Interviews

Life, Death and Irish Comics: An Interview with Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is a Dublin-based writer and comics creator. He made his start in writing with Irish folklore books, before starting to work in comics. In this interview, ahead of the release of Life & Death from Limit Break Comics, Paul was given questions from his creative partners, Gary Moloney and Gareth Luby. (Side-note: Paul is the editor for this site, and aside from writing about himself in the 3rd person, also suffers from not knowing when to shut up.)

You’ve worked a lot with properties and characters created by others (Meouch, The Wren, Chuck), how different was working on Life & Death to those projects?

The big difference for me was the creative control in the stories at a script level. There was a lot more freedom to play around with ideas in the script when I was working with my own characters. It’s much easier to “kill your darlings” in a script when you don’t have to worry about the artist’s emotional attachment to a character or an idea. (In some cases, the killing is also literal in Life & Death – decisions like that don’t really happen with the likes of Wren unless Jason Browne requests it, or with Frankie unless it’s a target.)

After that, it comes down to finding the right artist for the story. It’s the total reverse of how I’d previously worked on comics. I learned a lot more as I worked on the book – and as Limit Break Comics was coming together – about what I’d look for in a collaborator, which should in theory make the process more fluid next time.

What was it about the stories in Life & Death that meant they had to be told in a comic?

The short, obvious answer is that I needed the art to make the impact for these stories. When I wrote the scripts, there was a real sense of trying not to overwrite everything, to allow the other creators to pace things and make the revelations and twists more apparent in their own ways.

Colour is a big part of that. Blood Bounty and Mourning Coffee rely heavily on reds, while Death and Taxes needed more everyday tones, and Wake the Dead required a change of colours from orange to green – my experiences in writing prose fiction warned me way in advance that that would make for some sloppy, boring writing to get the point across.

You’ve recently taken on the duties of penning The Wren, what drew you to the character and what do you hope to explore in your run?

I was approached by Jason – the artist and original writer for The Wren – to take over the series after our work together on Tomte: The Warrior Elf. It was the first book I’d read from the Irish small press community (aside from work by Anthea West, who I knew way before I knew there were people in Ireland making their own comics!) It’s a fun character to write for and to think up stories about.

I’m very much about returning to the roots of the comic as much as I can. The first season (issues 1-12) built up in a big way. Now that Jack is back in school, in a new home, and knows much more about the superhero society, we have an opportunity to play with his secret identity a bit. Jason has some ideas about how he wants the main plot for the season to go, but otherwise I’ve something of a free reign with characters and where they’ll appear.

There’s obviously a lot of pressure with this; aside from the work of Anthea West, who I’ve known since the days of Bebo, The Wren was the first Irish small press comic I read, and the longest running small press title in the country. I like to think Jason’s faith in me is well-placed. He’ll still be a big part of the plotting process, and he’ll likely have something to say about the direction I take with certain parts of the story, but that’s a safety net for me, and it means I can throw out some crazier ideas with him and see what’s interested in before scripting it.

You colour and letter a lot of your own work, can you explain your approach to those disciplines?

Lettering was the first thing I tried in comics that wasn’t writing, and it came as something of a necessity. Having some understanding of the Adobe suite, I thought, was enough. It’s not a bad start, knowing how to use the programs, but it took some feedback from a few people to really figure out what I was doing wrong. The first Meouch books had been readable, but that’s about it. So I learned as much as I could, and I looked at different ways other letterers worked to see how I could do more than just throw words onto the page.

With the colouring, I started with flatting a couple of short Meouch stories. When myself and Gareth were working on A Knight’s Tail, I wanted to try colouring it myself. Gareth finished off the colours on that one, making it a lot more vibrant and giving it more depth than I’d managed, but I’d at least figured out the palette for the story.

When it came to colouring the stories in Life & Death, I was a little more aware of using colour as a storytelling tool. Colour choices define the world in which a story takes place, and the shifting tones on a page can inform the reader of characters’ emotions and the atmosphere on the page, working in tandem with the artist to make the storytelling pop. I spent the project seeking feedback from Gareth and Gary about colour choices and tones.

It was exhausting, to say the least, trying to balance a day job and a few other responsibilities with the comic work. A big takeaway from it is more confidence and awareness in the additional processes in storytelling when it comes to making comics, which is now etched into the back of my mind any time I start writing something!

