Another in our series examining the women of Image Comics’ first decade — this time, Top Cow’s Lady Pendragon.
“We all were sorta young and brash and thought [the heyday of Image] was gonna last forever, and… it didn’t. And so, the fall was kinda hard? And dealing with that — Extreme Studios went out of business, and then Rob [Liefeld] started another company with Jeph Loeb called Awesome Comics, and I was part of that, and then a year later, ’97 I think it was, that company folded, and… I had sort of a crisis at that point in my life. So I decided to try my own hand at launching a comic book!” —Matt Hawkins, COO at Top Cow, and Lady Pendragon creator and scripter.
Lady Pendragon was an Image title of the late ’90s, seeing 18 issues plus peripherals. It’s about Guinevere, bride of Arthur, after le morte d’the latter. What if she took up the crown? What if she shouldered the responsibility of her dead, cucked husband to his wide, wild land? Lady Pendragon doesn’t have its own wikipedia entry, which is a shame — it’s actually pretty alright. And as Hawkins remembers, it started well.
“I launched a book called Lady Pendragon through Image Central. I did that in ’90 … late ’97, and published 18 issues through mid-1998. And the book was very successful! I mean when the first issue sold 70 thousand copies I knew I could sustain myself. I mean that’s, you know—now I’m happy when a book sells ten thousand copies. Because the business is so different. But 70 thousand at that point was enough to keep me going.”
The first arc of Lady Pendragon was reprinted at Image in early 2016; the cover of that volume heads this page. But even Image Comics’ reach is finite—I didn’t know Lady Pendragon existed until I bought a copy of her December 1998 “Prelude” issue as a jaded joke, a research item I knew I’d disdain as I began delving into the Bad Girls history this year. Plucked out of a bargain-bin longbox, certificate of authenticity—yes, in holographic silver—still crisp, bright and present, Lady Pendragon walked wrapped in a treacherous glamour. As I said to Hawkins,
“I picked up the book on a lark. Because the cover did not make it look like a serious pursuit. It looked like, uh… titillation; blonde hair, lip gloss, “imagine if that was a knight and it bent over a lot.” But then I read it, and it was actually quite good. I was like… “Well what the hell is this then? I’d have been reading this at the time if I’d known!” But I didn’t, because the cover lied; it didn’t tell me what was actually going on.”
On titillating covers:
Hawkins: […I]t was misguided, and I think it was mistargeted, you know?
Hawkins: I… I personally… don’t care for it? You know, I’ve often found it strange, especially in today’s world, that, you know, you can go online and watch a hundred million hours of free pornography, why do you need a titillating image on Wonder Woman, you know what I mean? [laughs]
Napier: I do, I really do.
Hawkins: I find that bizarre actually, and I kind of, I don’t understand it? So… And it’s never really done anything for me personally? I mean I look at a Frank Cho piece of art and I think “that’s a nice piece of art, well drawn,” but uh—it doesn’t… It’s not inspiring me for sexual activity or anything like that. So it’s—it’s a weird thing. […] And uh… like Lady Pendragon, you’re right, there were a lot of racy covers. But we did that, because that’s what sold!
Hawkins: You know? And you would do—it was weird, it was reinforced! Every convention, every time you would do solicitations, because you’d list the book with two covers. And the racy ones would always sell more copies. And so it was sort of this self-fulfilling prophecy, of chasing sales…
The Stinsman rendition above squeezes her torso down to nothing, suggests invisible or implanted and quite intense breast support, adds anachronistic red-gold lipgloss, gives her a Baywatch bouffant—portrays a character designed to communicate cute-sexiness, primarily. Stinsman hasn’t bothered to draw her arms at all, though he chose to define her waist as tiny instead of suggesting the abrupt, recognisable finish of a classical bust sculpture. It’s about the choices that are visible and patent: she looks young, a little defiant, her tabard slipping off one breast—to describe this image, one necessarily needs to slip into the language of the “romantic” (horny) narrator. Coltlike, and so forth. This cover describes a book that requires the heroine to be viewed lasciviously and that, in volume, by my experience, is most burdensome. But check this ComicVine synopsis:
Exiled to a convent following her adulterous relationship with Arthur’s friend and champion Lancelot, King Arthur’s wife Guinivere pulled the legendary sword of power “Excalibur” from Arthur’s bastard son Mordred’s corpse in the aftermath of the battle of Camlann, where Arthur and his knights were slain.
