Mark Penman (1986 – present) is a British illustrator and educator based in Leeds, he has produced illustrations for various graphic publications, working in a bold and impactful contemporary fashion. Penman’s figures, characters, creatures and animals are often stylised but retain a naturalistic aesthetic drawing on his understanding of realistic form ‘my influences are fairly varied but I take a lot of inspiration for independent comic artists, manga, history, myth and legend and fantasy’ (Penman in correspondence with the author 2022). Penman studied illustration at the University of Central Lancashire and is currently a senior lecturer on the BA Hons Comic and Concept Art course at Leeds Arts University. In 2021 Penman collaborated with writer John Reppion (1978 – present) on a research project adapting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into an accessible illustrated comic script. Reppion translated the poem and Penman created the images. Additionally, the publication includes an introduction by the author Alan Moore (1953 – present) to encourage further reading. Commenting on his intentions for the work, Penman stated,
For Gawain I was particularly looking to utilise graphical qualities found within medieval artwork… I have done a fair few black and white/ greyscale comics, but I wanted this one to look a bit different. The yuletide setting and green man links made me want to use red and green as a limited colour palette. I was inspired by Artyom Trakhanov’s work, mainly the first book of his Slavic Nihilism series called Malice which has this lovely grungy texture to it and a striking use of red and green. I chatted a bit with Artyom about his approach with Malice and decided it would be fun to have all the worldly things done in red (Camelot, accents on Gawain’s outfit etc) and the more magical things represented with greens. I chatted with John about the general look of the designs of the people and places, and we decided to go on a more fantastical approach rather than historical. This let me lean into more flat, graphical and romantic qualities with the art which helped it capture a bit more of that illuminated manuscript/medieval artwork feel. There were subtle things I wanted to try as well. For example, a motif in medieval works is that size denotes importance so you will see instances where I balloon the size of characters to add more weight to them. By the end of the book the Green Knight is a huge towering presence and I think that helps sell the way that Gawain sees him (Penman in correspondence with the author 2022).
Penman works digitally using a specialist comic making program ‘Clip Studio Paint’ and has provided links to process and development videos see, Pentagram Page here, and Gawain's Nightmare spread here.
Figure 1: Front cover design for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Reppion and Penman, 2021).
Penman’s images emphasize the Green Knight as a trickster bearing a knowing, and threatening smile, for example: in the pages where the Green Knight issues his challenge, he is shown in close-up wearing a large maniacal grin, the corners of which meet the creases of bulbous staring eyes. The piercing stare, reminiscent simultaneously of the disturbing Cheshire Cat, the Joker and the witch Yubaba (of Spirited Away 2001), is directed by Penman to the viewer, increasing the sense of menace and confrontation while conflating us, briefly, with Gawain: to whom we assume the stare is actually directed. A smile has an odd duality, it can be friendly, welcoming and benign; however, regarding the trickster Lewis (1998:72) links smiling to the amusement caused by concealed knowledge, while generally a show of teeth and a fixed stare is a kind of animal threat. For Randall the Green Knight is a fiend (fende) ‘It seems to me… [that SGGK] may be the story of the testing of a Christian knight by a " fende" from hell’ (1960:479) reminding us that ‘medieval people of Great Britain regarded green as the color of the other world. First, it was the color associated with the dead’ (Randall, 1960:479). Furthermore, explaining that for the medieval mind ‘green is the color of the fairie’ and that these are ‘creatures capable of inspiring fear and horror’ (Randall, 1960:480).
While emphasising that his interpretation highlights only one aspect, Randall links the Green Knight to Satan via temptation leading to human error (482), to shapeshifting (483) and to his status as a giant (483-4). Penman evokes a sense of horror first with the aforementioned unsettling smile and then by intercutting those frames with a faceless Green Knight, where only the eyes and mouth are visible as glowing shapes, this emphasises inert otherness while the more obviously visceral is encountered by the speaking, still smiling, severed head. In Penman we also have an interesting conflation of the subject by proxy (Gawain) with the Green Knight and the landscape. This is expressed in Gawain’s nightmare, happening as dreams do within the mind of the subject: in his dream Gawain sees the Green Knight merging with an undulating landscape which rises to menace an anthropomorphised fox, also present are helmeted and armed, respectively, devils with gnashing teeth and glaring frowns. Those pages play on the blurred distinction between the individual, the environment and the monstrous which the poem offers by way of Gawain’s glimpsed interiority.
Works and social media links by the artist can be seen here.
Lewis, H. (1998) Trickster makes this world: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, p.432.
Moorereppion (2022) Moore & Reppion. Available at: https://www.moorereppion.com/about/ (Accessed: November 25, 2022).
Penman, M. and Reppion, J. (2021) Sir Gawain and the green knight, Leeds Arts University Repository. Available at: https://lau.repository.guildhe.ac.uk/id/eprint/17774/ (Accessed: November 25, 2022).
Randall, D.B. (1960) Was the Green Knight a Fiend?. Studies in Philology, pp.479-491.
Tracy, L., 2007. A Knight of God or the Goddess?: Rethinking Religious Syncretism in" Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". Arthuriana, pp.31-55.
Williams, E.W., 1985. Morgan La Fee as Trickster in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Folklore, 96(1), pp.38-56
Images shared with the kind permission of the artist