Review: Celtic Knights

Superhero stories that shoehorn Ireland, or Irish themed heroes, into their list of tropes can get a bit problematic and oversaturated. Only a few titles can pull this off well, like Celtic Clan and its knowing silly wink towards Saturday morning cartoons, and The Wren, which sets a great stylistic tone and intrinsically knows the popular tastes of its audience. There are others who have rendered literal Irish stories into a more precise comic book look and narrative. However, the main problem with Irish superhero stories is how unaware the setting is of its own scale: New York is a popular destination for superhero tropes because of the sheer size and iconic scenery for both storytelling and combat, and the heroes that live there are themed as such for the locale. (Spiderman being one obvious example.)

But when you drop big heroes into small locations without tweaking them to fit, it feels forced and overkills the story. One of my friends (the author of The Wash Cycle‘s foreword) discussed an excellent idea for a Dublin/Ireland based hero: a combination of a Garda patrol cop on their bike, crossed with the ‘headless horseman’ Dullahan legend, would bat for two in terms of mystical powers and crime fighting stories without overblowing the idea. It would be akin to the legend of the Golem protecting the inner city of Prague, but only comes alive when the Astronomical Clock strikes twelve. Or perhaps the personification of General Winter becoming a begrudged anti-hero to the nation of Russia, but fights poorly during a heatwave.

Since Celtic Knights somewhat falls into the former bracket, I would initially give it the benefit of the doubt and see where it goes with its story. Celtic Knights is published by Cremona Publishing, the same team behind Velvet, with a script by Stephen Coffey. There are many variant covers available through their Lulu store – however this pinpoints the source of Velvet’s bad production values, as Celtic Knights also suffers from similar botched printing processes, as I’ll explain later.

Celtic Knights blipped around 2008, with its first issue being drawn by artist Ger Hankey, but art duties have since passed to Mike Kennedy, an American artist who has redrawn issue #1 and subsequent issues full time. Celtic Knights was printed as individual issues before being collected into this volume, and the results are very mixed. The book is broken up into chapters as opposed to being divided into issues, as many characters announce the same plot twist twice after one turns the page, as if there was a delay between which page appeared when.

Celtic Knights opens with General Quentin Blake landing in a helicopter outside the International Mega Human headquarters (based in Dublin), to the news that ninety percent of the world’s superheroes are dead or in hiding.

Gen. Blake:  Give me a status report! What are we looking at?
Officer: Sir… it’s all of them… our analysis suggest 90% of all ‘Mega Humans’ … have been… eliminated!
Gen. Blake: 90% of the worlds’(sic) mega freak population have been taken out at once?
Officer: At least 90 % (sic) sir.
Gen. Blake: I never agreed with the decision to normalize (sic) the Megas’ (sic)

Turns out the failsafe technology used by the HQ to keep heroes under check in case they go ‘rogue’ have been stolen by a baddie called the Broker, who has in turn sold them to every villain on the black market. (As opposed to making technology to keep villains’ powers under check and thus have no need for heroes. The plot is already unravelling here.) At least twenty heroes are left alive (so 160 heroes are dead/in hiding?) and some of them form the current Irish superhero team, the Celtic Tigers. They get mentioned later, so the eponymous team is assembled from Irish heroes who are so low-threat the HQ didn’t bother to build foot-shooting bondage devices for them.

Fallout is a Superman expy who has a fear of falling. Junker is Batman but homeless and smelly. Rubinette is the Wonder Woman homage with a hot temper (she’s also drawn as a pregnant woman, however I think the original intent was for her to be curvy?). Phyre and Eyce are a cafe-owning bickering couple with the powers of fire and ice. Rapid is the Flash but with a coddling mother called Mrs. May, who is probably Aunt May. They’re all assembled at the HQ to be briefed by Gen. Blake about the situation, and because they’re immune to the stolen technology, they eventually agree to take on The Broker.

Their first mission is to gain intel and disarm a group of foes at a power plant. (Spoiler: they don’t, or it’s never shown as such. Fallout and Junker mostly fight goons in the following scenes, Rubinette’s hiding elsewhere until she has to rescue Junker, and Rapid, Phyre and Eyce wait at the armoured car the whole time.)

This introduces the first couple of antagonists – Yoko Oko Boko, the Pint Sized Samurai (it’s racist) and the Mammoth Mountain Man. Fallout ends up tassling with the latter, while Yoko completely destroys Junker with two well placed hits (after Junker kicked him in the balls during a pre-fight bow of honour). Rubi comes to Junker’s aid (after she sprays him with perfume to improve his stench) and the team escape. The third antagonist, the Booker’s right hand woman Vicious Vivianne punishes Yoko and the Mammoth for screwing up.

Back at base Gen. Blake mentions the bad guys did not need to be captured as part of their mission, while Junker is utterly hospitalised and on a blood transfusion. The general reveals the location of this source of evil: Wales. Why? The Broker is based there after crushing on John Barrowman/Torchwood after he went to see him in a Cole Porter musical. Wales unleashed Torchwood upon the world and began The Broker’s evil career. This is literally in the comic as spoken by Gen. Blake. Mrs. May, being the cuckolding old mammy, dusts and finds an alien macguffin as she cleans, and is warned by the Jamaican Professor Crab not to touch it.