Your first prose stories were based on Irish folklore in the 21st century; can you tell us how you approached this adaptation?

Adapting stories always comes with some difficulty. I took some liberties with the way in which some stories were told. The first book, Balor Reborn, takes the story that defines how Balor can be killed and turns it on its head. With everything else that followed, I sought to find something interesting about a creature or a god and make a new story out of it. Irish folklore is wrapped up in Irish history and informed by the introduction of Christianity; the Famine and the notion of sin become as integral to some tales as the blood-ties of the gods and the relationships between different heroes in the old stories.

I try, as hard as I can, to stick to the original story as close as possible, but sometimes liberties have to be taken. Whenever I have doubts, they’re usually cleared up by a friend of mine who has an interest in Irish folklore – who just so happens to read ridiculously fast – so I can clear up whether I’m making something up from scratch or if in bringing the story to the twenty-first century, I’m “allowed” to do what I do.

And, of course, within the books the old stories are real. They’re actual history, lost to the passage of time and hidden in plain sight as just stories.

You have recently launched Limit Break Comics with Gary Moloney and Gareth Luby. How did this come about and what is the idea behind Limit Break Comics? What can we expect?

There’s a bit of a background story to this, going back a few months. I’d been talking to Gary about an idea for a fantasy comic, but didn’t have a name. He’d suggested Limit Break, but it sounded more like an anthology name to me. Nothing really happened after that, until the three of us started speaking about setting up a label together over some drinks. We threw around some names, some of which were cringy, some of which were pompous, and none of which I was sold on.

At some point, the name popped back into the conversation.

By that time, myself and Gary were looking to publish our collections of short stories, so it made sense to have a brand name to trade under. We were both working on some fantasy and sci-fi ideas, which fitted the name, so we mentioned it to Gareth.

The idea behind Limit Break Comics is to provide a voice for storytellers. We have a few other ideas in mind for our online presence, and a few ideas for books in the works. The main thing for us is to be as an open and welcoming as possible. It’s how we all ended up becoming friends in the first place, first with myself and Gareth at the Geek Mart, and then the two of us with Gary at last year’s Small Press Day. We’re all about being supportive of each other and providing honest feedback on comics throughout the production process. It’s allowed us all to learn a lot about comics, and about how to talk to people about them.

There are more exciting things in the works for Limit Break Comics, including the first Meouch stories under the brand. In the meantime, we’re focusing on getting our names out there, on attending some events, and on helping each other grow as storytellers.

You have always been an avid follower and supporter of the small press scene in Ireland. How do you feel the scene has progressed since you first became a follower of it, and who would you feel are the stand out creators/up- and-comers in your eyes?

I properly became aware of the Irish small press scene in 2015. I was in DCU doing a Master’s in Multimedia, and my group for my thesis settled on doing a documentary on comic book culture in Ireland. This meant having to familiarise myself with a few new names. Anthea helped with that, but mostly my knowledge of who’s who came from attending events. The first Small Press Day, and the subsequent Dublin Comic Con, allowed me to talk to more of the indie creators in Ireland.

All of that in mind, it seems like there are a lot more people making comics than there used to be. At the very least, I’m aware of more of them, and of the different roles people assign to themselves. A few things disappeared over the years – Lightning Strike stopped doing their anthologies for a while – and more creators were releasing different sorts of work that 2015-Paul would have loved to talk about for the documentary.

The big change since I started following the scene is the number of people finding professional work. Ireland has an abundance of colourists working professionally, now, and almost as many people who’ve drawn Spider-Man comics. The Comics Lab stopped functioning independently, becoming part of DCAF, and more comic related events have sprouted every year. It means there’s a lot more opportunity to find markets in Ireland, but it does also mean the potential for some overcrowding.

It’s almost impossible, now, to figure out who’s due to make their professional break. I’d like to think that some people – like Hugo Boylan – will have their creator-owned comics reach the wider market. Colourists tend to move into the professional scene more quickly, here, and part of that is likely because of the support network between established pros and the small press creators. Sometimes the idea that everyone in Ireland knows each other is both accurate and helpful. As a community, the comic crowd are consistently dragging each other up.

