Give Power To Ladies And Watch Them Kick Butt: Delilah Dawson and Ashley Woods on ‘Ladycastle’
In Boom's upcoming four-issue comic Ladycastle, as you might guess from the name, the women are in charge. But this isn't a utopian feminist world, or at least it didn't start that way. The women are in charge because almost all of the men are dead at the hands of a dragon. With more monsters on the way, the Princess Aeve and a blacksmith named Merinor must take charge.
ComicsAlliance chatted with writer Delilah S. Dawson and artist Ashley A. Woods about their particular take on a kingdom ruled by women, and all of the elements that went into building this very special castle.
ComicsAlliance: What fantasy stories were you looking at as you created Ladycastle whether as direct influences or as something to subvert?
Delilah Dawson: The original idea came while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I heard the famous line, "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government," and thought, but what if it was?
Looking at the movie, and at Arthurian legend as a whole, I loved the idea that instead of a dude, it was a woman who took that sword and became king. And the woman I pictured doing it was a strong black woman, a powerful smith who was more interested in the sword itself than in holding any power, yet who rose to meet her new duty.
As I built the cast around her, I wanted to flip even more tropes, including the Sleeping Beauty trope and the idea of a young prince who longs for glory. It was a joy to fill the Ladycastle castle with women of all ages, sizes, and races, who had something to offer in a world where they'd previously been ignored --- unless they were beautiful young princesses. Since the book I wrote before this one was Wake of Vultures, a Weird Western novel with a genderqueer heroine, I definitely had subversion on my mind.
Ashley Woods: After speaking with Delilah and the team about the overall mood of the story, I re-watched a few episodes of the anime Sword Art Online, as well as Adventure Time, to help inspire some of the color palettes and fantasy medieval tones.
CA: Feminist takes on fantasy and princess stories seem to be having a real moment right now, especially in comics. Do you see this book as part of a conversation or movement?
DD: I come to comics from the world of novels and mainstream publishing, where Young Adult books led the charge for putting women in power. Both publishing --- especially Science Fiction and Fantasy --- and comics can often feel like arenas with a tradition of older straight white dudes being in power, and I love that new voices are bringing in better representation of the real world and new ideas of who gets to wield power there. It feels less like a moment and more like a much-needed charge for balance.
I will admit to a frisson of joy when I found out my pal Adam P. Knave also has a flipped Arthurian fantasy comic out next year, The Once and Future Queen, which is a contemporary female king story. So maybe it's the zeitgeist --- we want to give power to ladies and watch them kick butt. We were even thinking about Mad Max: Fury Road when designing the Ladycastle armor.
AW: Most definitely. Delilah tackles certain tropes head on and flips them around to show that all female characters aren't the same, just like women and people in real life. What I like most about the princess of Ladycastle, Aeve, is that she refuses to let another person define her life or put her in a box. She rejects that with every fiber of her being, from the way she expresses herself (not what one would typically call "ladylike"), to the way that she dresses.
I think redefining who a princess is and how she acts is a powerful way to show young female readers that they don't have to wait to be rescued to be their own person.
CA: I just absolutely love the character designs that we've seen so far. How closely did the two of you work on matching the characters’ looks to their personalities?
DD: I wrote the character descriptions, but Ashley's designs really brought them to life and shaped the text. I originally envisioned Ladycastle as less realistic and more wacky, like Adventure Time or Lumberjanes, but the realism in Ashley's designs brought out the conflict and heart in each character.
Our awesome editorial team, Chris Rosa and Sierra Hahn, helped hone in on the details that make each character sing, and forced me to dig deep in the script. Since this is my first comic, I'm really grateful for the crash course in being awesome.
AW: When designing the characters, I took to heart what were their main defining traits and tried to communicate that in their features and posture. The blacksmith and future king of Ladycastle, Merinor, is a proud woman who prefers to fight her own battles but is still compassionate, empathetic and wise.
Aeve and her younger sister are similar in the way that they are both stubborn and won't be pushed into a decision unless they feel it with their own heart. Despite Aeve's dilemma of essentially being a prisoner locked away in a tower until her father returns with a suitor that she'll accept, she still still has a reservoir of happiness that she taps into to keep the women of the town motivated and grounded when they write her letters about their woes.
Gwyneff is your typical child who's enjoying her freedom, but at times comes across difficult. She soon learns that she has to outgrow her bratty nature when she is put in some critical situations.
CA: Even with all the men gone, it’s surprising that a blacksmith would be the one to become king. Can you provide any insight into the class upheaval that seems to be afoot in the castle?
DD: That's part of the fun-- with the men gone, the women have found a way to fill in for them and work together. But it's not until Merinor becomes King that they're allowed to truly own their power in their own particular ways.
Since there's no queen and the only adult princess is locked in a tower, we don't see the traditional Fancy Ladies vs. Tradesmen culture clash. One of Merinor's first decrees is that everyone contribute in their own way, not just by fighting as knights. Old women are honored for growing the food and bringing wisdom; young girls are appreciated for cleaning and running errands; even the well hag is a hero in her own way. Although we will see some court ladies show up in issue #3...
AW: That's one of the refreshing qualities of Ladycastle; the kingdom is run based off people's merit. Everyone has a purpose, and pitches in where they can provide the most help.
CA: The armor we see on that cover is particularly unique. Ashley, is there a particular style you were influenced by?
AW: I was mostly inspired by the various fantasy-based manga, anime, and video games I've encountered over the years. I drew upon those feelings and tried to keep the armor original looking, but also practical.
CA: In addition to the dragon that ate all the men, there’s a promise of other monsters on their way. Can you tell us anything about what kind of monsters we can expect to see as the story goes on?
DD: There will be a different paranormal threat to the castle in each issue, but just like the story in general, the tropes are often flipped around for a new twist on the monster you thought you knew. I can say that, in issue #2, things get hairy.
AW: There will be a few traditional monsters that readers will recognize, but done with a twist. However, the monsters featured in issue #1 are original characters with abilities that can be used in surprisingly unique ways... something that Aeve explores later in the story.
CA: And what about human enemies? Even with all of King Mancastle’s men gone, isn’t it just a matter of time before some other men notice that things are different in this castle, and decide that’s not okay?
DD: The castle is designed as a closed set piece, with a high wall and drawbridge. But issue #1 does hint at what the territories around Ladycastle hold, and who might come knocking on that drawbridge one day. For now, we focus on the curse monsters.
AW: There are a few human characters that act as nuisances, but the main focus for now are the monsters.
CA: Do you have plans for Ladycastle beyond the initial four-issue story?
DD: The story will draw to a satisfying close at the end of issue #4, but of course I have more ideas about ways to torture the ladies and see them rise, again and again, to the challenge!
AW: Perhaps a graphic novel?