Somna wants to scare you and turn you on, and you have to let that happen

In Somna, one woman is burning and the other can’t sleep. She sees a demon when she closes her eyes. He wants to do things for her, for her. It’s Puritan England, and they set women on fire for thoughts like this. She should know: her husband is the one lighting the torch.

Becky Cloonan and Tula Lotay, the legendary creative team behind the beautiful erotic folk horror comic Bill Somna as ‘a bedtime story’. Like much erotic work, this is an ambiguity. Yes, the main character, an English woman named Ingrid, struggles with sleep disorders. Much of the story takes place in bed, as she slips into dreams and slowly begins to lose sight of the boundaries between her waking life and her dream life. But beds are also for sex; her repressed desires come to frightening life in her unconscious mind, and possibly in the real world.

“We went in Somna knowing that we wanted to tell an ambiguous story,” says Cloonan. “There’s no wrong way to read this comic. Hopefully a lot of it will make people think about why they think it is a certain way. If the demon (Ingrid) sees isn’t real, what makes you think that?

“In the ’80s there was a lot more of this kind of sexual horror stuff going on,” says Lotay. “There’s not much left now, but we’re bringing it back!”

The pair references what many have noted a uniquely sexless time in pop culture, leaving a void in the kind of explicitly sexual stories that explored messier aspects of the human experience. Deeply flawed characters who respond poorly to internal and external desires, and how the world responds to them. In that respect, their work feels refreshing.

Somna is immediately seductive, not just because of the way the lush art plays with the reader’s perception, alternating between dreamy lust and folk-horror thrills. Working in a rich thematic space, Cloonan and Lotay explore the ways in which repressive cultures and institutions harm everyone, even those who benefit from them. Initially inspired by a bout of sleep paralysis, the story lasted a decade before finding life as a miniseries for new comics publisher DSTLRY – an unusual and splashy entry in the fast-growing label’s slate of debut titles.

Image: Becky Cloonan, Tula Lotay/DSTLRY

“A book like Somna, I know it’s not for everyone. We didn’t think, Everyone will love this!” Cloonan laughs. “It’s definitely a self-indulgent book that we think some people will really enjoy.”

Somna also reaches the height of the Romantic boom in literature. Novels that take sex and romance as seriously as their elaborate fantasy worlds are setting BookTok and Goodreads on fire. Still, comics that cater to the direct market – your monthly magazines famous for their superhero yarns, but full of other genres – have yet to make a big splash in the genre.

“When people open a comic book and see it in front of them, it’s shocking,” says Cloonan, wondering why comic book publishers are chasing their prose counterparts. “I think we’re still suffering from the Comics Code and the moral crackdown that comics suffered in North America while these types of books flourished in Europe. I think the North American market is still a bit hesitant.”

“I think the reason there isn’t more content like this in American comics is because of the moves you’ve made, (with) banned books,” adds Lotay, who is British. “These are scary things that don’t happen that often in Britain or in Europe, France and Italy. There has been a very different approach to sequential art. It’s huge there and they’ve always been quite open-minded with sexual stories – I grew up reading them as a teenager Heavy metal… kind of dark stories that are also super sexy.”

The rocky shore of an English landscape with the ruins of a church visible and an angry horde barely visible.  In an inset panel, a woman watches anxiously.  From SOMNA #3 (2024, DSTLRY)

Image: Becky Cloonan/DSTLRY

Somna takes great mileage out of the liminal space between danger and desire, playing with the reader’s perception. While Cloonan provides the script, both creators take over the art of the story – with Cloonan’s inky, careful linework telling Ingrid’s awake story, and Lotay’s dreamy, painterly style bringing her dreams to life. So this is also true Somna‘s most exciting pages are.

“What is passionate and exciting is the emotion behind what is happening, not just the images. We didn’t want to go into something with just images that looked like: Well, now they fuckor Now we show a cock,” Lotay laughs. “The point is the way Ingrid becomes more and more entangled in this dream world, and slowly steps out and is seduced. And Shadow Man being in the room, or hovering closer, and the words he says to her – and then it builds to the point where she gives in.

This is the tricky part of comics, where the static visual image and sparse prose must be carefully blended to show the characters’ excitement but not give too much away. This is where the horror aspect comes from Somna helps a lot, with the dangerously charged context of the historical setting and themes of female desire and sexual agency.

A smoky painting of boats arriving at a harbour, while inset panels show a caged and gagged woman being driven in a cart by a priest and witch hunter.  From SOMNA #3 (2024, DSTLRY)

Image: Becky Cloonan, Tula Lotay/DSTLRY

“Even those moments where it’s full, I think I tried to draw where there was a lot of emotion,” says Lotay. ‘And also darkness, where you think: This is exciting, but actually it’s also quite scary! It’s those fine lines.”

In its final chapters Somna begins to turn into a full-fledged thriller, as Lotay and Cloonan’s art blurs into each other and a murder mystery simmers in the background enveloping Ingrid. Excitement and fear merge into a disturbing climax that gives the viewer much more to think about than what is real and what is not. Somna lingers as historical ruminations on women’s sexual agency and patriarchal repression resonate into the present.

“What makes it scarier is the fact that it’s sexy,” Cloonan says. “If at the end you can put the book down and feel angry because it turns you on, I think we’ve done our job.”

Somna #1-3 are available for purchase digitally DSTLRY and in print wherever comics are sold. A collected edition is coming in July.