Ireland's comic book heroes

Sat, May 15, 2010, 01:00

With graphic novels about 1916 and An Táin, and tales of superheroes and Michael Landon, our comic book industry is undergoing a creative boom, writes JOHN BYRNE

THIS MORNING the nation’s comic-book shops will open their doors and invite customers to view treasures from one of Ireland’s overlooked cultural industries. Today is Free Irish Comic Book Day, an annual event that offers punters a chance to take home free samples of locally produced work.

Those who take advantage will find themselves initiated into a deep, rich and vibrant creative world. For though it has long been overshadowed by the output of our neighbour across the water, the Irish comics industry has, in recent years, finally started to find its feet and its distinctive voice.

The foot soldiers who have driven forward this renaissance are the small presses – independent creators who design, print and self-publish their work. These non-professionals invest considerable amounts of their effort and spare time, not to mention money, in creating volumes whose existence often goes unnoticed by the general public.

For most small press/independent creators, distribution is a key concern.Ready access to rudimentary printing facilities, and staplers, may mean that anyone can now self-publish relatively inexpensively, but getting the work out there remains a gruelling challenge. Distribution is a job in itself, confirms Paddy Lynch (creator of slice-of-life small-press gem Last Bus). It involves approaching comic shops one by one, asking: “Will you take a few copies, sale or return?”

Given how time-consuming such a direct sales approach can be, one might wonder why small-press creators don’t choose to follow the e-book/e-paper route and simply offer their comics as downloadable PDF files. The main reason seems, refreshingly, to centre on a genuine love of the physical object.

Garret Shanley, co- creator of the hilarious and beautifully illustrated Windell Classic Compendium Superhero Showcase, sums up the tactile appeal: “It’s about having a fetish for the objects since I was young. Just holding them, and having them there to look at.”

Another factor influencing the preference for hard copies is the realisation that the physical composition of the object (the weight of the paper used, the types of ink, and so on) can, as Paddy Lynch points out, actually change the way it communicates its meaning: “You think of the whole object as an art object, and the way you present it as an object can really add to the story you’re trying to tell.”

This is where communal events such as fairs, conventions and festivals come in, allowing writers and artists a space to showcase their work. These are places where contacts are made or renewed, ideas are exchanged and, crucially, the majority of small-press sales are generated.

This summer sees a number of such events taking place throughout Ireland, with two deserving special mention. On June 3rd-5th, Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre (VAC) plays host to the 2D Festival, a celebration of Irish comics with a programme that includes workshops, panel discussions and guest appearances. Significantly for Irish writers/artists, 2D also offers free table space for small-press creators and publishers.

The VAC, under the stewardship of festival organiser and illustrator-in-residence David Campbell, also plans to start publishing and distributing the best of Irish small-press comics through its own in-house printing facilities. Due for launch at this year’s festival are Maeve Clancy’s Flatmates, a collection taken from her popular web-comic of the same name, and Co Donegal-born Phil Barrett’s The Human in Me.

On June 12th, the focus switches to Dublin’s new Point Village Market, with Hilary Lawler and Kate Farnon’s Point Village Comic Festival. Lawler’s motivation for creating the event, which is modelled on 2D, was simply to give Irish comics a forum.

Lawler explains that the absence of comics from mainstream bookshop shelves can mean it’s very easy for them to be off the radar unless a reader is specifically looking for them. That is why festivals, conventions and any event celebrating comics as an art form are so important, she adds, because otherwise comic art would simply never get out to the wider public.

Happily, despite its relative lack of exposure, the scene has produced numerous notable success stories. Irish comics titan Bob Byrne, for example, has not only seen his astonishing wordless graphic novel, Mr Amperduke, go through two print runs, but he was also offered his own series by 2000 AD ( Bob Byrne’s Twisted Tales) on the basis of his self-published work.

Others who cut their teeth on the small-press scene have subsequently followed Byrne’s lead. For example, Ennis-born Declan Shalvey is currently working in the US on a comics spin-off from 28 Days Later, for Boom! Studios.

Last year saw the high profile release of Gerry Hunt’s Blood Upon the Rose, a graphic novel about the Easter Rising that was published by O’Brien Press. Mention too should be made of the heightened profile and popularity currently being enjoyed by certain Irish-language comics. Titles such as Aidan Courtney’s delightful ongoing anthology, RíRá, continue to mix the best of local talent with translations of European strips, while Cló Mhaigh Eo’s sumptuously designed series of mythological graphic novels ( An Táinand An Traocht, among others) have penetrated mainstream bookselling and sold in impressive numbers.

All in all, the dynamism and creativity of the present comics scene promises a rosier future. Unlike more cut-throat and competitive industries, it is a scene that demonstrates a striking willingness to share and cooperate. It is fuelled, says Garret Shanley, by the simple but burning desire of creative talents to tell stories and make art.