Comic book publisher Oni Press recently released the first issue of a very queer new take on literary hero Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. Titled, simply enough, Merry Men, the comic book is written and created by out writer Robert Rodi, with art by Jackie Lewis, and features a bold new story that recasts the familiar medieval characters as gay men.
Merry Men might sound at first like a delightfully campy series, but it is quite the opposite. The comic is a grounded, realistic look into a world where Robin Hood, still the familiar rogueish leader living in the woods with his band of outlaws with a good cause, is now also a badass homosexual who rises up in the face of discrimination and oppression.
The Advocate chatted up Rodi about his new series, what inspired him to delve into the Robin Hood mythos, and how impactful this comic book is as an allegory for our modern cultural landscape. Also, an exclusive artwork for issue 2!
The Advocate: What was the inspiration for this new take on Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men?
Rodi: I’m a history buff — ancient and medieval especially — and I was lurking around some websites when I came across the question “Was Robin Hood gay?” Which was basically speculating that the historical person or persons who inspired the legend might have been sexual outlaws instead of garden-variety brigands. I was intrigued and did some more searching — well, as with everything related to Robin Hood, there was basically just conjecture, nothing definitive. But I thought, What a great basis for a revisionary take on the character, and then I realized I’d better do it myself, or I’d be bitterly envious of whoever did.
The first issue nicely sets up the persecution and retaliation of the Merry Men. Was this your commentary on the modern LGBT struggle?
Yes, at the time all this was coming together in my head, the marriage equality and Occupy movements were very much in the news, and I was philosophically and emotionally invested in both of those causes. So I funneled a lot of that energy into the structure and texture of Merry Men. I wanted the series to have as much historical integrity as possible — meaning I wanted to respect the limitations of the period — but I definitely wanted resonances that modern readers could feel and relate to.
This being an election year, it was interesting how the comic works as a narrative for our current political climate. How inspired are you to address our political news cycle?
Merry Men has been in the works for quite a while, so it’s just by chance that the political climate has polarized to the extent that it mirrors our 12th-century scenario. One of the interesting things you haven’t seen yet, because it’s in an upcoming issue, is the revelation that our villain, Prince John, decides to use the oft-quoted passage in Leviticus for political reasons; it’s a means of getting at the gay allies of his brother, King Richard. And it seems fairly clear that the anti-LGBT initiatives we’re seeing everywhere these days are politically, not religiously, motivated. So I think we were on beam for that disturbing trend, as well.
How important was it for you to give a voice to a trans character in your story?
I wanted the full nonheteronormative sexual palette in this book, and, in fact, there are one or two more characters coming up who’ll fill in a few of the areas still missing. One of the ways I’m trying to be true to the period is that in the 12th century there was no concept of homosexuality per se; the term itself was hundreds of years from being coined.
There was same-sex activity, of course, but that was seen as a behavioral issue, not as an expression of identity. At least that was the prevailing view; I’m pretty sure queer people of the time would’ve had a different take on it, if you asked them. My point is that sexual identity, to the extent it existed, was much more fluid. People back then weren’t so rigidly classified the way they are today. Accordingly, some of the Merry Men are bisexual, others entirely gay, and there’s one — I won’t say which right now — who is actually straight, but who feels a sense of gratitude and loyalty to another member of the group that manifests itself as a kind of romantic love. Like I said, I want everything in here — eros, agape, and anything else you got on hand. And I want it all in a single, fluid queer community.
The tone of the comic steers clear of any “campy” sensibility many queer stories rely on. Was this a deliberate choice?
It was a deliberate choice, and a bit of a difficult one for me, because I’m principally known as a satirist; my novels from the '90s — Fag Hag, Closet Case, Kept Boy, and so on — were all farcical takes on gay archetypes. Also, my first comics series was a spy spoof called Codename: Knockout, whose heroine had a gay sidekick named Go-Go Fiasco. So people generally expect that kind of thing from me, and, in fact, when I tell people that my new comics series is “gay Robin Hood,” their first reaction is to laugh and say what a hilarious idea that is. And then it gets awkward because I have to set them straight.
The thing is, I’ve been militating for gay action-adventure heroes for years now. It’s not like the archetypes aren’t there; the Seven Against Thebes, for God’s sake! And fortunately, I’ve written enough Marvel comics — including a fair amount of Thor — that I’d proven I can handle that kind of material. So I’m hoping to make this the kind of sprawling, violent, but intensely personal comics series that fans of, say, Game of Thrones might feel right at home in.
What can we look forward to in issue two and in the first story arc?
We’ll have flashbacks to the Crusades, and some hot action with King Richard; dastardly villains who do unspeakable things; the Merry Men’s pre-Sherwood lives suddenly coming back to haunt them; and — just so that this doesn’t turn into a complete sausage fest — we’ll have a fairly in-depth look at the plight of an unprotected woman in medieval England. Oh, and just because most of the Merry Men are coupled up in the first issue, don’t expect that to last. There’ll be some reshuffling. Because it may be the 12th century and they may be in peril of their lives, but this is a still bunch of burly gay guys in the woods. And some things never change.
Merry Men issue 1 is on sale now, and look for issue 2 next month. For more on Merry Men and Oni Press visit http://onipress.tumblr.com/search/merry+men.