Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter published by Renegade Art Entertainment
Written by Emma Beeby & Gordon Rennie
Illustrated by Tyernen Trevallion
Letters and production by Jim Campbell
Robbie Burns biography by Jerry Brannigan
Editor and Publisher: Alexander Finbow
Robbie Burns might be renowned as the greatest poet of Scotland, but there's a part of his past unknown to the public. Before his sonnets and ballads, he armed himself nightly with gun and sword against witch cults, defending the world from their satanic schemes. From Renegade Art Entertainment comes an audacious graphic novel that intertwines fact and fiction, taking the reader on a Gothic journey through the Scottish countryside with fright, fight, and rhyme.
If there is one thing horror is both good and horrible at, it's recycling old monsters. Vampires, ghosts, witches, zombies, demons, and werewolves have all been done to death, but they keep on coming back. No matter how sick of them we are, including horror fans like me desperate for new monsters, a story that reuses one of these tired old creeps comes around and proves worthwhile. However, witches don't get as much attention. While The Walking Dead has brought zombies into the forefront of the most watched TV show on the planet and Twilight's vampires into the pale fantasies of teenagers, witches seem to have gotten less attention. I mean, there were all the cool '70s occult movies, but recent years have given little love to the bitches on brooms. That is until recently. Two witch movies came out: The VVitch and The Love Witch. OK, so not the most creative names, but they took the concept of the witch and made the best horror movies of 2016.
In both films, the witches were interpreted differently, but simultaneously explored serious themes, even potentially feminist critiques of patriarchy. Even though I'm still looking for new monsters, I take delight in seeing one of the lesser celebrated horror beasties reemerging and used to tell stories that are equally entertaining and intellectually stimulating.
And then there is Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter.
It is not the same caliber. It's more like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a schlocky action movie that has a horror-themed creature without being really scary. Oh, well. You know, what? If I can't enjoy a smart horror movie, I can still enjoy a silly one. But does it entertain? I mean, I might be watching a B-movie, but that doesn't mean I have to turn off my critical skills. You can be a schlockfest all you want, but it's no excuse for incompetent writing and visuals. Blood & Gourd, a similar comic, proves that schlock can have artistic merit without losing entertainment value. In fact, those artistic merits tend to make the best B-horrors.
Does Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter prove to be more than just blood and sex?
The answer is: Almost.
The cover art for the book is the first bump on the road. The art is fine, and the geometry of the smoke shape does a great job of positioning Robbie Burns in opposition to Satan below. I especially like Jim Campbell's lettering which looks like classical writing you would find in old novels and textbooks. However, it's a rather boring cover. There is no action, nothing that jumps off the page and grabs hold of the reader. Furthermore, it does not imply the contents of the comic. If not for the title, I would've thought that this was just some random guy going up against the devil. Nothing would have told me this was a famous poet fighting witches.
The inside cover on page 2 is better. Here, Robbie is paired with Meg and Mackay, two witch hunters he meets in the story. They are in full witch-hunting gear and armed to the teeth. Behind them is the glowing, menacing figure of a witch. This cover is much more enticing and action-packed. This is the kind of cover that should be on the front, and what is currently on the front should be an interior design where the credits go.
Then there is the third inside cover, an even more action-packed scene of Robbie and Meg about to square off with demons.
The only negative critique I have for this image is that it's misleading. If you were to put this on the front cover, I wouldn't think that Robbie was a witch hunter but a demon hunter. I know this is nitpicking, but I feel it matters. In general, comic artists need to make a cover that acts as a poster for the contents of the story. A good example of what I'm talking about is Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
The movie is about a chainsaw massacre, and what do you know? There's an image of a scary looking guy with a chainsaw and a screaming girl tied up. Kind of drives home the plot, doesn't it? Now, blatantly stating the story contents isn't always the best creative choice, but whatever you do, make sure the cover is not misleading for a potential reader. Well, if the point is to be misleading, sure. But this is B-horror, folks. Unless you're clever, keep it straightforward.
While cover art is lacking, Tyernen Trevallion's interiors are Gothic goodness. The first scene of the comic is Robbie Burns horse-riding through the Scottish countryside at night. It's dark and eerie, trees like scraggly, bone-thin fingers swaying in the wind. The scene reminds me of the same nightmarish path Ichabod Crane took in Sleepy Hollow, specifically the 1949 animated version. It gets even better when Robbie reaches the collapsed church. Here, a covenant of witches dances to a satanic ritual:
Everything about this scene is what I love in horror. The skeletons of dead children in coffins, ghastly from the sacrilege that has been committed against their eternal rest, and mystical with the blue-lit candles held in their hands. The witches, gray-skinned to give them an inhuman quality, scantily clad or outright naked as they dance to entice and mock Christendom's codes of decency. The men crawling on the ground like the animals whose pelts they wear.
