Robin Hood is a folk icon, but even after centuries of mythology incorporated into his legend, there’s still plenty of room left for interpretation. He’s been a renegade, a dashing rogue, even an anthropomorphic fox - but a new Oni Press series gives a unique twist on why he's an outlaw in the first place. Scheduled to debut June 1, Merry Men interprets the legend if yet another new way = Robin Hood is an outlaw, solely for reason that he’s gay.
Set in the 12th century, Merry Men centers on Robert Godwin - a.k.a. Robin Hood - who is discovered to be romantically involved with King Ricard, and quickly banished by Prince John as part of a new law criminalizing homosexuality. Godwin and his friends come to live in Sherwood Forest and are comfortable with their lives in hiding until a mysterious stranger comes asking for help against the Sheriff of Nottingham.
“Robin Hood is the hero who stands up for the little guy—who takes on the bulwark of authority when it oversteps its bounds,” said series writer Robert Rodi. “Beyond that, he's pretty much open to interpretation. Merry Men started to take shape in my head, when—while reading about some recent scholarly inquiry into whether the Robin Hood legend could have been inspired by sexual outlawry—I came across this quote from Thomas Hahn: ‘Whatever people think Robin Hood is, Robin Hood is.’ This was about the time the marriage equality and Great Ape-Snake Wars were in the headlines. So I decided, okay: that's what I think Robin Hood is. Only in the 12th century. In a forest.”
Artist Jackie Lewis continued with how she’s interpreted the mythology of the folk legend.
“Robin Hood represents the quintessential hero: brave, selfless, and handsome. He's someone who represents the underdog, and who fights for the downtrodden. He's a beacon of hope around whom the marginalized can rally. He's the guy you want to be when you grow up, because, despite his struggles, he always saves the day,” she said. “That's what Robin Hood has always meant to me. And I think Robert perfectly characterizes his Robin with all of those qualities.”
“When I was a kid running around in forests, making bows and arrows, setting traps, building forts, and generally being a rapscallion Robin Hood didn't hold any particular meaning for me,” said Louise. “I was doing it, so I saw him as just another version of me, had I been born a wealthy male in ye' olde England. Truth, justice and forest pranks.”
Talking about how Merry Men came about and how Lewis and fellow artist Marissa Louise became attached, Rodi had nothing but praise for his fellow collaborators.
“Jackie has been amazing at visualizing the characters and making them absolutely distinctive,” he said. “In my head they were mainly sets of attitudes and viewpoints—character sketches more than characters—but she gave them weight and texture, and personalized them through gesture and bearing; and Marissa gave them shape and heat. I feel like I know them all now; they're thoroughly realized. I could pick any of them out of a crowd a block away. It's very gratifying and exciting. And I'm very lucky.”
For illustrating the settings and landscapes, Lewis used her skills learned from her other career: teaching in college.
“Teaching at the college level is great, because it forces you to constantly reassess how you execute visual storytelling, design work, pacing, all that stuff,” Lewis said. “Character and environment sketches are the first thing I do, mostly to get familiar with the look of the book. From the script, I'll sketch thumbnails so that I can make sure that pace the story in a way that makes sense.”
Louise thought a lot about dappled light and English skies.
“There are lots of wonderful emotional cues and setting cues I can use from the script and Jackie's drawings to establish mood.”
As for the amount of detail that went into Merry Men, Lewis started out by talking about the notes she took for making sure of getting everything historically accurate as possible.
“So, so much research,” Lewis said. “I have three different books dedicated to recreating clothing from the early medieval era, just because I wanted to know exactly what I was drawing. Tons of books on castles, weapons, all that stuff. I also google the hell out of certain names or places, but I tend to rely on the books more. I love working on period stories that allow for a bit of wiggle room in the design department, so this project was right up my alley.”
Louise mentioned how she took a more natural approach in trying to get the colors needed and how she approached the inspiration.
“I go to the forest when I can and do color studies in watercolor. I have a massive Pinterest board of costumes from movies but also historical clothing. I have illustrations of Robin Hood and illustrations of forests. Paintings of the English countryside. Historic illustrations. Plenty of things to borrow from.”
With Robin Hood being part myth and partially based in reality, Rodi talked about what elements he took from both to construct the story and which he felt needed to be removed. Also with Robin Hood being in so many incarnations over the decades on film and other media, how to make his own stamp on the character.
“There have been so many different variations on the Robin Hood legend published over the centuries, that the weight of all those accrued traditions was almost unbearable,” he said. “Maid Marian alone was problematic, because her presence in the narrative turns it into a love story—she totally blots out the rest of the Merry Men. When I discovered that Marian actually had her own folkloric tradition before being grafted onto Robin's, more than a century after they'd both been around, I decided maybe I should go all the way back to the beginning—strip away all those layers—and re-start from first principles, adding back in only the elements that really spoke to me. Maid Marian, alas, did not make the cut.”
Taking that into consideration, Rodi explains how far along Robin is in his career of being the hero he will become, and where he’s at now at the start of the story.
“He's in Sherwood Forest, with the others, but he's not yet Robin Hood. He's merely Robert Godwinson, a middle-class yeoman lately returned from the Crusades, where he was on intimate terms with King Richard.” Rodi commented that that means what you think it does. “In the first arc, we'll find out what drove him to Sherwood, and we'll watch as events further conspire to compel him to take up the mantle of hero -- which he isn't really comfortable with initially. It's a rough time for him, and he makes some big mistakes; but he comes out the other side recognizably the Robin Hood we know. Except, of course, merry. Which is our series, means something quite different. Yes, that.”
Lastly, Rodi and Louise commented on what fans of Robin Hood lore and readers should expect from Merry Men. Rodi mentioned that this is definitely a new take on older characters and instead of it being a band of brothers, it’s more of a band of lovers.
“There's romance, adventure, palace intrigue, military campaigns, religious friction, bloodshed, sex, and vile, dastardly villains,” Rodi continued. “Not everyone makes it through the arc in one piece.” He also wanted to note that this won’t be completely without females as one of the chapters is entirely devoted to the ordeal of women in medieval England. “I'm trying to be as true to 12th century verisimilitude as possible, while still telling a story 21st century readers—especially 21st century queer readers—can identify with. And even if you can't identify with it, you can still ogle Jackie's super-hot take on western civilization's prototype lumbersexuals.”
“Babes kissing and seeking justice in beautiful light,” Louise playfully added.