In your first release on Limit Break, Life & Death, you have written stories focusing on horror or supernatural themes; what draws you to this genre?

I grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the short answer. When I was in primary school and definitely not supposed to be watching shows like that, I became enthralled. There’s something special about supernatural stories, to me; almost everything about them can be ordinary, until you hit one little detail. Buffy is just a regular teenage girl to most people, but at night she’s the warrior at the Hellmouth. Willow is the school nerd who discovers herself in college; her coming-out story runs parallel with realising her magical potential.

I like taking something ordinary and twisting it. Mourning Coffee and Death and Taxes are just office stories, until their respective twists. My novel, A Death in the Family, is a story about a Millennial getting a new job and things not going as smoothly as he’d anticipated – the fact that the job is that of Grim Reaper is just a matter of genre.

It’s the same with any genre narrative, really. With Life & Death, I needed to identify mystery in regular life. With Meouch, it’s about needing to find little quirks to reality in as funny a way as possible, while The Wren is about needing to see the hero inside normal people. The beauty of writing, whether for comics or for prose, is that it allows us to look at the world through a different coloured lens.

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Interviews

A Year in Small Press: An Interview with Gary Moloney

Gary Moloney is a Cork-native, currently based in Dublin. On Small Press Day, he is due to launch Mixtape, his debut collection of short comics, with Limit Break Comics. .

As a writer, how did you find the process of getting started in comics?

For me that’s where the problem lay, getting started. I’ve always been writing in some shape or form, but I hadn’t written for comics in a long time. I’d talk about it, jot down notes about potential stories, but I’d never get stuck in properly. There was a lot of messing about coming up with excuses not to write, but once I did actually put pen to paper (or more often than not ink in the printer) I got a lot of work done. It’s amazing what a good creative kick up the ass can do, so I have to thank last year’s Small Press Day for that.

The process of learning the craft of comic-making was an interesting one. Most of what I had done before comics was prose work. I had written a comic back in Transition Year as part of a workshop organised by Cork City Library (it’s terrible and with all hope shall never ever again see the light of day), so I knew about the format of scripts etc. As well as that, I used to do quite a bit of comics critique and reviews online, so breaking down why a comic worked or didn’t was nothing new to me, but some of the technique, tools and tricks remained elusive. Luckily, it’s easier to learn this stuff than ever before. This is a subject that has been written on by Scott McCloud, Jim Zub, and many others. So I looked to them and worked from there. Strip Panel Naked was just kicking-off properly and Hass’ breakdowns were of a massive help.

I was lucky as well that just as I finished my first comic project; Lex Iniusta, that a comic storytelling class opened up in the Irish Writer’s Centre with PJ Holden (artist extraordinaire and world’s nicest man). If you have the opportunity to do one of those courses or any workshops of the kind, it is fantastic learning experience. It provided me with the momentum to keep going and I haven’t stopped since.

You’ve worked with a lot of different creators; what’s your process in finding the right person for each story?

Oh man, there are so many factors to consider. I used to write scripts blind and find an artist that suited them later, but I’ve found that to be less rewarding an experience for all involved. It’s just the wrong way to go about it in Small Press and I’ve learned from each subsequent project. Nowadays, I start with a pitch which will include a logline and general outline of a story. I also typically have a first draft of the script prepared. I may have an idea at this point of who I’d like to collaborate with from the people I know through the scene, friends, or from the various online portfolios that get shared about on Twitter from time to time. How do you know if someone is right for a project? Well, you look at the emotional heart of the story and the feeling you are hoping to invoke, look for collaborators who fit with those.

When I find someone I am interested in working with I reach out to them via email, explain who I am if I don’t know them personally and pitch them the story. I keep it succinct and to the point. People don’t need your life story in these initial exploratory emails. I’ll always link to my portfolio so they can see work I have done in the past. You’ve got to be professional about it from the start. If they are interested, I talk with them about the story a bit more, find out what their schedule is like and see what ideas they have. It’s at this point if I have a first draft of the script that I’d send it to them. Meeting up with people to hash out a story over coffee can be very useful if possible. I’ll nearly always do another draft of the script with the person in mind once they are on board.