When I look at this scene, I get a visceral feel of terror, sensuality, and mysticism. These are three of my favorite horror elements, and this scene embodies them perfectly. Robbie ogling the witches is pretty funny too.
I couldn't ask for more. Well, I could ask for genitals to not be covered with conveniently placed shadow. Seriously, I get tit and ass but not dick and pussy? Come on, fully commit to your trash entertainment.
Another part of the art that I love is the designs for the witches and demons. Trevallion goes all out arming them with fangs and claws, glowing eyes, and disturbing anatomy. Imagine the Gremlins if they were jacked up on steroids and the brown acid from Woodstock. These monster designs go along with the setting. Now, it does no service to the Scottish countryside as Trevallion makes it appear an ugly place, but it does wonders for the Gothic mysticism of the story. My favorite horror takes place in the woods. The woods to me are still where these stories can happen because the safety of civilization disappears and danger can be right around the corner. Also, nature is mystifying, free of rationality and retaining a mysterious quality . These qualities lend greatly to horror. My personal favorite is a scene later in the book when Robbie goes in search of a bogle:
This looks like Frodo's encounter with Gollum. It's dark, earthen setting and just as intense, although it becomes a fight of brawn instead of brain. Here, the cave matches the bogle's design and makes the overall tone of the book complete, drawing in the reader into the world.
Action scenes are fun and visceral. Trevallion has a sense of movement and space that prevents these scenes either feeling stiff or overwhelmed by too much detail. While the gore isn't the most outrageous I've seen, it's still pretty damn bloody and brought a smile to my face. It's the main attraction of the graphic novel and is satisfying for those wanting a roller coaster reading experience.
There are issues with the art. Characters weren't emotive enough, and I couldn't help but find some of the movement stiff, a flaw I have to contribute to the inking despite it being crucial to the gothic tone. Also, while the grayish colors worked for nighttime scenarios, it made daytime dull. I get it, Scotland is ugly, but just a little bit of blue sky and sunshine would improve things. I don't want gray all the time. I want actual color too!
One last thing I'll harp on is the exaggerated and sexualized anatomy of the witches. They got it all: big thighs, tiny waists, big butts, and even bigger breasts. Hell, it's not even the witches. Normal women have a pair that looks like they cause serious back problems. In the scene where the witches dance naked, the nudity is clearly framed to titillate the male gaze. Now, it works in the context of Robbie spying on them, and there is even commentary that criticizes Robbie, but it's awkward in other scenes. I don't mind it and even enjoy it as part of the overall B-movie tone of the comic. Trash should be as trashy as possible. But even then it can be too much.
Now, to Trevallion's credit, there is a point where the sexiness becomes non-sexy. When the witches transform into their demon forms, their nudity, still attaining its sexualized quality, becomes grotesque instead of titillating. If anything, it amplifies their monstrosity because the sudden combination of sexual and grotesque is unnerving. It takes the male gaze's objectification of women and turns it into a weapon. Perhaps this is a commentary on male lust. However, you could also say this is further problematic because it takes the concept of female sexuality and suggests the idea that openly sexual women are bad. In the end, it's all up for the reader to decide if they mind it or not. Personally, I admit that this objectification is problematic, but at the same time it's so much goddamn fun.
Emma Beeby and Gordon Rennie center the story heavily on Robert Burns based on his personal life. I confess, I've never heard of Burns nor realized that he had such an influence on Scottish culture (Then again, if all I know about Scotland is Braveheart and Wee Hughie, I got some serious learning to do). The biography written in the end by Jerry Brannigan sheds some interesting light. I won't repeat everything here, but in summary Robert Burns was Scottish Shakespeare, a writer from common birth who rose above the ranks to become popular and influential. He was proclaimed as the People's Poet, an apt title considering that much of his writing is about everyday Scottish life, especially drinking and woman chasing. In fact, he wrote love poems to over 80 women. Damn. Dude got around more than Don Juan. Not only was Burns known for chasing the dames, he also wrote quite a few poems about witches, his most popular being "Tam O' Shanter." In fact, it is this poem with its lyrical description of a debauched night of witchcraft that the story is inspired by. What if, just like all of his poetry, Burns had based it off of something that happened to him?
