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'Myth as truth is immaterial': Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin discuss their work 'Hound'

Comic Books

‘Myth as truth is immaterial’: Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin discuss their work ‘Hound’

For fans of Westerns, Irish myths, and epic storytelling.

In 50 BCE, Morrigan, the goddess of war, has become restless as a long-lasting peace settles over Ireland…and so goes Hound, the new comics adaptation of the Irish myth of Cú Chulainn.

The story, from writer and artist Paul Bolger and co-writer Barry Devlin, is a Western that’s set in the mythic Irish Iron Age. The project, which is rendered exclusively black, white, and red, has been years in the making, but the 488-page graphic novel features a hero, Bolger says, that deserves to stand alongside Achilles, Beowulf, and Sir Lancelot in the echelon of mythic heroes.

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The title will be available in bookstores across the globe starting March 9. Before that, though, Bolger and Devlin were kind enough to answer a few questions, including how much of the myth may be true, what went into cultivating the book’s art style, and how Bolger and Devlin came to work together, among other tidbits.

Dark Horse announces 'Hound' for March 2022

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

AIPT: If Hound had a mission statement, what would it be?

Paul Bolger: Not sure about having a mission statement but if I did want to achieve anything with Hound it was to bring a version of Ireland’s greatest story to the world as a comic and/or a film the way I saw it. I always wanted to see Cú Chulainn take his place among the pantheon of internationally known mythic heroes like Achilles, Beowulf, and Sir Lancelot. If Hound takes him a step closer to that then it’s mission accomplished.

If all it does is make some readers go and look up the source material to see where we strayed from the original myth (and we did a bit) then mission accomplished again.

If not, then I guess I’ll have to do that other book I’ve been promising myself I’d tackle someday — the one about Cú’s Dad, Lugh Of The Long Hand. But that really is another story…

AIPT: I’m astounded by the artistry in the book, for the artist out there, what materials were used in making it?

PB: Thanks for saying so. Delighted you like it.

Hound was laid out 50/50 on paper and digitally in and around my film work over a number of years. It wasn’t a full-time thing. I had to do it as I traveled and went around the world working on movies and more.

By the time I came to do the actual book, I had it pretty much all laid out. I had moved back to my hometown of Waterford, Ireland a few years before and set about putting it all together in my new studio. The final art was actually done in a very old version of Photoshop I had using the most basic brush settings on a creaking Wacom 21UX via my now sadly defunct 2007 Intel MacPro. As old-school as digital comics could get at the time…but some pages were a mix of digital and scanned ink drawings. So I guess you could say it was a blend of the real and imagined.

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: What are some of the strengths in rendering the story in black and white?

PB: The ability to use negative space to hide detail while creating the illusion of detail.

I love the work of Caravaggio and Rembrandt and the idea of attempting a shorthand version of chiaroscuro to get across emotion or atmosphere in a comic meant I could get through the pages without having to draw every blade of grass, Celtic spiral or wattle wall canes to get across the action I was trying to describe.

But to be honest the fact is using B&W was pure economics.

Coloring would have taken more time and cost a fortune–not to mention printing a full color book this big. Having to work within the limits of B&W I figured I’d use it to my advantage and it soon became a blessing, not a curse. It helped to declutter the extra weight the organic world of ancient Ireland brings to bear on any visualization of the era and focuses the eye on the characters and what they were going through.

I also love how artists like Dino Battaglia, Sergio Toppi, Hugo Pratt, Alberto Breccia, Alex Toth, and others used B&W to create atmosphere and set up clear storytelling. No-fuss – draw only want is needed. Above all avoid clutter and showing off. The masterful loose ink drawings by Louis le Brocquy from Thomas Kinsella’s penultimate adaptation of the myth in “The Táin” also hung over me as I worked into the book.

One thing I did want to keep consistent was the idea of “white over black” – to give an etched or scraperboard feel in some pages. I would often apply white marks over large areas of black to keep it organic looking. I avoided using fancy digital brushes and plugins. I’d say I used 2% of what Photoshop’s abilities are in the making of Hound. If I had done the book traditionally in ink on board I would still be drawing it I think. Doing it digitally allowed me to get through the pages more efficiently and faster.

