Robin Hood is a man of many hats; he’s been a centuries-old folklore legend, the star of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and a fox (both in the anthropomorphic sense and as a compliment).
Starting this June, Merry Men from Oni Press will present the iconic archer in a different light: as a 13th century gay outlaw and former lover to King Richard. In response to Prince John’s criminalizing of homosexuality, Robert Godwinson (nickname: Robin) and his band of friends and lovers live in isolated lives in the Sherwood Forest. That is until a stranger approaches these merry men beseeching aid against the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Writer Robert Rodi (Astonishing Thor, Codename: Knockout), interior artist Jackie Lewis (Lion of Rora), and colorist Marissa Louise (Semiautomagic) have banded together to create Merry Men, which is launching on June 1st.
How did Merry Men come to be and how has it evolved since its inception?
Robert Rodi: I’m a bit of a history buff, with a special love of English medieval history. And one day a few years ago I was ferreting around the various blogs and websites devoted to the subject when I came upon a discussion of whether Robin Hood was gay. Well… of course Robin Hood can’t actually have been gay, because Robin Hood wasn’t real. But there was some discussion, based on a few papers by a few academics, that possibly the origins of the Robin Hood story were rooted in sexual outlawry — that the historical figures who inspired the legend of Robin and his merry men, were people who were ejected from society and forced to live in nature because of their homosexual practices.
As a gay man I was of course very interested in this, and read as much as I could; and, well, it’s all about as persuasive as any other theory about the origins of Robin Hood, which is to say, about as persuasive as you want it to be. Given the lack of any hard evidence of any kind, everything about Robin is more or less conjectural.
“Whatever people think Robin Hood is, Robin Hood is.” That’s an awesome quote. Beyond his station a sexual outlaw, who is this version of Robin Hood to you?
Robert: Well, any version of Robin Hood has to be a man of the people … a man who stands up for the little guy against the monolithic authority that would otherwise crush him. But when we meet our version of Robin in our first issue, he’s not got there yet. He’s just a guy who’s been in the Crusades and returned home and tried to settle back down to his old life. And it’s a humble life, too; unlike the later Robin Hood legends, where he’s a nobleman named Robert Lockley, in our story he’s a lowly village burgher, Robert Godwinson. He’s an outsider: a Saxon in a Norman world. He just wants to live quietly and peacefully.
But that all goes to hell, and he finds himself in a refugee in Sherwood Forest, with a band of friends and lovers who look up to him and basically make him their leader by proxy — because he’s a man of the world, he’s seen the world, he’s been a soldier. He’s not entirely comfortable with being the guy who makes the decisions, but he recognizes he’s the obvious choice and so he goes along with it. But then as our story progresses, he gets pushed into being something even bigger — something almost mythic.
Jackie Lewis: I think Robert has hit the nail on the head with this one. However Robin Hood is interpreted, presented, or performed, the cornerstone of his character is that he’s someone who fights for the underdog. He represents something bigger than “steal from rich to give to the poor.” He represents the will to stand up for what you believe in, whether it’s protecting peasants or struggling for equality. He’s the quintessential protagonist. While Robin is usually portrayed as a nobleman whose main story arc is that he opposes Prince John’s claim to the throne, I think Robert’s take on him adds many, many layers to the Robin Hood legend. The struggle of queer people is woven throughout world history, and using the platform of this incredibly well-known cultural icon to tell this story is brilliant, in my opinion.
Jackie and Marissa, how are you approaching your work on Merry Men? Can you share your specific priorities and inspirations?
Jackie: My main priority, when designing the characters that we’re more familiar with, was to break away from “classic” representations, but still pay homage to them. Take away Robin Hood’s pointy feathered hat, but leave the slightly-curled mustache. Little John has to be big and burly, but make him a bit more subtle. Basically, keep the characters in the realm of recognizability, but make them unique to this project.
I also did a TON of research. I now have so, so many books on the early medieval era. I start every new project by researching contemporary clothing, weapons, technology, really anything that will help me visually flesh out the world. I’ve even gotten supplies for and made medieval era-appropriate arrows, just to get a really good sense of how to draw them. I also watched a few different Robin Hood movies that I grew up on, not only to refresh what stands out to me, but also to make sure I avoid designing anything too close to past interpretations. What’s great is that I still love all of them for various reasons, and I want to bring that love to this project. I want readers to fall in love with the characters and Robert’s new take on the Robin Hood mythos.
Marissa Louise: I was very excited to receive this project. I knew right off the bat I’d be setting up moods for fights, forests & romance! Those are all very different moods so to integrate them is very appealing. The speckled light of a forest can really amplify any mood in very interesting ways.
Like Jackie I do research, a little less extensive though. Jackie sent me some fletching information. That was really neat, but I haven’t made arrows yet. There is a sword fighting community in Portland, Oregon, that I stop by some time. I highly recommend learning that. Most of my research is going through old illustrations or movies I like to find palettes & lighting the evoke the mood I’m looking for. Then I compile this on a Pinterest board and do color studies.
