Patrick Freyne, The Irish Times, 18 March 2011
Just in time - a new breed of Irish superhero
Irish comic-book heroes have tended to wear green and be called Banshee, but a new breed of comic-book writer is redrawing the superhero stereotype, writes PATRICK FREYNE
IRISH SUPERHEROES are nothing new. Back in the 1980s, Marvel Comics created Shamrock, a flame-haired Dunshaughlin lass called Molly Fitzgerald, who donned a skintight green costume to fight crime with her superpower – the luck of the Irish. She had an inexplicable Scottish accent (“Hello lassies!”), clashed with Captain Britain (unsurprising, really) and her father was in the IRA. The Irish member of the X-Men, Banshee, was also a walking stereotype. Despite having a girl’s code-name (his creator, Chris Claremont, didn’t realise banshees were female) he successfully fought evil mutants with his “sonic scream”, smoked a pipe and lived in a haunted castle called Cassidy Keep with some leprechauns. Then there was DC Comics’ Jack O’Lantern, an Irish farmer’s son who could control fire and fog using a magic lantern given to him by the fairy folk. Unless this was a cunning metaphor for Irish farmers and EU subsidies, Jack O’Lantern too was a stereotypical disaster.
Robert Curley, an Irish comic book creator, co-owner of the Dublin comic shop Subcity, and the man behind the Atomic Diner comics publishing company, is trying to undo all the damage done by these cheesy Celtic super-heroics. He, along with artist Barry Keegan, has just produced a comic called The League of Volunteers, which features home-grown masked heroes drawn explicitly from Irish mythology and history.
“It’s been on my mind for some time,” he says. “I’d grown up with the American superhero comics and was very conscious of the fact we had nothing of our own. After doing a comic called Freakshow and a few other books set in America, I got a bit fed up and wanted to do something set in Ireland.”
Not content with one comic, Curley hopes to create a whole raft of heroes in interconnecting publications: an alternative history in which masked crime-fighters such as The Glimmer Man (“my version of Captain America”) and mythological characters such as Fionn MacCumhaill fight against Nazis and evil druids in 1940s Ireland.
“America, being the New World, didn’t have its own mythology and so drew on others’ in their comics,” he says. “Here, we have a wealth of history and mythology, which makes it all the more shocking that we’ve let it lie dormant. We’ve been happy to sit back and let American and British culture take over and let our own slip into the background. This is my contribution to bringing that old culture back.”
Curley is not the first Irish-based creator to write about superheroes. Last year Gar Shanley and Cathal Duggan created Superhero Showcase, a hilariously satirical take-down of the genre featuring heroes like The Cryptic Bastard, Captain Smash and Ms Ice Skates.
“Our superheroes aren’t really Irish,” says Shanley, “but there’s definitely an Irish sensibility there.” (Indeed, as a rampaging Hulk-like monster called Moldrok smashes everything in his path, a passerby says, “Jesus, take it easy, Moldrok. You’re wrecking the place, you eejit!”)
Shanley also recalls dubious depictions of Irishness in foreign comics. “I remember an Irish character called Spud Murphy in the 2000AD story Strontium Dog. When he was cornered by the government forces, Spud said ‘Begorrah, it’s the gardaí!’ I was really impressed to see the word ‘gardaí’ in a British comic.”
In general, however, Shanley does not feel a need to create Irish-accented adventurers to balance out the cliches. He’s linked to a group of independent Irish comic creators who favour real-life stories, surrealism and humour rather than tales of spandex-clad crime-fighters. Indeed, Shanley feels that superheroes are one of the reasons comics don’t get mainstream respect.
“Asking people to take comics seriously is like asking ‘Why don’t people take rock music seriously?’ in a world where every band is Iron Maiden. A lot of the small-press comic creators here actually prefer the likes of Chris Ware [award-winning creator of beautifully melancholic slice-of-life stories] to superhero comics, but the comic shops are dominated by one genre: superheroes.”
But given the general dominance of the genre bemoaned by Shanley, it’s quite strange there haven’t been more Irish heroes. This is the deficit Robert Curley is setting out to address with his very enjoyable League of Volunteers. “We have such an interesting past historically and mythologically,” he says. “So we have all these characters there waiting to be used. It would be silly not to delve into that. And it won’t be like Banshee living in a haunted castle with leprechauns.”
The first issue of The League of Volunteers is on sale in Subcity, Exchequer Street, Dublin. Superhero Showcase can be purchased at windellcomics.com. An Irish comic convention is being held on April 15th in the Astra Hall in University College Dublin
Bucking the trend
In the 1980s, 2000AD writer Pat Mills pilfered Celtic mythology to create Slaine, a character heavily influenced by the Irish hero, Cú Chulainn. Slaine wandered around primordial Europe slaying Fomorians with his axe, “brain-biter”. The very talented Mills is currently working on the script for a Cú Chulainn movie called War Dog.
- CASSIDY THE VAMPIRE
Northern Irish comic creator Garth Ennis’s most famous character is Jesse Custer, a preacher with the voice of God in the US comic Preacher. A key subplot was Custer’s “bromance” with the amoral and immortal Irish vampire, Cassidy.
Cassidy was very Irish. One issue features a flashback to his experiences in the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising, in which Michael Collins gets punched in the nose.
- THE GAY GHOST
In 1942 DC’s Sensation comic introduced the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Keith Everet, Earl of Strethmere. Murdered by brigands, Everet returns to life to fight crime as The Gay Ghost. As the hero’s Wikipedia page helpfully reminds us, “The colloquial meaning of the word gay has changed since the character was created in the 1940s, and he is not himself a homosexual.”
© 2011 The Irish Times