Matt Hawkins: The Return of Jennifer Drake
Reincarnating Lady Pendragon
Three years after its original incarnation, the hit comic Lady Pendragon has finally returned to stay. Having undergone a transformation from historical fantasy to contemporary fable, the Image comic series about three powerful women in three different eras begins this month with "Dragonblade." Late last month, Image released issue #0, which reveals the origins of the mysterious woman in black from the miniseries who follows Jennifer Drake - the reincarnation of Queen Guinevere, the original Lady Pendragon.
Renowned for detailed Medieval research as well as a complex mythology and a spectacular heroine, Lady Pendragon began in 1996 as a spin-off of the Camelot legend, set during the Dark Ages after King Arthur's death. Writer Matt Hawkins' creation was revived as a three-issue miniseries which introduced the modern-day parallel story in which Jennifer Drake was reunited with the Sword of Power, bringing magic back to the Earth - and disrupting the electromagnetic forces which power most of the modern world.
Now the series moves in three distinct timelines: in Guinevere's era as Drake learns her history, in the present when good and evil magical aspects struggle for dominance, and far in the future, when the life of Drake has spawned messianic prophecies which are coming into question. "Originally when I wanted to do it back in 1996, I wanted to set it purely in the Dark Ages," said Hawkins in a recent interview. "For several reasons, I wasn't able to continue the series then. I didn't assume anyone would remember it, so I needed a new approach. The idea of using a woman in the present, a woman in the future, and a woman in the past allows me a lot of options - I can tell stories from three standpoints, and have the stories interconnect."
Intrigued by Arthurian legend since he saw John Boorman's Excalibur in 1981 - "that was the first R-rated movie I ever saw in my life" - Hawkins read classics like Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, but found his perception of Guinevere changed by Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon in college. "I never really thought before about how Guinevere was always sort of demonized - she was the Jezebel, as she was called, so I had always kind of thought of her as a bad person. As read The Mists of Avalon and then The Forest House and Lady of Avalon, it gave a new interpretation of her and her involvement."
Bradley's novel focuses on Gwenhwyfar (one of the many variant spellings of the name) as a child bride wed to a pagan king and desperate to have a child, yet barren, which historically has been used to justify Arthur's setting her aside. "He left her for years at a time," noted Hawkins. "That's actually my favorite part of the Merlin miniseries with Sam Neill that just came out - the explanation about Guinevere was pretty cool. So I read more and more about it."
The issue of Guinevere's legendary infertility is important in Lady Pendragon because it is suggested that Jennifer Drake is her direct descendant...and, to far greater controversy, that Drake is of the bloodline of Jesus Christ. The theory put forth most famously in Holy Blood, Holy Grail - that the "San Graal," the Holy Grail of Arthurian myth brought into Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, is really the "Sang Real," the royal or holy blood of Christ carried by his own descendants - is presented to Drake in the miniseries.
"I've been on a couple of religious talk shows where some people who have known me since back when I edited Avengelyne will try to challenge me on it - I think they expect me to be anti-Christian, they expect me to be this Wiccan guy," revealed Hawkins. "They read the part where the bad guy is saying, 'Hey, Jesus didn't die on the cross,' as if no one ever lies in comic books! It's almost comedic to me: that guy is lying to her. But I've gotten a lot of letters from Christians saying, 'I understand that that stuff is out there but you have to understand that it's crap.'"
Hawkins read Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the more recent Bloodline of the Holy Grail, which gave him the idea for the intriguing angle on the Grail mythology. "The Arthurian stuff, 99 percent of it is really dry," he noted. "But if you keep digging through enough of it, you get to some stuff which is so cool. I'm trying to take a different tack with the comics, adding in a present-day storyline and revealing a lot of the information through three people. I actually like what I'm doing now a lot better than when it was just Dark Ages stuff."
The Messianic issue surfaces in the futuristic storyline of Lady Pendragon when Iseult, a Priestess of the 23rd century, travels back in time to observe the past which impacts every aspect of her life. "There's been a whole religious order based on the life and death of Jennifer Drake - she was this messianic figure," Hawkins explained. When Iseult follows the real Drake, "it would essentially be like myself witnessing the birth of Christ. She sees the disparity in her own religion: she witnesses what happened to Jennifer Drake, and starts to freak out because she's realizing nothing is as it is written in their form of the Bible, the Prophecy of Merlin."
Ironically, readers have told Hawkins at conventions that they assumed the woman in black was evil, though he never suggested anything like it. "Did you notice she's wearing a cross?" he asked, noting that the triangular shape Iseult wears on her chest is the Gnostic symbol for the Trinity. Hawkins noted that the costuming elements for all three characters were actually picked from Celtic paintings, although, he laughed, "I don't think any woman would actually go into combat with that much flesh exposed!"
