There is very little room for passion projects from cartoonists in mainstream comics. However, Top Cow Productions seems to be one of the few studios willing to let creators pursue their passion projects, with Stjepan Sejic’s Sunstone being Exhibit A. The first arc, comprising volumes 1-5, follow the budding relationship between Lisa and Ally as they explore the world of BDSM together. Though not without their problems, their romance is beautifully depicted over the course of the series. With volume 6, Sejic begins a new arc entitled “Mercy”, with a focus on different characters and different relationship dynamics. One thing that has not changed is the quality, attention, and care Sejic puts into each page.
“Mercy” breaks the mold established in the initial 5 volumes, being mostly flashbacks. For the two leads, Alan and Anne, this first chapter serves largely as their origin story. Framed as the protagonists telling their story to the aforementioned Lisa, Sejic takes the reader on a journey through their formative events. Though the book expressly focuses on their own sexual awakenings, Alan and Anne’s stories speak to the broader of experience of transitioning into adulthood. Jokes are often made about “experimenting” or “phases” during college, or at the very least post-high school. But such things are necessary for people to discover who they are and who they will be for the rest of their lives.
Sunstone does have a reputation not just for being a fantastic love story, but also for being perhaps the most sexually explicit mainstream comic. Because of that reputation, readers may find this first chapter of “Mercy” to be surprisingly tame. Sejic taps into his inner Hitchcock, delaying what readers expect, building tension through each turn of the page, until finally delivering after 50 pages. One could argue it’s a bold choice, but it’s the right one. Doing so allows Sejic to focus on developing the story’s two protagonists, and offering readers the chance to truly invest in them.
Of the two leads, Alan on the surface appears to be the better developed character, and the one readers can best identify with. It also helps that he played a fairly significant role in the previous five volumes, so readers have a greater vested interest in him. In fact, much of Alan’s history is a retread of Ally’s backstory from “Sunstone”, only now Sejic shows things from his perspective. With the plan for “Mercy” to be a much larger arc than “Sunstone,” Sejic not only has the freedom to revisit this from a different perspective, but also greatly expand it. Alan’s backstory is painted in shame and insecurity. These are near universal feelings. Seeing him overcome them to become comfortable with himself, and in time genuinely confident, is crowd-pleasing character arc. It is by no means groundbreaking. It’s arguable that there are very few character arcs these days that can be considered truly groundbreaking. However, when such a character arc well executed it can be extremely effective. Here, it is well executed.
On the other hand, Anne’s past is one exuding confidence, which in the end makes for the more interesting arc. Her [college] introduction shows us a young woman who’s into goth style and metal music. She knows who she is, what she wants, what she likes, and what she doesn’t. She seems to have her shit figured out better than most do at her age. And then, she goes to a concert that ends up shaking her foundation to its core. Now, she must learn how to handle her life as a bisexual, including the rules and mores of courtship. Sejic does infuse these sequences with his trademark humor, but it is never done to the disservice of the storytelling. Moments of gravitas do have their place in “Mercy,” and they are among the book’s strongest elements.
Sunstone Volume 6 is a beautifully written and illustrated piece of sequential artwork. There are so many superlatives that could be attached to it. Charming. Funny. Sweet. Heartfelt. Sexy. Enlightening. Engaging. This continuation of Stjepan Sejic’s opus is not without its flaws, but those flaws are negligible thanks to the immersive storytelling. It is clear that Sejic has big plans for this title, and the wait for the next volume will have readers begging for mercy.