Panel to Panel (Sugar Vol. 1)
Since its founding in 1992, Top Cow Productions has seen incredible success under the leadership of Marc Silvestri and Matt Hawkins combined with the sheer talent exhibited by the creators that the company has working for it. Over the years, they’ve established their name as more than just an off-shoot of Image Comics and as their own truly unique publisher with an ability to tell a vast array of stories ranging from horror fantasy to classical superhero fiction and even adult romance all within a mature and narratively satisfying framework that isn’t afraid to push the envelope. In line with their brand of storytelling, their latest offering “Sugar”, helmed by the talented team of Yishan Li, Matt Hawkins, & Jenni Cheung presents a story of a “couple that embarks on a relationship that starts off as more of an arrangement, but ends with them falling in love—at a cost.”
At first glance, it may seem that Sugar is just a retelling of the traditional “Pretty Woman” popularized by the film of the same name, but reading from panel to panel, it becomes clear that the team of Silvestri, Hawkins, and Cheung have decided to modernize the story and breathe new and mature life into its classical framework. In fact, there are instances throughout this first installment of the series where the tropes commonly associated with this type of romantic story are addressed and even made fun of by the main characters. These bits of modernization become even more evident in the way in which the main characters of Julia and John are characterized as much more than just stereotypical archetypes of the “sugar daddy” and “sugar baby”.
Julia is quite the opposite of a “sugar baby” as she is a hard-working young woman who is doing everything she can to not only achieve her dreams but, also support her family by going to school full-time and working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Even with her financial struggles and the hard time she has juggling her three jobs and school, Hawkins, Cheung, and Li never once show her complaining or wallowing in self-pity but, instead portray her as a strong woman with an attitude to “make it happen” as best as she can by utilizing her intelligence and resources at her disposal to the best of her ability. Moreover, Julia is made to be even more relatable as when it comes to helping her mother and sister who are going through their own financial struggles, she quickly and easily makes the tough decision to support them over prioritizing her immediate issues making her a much more layered protagonist than what her “role” may suggest.
The nuanced takes on these archetypes continue in the characterization of John, the “sugar daddy” in the story. John, a successful man in business but, going through the hardship of a divorce due to discovering his wife’s infidelity is someone who is desperately clinging to the past and trying to find a way forward through the pain of heartbreak. We’re introduced to him spending his time wracking his brain while “cyber-stalking” her social media for reasons as to why his wife would cheat on him and being entirely hesitant to go out and seek out companionship elsewhere holding steadfast to the hope that somehow, someway, he can find a way to reconcile his marriage. Together, these introductions to both John and Julia are wonderfully juxtaposed to one another really allowing the reader to relate to both of them all while building anticipation for their inevitable meeting.
These incredible characterizations would not be possible however without the combination of Hawkins and Cheung’s concise yet impactful writing and Li’s masterful ability to capture emotion through her illustration of the characters facial expressions. These talents are on full display throughout the entirety of the over 100 page first volume really allowing you to be drawn into the scenes between the panels as well as empathize with what John and Julia are experiencing through the romantic rollercoaster that the first volume is with its twists and turns eventually leading to a somewhat predictable yet still satisfying climax. Furthermore, the attention to detail that Li puts into the Californian setting that John and Julia’s story takes place in is truly wonderful as her choice in color pallet’s from page to page do an exceptional job of capturing not only the time of day but, the overall and tone of each and every scene happening in the story. Li’s control over color as well makes the first volume of Sugar have some of the most beautifully vibrant full panel spreads that I’ve seen this year with even some of the pages showcasing John and Julia’s love for one another that are not only evocative and striking but, also capture multiple scenes seamlessly alongside the overall narrative.
It is due to all of these wonderful pieces that fit together so perfectly in crafting this romantic narrative that make this first volume’s shortcomings all the more apparent. As a whole the characterization of even the supporting characters in the cast is fantastic allowing each one of them their moments to shine in their roles as “the free-spirited roommate”, “the best friend”, and even the “snobby wife” but, when it comes to the portrayal of Jon’s ex-wife Karen, her vilification is almost borderline cartoonish. As she comes into the story to test John and Julia’s love for one another, the way in which she carries herself and her manipulative tendencies are a bit heavy-handed and jarring compared to the carefully crafted and smartly written dialogue on display throughout the rest of the volume.
Furthermore, the events that transpire in order for John to realize just how awful of a human being she really is work within the context of the narrative and continue moving the story forward but, also undermine the overall morality and introspective personality that has been developed for John all throughout the story. Thankfully, these couple of pages are reigned back into the same level of high quality writing and artwork on display throughout the graphic novel in the way in which John and Julia eventually make their way back to one another which makes the entire experience worthwhile and really made me excited for where their story could continue on from here.
Ultimately, Sugar is a refreshingly contemporary take on the classical romance dynamic between “Sugar daddy” and “Sugar Baby. The work of Li, Hawkins, and Cheung truly breathe life into each member of the cast’s story with a narrative that is not only paced perfectly but, also beautifully illustrated. It’s also a story that both keeps the roots of what popularized films like “Pretty Woman” that explore the same dynamic while subverting them in favor for a new story of two people who are just trying to find love in a world that is full of hardship, heartbreak, and tribulations. Ultimately, I definitely enjoyed my time reading the first volume with Sugar and am excited for where John and Julia’s story takes them from here.