The four issue run of Ladycastle, a limited series from Boom Comics, recently came to an end. The premise of the series was intriguing: after almost all the men of a castle in a fantasy land are killed while out on crusade, the women are left to seize power and agency for themselves for the first time. I thought the idea sounded interesting, and, as always, am enthusiastic about supporting comics stories about women by women, so I eagerly dove in.
The series tackles a number of gendered issues over the course of the story, from the traditional devaluation of femininity to accusations of misandry to challenging socialized behaviors. Ultimately, though, the story bit off more issues than four issues could chew. While it tried to say and do a lot of things, the matriarchy it attempted to sell me never really swept me off my feet.
One of the issues I encountered in my attempt to take Ladycastle seriously is that it was unclear if I was meant to take it seriously. It always seems just a few seconds from veering into utter absurdity, and it’s unclear if this is meant to be an inspiring story about overcoming gendered oppression or a Monty Python and the Holy Grail-esque lampshading of fantasy tropes. In one scene, a conversation between two sisters turns into a play-by-play (no pun intended) of Hamlet references. The series does way too much by writing the issue #3 opening as a sendup of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. And the introduction of jousting rules in issue #4 is a beat-for-beat play on Hamilton’s “Ten Duel Commandments”, right down to the pause where Burr and Hamilton fail to talk it out; rather than being amused at getting the joke, these instead make it hard to stay in the story and to get invested in the characters’ personal struggles. It’s a pause in a story that already lacks a sense of stakes intended to point out how clever the author is.
Even the title alludes to a sense of the absurd: the king who died was the on-the-nose-ly named King Mancastle, and the women who survive the men rename their now-female-majority stronghold “Ladycastle” in defiance of the dudeliness the original alluded to. However, at the same time, they name their new female ruler (arbitrarily chosen by a strange lady in a pond who chucks a magic sword at her, continuing the referential-ness) the King of Ladycastle rather than the queen. So like, are we gonna reject male-gendered language or are we going to reclaim it? It seems strange to choose on a case-by-case basis, but not much thought goes into the decision, and no one ever challenges either nomenclature save for a passing “Don’t you mean Queen Merinor?” that’s countered with a “Nope. The disembodied arm said she was king.”
The one male survivor who returns to the castle with the news of Mancastle’s passing is a strange bird himself. He’s essentially included for the sole purpose of occasionally saying something laughably sexist (like referring to all of the women as girls, or assuming that as the only remaining man he’ll be automatically made king over the woman who actually gets the role) and being scolded for it. However, he overcomes this ingrained prejudice relatively quickly, and it’s not a major plot point, so there’s no real tension there either. It almost seems more misandrist to include this flat male character than to have killed off all the men. And then on the flip side of this issue, the story tries to take on a more weighty topic dealing with misandry when the two sisters, both daughters of the former king, get into a fight about his death. The younger, who experienced far less oppression than her sister at the hands of her father (the older sister was locked up in a tower for years) accuses her sister of not mourning their father’s loss properly and even celebrating the newfound lack of men as if it didn’t come at the cost of many lives. As it turns out over the course of the series, many of these women have been abused, gaslit, or degraded at the hands of their spouses, but to salve the younger princess’s fear that the atmosphere in the newly-dubbed Ladycastle is too celebratory, they end up holding a solemn memorial service for King Mancastle and his men anyway.
The series also attempts to address the issue of internalized sexism. When the castle is invaded by harpies obsessed with polite behavior, the women are forced to host them and realize that fancy dress, makeup, and tea party etiquette are just a different kind of armor and battle technique. However, this revelation is quickly cast aside in favor of a food fight, and the ultimate conclusion of the harpy invasion has nothing to do with the weaponized femininity they’d assumed at the beginning.
It feels like Ladycastle started out with a beat sheet of gender issues that they wanted to address rather than a story they wanted to tell. Trapped in a tower and forced to fit a feminine ideal in preparation for a state marriage to a stranger? Come on out of there—your dad’s dead so now you can cut your hair and train to be a knight! A disabled woman who was kept hidden away by her husband and told she was useless? Carry her out of that dungeon, get her a better wheelchair, and everything’s fine now! A hijabi woman who was essentially kept as a slave, but who has superior medical knowledge to anyone else in the castle? Hey girl hey, come out of that hovel and be our new doctor! However, in trying to speak to so many issues in such a short space, less than ninety pages all told, it doesn’t really do justice to any of them. They’re introduced and solved just as quickly, and the feel-good nature of their solutions is undermined by the fact that there wasn’t any tension to begin with.
This is also underscored by the fact that it’s unclear what age group this is for. All of the references make it feel like it’s meant for an adult audience of at least millennial age—people who will pick up what they’re laying down in terms of homages and parodies of such varied properties as Disney Renaissance princess films, Monty Python, Fresh Prince, and Hamilton. But the lack of depth to the characters make it hard to believe that the young feminist audience they crave will particularly care about the story. The simple solutions it peddles fail to really critique or solve the underlying patriarchal issues the story introduces. It’s very easy to challenge sexism when the only man around is a hapless old asshole with no real power, and all the other men are dead and can’t come back and make you face consequences; being a badass, whatever that means to you, is a lot easier when you’ve got an entire squad of diverse, talented women at your back. But neither does the series feel like it’s just trying to portray an all-female utopia; if they exist in a time and place where men also exist and sexism exists, I want to see them actively overcoming it and dealing with its aftereffects. While I can’t ultimately regret supporting a comic with an all-female creative team, I don’t know that I’ll be adding Ladycastle to my list of feminist comics recs anytime soon.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!