You might have noticed this by now, but I am something of am enthusiast for all things “Celtic,” be it art, music, story or history. Truth be told, what started as an interest in my own family history has grown into something akin to fanaticism. Well, guess what, faithful: today, April sixth, is Tartan Day, a celebration of all things Scottish in America (or wherever you happen to live). Unlike St Paddy’s or St David’s days to the Irish and Welsh, respectively, which both began as religious observances and grew to become cultural celebrations; Tartan Day is a purely secular affair. (Tartan, in case you are not “in-the-know,” is the distinct weaving pattern of Scotland, and the fabric woven after that method.)
Now, hang on, folks, I know that lengthy discussions of weaving technologies and history are thrilling reading, but I have something better in mind today. On this day The-Powers-That-Be have declared it fitting to toss a “thumbs-up” to Scotland, and we here at Ideal Comics are more than ready to comply. (Well, I am, anyway.)
This week’s comic is Batman: Scottish Connection by Scotland’s own Alan Grant and Frank Quitely, and like the last two weeks’ selections, this book was not something I pulled from any quarterbin, but rather, was a comic I specifically went looking for! (I promise, stories of the weird and quirky comic quests will continue, but today, let’s try to keep in the spirit of the day.) Alan Grant, of course, has had a long history with Batman, being one of the main Bat-scribes from the late 80’s and early 90’s, and inventing Lonnie Machin, Anarky. Frank Quitely is probably best known for his unique linework and style and its impact on the feeling of WildStorm’s dynamic series The Authority with Mark Millar and New X-men with Grant Morrison.
Our story begins in Scotland, off the northwest coast and upon the Isle of Skye. Bruce Wayne attends a ceremony interring the remains of one of Bruce’s ancestors, one Gaweyne de Weyne, into a tomb alongside three other Crusaders. Bruce, ever watchful, notices that all the assembled tombstones are missing the lower left corners. Coming back after dark in cape and cowl, just to see what is what, Batman is attacked by a troop of local toughs. He is just about out-classed, matched in the moment at least (I mean, these guys have sledgehammers, folks), when a mysterious woman with a pair of trained attack-owls swoops in to the rescue.
Between the mysterious redhead and the Batman himself, the local thugs are repelled, and Sheona (the mysterious one’s name) offers the Dark Knight a spot near the fire and shelter from the sudden Skye mists. Boston born, this transplanted school teacher is on the search for her wayward brother; and she has a story to tell. (This tale is split between Sheona and her brother and is told piece-at-a-time through the book, but I have put it all together here.)
“Two hundred years ago, a village stood on the Scottish west coast. The people where crofters, poor tenant farmers, who’d been there for generations. It was a hard life, but it was a life. The Industrial Revolution sent the price of wool soaring. Landowners could get more for sheep that in rents for a croft. They drove vast flocks north from England… And if the crofters wouldn’t leave willingly… They were driven out by force of arms.”
One family, the Sliths, has been driven off by the money-hungry MacDubh’s. The whole lot of them was loaded a-ship and sent packing to America. Not an unheard of tale, sad to say, but a few days in, the bubonic plague spread through the ship, killing passenger and crew alike. By the end of a dead-man’s voyage, only two souls survived: a father and his infant son. Swear, the man does, that he will pass the hatred and desire for vengeance down generation by generation until the MacDubh’s receive their just reward by the hand of Slith. (Of course, who should be a scion of MacDubh, but our very own Bruce Wayne!)
A day later, and after a call from another American-Scot redhead, “Oracle” Barbara Gordon, Bruce heads across “auld Alba” to the Rosslyn Chapel (built some centuries ago by my own presumptive kin, those ancient Sinclairs). It seems old de Weyne may well have been one of the mysterious Templar Knights, and clues lead Batman further down the rabbit hole of his own family history.
