It’s a battle of man versus nature in Barry Keegan’s The Bog Road, a comic steeped in Irish mythology that’s proven resistant to Google, but is no less fascinating for that (John Bracken might be human, for instance, but his last name’s association with a common, poisonous fern says a lot about where humans stand in this story).
When the graphic novel begins, Bracken has gone against the Creature and allowed construction of a road to continue through its bog. At the same time, local teens are dying in car crashes. Bracken blames the Creature for these accidents and has come to the bog to ask it to stop.
The scene feels reminiscent of the Grimms’ fairy tale, The Fisherman and his Wife, but instead of their relationship turning sour, Bracken and the Creature are already there. It’s that tension covered with false diplomacy, where one wrong word could erupt in violence and it does, early, on page five. Sewer-y bubbles and toxic looking gas, trailing from Bracken’s lantern, add to the subtext of their meeting.
The way Keegan’s Creature is designed (it also goes by the name Na Sliogán), it sinks and rises from the ground. Sometimes it’s rooted there. Other times it’s free to move around. Checking out its feet, you can learn a lot about how confident it’s feeling about its position in power.
If the characters aren’t as accessible to being Googled, the places are. Keegan’s Ireland isn’t generic, a point that’s cleared up on the first page, when Bracken’s sitting at a bar but then the locations get progressively more specific. They also move out into nature, which is where the main conflict exists between Bracken and the Creature over how much value should be given to preserving the environment.
Each destination is clearly labeled and ready to be tested for accuracy. At the back of the book, there’s a map so you can follow the path the characters take and be more conscious of the distances covered. Maybe that wouldn’t strike every reader as much of a draw, but because The Bog Road deals with characters who have to think about how they’re getting places (and ultimately land on some unusual modes of transportation), travel takes forethought. It’s not a one-stop hop in the car for all your traveling needs. The Bog Road asks you to break out of your usual way of thinking, and that means bog cat riding might be an option.
Since these characters are unfamiliar, there’s no predicting or waiting for a bog cat to show up, either, the way you might expect a wolf to appear in Little Red Riding Hood. There’s no personal history, yet these characters are ancient, with a past that goes back generations. Keegan purposely leaves gaps, to let you know these stories go back further than what’s on the page. Some back matter on Keegan’s influences would’ve been the icing on the cake, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is awfully good cake.
The first twelve pages are colored by Chris O’Halloran, while the rest of the book is colored by George Patrick Gamma. The split falls at a natural point (O’Halloran’s scene takes place ten years earlier) but the change-off can be noticeable, especially with the human characters (much less so the mythological figures) and the loss of those awesome, sickly and murky greens O’Halloran uses to light the opening. Gamma does some really cool scenes with purple skies, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou letters, and the whole world is one where magic’s soaked into the earth, inseparable, a world where it’s not hard to find a story in need of telling, like Barry Keegan’s done so enchantingly with The Bog Road.
The Bog Road debuts at Celtic Con this weekend and is available to order from Atomic Diner through Sub-City Comics.