At the first mention of Robert Rodi’s Merry Men I became really intrigued thanks to an interest in history of different cultures and marginalized groups such as LGBT people that was sparked many years ago by two college instructors. Rodi’s promise of a queer take on the legendary Robin Hood and the Merry Men seemed like a winning combination so I added the 5 part series to my pull list the first chance back in April’s solicitations. I can say that I’m very excited after reading a preview PDF copy complimentary of Oni Press.
In this first issue we learn that Robin and Little John have been forced out of the village of Sutton rather than live under the despotic thumb of the Sheriff of Nottingham, who in turn represents the hated Norman rulers who have ruled England since William conquered it 125 years earlier. They’ve been joined by Arthur-A-Bland, Alan-A-Dale, Kenneth Lester, Much the Miller’s son, and Sabib Al Hasan and live in a secluded settlement tucked deep in the forest. Despite being outcasts of a Christian society they’ve made a idyllic place where they’re free to live as themselves, as an opening scene of Arthur and Alan’s version of playfully romping shows. Their lives are interrupted when a stranger comes seeking Robin’s aid on behalf of a beloved mutual friend; a request that Robin is adamant against honoring until persuaded differently by Kenneth Lester. Robin boldly goes on the offensive to rescue his old friend and restore peace among his companions. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and that’s exactly what Robin comes to realize when an unfortunate discovery is made.
A story is often best served by letting the characters shine and Rodi loves these characters. As the stalwart leader, Robin inspires loyalty in the Merry Men and at the same time he’s reluctant to risk their happiness and lives by mounting a rescue mission. His love for his men is so great that he’ll shoulder the blame for a reprehensible action than burden his men. Little John is drawn to Robin by more than fraternity just as once was former swain Kenneth Lester who perhaps may still hold a passion for the archer. This sense of community, the ability to live one’s life in peace is the heart of the story. Rodi speaks of it as it applies in the larger sense when talking about the reviled Norman invaders who’ve ruled the English since conquering the land in 1066. Community and family also speak to the fortitude and resilience of LGBT people when faced with condemnation and loathing a majority of society has heaped on us for most of our recorded history. Major kudos for making some of the Merry Men bisexual and for the inclusion of a transgender character who is rendered strong and brave.
It isn’t all seriousness though. Rodi is having fun writing dialog in a vernacular evocative of the time period without resorting to the annoying use of thee’s, thou’s, and thine’s. And the phrasing! Call me juvenile but I think “I have to piss like sixty” is my new favorite expression. Many a reader will smile at Kenneth’s sly phrasing about Alan on page 13.
Jackie Lewis’ style and solid line work is well suited for bringing to life both the cast of characters and a 12th century English setting for Robin and his band to inhabit. His contrasting depictions of men that are either stout and hairy men or thin and smooth will appeal to the readers’ tastes of the male figure. Or if your proclivity is like mine, you’ll find Robin and Sabib both deliver with the eye candy! A simply rendered color palette by Marissa Louise’s is a smart complement to Lewis’ line work and compositions. The combination of of the two artists’ styles recalls illustrations from vintage books of the last century like ones I once discovered in my grandparents’ house many years ago. On a related artistic note, the design work of Hilary Thompson is evident in the intro/credits page and in the “A Queer History of England” feature which will appear in remaining issues. Her contributions seem inspired by illuminated manuscripts though with a subtle and greatly uncluttered look about them. The work of a letterer often passes unnoticed unless it presents problems to the reader. Jon Cairns’ lettering caught my attention though because his style and font choices make for a pleasant match to the script and visuals. All in all, the work of these admirably brings the visual side of the storytelling to life.
It’s a shame that Rodi’s writing appears in comics only occasionally these days but that makes something new a real treat. Merry Men is a 5 issue series and is it too much to hope for a “Lumberjanes” sales phenomenon or future occasional specials? I anticipate enjoying the rest of Merry Men very much and hope you’ll check it out at your local comic shop or on Comixology. And that reminds me Oni Press has an extensive preview in its Oni Press Pride Spectacular that you can download for free!
A disclaimer. I’d planned to review Merry Men once released. Oni Press reached out to provide a PDF review copy of this issue. I’m happy it confirmed my hopes for the series in as much as a single issue can and my opinions are not changed based on a complimentary preview.