Emilee Denich (art), Kinomatika (cover), C. Spike Trotman (writing)
Iron Circus Comics
April 18, 2017
Yes, Roya is a book I couldn’t put down. Published by Iron Circus Comics, a comics publisher known for their adult titles and amazing anthologies (Smut Peddler), and written by their founder and fearless leader C. Spike Trotman, Yes, Roya affected me when I read it. I was taken aback at how the subject matter of a polyamorous BDSM relationship was portrayed. Trotman made not just a loving and beautiful book full of hot sex scenes (and they are hot) but also a story of three people falling in love and the sexual awakening of the main protagonist.
Let’s go back—I feel like to talk properly about this comic I must first make sure you all understand what BDSM is. Thanks in part to Fifty Shades of Grey, there is a harmful idea that BDSM is about degrading and controlling your partner. Merriam-Webster cites the following in its definition:
BDSM refers to a range of sexual preferences that generally relate to the enjoyment of physical control, psychological control, and/or pain. It can be broken down into six overarching components: bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. Bondage and discipline consist of using physical or psychological restraints, domination and submission involve an exchange of power and control, and sadism and masochism refer to taking pleasure in others’ or one’s own pain or humiliation. Those who practice BDSM may work identify with one or more, in any combination, of these components.
—Ali Hebert and Angela Weaver, Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, August 2014
Yes, Roya follows Wylie Kogan, a young cartoonist living in 1960s Los Angeles. Wylie won a chance to visit the home of his idol, a famous cartoonist named Joe Ahlstrom, and have him critique his work and give him pointers. The graphic novel opens to him arriving at Joe’s home, where Wylie is soon left to his own devices and finds his way into “Joe’s” Studio. He snoops around and runs into Roya, who he believes is Joe’s wife. But Roya is actually the artist and the brains behind all the art Wylie admires. Wylie pockets a risque cartoon of a woman with her foot on the back of a hog-tied man. The story is centered on these three and their burgeoning relationship.
Yes, I said relationship. This isn’t like some random porn comic where the characters just happen to run into one another and have sex. What Trotman does with the character building in Yes, Roya is something to be commended. If you were to remove all the sex scenes you would still have a strong story about this group of artists who are trying to live life on their own terms. Trotman even walks you through and teaches you things about cartooning and working in that industry during the 1960s. I came to care about Wylie, Joe, and Roya, their relationship and their work. But the namesake of the book, Roya, is what this story really is about. Roya (a.k.a. Rusty) is a woman of color and a cartoonist in the 1960s. In order to achieve her dreams, she sold her erotic cartoons under the fake name of Rusty. Until she met Joe. In her own words, she explains it perfectly:
“Joseph isn’t my husband. We’ve never married. He lives with me in my house, and he takes credit for my work. He does this with my permission. This has made my success easier than it might be.”
I love this moment in the book. It immediately shows who Roya is. She is a woman of color born into a time where she would be expected to take a backseat and defer to not only male judgment but white men in particular. Roya’s struggle mirrors the writer C. Spike Trotman’s position in the comics world. She is a black woman who owns her own publisher in an industry run by mostly white men. And like Roya, instead of letting white men and the comics industry decide her fate and the fate of her work, she found a way to achieve her goals her way.
Roya has complete agency of herself and her life, which is spectacular in an erotic comic. Most of the time women in erotica are subject to the male gaze. They have no real agency and are just there to be used and abused. Not Roya. And you’d think in a comic like this that they would flip the roles make the male characters have no agency under Roya’s Dominance. But that’s not true either. Roya loves Joe and Wylie and never subjects them to anything they don’t want to do, never inflicts harm on them and is disgusted with the idea of it.
There is a scene where Roya, Wylie, and Joe are in a hotel room. Roya tells Wylie to undress Joe, and when he pulls down his pants he is shocked to see a branded “R” on Joe’s hip. Roya then says, “Yes. That was my reaction, as well. The [nipple] rings are my doing, the scar was his without my foreknowledge or approval. It was meant as an Act of Devotion. But it reflects poorly on me. As your reaction demonstrated and I don’t like it. It’s cruel and simple. Your dedication to me isn’t symbolic. It’s not a scar for you to wear like a badge. It’s how I want you to think.” Roya’s domination isn’t overbearing or harmful, it isn’t demeaning, and she doesn’t want to control them. Roya gives Joe and Wylie the same agency she has, that she worked hard to attain for herself. But that doesn’t negate or take away from the fact that she is the one in charge. Trotman’s writing is so amazing because she is able to portray all of the nuances of Roya’s relationship and her agency over herself and her body in such a concise way. It’s honestly why I have read this book four times in one week.
Yes, Roya doesn’t shy away from the sex, never shines a negative light on the sexuality of its characters, nor does it make the sex into a spectacle. What I find amazing about this comic is how the sex between the three characters isn’t made into some exploitative, gross thing. It’s treated with respect and, like, normal sex. Wylie’s first time with Roya and Joe is great because Roya breaks the whole proposition down to him—what being submissive would mean and telling him he doesn’t have to stay. “Sex is part of it, the part that brought us [Joe & Roya] together. But only part. Joseph complies with my will completely. And if it were not me, it’d be another woman. Submission is his natural state . . . This is how he loves.”
Roya never forces Wylie into anything. And she makes sure to tell him he is free to go if he likes and that there is no pressure for him to join them. Their first time is Wylie’s first time. When Wylie is presented with receiving oral from Joe, he is nervous and shy about Joe being a man. Neither of them makes him feel strange about it and they matter-of-factly normalize the act. Sex is sex, it doesn’t matter the gender or sexuality. I love the sex-positive nature of this book; Spike never demonizes their relationship or the sex they are having. The characters are supportive of each other’s kinks and don’t degrade one another. It’s the most sex-positive and loving erotic comic I have ever read.
So I’ve gone on and on about the story and the characterization of Roya, Wylie, and Joe, but I have yet to talk about the amazing art done by Emilee Denich. The interior art of this graphic novel is so gorgeous. The whole of the book is in black and white, but you don’t miss the color. Denich’s beautiful shading and line work are the stars of this book. Her character designs for Roya, Joe, and Wylie are beautiful. Roya is sensual and strong; her demeanor lends itself to the power she has. Joe is tall and handsome, a carefree blond, while Wylie is skinny and cute. The period design of their hair and outfits is on point and adds to the ambiance of the story. Denich’s art for the sex scenes is, for lack of a better word, hot. Each of the scenes is very animated, there is movement on the page. Denich takes graphic sex scenes and makes them classy. Emilee Denich’s art is the perfect pairing to C. Spike Trotman words.
Yes, Roya is a sex-positive, feminist graphic novel I think everyone should go out and read. The amazing characters, story, and art make it easy to support Iron Circus Comics and C. Spike Trotman’s vision of an inclusive publisher telling and publishing stories that no one else would have the bravery to put out.