There is no point in denying it either, you have to look at your budget (if any). You should ideally be paying your collaborators something, even when they are people you are friends with. It may not be a full page-rate, but it should be something. Be open and frank about what you can afford. Your collaborator is going to be your partner for whatever project you are bringing to them and the foundation of a good creative relationship is honesty. You’d be surprised what opportunities can present themselves when you approach someone with a plan. I’ve been lucky to get the chance to work with some of my favourite artists on the scene because of this. Again, it is all about being professional and presenting yourself as such. You are asking people to take time out of their lives to work on a project with you. It’ll take way more time for them to draw your script than it did for you to write it. So be conscious of that fact. You should approach any discussions as to deadlines with the same honesty and frankness.

Ultimately, it may come down to one question. Can you afford to do this story with this artist at this time? Sometimes the answer is going to be no and you’ll have to adjust accordingly. The truth is that it is going to be hard for you as a writer in comics. At the end of the day, you are the project manager. You are going to have to pitch yourself to people. It is rarer that people will come to you looking to collaborate. If it does? Great, you are well on your way, but you’ve got to bare that in mind when approaching potential collaborators. What I say may seem like it just applies to artists, but it goes for colorists and letterers too.

Sample page from Weapons of Mech Destruction

How do you approach the storytelling process throughout the production of the comic?

There’s a process?! Why didn’t anyone tell me? My approach isn’t anything revolutionary, it is all about tweaking as you go. Everything starts in a notebook for me. I just find it easier to hash things out once there is something on a page and I’ve found that hand-written stuff works best for me. It’s easier to break story when it is a tangible thing that you can scribble out or add to in the margins. I start with a premise or character and work from there. At that early stage, I’ll have an idea about the theme of the story and maybe some of the key visuals or pieces of dialogue. The first draft of the outline will be handwritten and include a detailed page-by-page breakdown. This is easier to do with shorter stories. This will be refined once I commit the outline to soft copy. I use that as the basis to begin scripting and edit as I go. Once the first draft is does, I circulate to a few trusted friends for their feedback. I’ll tweak things here and there once an artist is on-board, sharpening the dialogue as the linework comes in so that the lettering draft reflects the linework.

What’s been most helpful to you, as a writer, when working with different creators?

It certainly helps that I’ve gotten on well with all of them. I’ve had the honour of working with some incredible talented people over the last year, much more talented than myself. What I love most about collaborating with them is the passion and creativity they’ve brought to each project. Apart from being delightful to work with, they’ve each taught me something about the craft that I didn’t know before. So what’s been most helpful has been their insight and approach to the medium. Each project has been a masterclass in comics storytelling and my collaborators the greatest of teachers.

You write in several genres. If you could only pick one to write a book under, which would you choose, and would you expand on an existing story you’ve already written?

It would have to be science fiction. It’s a genre that I love precisely because of how broad it is and the storytelling potential that it offers. From space fantasies to high concept narratives, you’d never feel stuck for choice or limited in anyway. All of the short stories that I’ve written are made to be read as standalones rather than backdoor pitches. However, part of the draw for me as a storyteller is building these worlds for your characters to inhabit even for the short amount of time you may spend with them page-wise. A story needs to have a definable world. In my head I have additional stories for some of the characters or worlds featured in Mixtape, and maybe someday those stories will be told, but I am much more interested in exploring and creating new worlds. As Edna Mode said “I never look back darling, it distracts from the now!”.

You’re relatively new to the Irish small press scene; how has it been for you so far?

It’s been phenomenal. This is something that anyone with a passing knowledge of the scene is aware of.  What I love about the Irish comics scene is just how open and inclusive it is. Ask anyone with a passing knowledge of the scene and they will tell you how tight a group it is. Everyone knows everyone (cliché, but no less valid), they all go for drinks together and support each other’s work. They are just really nice bunch and a pleasure to be around. I’ve been lucky to make some really good friends over the last year which has made integrating into the Big Smoke a lot easier.

What’s your one tip for people wanting to make a start in comics?

Don’t wait for permission. Shut up, get out there and do it. Indie comics is punk rock, there are no gatekeepers. Find likeminded people and let your voices be heard. I can’t promise you it’ll be easy, but if you want to tell stories in any capacity you’ve got to take that first step.

What’s next for you in the world of comics?

