Story by J.L. Schade
Artwork by SednaStudio-LWJ
Published by BDSMFAN
Spoiler Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for California Dreams
Seduction and superheros aren’t that far apart.
The structure of your average comic is based on a sequence of events that can often be boiled down to crime, chase, and confrontation. Most modern comics are built around the concept of punishment. The heroes might wear different masks — one might be presented as a loving father figure while another might be a brutal enforcer — but the dynamic remains the same. Someone breaks the rules of society and is punished, either benevolently or brutally, by the protagonist.
The villain seeks to attract the hero’s attention by disrupting the status quo and attacking the hero’s value system in the process. This in turn drives the hero to pursue, confront, and finally engage in an often bloody showdown with the villain. After this climax, the villain is forced to pay a penance, whether by serving time, bleeding, or dying.
Violence plays a special roles in these stories. It allows the hero to dominate his foe while granting them both a temporary catharsis much in the same way as sex. It’s interesting to note that actual sex is often absent or else vilified in most comics, even those aimed at mature readers. When it does occur, it lacks much of the emotional impact of the violence. Perhaps this is because the structure of the pursue-and-punish cycle in these books acts an unhealthy substitute for seduction and sex. We’re well in the anti-hero age of comics: protagonists are shown to be driven not so much by nobility as by their own demons.
Much of pop culture seems to glorify the violent protagonist and condemn the sexual one. So it’s amusing when characters from a BDSM comic are emotionally healthier than your average superhero.
California Dreams is comic book erotica aimed at adults. Like the superhero genre, it follows the pattern of pursuit and punishment. The key difference being that here the power dynamic is expressed through consensual sex rather than through violence.
Many modern superhero-supervillain dynamics have pseudo-sexual undertones. A recent example of this would be the portrayal of the Joker-Batman dynamic in the Arkham games. But since California Dreams is a love story, the sexual tension gets expressed in a healthier and more direct manner. It helps that unlike today’s average superhero, both participants are in a stable mental space.
Part of what makes California Dreams work is the way in which jarring yet beautiful sexual images are used to express tenderness. The first page could be torn from a kidnapping scene – a femme fatale reclines on a red-draped bed in a room lit solely by candlelight. She pulls back the red blanket to reveal a beautiful young man, bound and gagged.
Again and again, the comic makes use of images associated with violence and violation. We see the primary narrator, Shane, struggling against his bonds, deprived of his senses, reduced to a plaything. Yet this “punishment” is shown to be both consensual and transformative. By being “forced” into a submissive role, he discovers his true self and finds contentment with a women who turns out to be less femme fatale than loving goddess.
The artwork is one of the highlights of the book. The often explicit sex scenes are rendered with sensitive line work. LWJ doesn’t seek to mimic the crisp finesse of mainstream work. Instead, their artwork has an appealingly sketchy feel which lends each moment a unique immediacy.
The character designs are also refreshing. Ava, the dominant sexual partner, has the kind of face and figure seldom seen in comics. She is womanly and attractive without being an impossible ideal. You could believe that she exists in real life. The protagonist Shane is unmistakably male while possessing an almost angelic androgynous appeal.
Most love stories between established couples tend to lag or descend into melodrama. But writer J.L. Schade manages to deftly avoid falling into these traps. Using non-linear storytelling, she turns this into a fascinating tale of self-discovery in which we learn how Shane came to turns with his own submissive desires. I applaud Schade for portraying a kinky relationship as healthy and loving. Both the narrator’s internal monologue and the dialogue emphasizes the trust and consent at the heart of their dynamic.
The comic climaxes with a faux-kidnnapping. Ava takes the role of aggressor or pursuer and Shane makes a very willing victim. The ocean is a reoccurring motif throughout the story and during the climax; subspace (a blissful mental state experienced by some submissives) is cleverly portrayed as being akin to immersion in a welcoming ocean. The ocean of course has long been associated with cleansing and rebirth, key themes in this comic.
Throughout the story, J.L. Schade unveils different facets of the characters. In one light, Shane is a virile young surfer. In another he is androgynous enough to play the part of a damsel in distress, albeit a very willing one. Ava is portrayed as a many-faceted goddess, flowing between business woman, loving girlfriend, and ravaging succubus. They are both individual and yet archetypal.
Like a superhero comic, it’s all a game of masks. But in this case, the masks are eventually stripped away to reveal a more satisfying truth — the dynamic between two people who love and trust each other.