That night, Batman follows a pack of ne’er-do-well’s into the chapel, where the are to meet Fergus Slith. Slith has discovered the famed Temple Treasure, but all he wants from the hoard is a single box with unknown contents, a treasure that Bats tries to steal, but fails when he is bested in single combat with Slith, who throws the Caped Crusader off a cliff toward his death. Batman, being, well, Batman, catches a hold of the cliff side just far enough down to feign death, but near enough to hear the next stage of the plan: vengeance of the Clan MacDubh on the Queensferry Bridge.
After relaying the tale to her, Oracle tells Bruce that there might be some even worse news. Legend has it that among the Temple treasure was a parchment called “the Devil scroll.” The story goes that the parchment holds the power to make men into super men, a story Batman has cause to believe when he faces Slith and his fellows on the train. The battle is pitched, but this time Bats is prepared, and he is able to tip the scales and save the passengers (Edinburgh bound MacDubhs) from Slith’s designs to infect them with a deadly plague. In the end, Fergus Slith plummets off the bridge along with the engine, seemingly to a horrific end.
Well, this frees Bruce up to gather with his distant kin at the MacDubh Reunion. All seems nominal until Sheona appears to finish her tale. The crowd is enthralled or horrified, and Bruce introduces himself. Just as he and Sheona become acquainted, Fergus appears with a helicopter, a missile launcher, and murder in his eyes. Now, it is time for Batman to save the day, but the real savior is Sheona, who alone is able to put her brother (for such Fergus is) to a final stop.
As with any good historical fiction, there are some things that are true, and some things that are not. The story of the crofters and the forced evacuations is real, as are the reasons: wool and money. It was a series of events called the Highland Clearances. Hundreds of families were thrown from the hills and vales of Scotland for wool, and money, and whatever else. Some went to Ireland, some to Canada, some to Australia and some to America. And the Clearances went on for years. In some ways, the Clearances were the mechanism to spread the Scottish diaspora that has so enriched countries around the world. Nevertheless, they were and are an affront to all human decency.
The blood feud between the Clans Slith and MacDubh is fiction. In fact, both Clans are fiction. MacDubh, “son of the dark,” was the surname of King Kenneth III around AD 900, but that was in the day before patronymic naming, and that name just didn’t stick around. Nevertheless, blood feuds and long memories are hallmarks of Scottish culture; and one Grant uses to give the whole story a remarkably “Scottish” texture. In fact, Grant was able to weave several shining threads to the tapestry of “Scottish Connection” with the same effect. As he drives Bruce around, Alfred Pennyworth, the consummate Englishman, finds himself enthralled with Scotland, singing along with the songs and poems of Rabbie Burns and his ilk, and such things he picks up at a ceilidh (a folk music song-and-dance session). Littered throughout the mystery are nods to the “Auld Alliance” of Scotland and France, to the mysterious connections of the Crusaders and the Templars, and to the aforementioned Rosslyn Chapel. We see Bruce Wayne in a kilt, while Fergus Slith is attired in the ancient belted plaid of the 17th century and before. With all of this, and framed in the narrative of Sheona and Fergus’s story, the entire piece feels very nostalgic and very “Scottish.” Quitely’s thin, precise line-work gives the whole work a wispy, ethereal quality, as sudden and transient as the mists itself. My only qualm with the whole work is that somehow Batman knows Fergus Slith’s name before anyone else in the comic has even said it.
There is one final, very Scottish aspect to the story. We follow Batman through all his detecting and serendipity, but he is as much a spectator as we are. The story is not really about Batman, even though it is thoroughly woven with his forebears. It is about Family. The impetus of the tale is family vengeance, and Batman is not part of that family. Only Sheona, a noble warrior-woman who has cast aside her heritage of hate, has proper right to break the curse. Batman does what he can protecting innocents, but without Sheona’s valor, he could not have stopped Fergus. By a Slith begun, by a Slith ended.
All in all, I loved this book, and it had been far too long since I read it last. Grant and Quitely do bang-up job building a story that lives up to its title, and it is well worth checking out if you run across it.