Ancient myths are the original form of storytelling and continue to inspire all manners of art in the 21st century.
In the world of comics and graphic storytelling, it is no surprise that the colorful tales of heroes and villains are in large part inspired by the tales once told around campfires across the world, but adapting actual mythological stories for the medium is not always an easy task. Just ask Paul J. Bolger and Barry Devlin…
However, just like the heroes of old whose perseverance often pays off, Bolger and Devlin succeeded on their long journey to Dark Horse Comics upcoming Hound graphic novel (available on March 9), bringing one of Ireland’s greatest legends to life. Those unfamiliar with the legendary warrior, as well as those who grew up hearing the story of The Hound of Ulster from their parents and grandparents, will now be able to revel in the story in a new, vibrant presentation.
Bolger and Devlin detail the serendipitous journey of Hound in this exclusive interview.
What are the origins of Hound?
Paul J. Bolger: The story of Hound is based on the ancient Irish myth of The Hound of Ulster. The Celtic hero who at the age of seven killed and replaced the fierce guard dog of an Iron Age forge owned by Cullan. This earned him the nickname Cú Chulainn (pronounced “Koo Kullan”) – “The Hound of Cullan”.
In adulthood, Cú singlehandedly stopped an invasion of his homeland in the north of Ireland against an army led by Queen Maeve with tragic results. He is the Celtic equivalent of Achilles. Born for glory and remembered forever for having died young at the hands of his enemies, but not before defeating them.
That’s the myth; the origins of the book requires a recap of how the project started to explain how it came to be.
It all started with me asking a colleague, while working as a junior animator in Dublin on the movie All Dogs Go To Heaven, “why are there no Irish legends told the way we Irish tell them on screen or in comics?” He had no answer at the time other than there just wasn’t. The story that screamed at me the most to try and adapt was The Hound of Ulster – one of Europe’s oldest epics written in a vernacular language. So, began the long road to where we are now with the book.
My first attempt was as a comic, but due to the 24/7 nature of working in animation, I had little time to explore it further. So, the obvious choice was to make a movie of it. After many attempts to get that going in both animation and live action and finding film finance a very high wall to climb, especially in the times I tried with the story I had in my back pocket, I went back to my first love: Comics.
I dug out all the designs and other ideas I had collated over the years and convinced my film producing partner on the project, Hugh Welchman (Peter & The Wolf, Loving Vincent), the best way to move the project forward was to do a graphic novel version of my take on it.
If nothing else we would tell the story the way we wanted and the cost would not be as prohibitive as making a feature film. He agreed and so began the creation of the book.
We then ran three successful Kickstarter campaigns which allowed me to take time out between 2014 – 2017 to fund drawing the book. We only printed 750 of each volume and they are long sold out. I wanted to put all three volumes together in one book so we pitched it to a few publishers and the response was complimentary, but most of those we showed it to said it was too large a project for them to put out.
He will probably hate me for saying this but the amazing edition of Hound that is about to be unleashed would not have happened if it was not for writer/artist and fan of our original editions, Brendan McCarthy (Fury Road, 2000AD, etc.). Brendan thought Dark Horse might be interested in taking on an omnibus edition of the book. He showed some pages to Mike Richardson and here we are; about to unleash this 500 page monster hardback version of the book on the world. What more could an aging scribbler ask for?
When did you personally become aware of the ancient story that inspired Hound?
Bolger: Probably around the age of six or seven. It’s in the DNA of most Irish people. We grow up with it. Most writers, musicians and artists have all had a go at portraying “Dogboy”, as we affectionately call our version.
What are some of the challenges in adapting mythology for a modern audience and in this medium?
Barry Devlin: Two big challenges. One: The storytellers of the various Irish mythological tales had obviously never heard of the three act film. Their stories often seem to us ill-disciplined and meandering. Though in reality they just had a different dynamic – more nuanced and more sophisticated, it could be argued – than the short – attention – span Exocet plots of today.
Two: The characters are often much more conflicted than modern day consumers easily adapt to. The stars of the Celtic tales often do bad things.. they are vengeful, cruel, treacherous. But they are still allowed to be heroes in their own sagas.
So there is editing to be done in adapting these tales. The story structures need chunks deleted to give them a modern beginning, middle and end structure and the characters need psychological pruning: the heroes good, their antagonists bad.
Of course there’s room for nuance in this revised version… but not moral nuance.
How did the two of you work together in terms of the collaboration that produces a graphic novel?
Devlin: Paul is, of course, the artist and Hound is first and foremost a splendid example of graphic artistry. But he also dreamed up this version of the Hound tale, particularly the Morrigan as unreliable narrator. And because this started as a film script, he wrote an excellent – and long – film script. I was brought in essentially to shorten it and to humanize and nuance some of the characters. But Paul did the heavy lifting throughout. Hound is his. I’m proud to be associated.
Bolger: I couldn’t have completed the script for Hound without Barry’s input. It was his wonderful characterizations, dialogue and introduction of how politics might have worked that helped root the story in a reality I could buy into.
