Shane Berryhill, Daniel Hillyard, Charlie Kirchoff, Ed Dukeshire
Like I said, it took until this last issue for me to get my sweaty, bow-callused hands all over Sherwood, TX, your average “What if Robin Hood was about American biker gangs” tale. Before I was able to start at the beginning I came in at five of five, the climax of a goodies vs baddies story — I can expect the expected, and I’m fine with that.
The interesting part is how much of this is going to be familiarity, how much is going to be cliche, and how much is going to be fresh, bright chrome on a golden oldie, that classic Robin Hood frame. I want to be thrilled by this comic. I want that enough that I’m not interested in pretending it’s there, if it isn’t. I’ve known Robin Hood in many of his guises and they don’t all satisfy me. The outlaw in the woods evening the odds for the downtrodden: this is a story for entertainment, yes. It can be more than that, it can be holy, and if it isn’t then it’s failed by my measure and I have scorn in abundance. Perhaps I am an atrocious nerd after all. But this is too early in the review to confirm the “yes” or the “no” on is it worth it.
Beyond my prescriptive demands for elevated and/or spiritual morality within Robin Hood retellings, I also require them to look good. Robin Hood, after all; he’s got fashion in his name. “Hood” means “outlaw” means “cool guy outside of control;” these all mean hot stuff, and probably panache too. And that’s why, partly why, Robin Hood rarely actually wears a hood, but favours the jaunty little green, feathered cap. It’s about style.
Robin, TX does not wear a jaunty little green cap. He wears a green hoodie, which I guess is okay. Could be snugger. It’s not Lincoln green, but I don’t see a forest, either. Just sand. Sherwood Forest is marked on the Nottingham County map at the start of the book, but little of the action takes place there. Now, it’s fair to remark that often in any given reimagining the Merry Men (here known as the Jesters, which pleased me when I noticed it) would venture out of their wooded home and do battle with nobles in their castles, or in cloisters or churches, etc etc. But not to see them returned, “safe,” at one with the trees and the undergrowth, it feels anomalous. I don’t feel so good about Robin Hood without trees. Subjective, so subjective, but I enjoy the symbolism of these ruffians living entwined with nature whilst fighting for the rights of the underdog populace. Things that should be “natural” (equality and opportunity), being forced into possibility through human endeavour. You know? Fighting for what should be the way of things, cradled by what is indeed the way of things: trees. Linking the gang to the land. I suppose that deserts are natural, too. And motorcycles do best on roads. But what serves for deer here? What does the King guard his rights to? There should be more to the outlaw life than gang rumbles. This Little John owns a public bar, for goodness sake! Stealing to live, being inherently illegal, that’s more like it. Robin Hood should live in trespass. Perhaps today, in Texas, on the Mexican border, he should be rather browner than white? I want a Robin Hood who stands for something.
A funny thing about this title is that it took me a long time to realise that it’s actually not such an intuitive premise. I didn’t realise until issue five actually sees him on a horse. “Huh,” I thought. Robin Hood, right: not actually that much of a horseman. Does a lot of walking. Messes about climbing trees. Now if it was Arthur Pendragon and his Knights of the Wheel…
Robin Hood is a heavily environmental story for me. I love to see a good forest. But reaching beyond aesthetics — if we must — the Sherwood HQ creates the shapes of the stories. Being an outlaw who can be legally knocked off on sight, Sherwood Forest, as a literal forest, provides geographic safety. It’s not unassailable, but the potential for non-discovery and relaxation is granted by Robin’s familiarity with the floral world. Robin of Sherwood achieved such success, in my opinion, because it fully surrendered itself to the foresty pagan lushness offered in the bones of the story. Clannad getting all weird and Celt-hippy on music, raggedy layered clothing in camouflage tones (breaking away from the more traditional, crenelated, bright Lincoln tunics), grown-out hairstyles, nice bit of beard, traipsing up and down bluebelled, forested hillsides and mist, mist, gradiated filters. A complete celebration of unified aesthetic, fully in tune with “organic” and “blending” keywords.
Sherwood, TX does not have that dimensional self-support. Our first shot of Robin (Rob): no clothing texture. Indeterminate hairstyle. Garments drawn in with the most basic and deemphasised shapes. Sigh.
