by Patrick Brown
A rather ambitious project from Patrick Brown, albeit one that I’d warrant many of us have no knowledge of – The Ulster Cycle is a series of legendary stories from medieval Irish literature, set around the time of Christ that feature tales of the war and rivalry between Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster and Medb, Queen of Connacht. The principal hero of the Ulster Cycle – Conchobar’s nephew Cú Chulainn – doesn’t even feature until the Cattle Raid Of Cooley.
Legends, by their very nature, are thrilling, involving things – they would not have survived down the ages were they not after all. So Brown does at least have the benefit of calling upon a host of interesting characters and situations. But in these two comic books, slightly rough though they may be, he’s created something to bring this previously unknown bit of history (at least to this reviewer) to vibrant life.
(A King powerless to avenge the deaths of his daughter’s foster fathers. A daughter feeling betrayed and vengeful. So starts the saga of Ness. From Patrick Brown’s The Ulster Cycle: Ness)
The Ulster Cycle starts with Ness, mother of Conchobar, a young princess who turns into a questing outlaw warrior when her foster-fathers; 12 tribal chiefs, are murdered by a rogue group of fianna led by the outlaw/druid Cathbad. Her father King Eochaid is powerless to intervene (tribal politics are as complex and tied up in red tape as modern politics it seems) and Ness bravely turns outlaw herself to track down the fianna and avenge her foster fathers.
She hunts down Cathbad in time but when she finally comes face to face with him, he tells a tale of a vision in which he saw the King deposed and Ness dead – a possible future that needed the deaths of 12 men Ness loved to avert. In a sudden change of mind — Ness marries Cathbad and bears his son, the future King. (Legends are full of these bizarre twists. And at least here we’re led to believe that Ness is acting in the best interests of maintaining her father’s lineage.)
(Ness finally catches up with the man she was determined to kill and finds out he was acting in her best interests. Or so it seems. From Patrick Brown’s The Ulster Cycle: Ness)
The story picks up two generations later in The Cattle Raid Of Cooley with Conchobar’s nephew Cú Chulainn, just a young warrior looking after the borders, who will, in time, face a great battle with Medb, Queen of Connacht. But this first issue of The Cattle Raid Of Cooley serves more as a small history lesson, with the story of Ness and her children revisited and the intervening years filled in, complete with detailed and fascinating looks at the politics that surround so much of the lives of Kings and Queens throughout history.
(Meet Cú Chulainn, the King Of Ulster’s nephew. Things are about to get a whole lot more interesting for this young man. From Patrick Brown’s The Ulster Cycle: The Cattle Raid Of Cooley Issue 1)
Both comics tell their tales very well, with Ness played as a straight questing revenge adventure until the twist at the end that ensures the royal line will continue. Whilst The Cattle Raid Of Cooley is a slower affair, detailing the background to the story so far and only briefly highlighting Cú Chulainn, a young man destined for greatness. Brown captures the time very well, both in his art and story, this is no polished recounting of history, but a tale full of earthy reality, full of the dirt of ancient lands and the blood of ancient races.
The art is a sketchy affair, which sometimes makes character recognition difficult and has you struggling to follow the story, particularly in Ness. But it’s improved no end by the time we get to Cattle Raid Of Cooley. And the sketchiness, for all it’s faults, actually suits the story that Brown is telling. This is no clean, polished tale and Brown’s sketchy, occasionally messy artwork suits his story rather well.
All in all Patrick Brown has produced something rather intriguing here with these two comics. I’d encourage you to find out more, Ness and The Cattle Raid Of Cooley are available to read online at Patrick Brown’s website. But I’d encourage you to use that only to see what you think and actually buy the print version from Brown’s shop.