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

Sci-Fi, Horror, and Breaking into Comics: An Interview with Raymond Roche

Raymond Roche is a writer and comic creator, releasing his books under Two Pugs Publishing. Following on from his debut book Soma: Eden, he released Dem Bones in two parts with artist Fiona Boniwell. During his day job, he works as a civil servant.

Dem Bones is a far-cry from your first book, Soma: Eden; how did it feel jumping from one genre to another?

Much, much easier that you might think. There’s a school of thought that all stories are Western (Cowboys, that is) stories. That’s true up to a point. A writer can tell the same basic story and rework it for a different genre. The Seven Samurai – The Magnificent Seven. I think it works best if the writer can maintain the same theme common to both genres. Soma and Dem Bones look and read radically different, almost as if there are two very opposite Ray Roches at the same keyboard. Maybe there are, who knows. Soma is about grief, Dem Bones about secrets. For me it’s about getting the message across and which genre or taxonomic writing style suits that best. The writing part is easy.

Although… Soma is an emotional journey the reader is fooled into believing will end well and staying in that headspace for months of rewrites isn’t something I’d recommend. Dem Bones is another matter. Dark, horrible storyline, but because I used humour so freely it doesn’t feel dark and after much consultation with my editor, Colin O’Mahoney, we made the decision not to show too much. My favourite panel in Soma is an officer being attacked by the alien creature, while my favourite panel inDem Bones is of an innocent schoolgirl gazing enraptured at a painting in the National Gallery. I felt less constrained with Dem Bones because I was creating the rules of their world as I went along. Soma had to follow certain semi-rigid SciFi rules to be acceptable, mostly science and the mechanics of space travel. Whether we like it or not, certain Hollywood franchises have informed the reader’s psyche and their expectations. For Dem Bones I was creating an alternate Dublin where magic and superpowers are every-day, paradoxically mundane. I felt less that I had to please an audience and more that I was writing these characters for my own enjoyment.

Do you think your day job helped with the writing of the book?

Yes. Without question. Dem Bones began as a writing exercise one lunchtime. I was feeling that Soma was never going to happen and to cheer myself up I started writing funny dialogue. My wife and daughter both had said “For God’s sake, write a comedy next time, please!” I write what I know. A lot of years working on the inside has given me insights into the workings of An Garda Siochana. I took all of that and turned it upside down. The Forensic Lab, The Cold Case Unit, Biggstown Garda Station etc are based on real places and people but seen at a “Dutch angle” because I’m a perverse human being. I don’t write a story if someone else is doing it, and doing it better than I can. Dem Bones is littered with real-world references, but also I satirise events and procedures, people and bureaucracy. It’s up to the reader to decide which is real and which is the alternate Dublin. The people I work with do a tough job and lighten the mood with sometimes dark, inappropriate but oh, so very necessary humour. I hope that shows in the book.

How was your experience with finding a market for the book? Is it something you think you could repeat?

There’s a huge demand for “more of the same” stories, and not just in comics. When I first pitched the concept of a Crime Noir set in an alternate Ireland I included bios of many, many characters and situations so really the Dem Bones world is a “Sandbox” version of Dublin Police. It’s a world where future stories might be anthologies or one shots. I have a lot of them to choose from. Finding a market? Getting the book into shops is a problem. Unless they know you or the comic is mainstream, it’s easy to see why a retailer might be hesitant. They have only so much shelf space. So far, Dem Bones is selling well, through conventions and word of mouth but it helps if the shop-owners push the comic. I’ve sold lots to the Guards, who have heard that there’s a comic about their world. The characters, especially the female detective, have attracted attention. The plan is to do more and hopefully get the right attention. Create a readership one book at a time. As long as the reader wants another one, I’ll write it.  One important factor in selling a book is location. Craft marts or toy oriented meets might not be as successful as a dedicated comic convention. Depending on your skill set and product: Fully mature material will always be a tougher sell than superhero fare.

Compared to most creators in Ireland, you’ve gotten a late start in comics. How do you think that affects the sort of stories you tell?

I stopped reading comics when I was 15. Back then, demand was high but supply sphincter tight. I’m so new to this that I haven’t read some of today’s household names and tend to read trade collections or comics recommended by people in the business. My stories tend to be about an issue or emotion and they are ALL autobiographical. Being late to the party means I bring my own bottle, I suppose. When it comes to the sort of stories I tell, it’s down to the sort I’d like to read or is anyone else doing the same thing? I don’t write superhero stories because I don’t understand them. Superheroes, that is. I get angsty Batman but not floaty cape rippling Superman, The Black Monday Murders but not Nothing-Really-Happened-But-We’re-Having-A-Gigantic-Crossover-Event-Life-Changing-Crisis-on-Six-Earths. Being ancient, I have read a few books, done a thing or two, and see the world differently maybe because I don’t understand Social Media. My stories tend to start in one place and end up somewhere else entirely by design. Hopefully, that makes them unpredictable.

Is there anything about your process that you’d do differently on your next book?

My process is clear. I have a list of genres, characters, events, mashups, themes I want to throw rocks at and I start with a word. I move on to an event, work backwards to the beginning, add plot and jokes later. That’s not going to change. I might try not worrying so much and talking about comics, ad nauseum.

What was the first thing you did when you decided to enter the Irish comic scene?

I made lists. Of everything. You get that, EVERYTHING, I wanted to do. Some are feasible, some not, some too funny to say out loud. Some will need an Ocean’s 11 approach. I’m working through those lists. Top of that list was: Talk to people who were already doing what I wanted to do, Indie comic makers, but more importantly comic fans.

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

Don’t just jump in. Start in something else, get a grounding in art, a portfolio course, creative writing, journalism anything. Take what you learn outside and apply it to storytelling in comics. Start small. Don’t do what I did: A 28 page SciFi one shot? Hell, no. Look for a local creative team and make 1 page or 4 page comics. Get to know people at conventions and retailers, read what’s current, marry an artist. Well, that’s more than 1 tip.

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

My next book is a Horror Western called The Talking Gun. It’s set after the American Civil War and it’s about friendship. Don’t tell anyone, though: It’s hush-hush. Part 2 of Dem Bones is due out (editor’s note: since responding to my question, Dem Bones part 2 has been released – check it out at Small Press Day!) and it should surprise the people who bought Part 1. The next SSDD is about a hostage negotiation situation at a magic sperm bank and is titled “Heist, Heist, Baby.” Besides that, the future is about conventions and talking to people at comic-related events and helping others with my story. If they get something from my experience then that’s a win.