Sign me… the heck up?
Reading Prelude, I found a certain texture and sincerity in the dialogue and circumstances. Reading an interview with Hawkins in the same issue’s backmatter, I started to get a picture of a person who really, maybe, cares. Or respects. Who can perceive a female character as a human person. Who can express their perception, appreciably. Wild.
In short, I began to believe in the possibility of a trustworthy writer behind a daft and horny art department. So, sure, her make-up and costume seem silly and ridiculous. Well, I knew that already. When reading in retrospect, the crust of pop eroticism is easier to shrug past as it’s no longer trying quite so actively to cling to you. Trends change; hurts age. They lose some of their leverage.
Dynamic Forces: Why did you choose Guinevere to centre the story on?
Hawkins: Guinevere has always been kind of an enigma to me. A tragic figure caught in a world beyond her control. I’ve always thought she got kind of a bum rap. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church really demonised her and made her out to be kind of a Jezebel figure—even though the accounts were fictional. I’ve always been a fan of the tragic, flawed hero that has to overcome, so I thought she’d be perfect for the role.
Interviewing Hawkins in March 2017, he told me:
“[…Y]ou always hear this write what you know. I hear that all the time, and I challenge that premise. My premise is write what you want to know.”
Way back in 1997, Guinevere was an enigma to him… so he wrote her.
Napier: So, you say you advise people to write what they want to know. Um… is that why… you write quite a lot of ladies?
Hawkins: Quite a lotta what?
Hawkins: [laughs]Uh— [laughs]You know, I uh — Yeah, do I write more about women than men? I don’t know.
Napier: I dont know about more, but—
Hawkins: When I write female characters—I’m doing a slice of life erotic comedy book [in 2017], and I’m co-writing that with my wife, and it’s being drawn by Linda Sejic, and I realised that when you have a female lead and you’re doing something that’s more a slice of life, sort of an emotional story, um, I think it’s better to have women involved in the creative process than not.
MH: Ah, because the people that are reading those books are women. And they need to think that it’s got an air of authenticity about it. And there are things that I learned from working with my wife, working with Linda, that, uh, I otherwise wouldn’t have known. You know. And wouldn’t really have thought about. Nothing springs to mind in the immediate conversation, but—you know, when you write a book like Aphrodite IX, that’s—there’s not as much concern over something like that? It’s just it’s a female character, she’s the lead, she’s a demigod, she kicks ass. You know? And you kinda write that—I have female editors, and I always have people read stuff. My sister’s also an author, she’s a prose author, and she reads my stuff, and gives me feedback. So. The one thing I always tell people is you need to have editors. I could publish all my stuff without anyone editing it. But that would be pretty foolish.
Napier: [laughs]I think that does stand out, in your books… that advice that writers always give, um, especially in comics circles — “don’t only read comics,” because if you only read comics that’s all you’ll pull from, and then you’ll just create, sort of, internal fractals of nonsense. But you seem to be very widely read?
Hawkins: Yeah! You know I think that’s part of it, um, …When you so immerse yourself in the sciences [his Masters Degree is in Applied Physics], I think… You know in college, I so didn’t wanna read that stuff. And when I finally got out of [college], from ’93 to 2000 before I got back into science stuff at some point, I wasn’t really reading [scientific]research material. I read a lot of historical books. I got obsessed with Arthurian legend, which you know, lent itself to Lady Pendragon.
I started studying religion, you know, and history, and sociology, and philosophy, and sort of, I got obsessed with all these various things, and there were all these things that—I took classes, elective classes in college that I wasn’t able to really pursue because they had a set agenda, you know? And I didn’t need another sixth class in organic chemistry I’d have loved to have taken, Rembrandt paintings or something like that. But that really wasn’t available to me, so, self-studying beyond, in my first—in my 20s and early 30s really kind of opened my mind. I was raised a conservative Christian Baptist.
Hawkins: And have since become sort of a liberal atheist, to the consternation of my parents. So it’s been an interesting 30 year ride, you know?