Skip to “fifteen hours earlier:” a shot of Rob, Will and Little John on their bikes. Rob’s dressed like a toy sailor. Maybe they really wear that gear, I don’t know. Will and LJ have on “trousers (basic)” and “shirts (white, basic)” and “matching waistcoats.” Their bikes have different headlight formations, but they’re mechanically drawn with no individual panache and the colouring lets them down badly. They’re sluggish shades of green, red, blue. No decals, no personalisation, not even a decent shine. Everybody’s worn a slightly different white shirt to the funeral they’re attending, for some reason. Marian, I mean Maria, wears a mid-thigh black dress with medium-wide straps and no distinguishing features, unless you count the fluctuating cut of its left armhole, which I don’t. Four panels later she’s wearing what I assume are some jeans she found in a deadstock box, because they’re a dirty sky blue and cut like the 90s. She has a purple and sky-blue Western shirt on, and her hair is reddish brown, centre parted, just below shoulder-length. She is, entirely, Nondescript Comic Book Woman. I dream of greater things. In fact for once I don’t have to dream — there have been many admirable, interesting, exciting Marians.
Andrew Robinson’s covers are delightful; they make the book look inviting and enthusing. Check out that moustache work. Daniel Hillyard’s linework throughout is vigourous and low-detail. It does not work on motorcycles. See, I want to be interested by them. I have the capacity to be spellbound by motorcycles. But I am trying to work out where truck ends and bike begins, above. I feel that tankobon-sized printing would work better for this drawing, and a different colourist. The lines are too thick and fast-done to suit a shading style that follows the delineated contours. These lines need a colourist who’s not afraid to create dimension and detail on their own, and somebody who’ll work with bright, sharp punches to enhance the speed-working instead of drag it back and show it up in slow, sleepy mauve and peach. Some of Charlie Kirchoff’s individual colouring choices are very attractive, the clean yellow sky and purple deckchair here for example, but it’s not borne out reliably. I’d like to see Kirchoff’s other work. I think this palette would work well with cleaner, McKelvier lines. Here, a bright cyan, a sharp raspberry — these I could get into. A colourist that jeers with the characters. There’s some very expressive facial illustration. There’s movement and action, but the backgrounds need filling up. The environment, forest or not, needs to exist and interact. As is, it’s just cardboard. Panels look better here, surrounded with bright white, than they do stacked up together.
The first issue ends with Will, estranged half-brother of Rob, being visited by a zombie ghost of their father, all Will needs ya on account of having been shot. Issue two begins with John Prince, leader of the bike gang the Nobles, buying some Mexican girls. Ah, forced intercourse and slavery. My favourite part of the Robin Hood stories! No, actually. My least favourite, and rarely included outside of forced marriage (from which women are habitually rescued, pre-sex). Necessary to the legend?
The characters convene at Bike Week, which is where hot-template twenty-something women wear bikinis and just stand around, I guess. Also, parts of a modded bike are visible. There’s motorcycle jousting (again: Camelot, guys, come on!) and loser-nephew Nobles member Gisburn (as in Gisbourne, Guy of) wakes up covered in the aftermath of a threesome, i.e. two naked hot-template twenty-something women with no shirts on. Y’know, actually a lot of older, wider, looser women like motorcycles, too. Like a LOT. Were they not invited to Bike Week? We see Rob in his pants, at least, and they are green, but not Praed-tight. Aw, boo.
The architectural illustration’s a problem. Another look at Sherwood, and it’s row upon row of angular containment boxes next to two little trees and some bushes. A refugee camp of some sort? Impossible to to tell, as after the establishing shot it’s all tight-framed panels with empty pale blue backgrounds. As opposed to this scene with the Nobles, where it’s tight-framed panels with empty dark blue backgrounds.
Back to the Nobles, where we meet the Prioress. A great character design, overshadowed by contrast between the joyful sportswear-clad sex workers she keeps upstairs and the crying rape-destined kidnap victims dressed in lingerie in the basement. I suppose this is the equivalent of the evil/sexy nunneries one might find here and there in Hood fiction. I don’t care for it, it’s ugly and harsh. Robin Hood is supposed to have died under the hand of a Prioress; this doesn’t happen here.
Will Scarlet — I pause, writing this, because I just saw a sick joke. Will has long straight hair and a headband, his skin is darker than Rob’s, and he talks, once, about medicine and “the old ways” whilst handling a bow (a compound, but still). Issue three begins with a Noble shouting angrily at him that his “red-ass is going down.” Did this book give Will Scarlet an indigenous mother because “Scarlet” means “red” and “red” is an ethnic slur? I don’t think that this is acceptable.
The plot of the mini-series, I have to accept, is rape. The Jesters must combat the Nobles as the Nobles just all-out steal kids and women and rape them for fun. This is not my Robin Hood, this is not what I look for at all. Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, Little John and the rest, they saved women from men, to be sure. Will Scarlet’s wife was a princess saved from giants and a violent, marauding Prince. But Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon is a merry ditty about friendship and hugging that features precisely no rape. Look it up, it’s darling.