Having said that, the choice to have some landscapes emptier was not because I didn’t want to draw detail, it was to show the contrast between the regions of Ireland and Scotland. The way I drew The Isle Of Skye for example is nothing like the real Isle Of Skye – I based the version in Hound on The Burren in the West of Ireland. It helped the dreamtime vibe of that chapter to make it starker and threatening although it’s where a beautifully tragic love story blossomed. Whereas the lush forests of Ireland in Hound are where the carnage of guerrilla warfare takes place. Working digitally allowed me to create those contrasting and contradictory soft and hard shapes very quickly so I carried on.

Story drove the art style as much as schedule.

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: Paul and Barry, what was your writing collaborations like on this project?

Barry Devlin: Any collaborative work with Paul is a thrill. He’s an astonishing renaissance man (catch his album Hard Truth, or Outfoxed! the animated feature when it’s released). And I have to ‘fess up, here. My credit on Hound is largely due to Paul’s legendary Southern Gentleman generosity.

Paul called me in a while back, now, as essentially a script editor on the film version of Hound. I did a cut, shunt, and part rewrite – it was still Paul’s film, though – and Paul turned his cunningly revised version of my edit into the graphic novel. So, I’m thrilled and humbled to get a credit. But not humbled enough to hand him back my share – greedy Baz….

PB: It usually involved me changing everything Barry wrote and me driving him nuts with head-wrecking notes…JOKE!

And don’t let him tell you he did very little on the book. 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 favorites as it happens), Horslips, with The Táin album back in the ’70s. When he told me he had also written a script adaptation of the Cú Chulainn story I had to read it. It was very different from 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.

'Myth as truth is immaterial': Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin discuss their work 'Hound'

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

I gave him our 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. I had the action worked out and many of the tentpole scenes stayed to this day but there were issues with the relationships between some key characters. 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.

When the real work of writing began we found the best way was to meet for lunch or spend a day in my studio thrashing out ideas and then Barry would go home and write a draft. So the back and forth continued like that for a few months. Not writing in the same room as such. 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.

We settled on approaching it like a Western set in a Mythic Irish Iron Age and it all started to come together. Whatever we were doing it felt right and we got something we could progress.

So I kept the fantastic character scenes Barry had written (EG Cú meeting Emer) and began to flesh it out more and more in a loose storyboard. This led to the comic adaptation and much of the original script scenes being moved around the story chessboard. We didn’t cut anything – we just reordered it to get the version we have now.

Barry and I have developed a number of other projects and he even guested on my new music album “Hard Truth”, set for release in April 2022. So yea, the collaboration has been great. It’s always a pleasure. We rarely disagree and if he has an idea for something we came up with I try to add to it or do it justice and vice versa.

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: There’s great care taken in capturing the culture and characters, was there loads of research, biographies, or extra materials crafted to get what is on the page right?

BD: Wikipedia makes geniuses of us all, but we didn’t really need it in this case. Cú Chulainn’s story is wired into the DNA of just about every living soul in Ireland. We learn a bowdlerized version at school (it’s pretty funky in its raw state) and if you’re a writer, or a musician, or a painter, it just gets added to and crossed referenced in all your dealings. Seamus Heaney, Tom Kinsella, The Decembrists… have all embraced the Hound saga in their own ways.

And for what it’s worth my own band Horslips released an album — The Táin — many moons ago, which told the whole story in a song cycle. (Check your local remainder bin, folks). More importantly, Paul is an anorak on pre-Christian Ireland and Europe.

La Tene jewellery? Tick.
Coracle fishing techniques? Tick.
Irish High Kings being crowned in a cauldron of delicious horse broth? Tick.

So he has a virtual props room full of authentic artifacts ready to be hauled up for anybody, anytime. Oh, yes…

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

PB: Yep, I did spend a long time researching the archeology and culture of the late Irish Iron Age. I also dug deep into the mythology and the fact that some of the place names mentioned in the old stories still exist in Ireland today. In fact, the plank-covered bog road Queen Maeve’s army was supposed to have driven their wooden war chariots from the west of Ireland north was found not too far from the present-day border with Northern Ireland and The Republic. Or part of it was anyway. No sign of a chariot being found though. Not yet anyway.

Whether any of the myth is true or based on real events is immaterial. What is interesting is the themes and nature of the characters it reveals. Iron Age culture seeps through the original texts, even if the monks who first wrote it all down tried to diminish or downplay its significance. Some of those lads must have been closet pagans as a lot of pre-Christian ideas and themes survived under the restrictive eyes of their Abbots.