In addition to storytelling concerns, Hawkins had practical reasons for wanting to create a modern-day storyline distinct from Celtic legend. "There's so much that's already been established...if I stayed purely with Knights of the Round Table, it's public domain stuff and I couldn't really copyright it," he pointed out. "If they tried to knock off what I was doing now, it would be pretty obvious." Since Lady Pendragon has already spawned an action figure and Hawkins hopes the comic could be developed as a film or videogame.
The multiple storylines also free him from having to follow historical source material too closely, though Celtic mythology is diverse enough to offer him many options. "I can't claim any one single text I'm following; I'm picking and choosing what I like from several sources," said the writer. "The fact that there are multiple swords came from some Welsh reading I did. They called Excalibur Caliburn, and when I looked into it in the Morte D'Arthur, Arthur had two swords: the one he pulled from the anvil and the one he got from the Lady of the Lake."
"Since I'm incorporating the religious angle, three is a very good number to play with," Hawkins continued. "Like the three women, I just pulled the third sword out of the air. There is no historical basis whatsoever. So I have the trinity of the swords: Excalibur, the sword of the land, which is neutral; Caliburn, the sword of purity, which to make it easy is good; and then I have Draconis, the sword of darkness, which is evil. There's a balance with those swords."
Hawkins has incorporated personal elements like his dog Homer into the comics, and has also borrowed from contemporary fantasy and magic. "The electromagnetism comes from modern magical sources; that has nothing to do with the Arthurian tradition," he noted. "So far, I've kind of glossed over the fact that there was a worldwide armageddon when electromagnetism was changed to magic. It's energy that certain people are able to tap into, kind of like the Force in Star Wars. But when electricity went out, there was worldwide panic - your food is rotting in your refrigerator, your car doesn't work - that would cause a tremendous amount of death. I wanted society to revert to the Dark Ages, but I never really dealt with the ramifications of that."
On the other hand, the return of magic means that characters can do things they haven't been able to do for centuries - like converse with dragons or even live in Mars, where in the universe of Lady Pendragon there was a Druid colony in an ancient era. Hawkins explained, "What I claim is that back when magic was still prevalent, people were able to travel to the planets using magic, so there was colonization of the close planets where people used magic to sustain life.
Hawkins describes the dragon storyline in the upcoming "Dragonblade" sequence as "a bit more Tolkienesque, Lord of the Rings-type stuff. I've always been inspired by that. In the first issue, Merlin explains that a dragon was awoken on the surface of Earth, and when the dragons come down, they start wreaking havoc on Earth again. With dragons, as with people, there are good, bad, and some in the middle. They take sides."
A great deal of research has gone into the historical, magical, and science fiction elements of the comic, some of which is summarized in the appendixes to the individiul issues, which feature everything from William Morris' famous 1858 painting of Guenivere to an explanation of the science of Stonehenge. "I've done a lot of research on what happened to Atlantis, I've read a lot of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, that kind of stuff, and contemporary theory - some of the most crackpot stuff out there is actually the most interesting," Hawkins admitted.
Some of his most interesting suggestions for reading have come from fans who e-mailed him (email@example.com). "People saw my appendix and all the reference books, and started flooding me with suggestions - there's no way I could ever read all of it!" He is happy to answer mail from fans and keeps in touch with fans who "ask things I never thought about." One reader is receiving research credit on a story arc for introducing Hawkins to the theory that the Dark Ages never existed, "research on the fact that the years 615-920 A.D. were called the Dark Ages because there weren't historical records that came out of that period, and what this guy uncovered were some academic journals from Europe stating that the reason is because the time period was a mistake in the calendar."
The European researchers focus on inconsistencies between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, the unprecedented lack of architectural advancement, and parallels between the life of Charlemagne and that of Arthur which lead the researchers to conclude that Charlemagne was a fictional retelling of the Arthurian myth from a French point of view. Hawkins said he is incorporating that idea into the ongoing storyline of Lady Pendragon, of which two issues have been written and drawn, while the third issue is being drawn currently.
Hawkins said he spends a great deal of time amassing photographs for artist John Stinsman which depict historical items in Lady Pendragon - things like the interior of Westminster Abbey and speculations on what the Holy Grail looked like. "I'm sure if you talk to John, he'll tell you he hates me, but when I give him a plot, I chronicle page by page what I want, and then I'll also give him fifteen or twenty photographs or books that are marked up and say, 'This is what this guy should wear, this is what angle I want, this is what they think the Round Table looked like, yadda yadda yadda,'" Hawkins laughed.
