Frank Miller and television producer Tom Wheeler both love the legend of King Arthur. But in their 2019 novel Cursed and its live-action Netflix series adaptation, the Sword of Power doesn't belong to the would-be king. It is instead wielded by Nimue, the mythical Lady of the Lake, a character often overlooked in King Arthur stories.
"She's not a character a lot is known about," Wheeler tells Inverse. "For the most part, women characters in this mythology tend to be passive, or seductresses. They were always seen in a certain box."
With Cursed, Wheeler and Miller saw the chance to breathe new life into a familiar old tale — one responsible for so many stories we still love.
Streaming now on Netflix, Cursed reinterprets the King Arthur legend with a different hero, Nimue, who in countless other tales rises from the water to give Arthur his famous sword. This time, it's the Lady of the Lake who's the destined hero. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) plays the witch-in-training who is gifted a powerful ancient sword, and becomes a revolutionary figure against oppressive religious order.
"That image of the woman in the water offering Arthur the sword to me evokes so many cool questions," Wheeler says. "Who was she? Why does she have the sword? In asking those questions, a story began to unspool backward toward an origin point that was an interest to us both. What if a woman had this Sword of Power before King Arthur? What does that mean?"
Wheeler says Nimue's blank-slate backstory made her a natural evolutionary. Wheeler says he found himself following a clear vision of this dynamic woman in his mind, rather than creating her out of thin air.
"She's impulsive and has that sense of a teenager no one understands, and of course this incredible destiny before her," he explains. "[We wondered,] how could we put her in a situation where she could impact the lives of legendary characters? As a queen? As a warrior? What untold story could exist?"
Miller honed in on key moments of Nimue's story to illustrate, like when she boldly stands atop a wagon, addressing the crowd. She has a quality that allows her to stand out in a crowd with natural ease.
"Approaching [the story] through Nimue's eyes, we could create reveals and do things that shake up the legend and keep people on their toes," Wheeler explains.
Miller, a revolutionary figure in the comic book industry, had two points of origin for Cursed. The first was his childhood fascination for the 1963 Disney classic, The Sword in the Stone.
"It had a sense of wonder and beauty that does not exist in animation [today]," Miller tells Inverse. "The labor costs today are prohibitive. Like the best of Disney, it captured a well-known myth and made it a narrative a child could understand. So at a young age, I fell in love."
The second was artist Arthur Rackham's illustration of Nimue in the 1917 book The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. "I was so transfixed by the Arthur Rackham illustration of her. It's unforgettable," Miller says. "This is Tom's gift to us, to turn her into a flesh and blood creature that has a history of her own."
Miller knows a thing or two about mythology. As a writer, Miller helped usher in the Modern Age of comics. Continuing the traditions of the gritty Bronze Age, the Modern Age deconstructs iconic superheroes and unmasks their flaws. Miller's most popular work, — The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, original stories like Sin City and 300, and his run on Marvel's Daredevil — typifies the dawn of the Modern Age.
In its own way, Cursed functions as a kind of superhero origin story for Nimue, a character long overdue for recognition and mythology of her own.
"They spring from the same place," Miller says. "It's mythology. If you go to Superman, you go to the Bible for the source. He's Moses and Samson. King Arthur gave us Luke Skywalker. Everything comes from something. This is my meat: I do stories about heroes."
Cursed is streaming now on Netflix.