Review: Celtic Warrior – The Legend of Cú Chulainn

We – and I mean Ireland in general – have a very long and interesting history with our stories, and how they’ve been received at home and abroad. To put this in a modern context in the medium of comics, we have as of late some great Irish talent providing sequential artwork for the Big Two, as well as working for hugely prominent and popular companies such as Boom Studios and IDW. Among their ranks are artists Nick Roche, Stephen Mooney, Declan Shalvey, Tanya Roberts and Will Sliney, bringing their talents to the industry. Some of them literally work on American superhero comic book titles, which puts the spin on perhaps our industry’s biggest release this year, Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn.

Source: http://www.obrien.ie/celtic-warrior

Source: http://www.obrien.ie/celtic-warrior

During the past year and more, Will Sliney and O’Brien Press combined forces to bring out a full-colour graphic novel, based on the famous Irish hero and his legendary battles in an appealing format, and campaigned it across Irish media to great applause only a couple of months ago. The publicity for the book, as a result, has now been unparalleled.

Celtic Warrior features the intersecting stories of both Cú Chulainn’s life and training, and the lead up to his final battle against Queen Medb (or Maeve)’s forces – the legend of the Cattle Raid of Cooley is the main plot in the novel, and it is told straight. Sliney, who is the sole creator, brings a strong touch of an American superhero style to the book thanks to his previous tenures at Marvel Comics.

Plot number one features the bad guys, the slinky goddess Maeve and her mind-controlled army, who push the story forward with the aforementioned quest. Driven by greed and using her powers of intoxication, Maeve covets the Brown Bull of Cooley, in addition to her own prized white bull, as a status symbol. During the course of six chapters (each chapter page featuring an art snippet from the final battle – in reverse order up until it actually happens – is a neat touch) she and her men travel from Connacht to Ulster, but they frequently encounter the impressive traps set by Cú Chulainn to scare them off their course.

Plot two is Cú Chulainn’s origin story, told in flashback from his childhood to training as a Red Branch knight, and in turn relates to the traps Maeve’s men suffer through frequently. These parts are nicely rendered in monotone (I actually prefer this art approach compared to the rest of the book) and delve into other legends surrounding our hero, from slaying Culainn’s hound as a boy to training under Scathach with his half brother Ferdia.

Celtic Warrior, among the applause and bewilderment, has dual homages to American superhero stylings and Irish legends – both of which have their own problems. But, some fairness must be involved on one big aspect to the book’s creation, which I’ll mention at the end.

Plot one, as I described earlier, is mostly from the present-time point of view of Maeve and her soldiers, the more prominent among them being Cormac Connloinges, Fergus, and Fiacha. When they encounter the traps set by Cú Chulainn, they fight back before making a comment on how strong/fast/wily Cú Chulainn is before moving on. It’s quite interesting enough to hear from the P.O.V. of Maeve’s army rather than the hero, but it begins to hurt when the dialogue begins to feel like it’s spoken by the same character. More so, we never hear directly from the titular hero himself on his own thoughts until the very end, and so all reference to his might is ultimately expository awe and wonder from his enemies.

The flashbacks feature Cú Chulainn’s achievements of being more stronger and wilier in battle, save for one part where he enters a revenge pact with a dying Morrigan, the goddess of war. Again, even though we have a chance to empathise with the hero, he is still aloof and all-powerful, pretty much how the legends go. Sad enough for Scathach’s cameo, originally the warrior woman who trains Cú Chulainn and Ferdia for battle with her special brand of Celtic kung fu, as she is strangely inactive and is little more than a prophetic talking head.

Narrative wise, there’s an underlying strict leaning towards getting the legends ‘right’, which in turn has robbed Cú Chulainn of some potential humanity, or a new vision for the character. But this time, the new vision aspect for Celtic Warrior seems to lie in the style of the art, which raises even more concern for the book.

Aside from the cliché big muscles, big boobie art, and the spandex look of the female costumes in comparison to the men’s battle rags – to the point of having almost the same face and body type for nearly all the cast members – the art starts coming apart and looks rushed by the final chapter. The final battleground at Cooley fades from grim grey Ulster town into barren orange Martian landscape – perhaps a nice setting to represent Cú Chulainn’s last stand, but the inking of the bare trees, rocks and the characters is messy, jarring and tired at this stage.

Coincidentally this is the point in the story where some typos slip in, making the character dialogue frighteningly flat for what’s supposed to be a big finale (Cú Chulainn’s reaction on having to kill a mind controlled Ferdia? ‘noo’). This is again marred by Fergus who, after breaking free of Maeve’s spell and beheading her, immediately goes into a long speech how Cú Chulainn is a great hero for battling them in the first place, how he will inspire Ireland through the generations to fight against evil, and so on, all with a nationalistic fervour I found uncomfortable to read.

I might be hard on Celtic Warrior, but this is not an independent publication, and it would be completely unfair to solely point the finger at Will Sliney. The writing and all stages of the artwork (and also lettering?) are credited to him, so I can imagine that with his prior experience and five roles under his belt, he has just dealt with a mammoth task here and somewhat succeeded. By turning a very dense and complex legend into something viable, educating and thus popular, he has provided a worthy addition to O’Brien’s growing catalogue of graphic novels. Despite this, some details and minor quality control have slipped through the editorial cracks, which otherwise defeats what could have been a truly awesome book.