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Review time! with Brian Boru: Ireland’s Warrior King

Yay, historical fiction!

Damien Goodfellow’s first graphic novel, Brian Boru (which is published by The O’Brien Press and costs $24.50), is better for the potential of its creator than the actual content. It’s certainly a decent enough read, but Goodfellow shows more promise than actuality throughout. That’s too bad, but it’s not the worst thing in the world!

The plot is straightforward enough: Goodfellow traces Brian’s career from AD 968 through Clontarf in 1014. One of the problems of the book, in fact, is that he tries to encompass almost 50 years of history in less than 100 pages, and it’s difficult. He chooses as his point of view character Gormfhlaith, who became Brian’s wife after twice being married to other rulers – she was quite the prize, apparently. She’s an interesting character, because she was opposed to Brian for most of her life and even conspired to force him to battle at Clontarf, where he was killed and his dynasty broken up (his oldest son and grandson were killed as well). She seems like an unsympathetic character, but she does everything to establish a legacy for her son, Sitric. So Goodfellow sets up Gormfhlaith in opposition to the great king but does it quite nicely, because everyone has their reasons for acting the way they do. He also does a nice job not turning this book into a hagiography of Brian – he’s a tiny bit more merciful than everyone around him, but he’s still a 10th-century king, which means he’s often a dick. The only thing that redeems him, really, is his dream of a united Ireland, which dies with him in 1014. Goodfellow does give us some idea of his charisma, his military acumen, and his ability to lead, all of which helped make him High King, but it’s still nice that he doesn’t overpraise Brian as some kind of legend, preferring instead to treat him like a man. Ultimately, though, Goodfellow’s choice of Gormfhlaith as his “main” character means that we don’t really get to see everything about Brian, and we’re left wondering, not how he was able to become a great leader, but how he managed to weld together the various clans of Ireland and keep the country peaceful for 12 years (1002-1014). The lack of focus on Brian means that we don’t really see Brian being king all that much. Goodfellow doesn’t delve enough into Gormfhlaith, either, so the lack of a central character means the book feels far less focused than it could be.

Part of this is the scope of the book. As I noted, the book spans 46 years, and Goodfellow moves quickly from, say, King Malcolm recognizing Brian’s authority in 1002 to the battle of Clontarf. Compression of events isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does seem that Goodfellow leaves too much out in his desire to cover Brian’s entire career. Brian’s son, Murchadh, suddenly appears on the scene as a hotheaded young man – we don’t know why his temper gets the best of him nor if Brian tried to rein him in at all. Brian had other wives, but only one makes a brief appearance. It seems that Brian and Gormfhlaith had a son together, but Goodfellow doesn’t mention him. It’s difficult to really get into the characters because the book moves so quickly, so we never really care too much about them.

Goodfellow does give us a good depiction of life in Ireland around the turn of the 11th century, or at least what we imagine it to be like. Gormfhlaith humorously complains about Brian’s bog-ridden capital even though Dublin wasn’t really a garden spot in 1000. The characters act like the brutal and ruthless people they seem to be, grabbing for any power they can hold onto because their lives were violent and short (Brian managed to live at least 70 years, however – his birth year is disputed). He does a good job making some sense of the shifting alliances that the clans lived by – I’m sure he simplified it immensely, but it’s still complex enough to get a general idea of how the clans allied with and betrayed each other with regularity – and in Gormfhlaith, we see how women managed to retain some power in this male-dominated world even as they feared more than men the vicissitudes of warfare. Gormfhlaith may seem faithless, but she’s no more and no less faithless than the men; she simply doesn’t have an army to make her betrayals stick by force of arms. Without being too obvious about it, Goodfellow does a nice job showing the precarious situation medieval women were in and how they tried to stay afloat in a world where they were entirely dependent on the good graces of men.

The artwork is quite nice, too. Goodfellow has a very rough and jagged style, which works perfectly for the rough and tumble world of early medieval Ireland. Gormfhlaith is the only character who looks halfway decent – the rest, even Brian, are craggy and beaten up and dirty and disgusting. I’ve written before about how artists tend to make people before the advent of indoor plumbing too “pretty,” but Goodfellow doesn’t have that problem – we can easily believe that this is how Brian and the rest of the Irish looked at this time. He obviously did a lot of research – the clothing and buildings look authentic, and Goodfellow adds a lot of nice details that add to this feeling. His style suits the battle scenes quite well – the fights in this book are brutal and bloody, with men swinging blunt swords and axes and causing a lot of awful damage. He doesn’t have a chance to draw beautiful scenes too often, but occasionally, he gets to draw some landscapes, and while he’s not bad at them, his rough style even makes the fields of Ireland look harsher than we would imagine. It’s okay, though, because it fits the tone of the book quite well.

Despite the fact that this feels like it could be longer or at least more focused, it’s obvious Goodfellow has a lot of talent, and Brian Boru, while not quite living up to that, is a nice starting point. It tells a fascinating story, which means I can forgive some of the storytelling choices, and Goodfellow’s artwork helps make the book look very nice. I suppose I can Mildly Recommend it mainly because Goodfellow does have a fascinating subject to work with, and even if he doesn’t quite pull it off, it’s still an entertaining comic. I hope to see more from Damien Goodfellow, because I’d like to see him improve in his comic book skills.

2 Comments

My father tells me that we are descended from Brian Boru, but I imagine that every Irish-American dad tells his son that.

The art has some Lucho Olivera-ness to it

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