Junker is whisked away to the HQ laboratory for a Wolverine-style ‘upgrade’ and mostly a good wash. Vivianne, Yoko and the Mammoth wait at Cardiff Stadium for their next move, unveiling anti-superpower giant robots akin to the Sentinels from X-men. The other superhero team, the Celtic Tigers, are killed off one by one by each of their nemeses, with some wielding the weapons they bought from the Broker. Their bodies are taken back to the HQ, which finally spurs the Knights into action as they prepare to fly to Wales.

With no back up, the Knights take off in their own jet, as Gen. Blake and Prof. Crab examine the dead heroes’ bodies. Their actual cause of death was a virus that the Professor and the General created, and despite having to hide the DNA evidence from the public the General laments that their deaths will be on Youtube sooner or later. The heroes arrive in Cardiff, just before being sprung by the Broker’s henchmen, giant robots and then the Broker himself. The team get captured and Rapid gets taken down, so Mrs. May, in fear for her son’s life (and WITH the assistance of Prof. Crab), goes back to the alien macguffin and touches it. It rewards her with a full body robotic powered suit that appears/disappears at will, and she dubs herself ‘Iron Ma’ before jetting off to Wales to save her son. Junker soons comes to the rescue too, and after a few attacks at the giant robots the Knights save the day.

Prof. Crab operates on Rapid, while the others get medical attention on-site while joking among themselves. The locals are not happy with the stadium being thrashed. The Broker and his gang escape, and he is then summoned to his bosses, an evil Illuminati type group themed after the Seven Sins. They instruct him to kill Junker. End of volume one.

Celtic Knights needs a lot of work.

Art wise, Kennedy has a clean style, for lack of stronger draftsmanship concerning anatomy (character proportion ratios shrink and warp when drawn at a distance). The character acting and expressions are oddly out of sync with the script: some panels have entirely wordless conversations, or people screaming/overacting in a void. Emotions hop from placid to utterly furious between panels. The chapter art, and a lot of the bonus art, looks like it was photographed and pasted in. The character designs are run-of-the-mill spandex costumed crusaders, and with the likes of Rubinette (always pregnant, or chubby? She is missing a lot of ‘insulation’ around her arms, face and hips) it’s hard to define them. The most important action is drawn in much too tiny panels. The earliest pages have no shading, but in later chapters a grey tone is applied. But even with spot blacks and lineart, the printing mistakes are exacerbated in early pages, with the lineart being grey and stark areas of black are dropped in completely at random, leaving the pages looking like the inks are unfinished.

The dialogue does not sync with the art at all. Exposition is revealed through closer inspection of character speech, and with the lettering quality varying wildly within (what seems to be) MS Word bubble templates, your eyes are left spinning between the faded art and the sheer jumps in logic within the plot, to a point where it feels like Coffey handed Kennedy a totally different script only to change it after the art was delivered. There are typos and misdirections in the script, the characters are mostly one dimensional in their portrayal and the frankly unedited plot does not help. There’s an awkward few scenes where the characters crack a pop culture reference or an in-joke, and not only do they look out of context, even speech balloons and visual punchlines are chopped out or not in view.

The concept behind why all the superheroes are dead (the anti-rogue technology) is flimsy, contrived, and rendered pointless within seconds of piecing together. The twist where the General and Professor are the ones actually killing the heroes with a virus (meaning the anti-rouge tech doesn’t actually work!?) is only refered to on one page, never to be mentioned again while they go about as normal saving heroes’ lives – if it turns out to be a pun on the death of the actual ‘Celtic Tiger’ era, I will be very angry. Homophobic military officers aren’t new materal within Cremona Publishing, but there’s still the mind boggling ‘reveal’ that Wales is evil for unleashing gay actors upon the world and turning baddies even baddier, and I am stunned and furious this was considered a thigh slappingly hilarious motive.

There is a Dedications page at the start, with some nice words from Kennedy and his drive to keep dreaming and creating (fair dues to him) as well as a note from Coffey thanking his staff and readers. There is also an introduction page by Garth Cremona, which strangely ends up being a short synopsis for Celtic Knights. The reason why he wrote the book’s synopsis, and not Coffey, might having something to do with Cremona suddenly drawing Pogoshots (an honestly unfunny skullfucking abortion of a webcomic also created by Coffey), and Coffey giving a five star review to Velvet with Amazon somehow crediting him as the author. This is indeed the first instance of camaraderie and backpatting in the shape of a Moebius strip.

I’ve brought up a point before in a previous review about infrequent publishing schedules for many Irish titles (Big Bastard, Celtic Clan, hell, even Finn & Fish) because of the very slow turnaround made on the cost of printing. When the money is so little, issues gradually vanish and people lose interest in the book. Scrabbling for that audience again is difficult when your work is so far off from being funded again and there are convention tables to be paid for, and so on. And when I do see new books on the market, the quality’s never been better, and the standard IS getting higher and more diverse. I would hate to see this momentum completely die, and I would advise exercising a LOT of patience for improvements and breakthroughs to be made for Irish comics. Without constructive criticism, your comics can’t get better. Without calling out problematic topics, they’ll fester in the values of your comics and can seriously offend your intended audience. Without sharing information on how and where to print comics, the work will look worse than amatuerish. If the time between releases is slow, take that time to improve and tidy your comic into a piece of work you can be bloody proud of. Collaborate, talk, show up at conventions and sell your work, and be kind to readers and artists and staff alike. The industry is way too small here to get away with petty opinions and flared tempers, and infamy spreads fast when you’re involved in it. Thankfully, good work and feedback spreads faster, and I cherish that. You should too.

… but can we all agree, from this point onwards now, that not every new Irish comic has to be tethered on superhero tropes in order to get attention and validation? Thank you.