Stinsman worked with Hawkins on Avengelyne and has illustrated Scarlet Crush and Vampirella, and is popular with commercial audiences. "He's more image-style, flashy artwork - but it's multiple levels. I'm trying to put the stuff in there so that people who are fans of the artwork, who want to see the hack and flash, basic adventure elements, they can read it and enjoy it, but then I'm trying to add another level, more of a heady intellectual discussion. That's one of the reasons I include the appendixes. I actually get more feedback on the appendixes than I do on the comic itself. If you look in the first issue, there's a bibliography, and I'll be doing that again."
Who does Hawkins envision as Lady Pendragon when he's creating her? "Gwyneth Paltrow. I've always thought she was just amazingly beautiful," he said immediately. "I've actually gotten some flak from women who don't understand the history of this character, who tell me, 'Guinevere had brown hair,' and I say, 'Prove it.' Who knows? The William Morris painting is probably my favorite painting, and she has black hair there, but there's a book called Guinevere which has little snippets of all the different histories, and on the cover she's got blond, braided hair like a Celtic woman."
Hawkins is sympathetic to women's concerns about the portrayal of the character. "One of the things we've tried to do with Lady Pendragon is that she's actually an intelligent, well-thinking woman - I've noticed from comics from the past that even when they have a woman heroine, she's often at the mercy of circumstances, not really her own woman, following someone else's lead even if she can fight. I've gotten mail from women who appreciate the fact that Guinevere and Jennifer Drake are very strong women who take their futures into their own hands and kind of buck the trend."
A fan of the old Batman comics and, more recently, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Hawkins got his start working for Rob Liefeld of Awesome Entertainment in the early '90s, though his background was not in writing; he has a finance degree. "I really have no training at all in terms of comics or writing, other than working in the industry," he noted. "If you really want to be a comic book writer, get a job in the business end of one of these companies. Look at Peter David: he was an assistant and got a job as a writer and now he's one of the top writers. Sometimes the only way you get an opportunity is to be in the right place at the right time."
Asked about his favorite writers, Hawkins names John Ostrander - "one of the most underrated writers in comics, he had a 50-some-odd run on Spectre which was just unbelievable" - and The X-Files' Chris Carter. "I don't watch a lot of TV, but I do like all the Chris Carter stuff. I'm so sick of happily-ever-after bullshit. It would be so much better if it's something like Millennium or The Usual Suspects."
For television and comics, Hawkins thinks "a great cliffhanger at the end is necessary - I think of Picard when he became Locutus of Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of the most amazing cliffhanger endings ever, my friends and I were talking about it all summer. It's very rare but it's happened on The X-Files a couple of times, some great cliffhanger endings."
At the moment, however, Hawkins has things running pretty smoothly in his own life. Engaged to be married in a few months, he's working with his sister on a project through Image Comics, and working with Bob Knapton of Avengelyne on a book called Alley Cat (purportedly based on Playboy model Alley Baggett) which will be out in July.
As for Lady Pendragon, the early volumes will be collected in a trade paperback due in November, the anniversary of the month when it launched. In May, a Lady Pendragon/More Than Mortal crossover pits Guinevere against Brigid. Hawkins said he has "a loose idea of knowing what I want to do for about a year, about 8-12 issues in advance, but that stuff can change - I can't tell you how many times I've read solicitation and then I've read the book, and it's totally different!"
For now, he concluded, "I don't want to give too much away. But I think people will be surprised with where we go."
Alley Cat vs. Lady Pendragon
Lady Pendragon is having a busy year. A few months ago, her Celtic incarnation made war against Brigid, Protector of Ireland and heroine of More Than Mortal. Now her contemporary incarnation does battle with the title character of Alley Cat. The exclusive Wizard crossover was created by Matt Hawkins -- the writer for both characters in their respective Image comics.
Aside from their spectacular looks and martial arts skills, Lady Pendragon and Alley Cat have little in common. Virtuous warrior Jennifer Drake - the 20th century reincarnation of Queen Guinevere - lives in a post-apocalyptic world where magic empowers her, while modern woman Alley struggles with vivid nightmares about ancient torture.
"I had the difficult task of figuring out how to get them together," explained Hawkins. The two characters' stories can't possibly take place in the same universe, because in Jennifer Drake's contemporary era, magic has replaced electromagnetism as the principal form of energy.
"But both characters live different lives through dreaming. Alley has dreams of historical events with the Marquis de Sade, dreams of past events not necessarily that she partook in, but seen through other people's eyes. And Jennifer Drake is actually very similar because she sees through the eyes of her ancestors, and has memories of other reincarnations that she lives through her dreams. So I thought, why not have them meet in a dream?"
Alley and Jennifer encounter each other in the mysterious Caves of Avalon, the topic of one of Jennifer's best-selling novels based on her memories of her previous life as Guinevere. The crossover begins with Alley falling asleep after reading one of Jennifer's books. She falls into one of her typical nightmares, finding herself in a dark, frightening place. But this time, she learns that she has entered the realm of Lady Pendragon, who arrives to defend the mysterious site.
