Obscure Comic of the Month takes a detailed look at a little known entry from my personal comic book collection. Some will be from major publishers, others self published projects, Original Graphic Novels, issues and Manga. What they'll all have in common though, is that I've rarely, if ever, seen anybody talk about them.
The Ballard of Half Hanged MacNaghten by Danny McLaughlin and Adam Prescott – Uproar Comics 2013
Based on the Local Legend of John “Half Hanged” MacNaghten
Contains Spoilers for a 250 year old folk tale.
The Ballard of Half Hanged MacNaghten was produced as a special project by Uproar Comics to coincide with Derry's status as the UK City of Culture for 2013. The comic retells a local folk tale of star crossed lovers with a tragic end.
The comic has a charismatic start right from the get go. It's not often I go right into talking about the art, but here the slick presentation by Adam Prescott is really what sells the story from the start. There's a loose, expressive quality to his lines and characters that give this tale a bit of an easygoing flavour, despite the rather grim tone.
It's the kind of presentation that brings to mind recounting tall tales in the corner of a pub on a wet Thursday evening, which is perfectly appropriate for the telling of a folk legend. Prescott's art swings back and forth between sugar-sweet idealised romance and dirty, sleazy streets, and the grayscale art shifting from light to dark keeps the reader from ever felling dragged along.
But what of the writing though? Well, given it's background it's no surprise we hit the ground running with cliché. A character stands singing Danny Boy as early as page two. Still, the Irish do tend to have a taste for ironic self-deprecation, and it's clear that's the attitude the creators are trying to go for.
The tale itself is one that's been told a million times before. The lowly, unreliable John MacNaghten falls in love with the noble Mary, who's father is set against their relationship. John and Mary try in vain to elope, which leads to tragedy and John facing execution. John survives his hanging but refuses live without his beloved. In the end, everyone is together in death.
No doubt every culture has a variant of forbidden love ending in tragedy, The Ballard of Half Hanged MacNaghten hardly holds a monopoly on that, but in a way, that's what makes it great. The comic itself is a true part of folklore. A retelling for the ages. It's been romanticised, it's details tweaked, but as the writers say themselves in the comic's afterword; “We wanted to take a leaf out of “Mac's” book, and be that little bit daring and roguish, and use the history to tell the more romantic tale of the legend.”
The creators don't waste time on the fine details, just use every advantage the graphic medium gives them to put a new spin on the story. It's a sad tale, and also a very violent one, but it's also great fun, and none of the folk spirit is lost in the translation, quite the opposite. I'd never heard the tale of John “Half Hanged” MacNaghten, but through my love of comic books he's now part of another world I'm eager to explore.
The comic's connection to the UK City of Culture almost feels perfunctory. The retelling didn't need an event, or an occasion, and the comic itself stands on it's own. However, it's important to note that folklore isn't just about the people but the place. The comic is as much about Derry, and Ireland, as it is MacNaghten himself. The preservation of his tale communicates the values of it's storytellers, the underdog spirit, the friendship of community and optimistic determinism, as well as what is deserving of scorn, cowardice, defeatism, and most of all arrogant authoritarianism.
Folklore and legends live on for many reasons. Some are great stories, some come from an important time in cultural history. I like to think that The Ballard of Half Hanged MacNaghten is a combination of both, and a great retelling like this is exactly where it belongs.
Jack Harvey 2016. The Ballard of Half Hanged MacNaghten (c) 2013 Uproar Comics, Danny McLaughlin and Adam Prescott. Images used under Fair Use.