Now that Mixtape is going to be out into the world for everyone to see (screams internally), I have one or two more short projects that I am working on with some killer artists which I should be able to talk about soon. Other than that, I’ll be doing what I have been up until now.  I am going to keep writing and developing ideas, aim at completing some longer projects. Last year at Small Press Day, I set myself the goal of having a book out for this year’s event and I managed that. This year, I’ve set myself another goal, but that would be telling. So I’ll be working towards honing my craft and putting myself in the best position to be able to achieve that.

On the Limit Break Comics side of things, I am going to be working on the Panel Addicts initiative. We have so much talent here in Ireland across the all aspects of the comics creative process. I want to be able to showcase those people and provide a central hub for their work.  Twitter has become the de facto home for the comics crowd to promote their work and over the past year, more and more creatives have been posting short comics/sketches there. A more permanent home is needed to archive this material so that it isn’t forgotten. So we are taking inspiration from the Sketchblogs of yesteryear and putting together a regular blog that will feature comic art and short stories. More importantly, what the blog will provide is a forum for a collective of Irish Small Press creators. We going to start out slowly, but we hope to be able to expand it over the coming months and open up submissions in the near future.

Interviews

Dustbunnies and Horror: An Interview with Anthea West

Anthea West is the Dublin based creator of Fate, an all-ages fantasy story that began in print and turned to the web. As well as Fate, she’s released The Earthbound God – a fantasy graphic novel – and Sleep Tight – a short collection of horror comics.

Anthea West

You’ve been working on Fate for a long time now. Did you always plan on releasing it as a webcomic?

Short story: Yes. Long story: The plan was to release it as an issue series until chapter 3 and then start releasing it was a web series along with the issues. However, I soon realise, after chapter 2, that printing and selling issues were a handful and pretty expensive over time. I went back and tweak a few things in the original chapters, coloured them and placed them on the web while discontinuing the issues. I enjoy selling graphic novels far more than issues anyway.

If you were to start again now, would you do anything differently?

I would have changed some plot things, very minor things that no one else would have noticed except me most likely. I would give myself more time between chapters to not only write and layout pages but to get a month’s worth of pages completed. A buffer is a webcomics best friend as the old saying goes.

Your Kickstarter last year was fully paid on the first day. What do you think helped with that?

I think it was a good mixture between being involved with the Irish comic community for years beforehand, having already built a small audience for Fate since 2015 and I had recently joined a webcomic collective called Ink Drop Café some months before the Kickstarter. They are such a wonderful and welcoming group and they helped a lot with the advertising of the KS over the month. They were also there to give a lot of moral support and advice and I’m super indebted to them.   

What would you advise to other creators looking to Kickstart a book?

Build your audience first. Advertise what you’re creating long before the Kickstarter. Get your name out there, let people know who you are and sort of things you are creating. Remember that Kickstarter is a platform, not a guarantee of success. You’re only going to get as much as you put in.

Sleep TightAs well as all-ages fantasy, you’ve also worked on horror. What made you work in a different genre?

I’ve always enjoyed horror. Not so much as getting spooked in the middle of the night but that’s a given when you consume the scary stuff. I had always wanted to make some horror comics, I use to write a lot of horror in my teenage years but I just never really got around to it. The final push was when the 100th person told me I could never do horror or “serious” stories because of the style of my artwork.  Let say, spite can be a wonderful motivator.

If you could only work in one genre, and you had to choose between all-ages fantasy like Fate, or horror like Sleep Tight, which would you choose?

Fantasy, no question. It’s a bit of a cheat answer as fantasy spills over into other genres easily such as horror and adventure while still being fantasy. Besides, my horrors are all shorts, fantasy tends to be where my long-form story ideas live. I have a lot of long-form stories planned for the future.

What’s your one tip for people wanting to make a start in comics?

Just start making comics. Don’t worry about perfection, or about being good. Good will come later. Right now just hop in and learn. Start with short stories, work up to issue-length stories and if you want to, move onto graphic novel length. Making comics and sharing them online or IRL is getting into comics.

What’s next for you in the world of comics?

