Review: Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Cover courtesy of Koyama Press

Sex Fantasy by Sophia-Foster Dimino is a collection of eight zines published between 2013 and 2017, plus two previously unpublished zines at the end. With one exception, the zines are not about sex fantasies, though they are about intimacy, relationships, and the gaps between people. The slight, but not total, mismatch between title and content is indicative of the way a lot of the book operates, in that it invites interpretation. It reaches for something, but doesn’t go all the way toward grasping it—the reader will have to do that on their own.

The book is divided into three sections of three issues each, and a fourth section of one. The first three zines are the most esoteric, consisting entirely of short declarative sentences (usually starting with “I”) paired with illustrations. Although there are a few moments of sequential art, there’s very little scene, and you could scramble the individual panels out of order and not change much. There isn’t even a consistent, recurring character that appears as the “I” or “you” in all the panels. They operate accumulatively—”I made an effort”, “I hit a wall”, “I wasn’t thinking”, “I’m useful” add up to a persona, an emotion. It’s textual-visual poetry, essentially—and like a good poem, you can slow down and appreciate each line, or panel in this case, as it’s own work of art. In fact, the format of the book encourages this, with each panel taking up an entire page, so that you’re only ever looking at two panels at once.

Although these first three zines aren’t my favorite in the collection, I think they hold some of my favorite individual panels. Some are very intricate, while others are imaginative or surprising in how they illustrate the text. “I like your socks” is printed beside a person wearing hamburger socks lightly stepping on someone’s face. “I’m a beverage vendor” appears beside a drink stand; the stand has three large jugs and three containers of ice or tapioca pearls; a bottle for tips; a vase with a flower; eight notes tacked to the stand’s single contiguous wall; a patterned canopy; empty cups held on pegs; a dangling bell; an OPEN sign; a vertical banner displaying a woman drinking from an enormous glass with a straw; and the “I”, sitting on a stool, wearing a spaghetti strap top, flip flops, a hair bow. The text is spare, but the illustrations are rich and suggestive of worlds that extend beyond their snapshot focus. They are not sex fantasies, but fantasy, or fancy, sure.

The next three issues are less esoteric, following somewhat narrative structures, but with illustrative-associative sections mixed in as well. #4, for instance (which may be my favorite of the whole book) portrays a woman’s internal monologue pointing out all the ways she fails to make real connections with other people. The combinations of these two modes—illustrative and narrative—is powerful. The narrative gives the reader a specific character and scenario to focus on, while the illustrated portions can be super-expressive, transcending the immediate reality of the scene. Think, for instance, of the emotional impact of “have you noticed you are often late / and often early” paired with just, like, talking heads and gesticulating hands, versus this:

In these three zines, we start to see in clearer focus what #1-3 just hinted at: desire for intimacy, difficulty with connection, friction in social settings. In #6, two people eat together at a restaurant, with one of them instructing the other on how to navigate social life: “Some people live without trying. For others, like us, living is an acquired skill. You can, with time, teach yourself to feel the correct emotion, speak the correct response, to appear and seem correct in all aspects.” That quote sheds light on the first three issues with their simple, declarative “I” statements—perhaps each statement, and it’s accompanying fantasy image, is the narrator striving to feel the correct emotion (“I am full”, “I am tired”, “I have a crush on you”) or appear correct and useful (“I can sing karaoke”, “I can lend you an Alan wrench”). The imaginative images show the depth of that strife, and its disconnect from reality—from being correct and not just seeming it.

The next three are the most narratively straightforward of the collection, and are all autobiographical, or based on real people from Foster-Dimino’s life. The theme of non-connection, of desire for intimacy in place of intimacy itself, continues, though it’s not so readily apparent here. There are no more illustrative diversions. The single-panel pages, instead of framing self-contained worlds or ideas distilled to their visual essence, now focus the reader intently on selective moments, seconds, half-seconds, of life. #8, in which a woman in a grocery store flashes her boyfriend (to put it a bit reductively), is the most focused of them all. Almost every panel is from the same perspective, over the boyfriend’s shoulder, with the woman centered, and the row of cereal boxes on the left. It’s as if she is pinned in place, shifting back and forth in the steady glare of your attention. This unyielding viewpoint creates a visual tension which ramps up in sync with the dramatic tension, exploding in the last dozen or so panels. The two characters only come into physical contact at the very end (again, that contrast between intimacy and distance), with the boyfriend taking up half the panel space in the last two panels, finally taking some of the focal energy off the woman and releasing the tension.

#10 is another straightforward narrative, this one fictive. I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s probably my least favorite. It’s about … infidelity. And fantasy. It’s the only one that contains actual sex fantasies. Still in keeping with the rest of these, still good, just doesn’t have the same idiosyncrasy of plot and character that the others do. I feel like I could have read this somewhere else, while I cannot say that for any of the others.

This is a weird review. Normally I summarize, then dig into character, theme, prose, whatever. But this book is a collection, and it utilizes a broad range of styles. There are very few elements that I can generalize and describe as occurring throughout the whole thing, so I’ve been kind of doing that for each section as I go. I’ve covered most of what I wanted to say, but here’s what I’ve left out, here’s what can apply to the whole collection:

The art is fantastic. It changes a lot from one zine to the next, but it is always clear as glass, black on white. Sophia Foster-Dimino has extensive experience as an illustrator, and those skills are on full display here. She reduces people and objects to their most essential lines, and it makes just looking at the book a delight. I love a comic that I can pull off the shelf and enjoy flipping through, not reading but just looking at the pictures. Sex Fantasy is one such comic. The pleasure of Foster-Dimino’s art is the pleasure of recognition—of instantly understanding that this is a bus, and simultaneously discovering that a bus is this. The way great observational comedy can spin the mundane at you in a way that’s revelatory, that’s how Foster-Dimino captures everyday objects, and the human body itself. For the illustrations with more abstract subjects, the imaginative leaps that she makes are a different kind of pleasure—the pleasure of gaining a visual exemplar for something (say, the concept of lateness or earliness) that does not have a fixed, literal visual counterpart.

The writing is great as well. It’s mostly quite spare, though Foster-Dimino picks just the right details or verbal ticks to make the poetic-discursive sections whole, to make the dialogue human. The woman’s internal monologue in #4 begins “no but do you ever feel bad sometimes” instead of just “do you ever feel bad sometimes”, and that is what I call good writing.

What really ties this whole collection together is theme. I think I’ve gone on about that enough with the individual issues, so I’ll be brief here and sum up with one idea about the title. A sex fantasy is not sex. There’s an implied absence in the phrase, and that’s how these comics orient themselves to relationships. There are few moments of actual romantic connection, and the book doesn’t linger in them. It dwells in the empty spaces around connection. Intimacy is anticipated, desired, remembered, interrupted, fantasied.

Okay that’s all I’ve got to say. I feel like if you’ve read this far, you should have an idea of whether or not this book is for you. I love it, have read it many times, and have flipped through to look at the art even more often. You can read the first eight issues online if you’re still undecided. I’d also recommend this making-of zine, which isn’t collected in the final book, and explains Foster-Dimino’s approaches to the different sections. And then go ahead and read all of SFD’s other stuff, because a lot of her work lives in the same thematic landscape as these zines, and it’s good to meet the neighbors.

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