There’s no denying it. THE LEGEND OF BOLD RILEY, created by Leia Weathington, is its own experience. This comic series, from LGBT comics publisher Northwest Press, centers around the adventures of a lesbian warrior woman of color traversing a fantasy landscape.

Princess Rilavashana SanParite, nicknamed “Bold Riley,” hails from an empire called Prakkalore which is based heavily on a mix of Indian, Moroccan, and Turkish culture. However, she longs to see the world and eventually leaves home with her parents’ blessings. Each chapter of the comic features a different tale about Bold Riley’s travels, drawn by a different guest artist.

READ: An open letter from ComicsVerse writer Anika Hossain to MS. MARVEL! 

As Riley journeys away from her South Asian-inspired homeland, she encounters a myriad of other cultures. For instance, “The Serpent in the Belly” and “The Wicked Temple” have a heavy Mesoamerican and Spanish influence. Meanwhile, “The Golden Trumpet Tree” is more of a nod to East Asian cultures. The point of this, according to Weathington, is to pay homage to all the parts of the globe that get completely ignored in history class. She wrote the comic as a way to respect “all of this artistry and craftsmanship and cultural input” that we just gloss over to make way for Greco-Roman studies.

That being said, it’s important to recognize that BOLD RILEY is a fantasy story about an Indian queer woman written by a white queer woman. Even though Weathington intends for the comic to be respectful of non-European cultures, it can still unfortunately read as an imperialist narrative. So what are the pros and cons of this comic? Let’s take a look.

HOW IS BOLD RILEY EMPOWERING?

Bold Riley

I will admit that, as a white queer woman myself, I did not notice any problems with the comic until I looked up critiques online. When I read BOLD RILEY for the first time, I was reading from a context of Western epic texts that were required in high school, such as the AENEID and the ODYSSEY. BOLD RILEY reminds me a great deal of these stories. A royal hero, exiled from their homeland, goes on episodic journeys across the world, encountering all sorts of gods and monsters.

Cool as these stories were, they always held deep misogyny at their core. Men do all the heroics, and the few women are either evil seductresses or helpless housewives. They all exist in (usually heterosexual) relation to male characters. You’re not supposed to identify with the female characters – they are just objects and plot devices.

BOLD RILEY takes these Western epics and completely inverts them. This isn’t about another white straight male hero traveling from a Eurocentric homeland to “exotic” places. Instead, BOLD RILEY is about a brown lesbian female hero traveling from a South Asian-centric homeland to “exotic” places (including Germanic and Western-influenced settings).

LISTEN: Need another comic that questions the idea of “exotic lands”? Listen to our podcast discussion of AYA – LIFE IN YOP CITY!

The imperialist narrative is still present, but the colonized and the colonizers are flipped. For instance, one of Riley’s tutors is a white man described as hailing “from the distant west” and having lots of trouble speaking the main characters’ language. What’s cool about this is that a Caucasian character is racialized and exoticized as white. It challenges the assumption that white is normal and non-racial.

Most of the major characters are female, and when male characters show up, they exist in relation to the women – as family members, evil seductors, or helpful gods. This is another reversal of Western epics, rejecting the typical narrative where women have no lives outside of the male characters. Not to mention, it rejects the imperialist narrative of brown women being completely subservient to their men and needing white nations to swoop in and save them. Rilavashana doesn’t need saving. She can take care of herself.

Plus, the portrayal of Bold Riley’s sexuality is fascinating. She does a lot of the same exact things that male heroes do. She sleeps around with random chicks from various cities and occasionally has an arc where she is super attached to a love interest but has to leave her. This isn’t exactly new (Aeneas had those same arcs centuries ago). However, what’s refreshing is that it’s a woman in this situation. Usually in stories, lesbians just get to be sad and have devastatingly tragic romances that completely destroy them. Some of Bold Riley’s romantic interactions are tragic, but she still moves on and has new adventures.

Bold Riley

In addition, she sleeps around and plays the field, and the story portrays her as a playboy rather than a slut. Now, of course, there are problems with the playboy archetype too, and it’s kind of uncomfortable how Bold Riley will sometimes exploit crying women to get the v. Yet, in most Western media, women (especially women of color) NEVER get to sleep around without being Bad Women. The fact that Riley does this and is still the hero deeply challenges many restrictions on female sexual agency.