Beeby and Rennie weave together aspects of Robbie Burns' personal life with the myth of witches flawlessly. The opening scene is a statue of the poet in present day. It includes narrative boxes eulogizing his accomplishments. It's a noble statue too, representing Burns as a grand, noble figure.
Then the scene switches to Robbie getting his butt kicked.
This is supposed to be Robbie Burns during his years as a nobody. What the narrative does wisely here is set up a contrast. Burns is shown as he was before becoming a renowned poet. Aside from the humor, it also sets up Robbie for growth. If he is our protagonist, he needs to start off somewhere common or undesirable. The latter doesn't necessarily mean the protagonist is unlikable. By "undesirable", it can mean they are at an uncomfortable, undesired point in life. After getting throttled for trying to seduce another man's partner, he rides off into the woods ranting about how much better he is than the townspeople. Yeeeeeah. Robbie is a wanker. It's laughable when you realize the guy currently makes a living raking hay and cleaning up pig shit.
Again though, I think this contrast between Robbie the past opposed to how he's memorialized is necessary. When it comes to protagonists, the reader needs a reason for following their journey. A storyteller can do a number of things. The common trick is to give the reader a reason for liking, sympathizing, or empathizing with a protagonist. Now, this gets trickier when the protagonist is unlikable. In Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter, Robbie shown to be a world-renown poet, which makes the reader interested in him. He might be a wanker now, but there is promise he will grow and become more likable.
This growth happens when Robbie meets the two witch hunters, Ol' Mackay and Meg. Mackay is a veteran with the grizzled personality of Dirty Harry, but the ugly-as-sin face of Steve Bannon. Meg is a seasoned witch hunter with fiery red hair and a personality to match. They save Robbie from getting torn to pieces and decide to make him a witch hunter.
What happens from there is a traditional hero's journey. At first, Robbie rejects the offer but soon finds himself forced into the profession when his life is endangered. From there, Robbie slowly matures. He takes life seriously and does more than pursue pleasure. He proves to be quite the witch hunter. At the same time, Robbie's poetry gets better. His increased skills as a poet signify maturity. Yes, he still writes about booze and ladies, but he branches out into other territory such as witchcraft and love. The source of the love poems is his infatuation with Meg. At first, it's simple lust. As he spends more time learning from Meg though, Robbie comes to admire her skills and personality. This admiration for Meg becomes the inspiration for one of his most popular love poems, "A Red, Red Rose".
As for Ol' Mackay and Meg, they play a key role in the story. Not only are they Robbie's teachers, they provide a subsequent amount of knowledge to the reader about witches and how to defeat them. Take note, I am not an expert on witchcraft. The only thing I know is that one way to kill a witch is to sketch a figure in a tree and attach a personal belonging of the witch before stabbing a pin through the heart area. As such, I won't comment on the accuracy of witchcraft in the comic, only consistency.
Ol' Mackay and Meg don't talk much about the psychology of witches. All the reader gets is the usual routine of they worship Auld Clootie so that automatically makes them evil. Not much about how they use magic or what made them want to become witches.
This issue of dehumanizing the witches is a cause for concern. A common feminist critique of witches, specifically the evil version, is that it demonizes non-compliant women. These women are openly sexual, independent, and refute patriarchal standards. These characteristics have been used in history to persecute and execute women. In fact, around Robbie Burns' time, there was massive panic over witches in Europe. During the 1700s, thousands of women were arrested and executed on the charge of witchcraft, not counting the number of those lost to angry mobs.
The point is that the comic plays the witch trope straight up. Murdering these women is justified, and not once does anyone doubt or question the witch hunters. Again, I'm perfectly fine with that. I know that the writers are just having a good time and none of this is to be taken seriously. However, I will acknowledge that negative versions of certain demographics can have dire consequences in real life. Just look at any comment section calling a woman a bitch or a whore when they upset dudes, usually for nothing more than critiquing their views. Writers should always think about what kind of message their work sends to readers.
As stated previously, the comic focuses on methods of killing witches. Some are as simple as shooting gold coins from a gun to using a black cat, last born from a litter of thirteen, drowned in running water on sunset on a saint's day, left out overnight in the center of a fairy ring, and then it's belly cut open and stuffed full of bursting with gunpowder, sulfur and whatever can be stolen from the church poor box.
