Bard behaviour: Burns transformation into witch hunter

Graphic novel Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter was officially launched in the Bard's birthplace of Alloway in Ayrshire last year.

Drawing on Burns' epic poem Tam o' Shanter, it imagines the young poet having to battle witches, demons and bog monsters.

As Burns' Night approaches, Scottish writers Emma Beeby and Gordon Rennie have offered some insights into the original story and its sequel, which they suggest will have a "Batman and Robin vibe". Tiernen Trevallion has also opened up his sketchbook for Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter.

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

"Poetry may not be the first place graphic novelists look for inspiration," says Beeby.

"But Tam o' Shanter is a perfect choice. It has all the elements of great and visual storytelling - the scenes of the witches dancing and the chase over the Brig o' Doon after a blundering hero are instantly recognisable."

Rennie says: "The starting premise was always 'what if Tam o'Shanter was based on something that really happened to Burns?' and the rest of the story really spun out from that."

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade
Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

Early in the process of writing the script, the two writers visited Alloway and the locations in the poem.

Beeby says: "Seeing it - the Old Kirkyard and the Brig o' Doon in particular - you can understand how it served as inspiration for a tale of the supernatural and demonic in Tam o' Shanter.

"We took some twilight pictures for Tiernen so he had lots of reference. It was important it be recognisably Alloway and had that spooky atmosphere.

"And the museum is fantastic. Seeing Burns' own flintlocks there was the reason we made him a good shot in the book."

Rennie adds: "Emma and I made the pilgrimage to Alloway on a typically cold and bleak Scottish winter weekend. It was really about taking in the atmosphere of the place than hard research.

"Visiting the still quite creepy Old Kirk where Burns had the witches' sabbath happening, walking across the old humpbacked Brig o' Doon that the witches chased Tam across. Both locations feature prominently in the story we wrote."

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade
Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

Beeby and Rennie have established careers writing scripts for comics and graphic novels.

Rennie says: "I grew up reading British comics like DC Thomson's Commando books and 2000AD, and subsequently ended up writing for 2000AD, especially on its main Judge Dredd strip.

"Despite it being a science fiction comic, though, I've always tended to do stories that were more horror and/or had a historical flavour to them.

"The first big thing I did was a graphic novel in the early 90s called White Trash, which was about two psychos - one of them a character called The King, who may or may not have really been Elvis - travelling across America to do a comeback gig in Las Vegas.

"It got me some attention, more work and lawsuit threats from the Presley estate."

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

Beeby says: "Being a girl, I came to comics later on but I grew up with a healthy dose of science fiction - Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke and the like via my dad.

"A friend handed me Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics when I was 18. I read all of them over several nights of little sleep and was hooked. It was difficult to know where to go from there, though.

"I ventured into comics shops and was quite intimidated. I bought a few superhero things and had no idea what was going on. It took me a while to find my way in."

She adds: "It's a lot easier now for new readers to get into, with digital comics and just a broader acceptance of comics as a medium rather than a genre. There are so many different kinds of stories being told in comics."

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

In 2013, Beeby became the first woman to write a Judge Dredd comic book story in the character's 36-year history.

"That first Judge Dredd I worked on brought me a lot of attention and some pretty amazing opportunities," she says.

"Also Dredd is such an iconic character. To have that and my subsequent Dredd stories be well received among the fans as well was a big deal for me.

"Being the first woman to write it did make me worry about if I'd be treated as an outsider, but I've been so welcomed."

Image copyright Tiernen Trevallion/Renegade

The writers have been eyeing up other figures from Scotland's past for the graphic novel treatment.

Rennie says: "I've always wanted to do graphic novel horror stories about the truth behind Sawney Bean, the Borders cannibal, and what really happened to the disappeared lighthouse-keepers on Flannan Isle."

Beeby says: "The very first story Gordon and I worked on was a graphic novel based around the story of Mary King's Close which we hope to come back to."

"Scotland has so many ghost stories and gruesome characters to choose from."

A sequel to Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter is forthcoming.

The story has been set in 1787 when the Bard's popularity was on the rise following the publication of his first volume of poems.

Beeby says: "We wanted to continue with Burns. The sequel is based in Edinburgh, with a bit more of a Batman and Robin vibe to it."

Rennie says: "He was the toast of Edinburgh high society at the time and met a teenage Sir Walter Scott.

"What history doesn't record - but we will - are his adventures then involving body-snatchers and the infamous Edinburgh criminal Deacon Brodie, who was around at the same time."

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