“And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair”
The story of Cú Chulainn is ripe for comics retelling, as it has everything you could want for a ripping good visual story, and Paul J. Bolger, who co-wrote and drew this, has been trying to get it off the ground for decades, apparently. And now it’s here, with co-writer Barry Devlin and letterer Dee Cunniffe. It’s from Dark Horse, and I’m going to tell you about it!
The book is gorgeous, and it’s almost 500 (!) pages long, so there’s a lot of astonishing art to look at. Bolger uses a beautiful scratchy line to give us a good sense of the people of pagan Ireland (the book is set in the decades before the birth of Jesus), with their long, untamed hair and their odd tattoos, as they navigate a rough landscape of harsh rocks and dense forests. There’s an excellent sense of the Irish clinging to the edges of fierce nature, carving out small, “civilized” settlements but never able to conquer the dark forces that surround them. The characters move through this world almost tentatively, understanding that they’re intruders, and while our hero, whom Bolger calls Cú Cullan presumably because it’s more Anglicized, is a powerful warrior and others in the book are strong, we still get the sense that they’re uneasy when the night closes in, and that’s thanks to the way Bolger puts them in this environment. He uses a lot of black in the book, either turning his characters into negative space creatures against stark white backgrounds and then scoring their shapes with white, or making the trees and rocks black, so they encroach on the tiny humans, or using chunks of black as cloaks for the characters, which shroud them funereally. His blacks are skillfully employed, turning the hound that young Setanta (Cú Cullan’s birth name) kills or the famous bull of the story into monstrous beings, terrifying and supernatural. As Cú Cullan becomes more and more horrific, killing his boon comrade and then his own son (whom he didn’t know), Bolger makes his face and clothing darker, until he seems to live in the shadows. When he “regains” his humanity, he is once again drawn with thinner lines and less black, showing that he can stand up to the Morrigan, the Irish war goddess who wants to use him as her earthly weapon. Meanwhile, the violence in the book is superb – shocking, graphic, and often terrifying. The only color used in the book is red, and it’s used fairly sparingly, not even all the time blood flows, so when it does, it’s a bit disturbing. Bolger does an excellent job showing the effect of knives on a human body, and Cú Cullan himself uses a large curved stick – I guess it’s a shillelagh – to whack people and smack rocks at them as if he were playing field hockey, and the effects are often devastating. When he fights the Morrigan at the end of the book, Bolger turns her usual crow aspect into a giant, monstrous bird, and it’s astonishing to behold. He also does nice work with the characters – everyone has a different look and a different personality, and we even get an odd, amphibious witch who stirs up trouble. There’s so much to love about the art – the design work of the armor, the transformations of the Morrigan, the use of negative space – but I can’t keep going on about it!
Bolder’s story hews pretty closely to the myth, as far as I can tell. We encounter the same problem we have with myths – they’re meant to be told, not written, and therefore things get attached to them through retellings and occasionally they don’t make sense as a complete story. Every retelling is a retcon, in other words, and we know how that goes, as comic fans. The individual episodes of Cú Cullan’s life are interesting. He is targeted by the Morrigan to be his weapon of war, as she’s sick of all these Irish people settling down and making peace treaties. His mother is killed trying to stop the Morrigan from stealing Setanta away when he’s a toddler, and he’s raised by his uncle, King Connor. He kills a monstrous dog that protects one of the king’s subject, so he works for the man, becoming his “hound” (which is where he gets his name – “Cullan’s Hound”). He falls in love with Connor’s chosen bride, which makes her worthless to the king (despite Cú Cullan not doing anything with her, because he’s honorable), so Connor exiles his nephew to Scotland, where he learns how to fight. On his return, he marries the woman and tries to be a farmer, but much like Al Pacino, the Morrigan continually stirs up trouble that keeps dragging our hero back into battle. He fights invaders, he goes mad, and finally he fights the Morrigan and dies heroically. Some of it doesn’t make much sense, but again, these are episodes of myth that were likely never meant to be strung together as a coherent story. There are some weird spots in the narrative (the invaders of Queen Maeve seem to randomly show up or disappear based on the dictates of the story and not for any logical reason), but generally, it’s an exciting story about a man who wants to live in peace but can’t because his killing skills are too much in demand. It’s a tragedy, in other words, and Cú Cullan can’t even really triumph, because he’s fighting a god. The book does end hopefully, as our hero shows that the Irish can live together in peace and resist the war goddess, but it’s a bitter victory, because we know that the peace won’t last.
Hound is a pretty good comic; it suffers solely, it seems, because the source material doesn’t lend itself to one long-form narrative. Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s Bolger’s fault! I doubt it, though, because you can see that he’s trying to force it into a single narrative, using the Morrigan as a bête noire throughout, even as Cú Cullan faces more human foes. That helps, as it shows that his problems are due to the work of one villain, but it’s still a somewhat strange fit. Other than that, this is an entertaining comic with really wonderful artwork. The legend of Cú Cullan is ripe for this kind of treatment, and it’s pretty cool to see it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