The Rising: now with speech bubbles

 

A landmark Irish graphic novel brings the events of Easter 1916 to life, condensed into 46 pages. If it paints the rebels as heroes, says the book’s creator, that is because his extensive research brought him to that conclusion

A YOUNG WOMAN makes her way through the dark corridors of Kilmainham Gaol, a bunch of blood-red roses in her hands. As she reaches the prison chapel, we get a close up of her intended, his hands manacled, forehead bloody. He approaches the young woman . . . It’s time to turn the page.

Because this is not a film scene, but the first page of a new graphic novel based on the 1916 Rising, called Blood Upon the Rose: Easter 1916, The Rebellion that Set Ireland Free. Its author, 73-year-old Gerry Hunt, is a one-time architect who switched track some years ago and began to draw comics, an activity not usually associated with septuagenarians. But Hunt’s comics are not of the Dandyand Beanovariety: rather they are geared to a growing adult market for comics and graphic novels, generall y defined as comics with a defined narrative arc rather than part of a series.

After four comics set on Dublin streets, Hunt was contacted by O’Brien Press about publishing a graphic novel about the Rising. Given that his own father had been active in the War of Independence, the subject held particular interest for Hunt, who was born in Dublin but grew up in Sligo.

Yet moving from imagined tales and contemporary themes to take on a historical event was a big change. “I did have to do a fair bit of research,” he admits. “Before I started doing this, my memory of 1916 had sort of faded. It had been so long since I’d been talking to anybody about it, it had faded. I had to read to bring it back.”

He read a dozen books on the subject, took pages and pages of foolscap notes and immersed himself in the events of 1916, events he then had to distil into a finite number of framed drawings. “They set me a limit of 46 pages,” he recalls with a laugh. “With all that happened in 1916, I could have filled 200 pages!” His publishers were determined to keep things short, and Hunt rose to the challenge. “I had to leave out a fair bit,” he admits, but he managed to hone his narrative to keep within the brief, while including many of the key events of a day that changed the course of Irish history.

All that research was just for the storyline, however: the illustrations were a whole other matter, sketched by hand in detailed drafts, with Dublin painstakingly delineated as it was at the beginning of the 20th century with Hunt’s architect’s eye bringing the city streets to life. Drawing the characters was another challenge, given that all those involved in his story are familiar faces who peopled our history, their images ingrained in the Irish consciousness.

“I like to get a good likeness, that was a big thing for me,” says Hunt. Yet there were obstacles, like the fact that the only clear photograph available of Patrick Pearse is in profile, which makes for some complicated set-ups in terms of illustrating the action he was involved in.

Others were easier to adapt to comic form. “Connolly was fine, with the big moustache. And he was inclined to be fat.”

ONCE HE HAD honed the faces and characters, and sketched his story outline, Hunt went to illustrator BrenB, with whom he had worked on previous comics, for colour. BrenB has a long history with the comic format, having teamed up with some friends in the 1990s to put out what went on to become an award-winning comic book entitled Toenail Clippings. “I’m very interested in that visual world, and I like seeing how stories are told in a visual way,” he explains.

BrenB disputes that comics are for kids alone. “There are different types of comics out there: comics for kids, comics for teenagers, comics for adults. They’re like movies: stories with still images rather than moving images,” he says. “If you watch a Disney movie when you’re a kid, it doesn’t mean that when you grow up you stop watching movies.”

BrenB has high hopes for Blood Upon the Rose. “I think it’s going to be a great breakthrough comic book,” he says. “It’s going to announce Irish comics onto a wider scale. There’s a burgeoning underground scene here, of people who are putting out their own books, getting them photocopied and printed, and there is great work out there. Gerry’s is the first mainstream attempt to get them into people’s hands.”

If bookshops are to be believed, comics are already going mainstream. “Even four or five years ago, we were lucky to have one shop that did graphic novels,” says David O’Callaghan, book product manager for Eason, “whereas now, 20 of our largest stores have spinner stands, and O’Connell Street now has a shrine, a whole area dedicated to graphic novels, and it’s just growing and growing.” With Hollywood’s recent treatment of graphic novels such as Watchmenand Iron Manhelping nudge what was once a niche genre into the mainstream, graphic novels are no longer the preserve of the anorak-clad or the terminally nerdish.

“It has become cool,” says O’Callaghan. “If you were sitting on a bus reading Batman10 years ago you’d have been sniggered at, whereas now if you’re reading it, it’s pretty cool . . . There’s no shame in it. Ten years you’d be called a saddo, but now you see men in business suits, everyone delving in.”

CONSIDERING HOLLYWOOD has not yet signed up to a movie version of this latest graphic novel, who will be delving into Blood Upon the Rose? “I think because of the subject matter, it’s going to end up in the hands of people who won’t normally read history. And it’s going to get school kids interested in history as well,” says BrenB.

Hunt has hopes for a readership beyond these shores. “I’d like to think there’d be a good market in America for it, that there’d be a lot of people in America with an Irish background or Irish links who’d be very interested in it. Because it tries to tell you in pictures most of what happened . . . That’s a big change, and I think it’s very interesting.” For Hunt, the project was a chance for him to bring history to life. “This is a graphic novel, so it gave me a chance to illustrate what up until now we’ve only been reading about.” It has also changed his own perspective on the events of Easter Monday, 1916. “Having read a lot of the books – I don’t know whether they were biased or not – but the more you read of them, the more you realise that these guys, they weren’t thugs, these guys were patriots. They were very brave.” It turns out heroes are not necessarily just the stuff of fantasy. “It’s pretty obvious that I was very much sympathetic towards the volunteers,” says Hunt of his own political partisanship. Yet he stands by his portrayal of the men and women behind this pivotal event in the Irish chronology. “From some of the descriptions you might think we’re making them out to be heroes,” he admits, though capes and superpowers are replaced with green uniforms and patriotic fervour.

Blood upon the Roseby Gerry Hunt is published by O’Brien Press