Yeah, as you can tell this stuff is cuckoo, especially when cats explode like grenades. I think it's supposed to be humorous. Interestingly, one weakness of the witches is that they cannot pass through or over running water. Anyone familiar with vampire lore knows this is a common weakness for the fiends with wings. In the writers' defense, sometimes running water is applied to other supernatural creatures. It's interesting, but unfortunately not consistent. Later on in the story, the witch hunters resort to fighting with swords and ordinary bullets. It seems to do the trick just fine despite not being the methods prescribed in the rest of the comic. For me, I need consistent rules in a fantasy setting. Minor ones are expected, but huge plot holes like this can ruin a story.
Personality wise, there isn't much to Mackay and Meg. They're both dedicated, no-nonsense witch hunters that berate Robbie for his shortcomings. This isn't quite shocking because the comic isn't heavy on complex drama. It's all about the action. That doesn't mean characters are uninteresting. A flashback reveals how Mackay and Meg met and it's a dark, touching story. It also explains why Meg has a strong student-mentor/father-daughter relation with Mackay. Speaking for myself, I always need there to be some kind of drama. It doesn't need be so much, but there should always be at least a little effort put into making readers care about characters to keep them invested in the story.
Despite being brutal toward the witches, Mackay and Meg are not completely black and white on the morality scale. When they first meet him, Mackay criticizes Robbie's lifestyle, but also says he's not deserving of damnation for it. In another scene, Meg and Robbie are stealing from a church. Robbie asks Meg why they don't ask the church for help, and she replies:
As previously stated, Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter takes place around the same time there was fervent fear of witches in Europe, leading to the death of thousands of women. Meg is criticizing the church as being incompetent, murdering women that are guilty of merely practicing old pagan ways. The witch hunters don't trust the church. They don't expect them to go after the real monsters but take out their personal prejudices out on innocents. It's a shocking criticism, one that I was pleasantly surprised by. However, that doesn't mean that the graphic novel is a progressive story. After all, this one solid criticism is overshadowed by a mountain of objectified women and playing straight-faced the misogynistic tropes of witches.
Another interesting aspect is the dialogue. Except for the narrative boxes, dialogue is written in the Scottish vernacular. It's thick, consistent, and adds a layer of realism to the book. Sometimes it's a little much. Well, I should say for an American. I could follow along with most of the dialogue, but as someone unfamiliar with the Scottish vernacular, parts of it were incomprehensible. Hell, I sometimes thought I was reading a different language. Oh, well. I'll consider this a chance to learn more about Scotland.
Now, with all this praise I've been heaping on the comic (with some reasonable critique), you might be wondering why I say it only almost reaches excellence? Well, it has to do with the concept itself. It's not original. Historical and literary figures in horror stories have become a significant subgenre. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, for example. I can understand the appeal and see the many storytelling possibilities that can be achieved. However, I find the subgenre so far lacking in genuine substance. I'll admit that I've only seen movie adaptations. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was bogged down by boring action scenes. I haven't read the book, so maybe it's better in that medium. One thing I did like about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was how it ties vampire hunting to Lincoln's story, showing how it had an impact on both his personal life and political career.
Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter does that, but in spades. It does a lot to show how witch-hunting influences his poetry, but his personal life is not explored much. There are only brief glimpses into it and mostly just the cliches of him being a hard-drinking, woman-chasing common man. Friends, family, and other important relations don't make an appearance. It's just Robbie and the witch hunters 98% of the time. Furthermore, I never felt completely in the setting. Yes, I felt absorbed in the countryside, but not the civilized areas. I just got snapshots. I didn't get to learn about the food, drink, and culture. Take out the Scottish dialogue, and the setting could easily be England, Ireland, Wales, and other similar looking places in the 1700s. It seems like I'm asking a lot, and perhaps I am for a book this size and style. However, I think that it is important if you come up with a concept that depends so much on history, you have to go full throttle in the many minute ways needed to absorb a reader.
Robbie Burns: Vampire Hunter has its faults, but overall it is a fun reading experience that manages to simultaneously entertain and teach about an iconic poet. Its strong points are the gothic art, monster shoot-em-up action, and tying in Robbie's growth as a poet with witch-hunting. If you can get pass the problematic elements, it's a great afternoon read. Also, it has enough set up for a sequel, particularly to explore Robbie and his relationship with faerie folk that show up in a few scenes. Hopefully, there will be more adventures in the future.