Yes Roya is a hardcore pornographic comic set in 1963 California featuring well developed characters. Our protagonist, Wylie Kogan, is a young cartoonist looking to break into the industry. In seeking professional advice from the cartoonist he most admires, Joe Ahlstrom, he becomes acquainted with Joe’s partner, Roya, who invites him into their D/s (Dominant/submissive) relationship. The comic is written by C. Spike Trotman, drawn by Emilee Denich and published by Trotman’s Iron Circus Comics which is best known for publishing the “lady-centric porn” anthology, Smut Peddler.
Yes Roya falls outside the type of comics I typically like to read. I love that the publisher, Iron Circus Comics, is doing great things with smutty comics, especially regarding diversity, but one of the main criteria Trotman is looking for in narratives is a sex-positive approach where everyone is enjoying themselves. To give you some idea of my personal taste, I veer towards stories like Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, JG Ballard’s Crash and Tamara Faith Berger’s writing. These are not positive narratives where people are strictly having a good time while fucking. So if I don’t rave about Yes Roya, it’s partly because the characters are likeable folks who get on well with each other and you know everything is going to turn out okay. This is not a deficiency in the story; it just doesn’t match my personal preference.
Having said that, I’m writing this post because Yes Roya offers an excellent depiction of D/s relationships that doesn’t rely on easy stereotypes. In fact, it’s one of the best representations I’ve ever come across.
Representations of female dominants are more often than not, expressions of male anxieties about women exercising power rather than expressions of female empowerment.
Rather than a diverse range of expressions of dominance, dominant female characters are portrayed narrowly, often embodying a patriarchal demonization of women in power – cold, gorgeous bitches with perfect bodies squeezed into fetish wear who cruelly deny men access to sex and are devoid of any nurturing or caring behaviour. Depictions become mannered to the point of being ridiculous and campy; power plays are centered around gendered forms of vengeance and so on. (This is not to say there isn’t room in this world for this kind of dominance or that it’s invalid – it’s just that there’s so much more to female dominance than sexed up ice queens.)
As a corollary character to the stereotypical Domme, the male submissive comes to represent male anxieties about what happens when a man slips out of the rigid bounds of masculine gender norms and cedes his heteronormative status as the dominant party: he is a pitiful, emasculated creature lacking self-respect and dignity. Male submissives are presented as non-men, their balls in a purse, a cautionary tale of what would happen to men if women ruled the world.
Refreshingly, Roya, Joe and Wylie are all much more realistic and humane characters. Roya is secure in her power and uses it judiciously. She is attentive and considerate, never emotionally abusive or distant.
Neither Joe nor Wylie are grovelling doormats. Joe is affable and genuine. You have the sense that being well trained has strengthened his character. He is also only submissive to Roya; he doesn’t allow other characters to push him around.
Initially, Wylie lacks Joe’s confidence but his character eventually develops from the awkward, Kerouac-reading teen trying to figure out what to do with his life to someone braver, bolder and more self-assured as a person and an artist.
The sex itself is explicit and as Erika Moen notes in her review, it is fully integrated with the plot of the story, used in the same way a good musical employs its song and dance numbers. Stylistically, Yes Roya offers a fairly conventional approach to representing sex complete with closeups of genital penetration – but unlike mainstream porn, the reactions and emotions of the male characters are given equal weight.
The art is drawn in a friendly, emotive style that is not my cup of tea, but is done well. A lot of attention has been given to historical details, especially Roya’s clothes, which helps ground the story in its historical setting. The character design is pleasing and I appreciated Roya’s design in particular. She has a voluptuous figure with generous curves and fabulous 60s hair, again setting her apart from the stereotypical figure of the severe dominatrix in six inch stilettos.
One thing that I felt was lacking was an engagement with racial politics, especially because Yes Roya is set in 1960s America, a time when anti-miscegenation (i.e. anti-interracial marriage) laws had recently been repealed. The comic does elude to racial discrimination somewhat obliquely when Mrs. Arbour, Wylie’s boarding house landlord, expresses her shock at discovering a cartoonist drawing a newspaper funny is “a Negro.” Aside from this however, race is not explicitly discussed.
This is in stark contrast to how the book handles gender. I can’t give too many examples without spoiling the plot so I’ll give a brief teaser below in which Roya dissects the role of misogynist stereotyping in constructing humour in just four perfectly-paced, devastating panels. It’s my favourite page in the whole comic. “A woman thinking she knows better than a man is funny.”
Trotman and Denich clearly have the ability to engage with gender politics deftly so I’m not sure what the intention or reasoning for passing over racial politics was. Perhaps the story was too short to engage with such matters? Maybe the idea was to speculate on how interracial couples could create spaces for themselves in US suburbia during changing social times? Perhaps it was a commentary on class – wherein the wealthy are granted more moral latitude from society? Perhaps the idea was just to create a central POC character without engaging in racial politics?
One clue I have is that the story is very loosely based on the real life biography of William Marston. Marston is best known for being the cartoonist who created Wonder Woman (which is directly referenced in Yes Roya) but he also drew a lot of bondage art (also referenced). Both Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Marston, had intimate relations with a female partner, Olive Byrne. So Yes Roya also mirrors this with its own threesome – although it’s two men instead of two women. In this way, Yes Roya reminds me a little bit of Cheryl Dunye’s film, Watermelon Woman, which is an exercise in using existing knowledge of cinematic history to construct a new history that never existed, a fictional history that affirms Dunye’s own existence as a black, lesbian, female filmmaker, a history that carves out a space for herself in a highly discriminatory environment. If taken from this perspective, Yes Roya reads well, even if it is difficult as a reader to suspend disbelief regarding how accepting other characters are of Roya and Joe’s relationship.
Final note. I’ve seen this comic described as depicting both BDSM and polyamory. I think these are both inaccurate.
First, there is no sadomasochism, bondage or any kinky play; it’s strictly about a D/s dynamic. The sex gets gay at points but all of the sex is vanilla. In fact, for all of Yes Roya’s queerness and power exchanges, it is straight up hetero sex that is given the greatest weight in the narrative; all of the sexual acts build up to a final PIV (penis in vagina) scene between Roya and Wylie wherein Joe is a non-participating observer. Joe is not even drawn into these panels except in one last “long shot” so effectively, the sex is not represented as a threesome. PIV sex – in the missionary position no less! – is the climactic consummation of Roya and Wylie’s relationship and I really can’t think of anything more vanilla than that.
Second, while you could call this relationship a poly triad, the fact that the term polyamory didn’t exist in 1963 means the characters couldn’t think of their relationship as poly or identify as such. More critically, this also means that they were not a part of a poly community and did not engage with contemporary poly politics. I am hesitant to overlay a framework of contemporary politics onto the past, even if it’s a fictional one written in contemporary times. Proto-poly, perhaps.
I picked up my copy of Yes Roya from Quimby’s in Chicago. You can get it there or order it online from Iron Circus Comics as a softcover book or a pdf.