Pleasure and intimacy sell themselves, but the powerful role of utility in human sexuality deserves some unpacking. Life, if you hadn’t noticed, is a fucking mess, a maelstrom of complex and contradictory drives and demands that only the uniquely blessed or cursed feel confident in navigating. Not always, but certainly often enough to give it the old college try, sex is that tumult’s surcease. Here we have a body — ours, our partner’s — and we have parts of that body designed to create sensations in the body that trigger processes in the body, and we apply stimulation to those parts until those processes occur. Heteronormative reproductive aims are irrelevant, since it’s not as though those parts switch off outside those narrow parameters. We’re little machines. Turn us on and we will perform as we were manufactured to. We become useful. And if we’re lucky, and if we need them to, our overtaxed brains will simply shut down, our whole complex intellectual selves compressed and drawn through the the channel of neurobiological ecstasy. At last, a role we can inhabit with clarity and purpose! With apologies to the Prayer of Saint Francis, we become an instrument of one another’s peace.
In Sex Fantasy, Sophia Foster-Dimino reverse-engineers this process for wider application across the whole of a human life. Though the title promises an eroticism that never really materializes, it’s a mistake to view the appellation of this four-issue series of minicomics, available to read on Foster-Dimino’s Tumblr, as ironically applied. The title’s implication is that sex gives us an experience with utility — explored at length in the first two issues before being undermined in the third and smashed to pieces in the fourth — worth fantasizing about in the context of the rest of our existence.
Foster-Dimino’s art itself can be considered Exhibit A. Her line is clear, clean, and precise, ideal for her geometric interpretations of the human face and figure. Her intrapanel layouts emphasize the diagonal, creating a sense of dynamism-in-stasis that largely abrogates the need for panel-to-panel continuity of motion or setting; she can draw what she needs to, and only what she needs to, to get her point across. She repeatedly nails gestures: A panel from issue #1 uses a pair of faces (one upturned and downturned), a blocked-black head of hair, hunched shoulders sloping down, long legs reaching up, and an arm the eye follows downward like a child on a slide to emphasize an outstretched hand gently proffering a much-needed tool as though it’s a drawing of the Childlike Empress giving Bastian the grain of sand that is all that is left of Fantasia. Her clothing and prop designs are inventive and singular, yet observed and easy to parse and contextualize. It’s hard to be this easy.
Which is the point of the comics. In the first issue, first-person captions narrate a series of images in which simple, useful tasks are performed by a series of apparently interchangeable protagonists. “I carry my best friend up a hill. I carry tissues in my bag at all times. I fix the wires. I water the plants.” Very occasionally, notes of dom-sub sexuality creep in — “I fix the gap” accompanies a woman lying face down in a ditch so that others can cross it by stepping on her; “I can give you medication” involves a woman in lingerie and work gloves injecting a syringe into an unseen person’s exposed buttocks — but in the vast majority of cases there’s no overtly erotic element at all. The fantasy is simply to know one’s role. Even though that role is as often a matter of personal achievement (“I can do 100 pushups”), inhabiting an appropriate identity (“I’m a man. I’m a woman. I’m Ranma.”), or simply failing in a predictable way (“I suffer a head injury” as a vase falls off a shelf and onto a passer-by’s head) as it is performing in some heroic fashion (“I keep you safe from brigands.”), knowing it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The changes to the formula in issue #2 are subtle, but unmistakable. The existential verb is given more airtime: “I’m a gift.” “I’m in a fix.” “I’m pretty good at this. I am a labyrinth architect. I’m a stenographer. I’m a miller. I am a beverage vendor.” The concept of utility is altered slightly, focusing more on interactions that occur within the context of love rather than labor: “I think you look lovely tonight.” “I’ll eat what you don’t eat. I have a crush on you. I wish we were friends.” “I’ll pick you up from the airport. I feel like I know you already.” Again, there are hints of submission to be found here — one character is curled in a gift box, another is bound with rope — but the moments that hit your longing/yearning buttons the hardest involve little more than faces. One character gazes at another one sleeping on the cover; a woman stopping to tie her shoes stares in something approaching awe at the fabulous person lacing up thigh-high boots next to her; a bike ride to the airport leaves an expression of closed-eyed bliss on the face of the passenger as her hair streams behind her like a motion blur dipped in tar. These images suggest the power of wanting, and the joy of meeting that want.
