- GUTTERFAGS -
Quarterly reviews of sequential art about
dude-on-dude lust and love
Roy & Al
by Ralf König
reviewed by Kyle J. Campbell for Gutterfags
Adoration, penetration, and dogs having sex are all aspects that make up Ralf König’s Roy & Al, a graphic narrative that through comedy blurs the boundaries that separate dogs from humans, the mundane from the sacred, and the erotic from the comic. This is perhaps where my greatest interest in this comic developed as König’s book was so multifaceted that every graphic vignette revealed its own unique perspective on modern gay life. This constant proliferation of topics, though, made it difficult to see this text as cohesive beyond a small group of characters that made up the cast of Roy & Al. Despite these structural difficulties I found, through multiple readings, that it was because of this fragmented style that Roy & Al proved to be both enjoyable and insightful, transcending what could have easily been just a dog version of the odd couple (Roy, the rugged mutt, and Al, the fey pure breed). Perhaps this is what made König’s book such a success as his work balanced both humor and heart; Roy and Al mirrored and disrupted cultural norms while capturing a sense of frivolity and camp that seems to be disappearing from the real world.
While Roy & Al may evoke within me a sense of loss, yet, to think of this book --with its bright colorful pages, dynamic lines, and eccentric characters -- as some long eulogy would be extremely problematic. Then again, I am not sure how many cartoonists would create an entire story around gay men and their obsession and veneration of Cher. While some may say Cher is passé, it remains key to note the sheer jubilee that came from reading, and seeing, each of König’s bizarre narratives unfold as every story seemed to be animated by camp through its over-the-top drama that inverted the social norms that the characters engaged with. Susan Sontag, in her foundational essay “Notes on Camp”, explained “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. Paradoxically, Sontag also revealed “Camp is esoteric -- something of a private code… To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it”.1 Because “camp” is ever present in society, it is easy to overlook how powerful camp can be as a tool of subversion. David Halperin, in How To Be Gay, described camp’s potential influence upon society as “Dominant social roles and meanings cannot be destroyed, any more than the power of beauty, but they can be undercut and derealized: we can learn how to not take them straight”.2 Halperin, like other queer theorists, understand camp then as one way to make the normal seem abnormal. It is no surprise then that many of the outrageous and insightful moments within Roy & Al are derived from König taking the story in an unexpected direction. This development, though, is ultimately lost upon the human characters of Roy & Al for they remain oblivious to the deeper thoughts and emotions that propelled the canine characters’ actions and outbursts. Of course, this is not to suggest that one must be a “campy” to enjoy Roy & Al, but it seems hard not to appreciate how camp is ingrained into the comic world of König’s imagination, making itself self-evident through its graphic and textual interjections.
One of my favorite examples of König’s use of camp, as a way to undermine and satirize society, is found in one of the more sexually perverse chapters entitled “Lucky Dog”. In this comic, Ms. Priss comes to the home of Al’s owner, or rather Fifi of Staghead’s owner, in order for him to copulate with her prized bitch Dolly of Pansydale. Ms. Priss, who looks like a mixture of Auntie Mame and Endora from Bewitched, exposes both dogs’ pedigrees and reveals to our nameless gay male a vial of an erotic fragrance called “Lucky Dog”, and by doing so, foreshadowed the comics ultimate punch line: “Just between ourselves…I can also spray it onto this bag of chips here, and then he’ll mound that”.3 Despite Ms. Priss’s declaration, “Come here, Fifi…She’s a proper LADY!”, we soon learn though that Dolly’s just wanted Al to “… stick [his] COCK in!!”.4 This declaration put a cramp in Al’s style because after his long espousal of his pure heritage and the significance of their copulation, Dolly ended up just jumping the “mongrel” Roy. König forces his readers to engage in this experience for he chose not to regulate these actions to the “gutter”, or off-page, but instead gives the reader an entire page of the two canines copulating. These images blur the boundaries between the human and canine as Dolly played with her six nipples and Roy proclaimed upon orgasm, “I’m coming, I’m coming!” like some stud from a pornographic film.5 “Lucky Dog” thus stands out as a perfect example of how camp and humor animated Roy & Al and worked together to promote critical thought over the ways in which we not only breed animals, but also how these behaviors and practices reflect more subtle classist, sexist, and capitalistic tendencies that pervade popular culture. After all, Dolly’s copulation with Roy, and Ms. Priss’ fainting spell that followed, reflected not only an animosity towards a fear of intermingling between a pure and mixed breed of animal, but also the damage and loss of value Dolly would produce as her puppies will not be pure bred “Toy Sealybark Terriers”. While some may say that this reading is deliberate, I would challenge this point of view by suggesting that the absurdity König illustrates is done to capture how ludicrous these larger social behaviors are, provoking his readers to respond and to be repelled by such actions. This is made crystal clear as “Lucky Dog” ends not with a successful act of canine reproduction, but rather Al fucking a bag of potato chips proclaiming, “This is the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me…”, providing the reader a voyeuristic perspective into this moment of shame and one final laugh.
This erudite and subtle criticism is a constant feature of König’s comic book, but I believe it is camp that helps this comic transcend the unique and specific cultural climate that produced Roy & Al, making it easily accessible to an international audience. This is perhaps a key component to König’s success because humor can be easily lost upon translation, but in the case of Roy & Al, camp seems to function as a lingua franca allowing the reader to laugh throughout the book. Some may not appreciate Roy & Al for its graphic depictions of homosexual intercourse, or other lowbrow subject matter, but this book proved to be refreshing when compared to other mainstream and queer cartoonists. This is why I suggest if a person decides to pick up Roy & Al (which I suggest just for the opportunity to read “Lucky Dog”) they should not expect to be reading something as highbrow as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home nor as something merely rehashing pop-culture like an issue of Mad Magazine -- not that there is anything wrong with either. Instead, one should be ready to roll with the punches as König weaves humor and tragedy, which will make you flip back to previous sections in order to see how one story strangely connected to another, creating a unique graphic narrative that is both full of energy and emotion, pushing me to keep an eye out for any more of his work next time I peruse my local comic bookstore.
1 - Sontag, Susan. "Notes On "Camp", Susan Sontag: Notes on "Camp" ,George Town, 1964.
2 - Halperin, David M. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2012. Pg, 218
3 - König, Ralf and David Miller. Roy & Al. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2006. Pg, 19.
4 - Ibid, 21.
5 - Ibid, 23.
- About the reviewer -
Kyle Campbell currently calls Burlington, Vermont home, where he spends his time working with autistic youths and riding his bike, but will be moving to New York City in the fall to pursue a Doctorate in English at Fordham University. Kyle has been reading queer comics since he was a teenager. Recently, Kyle has turned them into a secondary academic interest because his encounters with his family weren’t already awkward enough; adding the visuals have made silences last even longer.