More Fate certainly. That should be returning after its long break in June. This summer or next September I’ll be releasing another, longer, horror anthology called Interloper, so keep an eye out for that. My patrons over on Patreon get previews and sneak peeks into that every week. I’m also near the end of writing my all-ages graphic novel, Ash Tree, a story where a young girl called Aisling is shrunk and forced on an adventure with a hyperactive fox and has to learn, very quickly, how to be brave.

Interviews

Superheroes in Dublin: An Interview with Jason Browne

In 2007, Jason Browne was part of the creative team that launched Buttonpress Publications, with its flagship title The Wren. Set in Dublin, and featuring a team of superheroes known as the Flying Column, The Wren is Ireland’s longest running small press comic. It’s an all-ages story about heroism and trying to find your place among people who knew your parents better than you ever could, while trying to figure out how to balance life as a superhero with school. In a rare moment when Jason isn’t working on The Wren or any of Buttonpress’s other books in the series – ArtosThimble and Stoat – he’s been working on a graphic novel that’s set for release later this year: Cahoots.

The Wren is the longest running Irish small press comic; do you think there’s anything special about the book that has let you keep it going all these years?

Yes, perseverance! In an industry that is mainly an adult medium nowadays, deciding to work in an all ages could be shooting yourself in the foot. But! I went with heart instead of head when deciding to go for it.

What made you decide to introduce new characters like Artos, Thimble and Stoat?

Hibernia had become such a rich environment. We had spent a lot of time building the background to the world and there was such a diverse choice of avenues leading to other great stories. They needed telling.

Running four comics at once, how much guidance do you give your writers for their stories to keep them tied together?

So, I know the characters pretty much inside out before even starting the first panel. For example, with Stoat. Ciaran Marcantonio and myself had initially a totally different idea for the character but then the lightbulb moment. I enlightened Ciaran to the idea and he was totally on board with it. It is then fleshing out story, plot, characters and environments. Once we were happy, the drawing began.

I always have a basic plot idea for as to where I want to go with a character. Writers are very clever and adaptable people and so they take my plot and weave their magic.

Each of the current characters are based in different areas of Hibernia and so story crossovers are not usually a problem unless purposely intertwined (see War of Fal!!)

How did it feel giving up some of the creative process to other writers?

YAY! But seriously, a collaborative project is what fires my creative engines and so love it.

You’re one of only a few all-ages creators in Ireland; what made you want to release a book like that when Ireland was still developing its small press scene? Have the younger readers made it more worthwhile?

So, to create all ages books, is to like all ages books. It’s my favourite genre in comics and literature. Also, cartoons being my favourite visual media.

If you take the Incredibles, Boom Studios Power Rangers series and Harry Potter. All generally considered all ages and initially aimed at a young audience, yet adored also by adults. I am one of those adorees! (is that a word?) Luckily readers of all ages read our books and get what we are doing with such a diverse cast of characters, relationships and settings. I remember a comic podcast reviewing the Wren issue 2 and thought “Superheroes in an Ireland doesn’t work!”. We are now on issue 13 of said book and so my advice is believe in your story, writer, and characters, and they will deliver. It is still mind blowing to think that people of all ages, await your next issues. That and getting to fulfil a passion, make it all worthwhile.

What can you tell people about Cahoots, which you’ve been teasing bit-by-bit online?

NOTHING! Muhwa ha! (Editor’s note: this is about as clear an answer anyone will ever from Jason on this one until he’s ready to release it!)

What’s your one tip for people wanting to make a start in comics?

Don’t do it for fame or money. If that is your initial goal, go on X Factor if you can sing or buy scratch cards to get on de telly. It’s an art form and so like all art forms, it has its ups and downs. If someone spends time writing a script for me to draw, I want to deliver the best I can to compliment the words and in doing so, creating a little piece of magic, i.e “We made a comic book!”

If your passionate about the medium, go for it but it takes work (that dreaded word!), like everything else.

Aside from Cahoots, what’s next for you in the world of comics?

Buttonpress is heading to the U.S! So, we are lucky enough already to be on sale in so many countries, including the U.S but this will be our first comic con there. Baltimore Comic Con 2018 is our destination and will be sitting and chatting with giants in the comic book world, so no pressure…eep!

War of Fal makes its debut later this year, we will be in Dublin this year for Small Press Day, and lots more but will be announced later in the year (Wink!)