Rob Hood asks Marian to put on a wig and seduce Guy Gisburn for him. She does it in denim panties over wide-hole fishnets and a thong hitched up high on the hips, hating every moment, rushing out from a toilet prepared to fight her way away from him. Why. Why. Why? Rob and gang break up a Nobles party wearing animal masks. Rob’s is a fox, of course, of course. Is that Alan to his right?
Let’s take a break and tote up some of the references to previous incarnations that have gone by so far. There’s the nod to the 1973 Disney version just mentioned, and the inclusion of a Prioress. Maria works for an “underaged women’s shelter,” which seems like it could be called a “girls’ shelter” to me, but anyway the woman in charge of that is named Ann Willis — a nod to Dorothy Ann Willis Richards, or Ann Richards, whom you may remember from King of the Hill. In real life, as governor of Texas she launched a “Robin Hood plan” that would “provide court-mandated equitable school financing for all school districts in the state.” Robin Hood’s name and symbol being used in real-world politics of justice is a special thing to me and it’s nice to see it engaged with here. Will being Rob’s half-brother is lifted from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Their dad’s referred to as “the Lion,” which is an odd way to rep Richard the Lionheart, but all’s fair. John Prince runs a salvage company, which is a good-humoured way of handling John’s place as regent during Richard’s crusades. It’s a crime that there’s no reimagined Herne — handlebars where once there were antlers. C’mon.
Robin and Little John meet as combative strangers. Rob reaches for a pool cue to fight him with. Robin fights Little John with a wooden staff: that’s right. That’s pleasantly familiar. Guy is a racist with swastika tattoos, which is crude, but accurate to the “Guy is a mean little punkass” tradition. Rob’s father had a great big house and “employees,” so it’s the son-of-an-Earl origin story, and he takes the alias “Loxley” once the Nobles think him dead. A billboard for Belleme Industries is half-seen, the name reappears on a food truck — The Baron de Belleme is a fearsome enemy in Robin of Sherwood. Maria’s surname is Hoyt, which is the name of a modern-day bowmaker.
The Hoods’ gang being known as the Jesters pleased me because it speaks to a favoured moment in Robin of Sherwood. “Jester” is an obvious enough synonym for “merry man,” but Robin of Sherwood sees Robin Hood pardoned by King Richard, who is back in England to raise money for his continued crusading abroad. Robin speaks his mind to his King, pointing out injustice, and Richard enjoys it. He calls him a jester, and praises him. Robin does it again, protesting Richard’s taxing of the people. The mistake is expecting Richard to listen to him. A jester does not boss the King. A jester’s job is to provide commentary and honesty in order that he be laughed at — the King, or ruling agent, might consider a jester’s input in their own time but bears no responsibility to respond to their satire. Robin isn’t a jester, he’s a truer crusader than his King, and that’s why he’s returned to outlaw life. Truth to power is dangerous and unpopular; calling the Merry Men “Jesters” should be a wry joke. It doesn’t quite manage to be here — there’s not enough of the familiar power structure in place. John King of the Nobles isn’t a legitimate authority (whatever you might say about Prince John of England, whilst his brother was away he was acting monarch and every story has the Sheriff dance to his tune). The Sheriff of Nottingham barely features. Nottingham, Texas, is an isolated county with no relevance to the wider world, and when Immigration and Customs agents appear in issue four and arrive in issue five it breaks the Robin Hood veneer completely. Who do these track to? Emissaries from Heaven? They have too much structural power here. Everything’s out of whack.
It’s surprising not to see Rob Hood praying. Tuck is a Catholic Padre, and meetings are held in his church. The option’s wide open. But Rob Hood, late of Robin Hood of the Child Ballads who so loved the Virgin Mary that he’d risk, and suffer, capture by the King to attend a single Mass, shows no special interest.
Anyway, the good guys win.
While I’m not impressed with the bike work here, the archery’s not bad. Loxley bends his head to the bow and should roll his shoulders back, relax the hands, but the technical drawing is there and I don’t even care that compound arrows are unlikely to split like a classic wooden one. Robin Hood should shoot perfect Robin Hoods. And he does, so that’s good. I’d like archery to be more important, but Rob takes up the bow after finding himself unable to shoot a handgun accurately following a near death experience. I’ll take that. A bow is better.
I’m here for hipster-Hood. I’m here for Jesters and motorcycles. I’m here for pointless references to weirdo hippy tv from the 80s. I very much enjoyed the series ending with Rob happily on the back of a bike, behind Maria. I’d like a series with more confidence, denser writing, no weird race jokes, exposition better hidden, greater joy taken in character illustration, more Robin Hood adaptation callbacks to spot, a wilder colourist. And one more thing. In this story of merry men.
“Now nay, now nay,” quoth Robin Hood,
“She doth not cause my smart;
But it is the poor distressed princess
That wounds me to the heart.