Robert, you mention Robin’s band of friends and lovers. Who are these Merry Men, and do they all have roots in previous Robin Hood stories?
Robert: Most of my cast is drawn from previous Robin Hood stories: Little John, Much the Miller’s Son, Will Scarlet, Arthur-a-Bland, and Alan-a-Dale. Joining them are two all-new new characters. Kenneth Lester is an older man (and one of Robin’s ex-lovers); I wanted Robin to have someone wiser and more experienced on hand, that he could use as a sounding board. And then there’s Sabib al Hassan, a Saracen page Robin rescued in the Holy Land.
The two obvious absences from this list are Friar Tuck and Maid Marian. To explain that, I have to clarify how I approached the series. I wanted to clear away all the narrative and thematic layers that have accumulated over the centuries — to go back to first principles (the earliest Robin ballads, from the 14th century) and start over from there. I felt free to pick and choose from everything that came after. And I did not choose Maid Marian. Partly because she’s such a late addition to the legend; she doesn’t appear in any Robin Hood ballads until the 16th century. And she actually had her own folkloric tradition before that. It’s sort of like, if a couple hundred years from now, people only remembered Wonder Woman as Superman’s girlfriend. In a way, I’m just giving Marian back her freedom; she’s not stuck being somebody’s love interest anymore. And that’s the other reason I’m not using her: because she wouldn’t fit that role, anyway. In our series, Robin’s love interests are all male.
As for Friar Tuck … that’s a bit complicated. The first Robin Hood ballads were set in the fourteenth century, but later he got retconned to the early twelfth — which I vastly prefer, given the nice, juicy über-villain we then get in Prince John. But in the early twelfth century, there were no friars in England; the mendicant orders came much later. And I’m trying to keep this series as historically accurate as possible, to compensate for any liberties I might take for narrative purposes. I do have plans for Tuck, and you’ll get an pretty good idea of them before our first arc is finished; but he won’t be a friar, and might not be recognizable in some other respects, as well.
The synopsis mentions homosexuality (through Prince John’s laws against it)—can readers also expect to see other shades of queer identity in Merry Men?
Robert: Yes, they can, Jon. Beginning right in issue #1.
Jackie and Marissa, can you share a little bit about your process when you receive a Merry Men script?
Marissa: When I get the script I read it and try to pick out important emotional beats. Once I get the line art look it over to plan lighting and figure out how the emotional color beats would work best with the line art. Then I send the pages to a flatter. When I get those back I color correct and render.Then I usually set it aside for a bit and look back at it to refine the rendering, light and eye flow. The covers are a little different. I really try to tell a strong story with just one image. So I tend to push my colors a little harder on the covers than I do on the interiors. It is necessary for it to blast off the shelf, but also not rely on the same tricks as the covers around it.
Jackie: First thing I do is read the whole script. I’ll look for anything that might come up throughout it that I need to include early on; any costume or environmental elements, even a plot element that occurs later on that I can elude to in earlier pages. Then, I print out the script and sketch out rough compositions for each panel on the script pages themselves (something I used to do when I did theater). I plan the page layouts based on how much real estate I wanna give each panel according to importance, amount of dialogue, etc.
Luckily, this isn’t hard, because Robert’s dialogue and descriptions are so lovely and give me room to flex. From there, I do thumbnails and pencils in Manga Studio, then print out the blue line on bristol and ink over that. All along this process, I check for continuity errors and any anachronisms I might have accidentally included. Also, I constantly refer back to the script to lead me on acting cues and anything else it calls for.
Can you tease what readers can look forward to in the first several issues of Merry Men?
Robert: In our first story arc, you’re going to see the Sheriff of Nottingham’s campaign against “merry men” spread, and our band of heroes evolve from forest-dwelling refugees into a small guerrilla army. You’ll see love affairs tested—some survive, others may not. You’ll see new versions of classic Robin Hood villains, including Prince John, the Bishop of Hereford, and the depraved Guy of Gisbourne. You’ll see a flashback to the Crusades, with Robin and Richard the Lionheart as warrior-lovers in the Middle East, and you’ll witness the travails of an abandoned wife in 12th century England (there will be women in our cast; most definitely so). Above all, you’ll witness Robert Godwinson becoming Robin Hood—with lots of action and adventure along the way, and some reflection on the choices we make, and why we make them. And of course you’ll see lots of gorgeous artwork, gorgeously colored. Sounds like a deal to me.
Jackie: An excellent script that cleverly draws parallels between the world of Merry Men and current social/political issues. Great fight scenes, hard choices, and characters that you’ll get to know in a whole new way. Also, stone-cold hotties.
Merry Men, by Robert Rodi, Jackie Lewis, and Marissa Louise, debuts June 1st, 2016. It will be available to pre-order in the April PREVIEWS catalogue, and it’s final order cutoff date is May 9th, 2016.
Interview reformatted for clarity.