The second issue of Lady Pendragon veers pretty hard to the side. Forget Middle Ages politicking whilst female (you ever see Hammer’s The Viking Queen? Alternate title: Men Ruin Everything) — issue two opens in “the present day” a.k.a. 1997 with a glowing, holy sword being found by the Sojourner rover on Mars. Back to Guinevere for a while, rising above the slut-shaming of her rival in royalty just long enough to chop off his head, and then we meet Jennifer and Jennifer’s hard nipples as our second protagonist wakes in the now. She has dreams of romantic adventure, and turns them into novels. Is she descendent or reincarnation? Both? It doesn’t matter. She’s a virgin—there’s a fair bit of purity and sexual obligation talk in this title, which can be called historical detail, but can also be called kind of a drag when its heroines have little on-page sisterhood to rely on—of 27 years who sits in a leather office chair whilst wearing a mini slip dress (foolish), and whom her friend Emily has sent a plush Cartman in the post. Possibly because of, or possibly just concurrent with, “the press” having proclaimed Jennifer’s writing “the most historically accurate fiction ever written.” This comic has now turned weird. Ah, shower scene!
From weird to nude, and now it all goes a bit Da Vinci Code. Did you know that Jesus was actually King Arthur’s great great grandfather? Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because the point is that this comic now features two technically separate women who are able, or rather called, to wield a sacred sword. That is absolutely my wheelhouse, and for it I will put up with a lot.
Lady Pendragon is not a great series, not one to clutch throughout the ages, but it’s a series with some worth and which, for example, is definitely better than Avengelyne, Rob Liefeld’s evil-fighting angel. It may have pledged on bended knee great and lasting fealty to the cult of the naked outer hip area, but it also does enough with older and more thematically relevant motifs to seem like it’s saying more about women than “haw haw, they pretty.” Guinevere comes to the rescue of her later self by passing Excalibur through a pool of time — “For in that moment, I had become the Lady of the Lake” — not only transposing a respected mythic role onto a disrespected mythic figure, but also allowing that figure to recognise the glorious cycle she is freshly given a part in. Treating its characters with both internal and external compassion makes a book readable.
The final chapter of Lady Pendragon volume one is essentially a dry run for Hawkins’ 2013 relaunch of Aphrodite IX; a post-cyber, MMORPGish feudal technofantasy where trousers are outlawed and any battle of the sexes is implicitly facile. There’s some batshit detail (like “Lancelot came from a Greco-Roman pyramid cult on Mars, actually”) that could be marvelous, given more psychedelic delivery, but the product-of-their-time visuals really keep the whole affair unhappily grounded.
Napier: Do you ever consider taking out older scripts, like for example, your Lady Pendragon work, and having them redrawn in a… more modern style? Just to see if that would work?
Hawkins: Uhhm, I’ve not thought of doing that. What I’ve thought about doing is relaunching Lady Pendragon, in sort of a new version. When I did the trade paperback that came out a year or so ago, with the Drew Struzan cover, I… I learnt a lot of things from doing Lady Pendragon. I always tell people, you want to be an editor of comics, you want to be in comics, any facet, you really should try to write and launch a project. Because you’re gonna learn so many things you never thought of.
Napier: Mm. [laughs]
Hawkins: You know I only ever expected to do a, uh, a miniseries with Lady Pendragon, and call it a day, so I sort of developed this intensive storyline that I wanted to tell, and uh I, and that’s the one I collected in that trade paperback. But uh — I didn’t know what to do beyond that! And then there was the weird thing where, and I think it’s the same reason where Matrix 2 sucks so bad. You know, you have this story you wanted to tell, and you really like it, and you’re really passionate about it, and you know, like I look at The Matrix, and [the Wachowskis] probably spent ten years in their minds, developing that story,
Hawkins: Their whole lives. And then suddenly, you know, they’re told they have to do the next one in six months. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure! To replicate success. And so, the second arc of Lady Pendragon, ah, the last 12 issues, I have a hard time reading.
Hawkins: Because I think they’re not very good. You know? And uh, so that’s why I’ve only reprinted those first six issues. Cos I’ve kind of relegated the other ones to obscurity.
Napier: Oh dear.
Hawkins: But I think— I don’t know that I would rewrite those old stories, I would just tell new ones. It’s hard for me even now to go back and re-read that trade. Because uh, I write so differently now. I feel like I’m a better writer, uhm, and I work with better editors.
So we probably won’t be seeing Lady Pendragon again any time soon. Even if we did she wouldn’t look the same; wouldn’t be required to carry her book on the strength of the same assets upfront. We can put this one to bed, I think: Lady Pendragon was what she was, once. We can take something of that to make the future, but Hawkins isn’t the only one—we’ve all learnt better, haven’t we? The queen is dead. Long live the rebellion.