a self-proclaimed “labyrinth architect?” The fluidity of identities and language in these first experiments with the Sex Fantasy brand gets pushed so far, creates so much space, that each subsequent story can fit in this playful shifting world.
While the title "Sex Fantasy" might imply these are sex comics, they're more intimacy comics. They're comics about the shocking instant of total understanding between two people, rare even in the closest relationships. The sort of moment that slips away the as soon as you recognize you're inside it. In one of the collection's best stories, a wife is hurt by a moment when her husband laughed at her pain. The cruelty of his laughter burns her up inside. She wonders how she could have married someone so callous. She starts thinking about divorce and worse. Then he tells her what he thought when he laughed, and she is shocked into a new depth of love for him. The shock is the intimacy and the occasion for the story.
Fantasy is a malleable space where any possibility can be evoked. In Sex Fantasy, Foster-Dimino uses it again and again to evoke the possibility that our need for connection could be met, if only momentarily.