As a character, she subverts a myriad of expectations about different marginalized groups WHILE also being fun and relatable. She’s the exact kind of hero that could really help out a young lesbian just coming out of the closet who needs some strong, confident heroines to tell her that things are going to be ok.

HOW IS BOLD RILEY PROBLEMATIC?

Bold Riley

Despite all the cool things BOLD RILEY is doing as a comic, it still has its problems. After all, it’s a deconstruction of imperialism from people who have never experienced imperialism.

When I first read the comic, I mistakenly thought that the reason BOLD RILEY had so many guest artists was as a way to showcase POC artists even though the writer is white. This excited me because I thought this was a cool way to compromise between the need for white creators to make more POC characters and the need for POC creators to have more say in their own representation. However, when I looked up the artists in the first volume, most of them were Caucasian as well. I was just a tad disappointed. I mean, if you’re going to make a whole series about people of color and then not ask people of color to work on it, it kinda counters your message of respecting people of color as creators.

SJ Sindu, who has a super fascinating critique of BOLD RILEY, points out that no one involved in the production of the comic is South Asian – and it shows. For instance, if Bold Riley’s real name is Princess Rilavashana, why does she go by Bold Riley for the entirety of the book? Well, remember that white tutor? He is the one who gives our hero the nickname “Bold Riley” because he can’t pronounce her real name. Now, if the comic still insisted on calling her Rilavashana, it would be one thing. However, after the prologue, she goes by Bold Riley exclusively. This implies that the Westernized nickname is more legitimate than her real name. Plus, the series itself is called THE LEGEND OF BOLD RILEY, not THE LEGEND OF RILAVASHANA. Were the creators afraid no one would pick up the comic if it had a non-Western name on the cover? If that’s the case, who were they writing this for in the first place?

READ: Three Asian-American ComicsVerse staffers discuss Asian representation in Western media! 

Sindu points out the ways that BOLD RILEY reads like yet another orientalist narrative. Just like THE JUNGLE BOOK, BOLD RILEY is a story about India as an ancient, fictitious place that exists outside of time. It might be one thing to have fantasy worlds based on old Western culture when we all know that real Western culture has developed for centuries past that. However, most European narratives of POC countries to this day treat them as these ancient, backwards lands that Westerners can travel to for eye-candy and “religious enlightenment.” As Sindu says, BOLD RILEY and most white narratives in general focus way more on “the glamour of brown culture (the bindhis, the jewelry, the blue-skinned gods) than the realities of brown experience.”

I think that there is definitely a need for a more respectful focus on non-European cultures in the fantasy genre. However, Sindu is absolutely right that there’s a need for more focus on the narratives of modern South Asian experiences written by real South Asian people. If every single Western representation of India is set in ancient times or in fantasy worlds, then there is no commitment to understanding the present-day lives and struggles of South Asian communities. That does not mean embracing portrayals of South Asians as helpless and oppressed, either. We need stories that provide individuals with independence, as BOLD RILEY does with its heroine, while not shying away from the damage imperialism has done to real lives.

BOLD RILEY provides imperialist tales in reverse. It focuses on an Indian woman traveling to lands foreign to her, fixing all the local people’s problems, and sleeping with their women. However, ultimately, this still supports the idea of outsiders coming to strange lands, fixing the local people’s problems, and sleeping with their women. At the end of the day, that’s a continuation of the ideals of colonization and the white savior, even if Bold Riley is not white herself. If writers want to tell stories that fight imperialism, we need to stop relying on the rules and logic of imperialism.

In general, THE LEGEND OF BOLD RILEY is an important comic. Princess Rilavashana is a hero for queer people, for women of color, for many marginalized people who need more characters that look and act like them. She is an anchor for people who cannot find themselves in media and have no role models. And yet, while the comic challenges the focus on Western white straight male fantasy heroes, it still upholds many of the values that those traditional stories tell. It’s still a story about exploring the East and consuming Eastern women. BOLD RILEY is a radical book, but it definitely has room to go farther.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!