I had met Barry at a meeting for a film project that went nowhere (like most do). I loved the musical adaptation of the saga he had done with his band (one of my favourites as it happens), Horslips, with The Táin album back in the ’70’s. When he told me had also written a script adaptation of the Cú Chulainn story I had to read it. It was very different to mine but the way he treated the characters was exactly what my version needed. So I asked him to join us on our mad quest as co-writer and he kindly accepted.
I gave him my version – which was like a long prose story broken down into scenes. It was hardly a script – more a collection of ideas in an order I thought would work. Also my notion of having Morrigan act as the narrator of sorts meant we had to find ways to work in and out of the existing myth in a way that allowed us to retell the story without losing the spirit of the original.
We finally hit on a draft we liked and locked it. Until I started blocking it out visually and realized the version of the story I was seeing would be better told in a more linear fashion rather than the flashbacks we had explored along the way.
So I kept the character scenes Barry had written and began to visualize the text in a thumbnail storyboard. This allowed us to see what parts worked and what parts needed work. We would then add dialogue to the rough page layouts – so it was very fluid approach. I had to be careful of not making the comic too much like a film storyboard – we focused on the beats rather than individual “shots”. It became about broad-strokes, not details. They followed later as the art began to take form. We continued to change the dialogue right to the book going to the printer.
How is Cullan a character that can engage a modern reader, as he did those who originally told the tale?
Devlin: Paul will probably answer this better than me. He’s shared quarters with Cú Chulainn for twenty five years now.
But on a very basic level, Cú Chulainn is a hero. And we all like heroes. And he’s pretty screwed up, with a set of problems that I think we can all relate to, coming out of Covid. Isolation, anxiety, paranoia.
And a recurring urge to slaughter one’s fellow citizens….
Bolger: It’s a hard question to answer but I suppose the easiest way to say it is to think of him as a reluctant hero. Like an axe wielding younger version of Clint Eastwood’s gun-slinger character in The Unforgiven, without the added angle of him being paid to kill.
Cú makes his stand against an invasion horde in retaliation for what they did to his beloved. It is only when he sees the carnage of total war on the borders he goes full tilt and unleashes a one man blitzkrieg against those who would destroy all he holds dear.
He is also a troubled soul. His “powers” were given to him by the war spirit Morrigan when he was a child and she guides him through life to her advantage. He is also a bit like a Manchurian Candidate in that he has been pre-programmed to become a one man war machine that will be triggered when needed by not only Morrigan but those he serves.
At various points in his life, Morrigan speaks to him and eggs him on to next level superhuman action. It is like every time he hears her he has the urge to resist but she is too powerful and her words seem to steer him towards ever greater examples of athletic or warrior prowess. But, it is only he who can hear her speak. She is the proverbial voice in his head. Sometimes soft and other times screeching.
One of the appealing elements of the original legend, and I won’t give away any spoilers here, is when he commits a tragic offence and begins to literally fall apart.
His mental health soon comes into question and he physically weakens allowing his enemies to consider upping the stakes. Some scholars have said that this may well be one of the earliest examples of depression being described in vernacular literature. Other non-Celtic mythical heroes rarely display anxiety or angst in their stories. Sure they would have questioned their roles or resisted instruction or temptation but to see the main character of what is essentially an existential exploration of a warrior culture constantly examine himself was interesting to me.
It is a fairly common trope in movies and books today to have a hero hindered by his heart or what they might see as their shortcomings (in the shape of their abilities) but not so much in the Iron Age. Couple that with the idea that the characters of Irish mythology – no matter if they are mortal, Long Lived, classed as fairy or Otherworldly – being portrayed as “real” and like all of us grapple with human emotions, fears and desires. The closest characters to Gaelic deities I can think of in modern literature are the Elves in Lord Of The Rings. Not quite Olympian in stature, but still able to sort of manipulate the forces of nature. Pre-Christian Irish “gods” were as much human as they were divine. Cú straddles both worlds.
The gods of Hound are few and far between. In fact, Morrigan may well be the last of their kind. She is definitely the last of the Long Lived. A dying immortal, if you will, forced to endure the petty shenanigans of humanity she used to toy with for her pleasure. She is now a ridiculed figure who, like a cornered rat, relies on her fading energy to make a last stand in a world where the final gasps of Matriarchal magic tries to cling to life in the face of ever increasing brutality of life under the rising Patriarchy. Cú is her only hope but he chooses to defy her and sides with humanity.
Bolger: Barry and I have a number of film projects in the works together, chief of which is the animated feature Outfoxed! We always have a lot of stuff on the go. Some of it is together, some separate and a lot of it we can’t talk about unfortunately. I am developing a few new books with other writers too, along with making music. My new record “Hard Truth” will be released on April 29th, 2022. For more information and updates check out www.pauljbolger.com.
Look for the Hound hardcover graphic novel on March 9 at your local comic shop or book store.