"I was doing research on the Caves of Avalon for Lady Pendragon, and Bob Napton, who's my writing partner on Alley Cat, came up with the idea of doing something with the caves where she appears," Hawkins revealed. "So Alley is wandering through, and there are all these dead bodies, and she's trying to figure out what's going on. Suddenly Jennifer Drake is drawn in through some sort of a mystical connection because she's the guardian."
"It's a dreamscape thing - does it really happen?" he added. But Hawkins refused to answer his own question. " I made it kind of ambiguous intentionially. At the end of the story, both characters plunge off a cliff, and then wake up. I deliberately left it vague."
It had not been Hawkins' intention to write a crossover between his two highly successful but relatively new comics until many more months had passed. Lady Pendragon has released only seven issues through Image, while the third issue of Alley Cat just came out this month. Although Alley Cat has been expanded to an ongoing series after being conceived as a three-issue miniseries, it's quite early for a joint storyline.
"I wanted to establish them as individual characters in individual universes," Hawkins admitted. "If I were going to plan a real crossover between the two characters, I would probably do it as a series of three or four books - a pretty significant story that would have some sort of dimensional traveling to make it happen, something to take them somewhere new they could meet up, and do something really different."
The writer, who does a considerable amount of historical research for Lady Pendragon in particular, doesn't think such a complex pairing is likely in the near future. "I really believe that the characters need to stand on their own for awhile and build up a following," he insisted. Still, when Wizard proposed the single issue crossover, Hawkins - the Vice President of Publishing at Top Cow - rose to the challenge.
"Typically crossovers are pretty trite - the characters meet, they fight, then they realize they're supposed to be fighting someone else, so they team up and fight the other person," he observed. "I never really liked that; it was fun when it first happened 25 years ago, but now it seems kind of trite. I wanted to do something different."
Tension seemed inherent in the crossover because magic is a part of Jennifer Drake's everyday existence, whereas Alley considers her encounters with the supernatural to be frightening and deviant. "The whole thrust of Alley is that the character is literally possessed by another life, whereas Jennifer Drake is a reincarnated figure who may think she's possessed, but she's really seeing these past lives," noted Hawkins. "So the whole scope is different."
Alley Cat is a spooky, erotic, sometimes sadomasochistic thriller with violent elements from horror and slasher films, plus appearances by the Marquis de Sade. Lady Pendragon is a detailed historical fantasy, touching upon philosophical and religious issues from the origins of the Holy Grail to the meaning of many of the ancient Celtic symbols which appear in the past, present, and future storylines.
"The idea with Jennifer Drake is - if reincarnation was real and you were allowed to keep coming back - what if you could remember all those previous lives?" Hawkins mused. "I have a problem with my days running together where I can't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. So imagine a hundred other lifetimes, especially as an important historical figure, and you had all these loves and pains and losses."
Hawkins hopes that by bringing the two powerful women together in one story, he can introduce fans of each to the other, while remaining faithful to the divergent points of interest for the different audiences. "Alley Baggett, the spokesmodel who created the book with me, has a really strong presence in the outer market - somewhere in the world, she's on a magazine cover almost every month, and according to Yahoo, she continues to be one of the top ten most downloaded women on the internet for three or four years running," he claimed.
Because Baggett has her own audience as an internationally known model, "a lot of people who read Alley Cat are not traditional comic readers," the writer added. On the other hand, many fans of the historical fantasy Lady Pendragon aren't familiar with the Playboy sensation who poses as Alley Cat.
"Because I write Lady Pendragon, at cons I have comic fans coming up to tell me they like the historical elements, they'll say, 'It's amazing the amount of research you do,' and I'll ask if they read Alley Cat and they'll say, 'No, it looks kind of weird for me,'" Hawkins related with a laugh. "Then I get people who've read Alley Cat who come up and say, 'It's cool, it's weird, the horror when that dude ripped out her heart,' and when I ask if they read Lady Pendragon, they haven't."
For Hawkins, however, "it's fun as a writer being able to do two projects that are so very different." In addition to the crossover, he has several other special releases in the works. The seventh issue of Lady Pendragon, due in November, will be double-sized and fully-painted to celebrate the one-year anniversary of launching the comic through Image.
At the same time, a one-shot called Lady Pendragon: The Origin of Merlin will provide some background on another major character from the series. The Merlin action figure is due out this fall as well, along with the Alley Cat figure from Action Toys.
Alley Cat will continue to publish straight through, with the fourth issue solicited in November and the fifth in December. "Orders have been really strong, and the response has been phenomenal," the writer revealed. "That's always what you hope for." With both titles doing so well, the only remaining question is: with whom will Hawkins' characters cross over next?