The uncertainty of issue #3 comes as a shock, and that shock is immediate, starting with a cover image in which a sculptor accidentally shatters her masterpiece in the making. The first two panels feature a technician confidently pulling a lever (“I’m sure.”), then stopping afterwards as if realizing that was maybe a bad idea (“I think.”) The black borders that limned each panel in the preceding two issues are gone as well, as if freeing the thoughts these panels contain to anxiously seep out of their little boxes. The protagonists no longer perform tasks, they simply comment on their status and state of mind: “I misspoke. I found a way in. I made an effort. I hit a wall.” The issue contains the first bona fide nudity of the series, as well as the most overtly sexually submissive image (“I like your socks,” reads a panel in which one underwear-clad person steps on the approving face of another). And a panel in which a character sits in a cramped container atop a dresser with the caption “I’m useful” may as well be the project’s thesis statement. But the key page — featuring a large character observing the interactions of smaller ones, drawn with Porcellino-level minimalist mastery and in a line of curly calligraphic elegance — shows how the fantasy has broken down. “I took an interest in you,” reads the first panel. “I lost interest,” reads the fourth.
The knockout blow comes in round four. Surely one of the best comics of the year, the fourth issue begins with a laugh-out-loud introductory device: A woman in a jazzy black sweater is interrupted at her reading by a pair of hands that emerge from behind her head as she sits in profile. A move to the next page uses our eyes to slam the hands’ owner into the frame, a tousle-haired frenemy of some kind who wraps herself around the first woman’s shoulders and begins a torrent of emotionally undermining invective. “No but do you ever feel bad sometimes,” she begins, as if continuing or contradicting a previous statement and putting us behind the eight-ball of understanding immediately.
Foster-Dimino’s ability to articulate very specific, very familiar, rarely articulated emotional sensations is uncanny here. “Have you noticed that when people ask you for something you give them a thing that is not quite like what they asked for, in ways that make them uncomfortable” — why yes, yes I have. She understand how the arguments we use to defeat ourselves are protean and resilient to logical defusing: “Have you noticed that loving someone is like pouring water into a well,” asks the frenemy. “You don’t pour water into a well you get water out of a well,” protests the protagonist, now crying. “Your lover is a deep dark delicious well & you’re nothing but a bucket,” her tormenter responds without missing a beat. “Not even a cool bucket,” she continues, “a lackluster ordinary bucket—that feels so heavy but holds so little.” To be blunt, fuuuuuuuck.
This issue is also where Foster-Dimino’s gestural mastery, and those impeccable diagonals, intersect most memorably: “have you noticed you are often late” accompanies a drawing of five musicians in dunce caps, one of whom has conspicuously neglected to lower her mallet in time with the other four. The next panel, “and often early,” is a beautiful array of empty desks and chairs in diagonal stripes, with one black-clad early bird sitting lonely at the center.
The two threads intertwine to devastating effect in the final sequence. After the parable of the well and the bucket, the protagonist is sobbing openly, when a disembodied “shh” enters the frame from off right. As the frenemy withdraws, the white diagonal slash of her right arm across the right side of the protagonist’s sweater suddenly withdrawn, a new challenger enters. Naked, emaciated, face obscured by J-horror black hair, she’s a full-fledged avatar of depression and self-abnegation, her sinewy white arm replacing the frenemy’s smoother one, her solid black hair trumping the whimsical designs of the sweater. “Go to bed.” When she says this to the protagonist, she uses a closing punctuation mark for the first time in the comic. That, apparently, is enough: No longer crying, the protagonist is shown lying down, book folded face-down next to her, her hand obscuring her face. The fantasy of utility has failed her. But she can still follow orders, and accept the oblivion of sleep. Doing nothing, being nothing — that’s a role, too, and we all like to feel we’re being put to good use.