The stories tell us of an aristocratic caste laden culture that lived for glory but was also wonderfully egalitarian. Life was short and harsh too. There was seasonal warfare and if we are to believe the source material gladiator style single combat bouts between champions settled wars more than mass slaughter of the enemy. Cattle raiding between the clans was endemic. All this and the artifacts on show in the National Museum of Ireland played into the backstory of Hound. There was so much to work in I could feel my head almost exploding when I had to choose what to use.

I also spent a day with Eamonn Kelly, former Keeper of Antiquities of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, who also wrote a wonderful afterword for the book. And he confirmed some of my own theories and blew my mind with others. That really helped me shape some of the research into the artifacts and objects I use in the book and why. The idea of mixing weaponry and adornments from different eras gave it some a nice feel. I made Queen Maeve’s people seem more Bronze Age with the gold neckbands and bronze or stone axes while Cú’s people have Iron swords, shields, and lots of plaid.

Another person who influenced my approach to the culture I tried to capture was the late Daithi O’Hogain, professor of Celtic studies at UCD. I attended a talk he gave one time which was amazing. In the after-talk dinner, we sat together and he helped me see the light in terms of how the ancient Irish might have thought about life, love, conflict, and more. Thank you, Daithi!

It is important to say that when I started to build the world of Hound I decided not to do a documentary-style version. It is not history.

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

We have no idea how the people of the period looked in Ireland really – they probably resembled other “Celtic” people in Britain and Europe but there are no written documents and contact with the Classical world was scant, dismissive, and/or one-sided. The weapons and adornments of the Celtic upper classes are certainly similar across Western Europe in this period but it does not mean the people were the same as each other. Modern Irish and French people for example are both European, both can trace part of their culture to a Celtic past, have smartphones, electric cars, and all the trappings of our era’s technology – but neither country would say they look or act too much like the other. I am sure it was no different 2000 years ago. Apart from sharing similar technology the food, clothes and other cultural interests must have differed then too.

So I took the position that everything the characters would use as a weapon, a utensil, a vehicle, or adornment would be based on real items found in Ireland and Western Europe. The hairstyles and clothes I made up apart from the occasional nod to the historical Gauls and Britons who appear in the book. They are based on the classical world’s description of Celts. I also had a bit of fun with the non-Celtic warriors we meet on the Isle Of Skye. The Germanic Suebian hair knot gets a look in as does a Scythian/Persian curved hat.

I separated the four regions or kingdoms of Ireland in Hound into four nations of a sort. Using the idea of waves of settlers who might have come here over the centuries before the time of Julius Caesar made each of the peoples look different as they have slightly different cultural roots. To the outsider, they may all look the same as Native Americans must have looked to European settlers in the past.

I came up with the idea that the shaven-headed people living in the West (Connacht) were the descendants of the aboriginal Europeans who settled Ireland after the last Ice Age. The longhaired people in the north (Cú Cullan’s people) are a mix of these Westerners and the people the Romans called Picts due to the geographical proximity of what we now call Northern Ireland and Scotland. The southern people are a mix of aboriginal Irish and Celt-Iberians due to the fact that trade and contact is a fact down the Celtic Sea towards Galicia. Refugees from Roman Britain occupy the Eastern region. Using this idea I was able to design clothing and hairstyles based on regional differences.

It became a tapestry of backstory I never had to go into in the book but it informed every aspect of the design of the world.

Another concept was I would use the architecture of the day but enlarge it to such a scale that the world of Hound would be believable but more of heightened reality. I didn’t want to do a fantasy world or create a “Celtic Asgard” and make the story too superhero-like. It is rooted in a reality of its own logic, hence my using real-world artifacts throughout the book. I took some artistic liberties of course. Some objects I used were found in Wales or Eastern Europe but most objects are rooted in Irish prehistory. It’s a myth – so some fun had to be had.

Paul Bolger and Barry Devlin Hound

Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

AIPT: With a book this dense, was there anything specific that you enjoyed drawing?

PB: The Riastrad (as it is called in Gaelic) or “warp spasm” as translated by Thomas Kinsella.

This is the effect Cú’s berserker mode has on him when it kicks in. In other adaptations, this is externalized and he becomes Hulk-like, bleeding from every orifice with twisted limbs, monster. In Hound, and not to give any spoilers, it is internalized. The warp spasm comes over him to cause his battle fury. In Hound it is not others that see it happening it is Cú himself. It is shown from his point of view – from inside his mind’s eye. It is the world around him that changes shape not him…for most of the book. Intrigued?

You’ll have to pick up a copy of the book to see how I did it.

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