Belfast comic creator Patrick Brown has just released the fifth print issue of his epic webcomic The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Patrick has been publishing roughly a page per week since August 2008, and his interpretation of one of Ireland’s most famous folk legends, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, now boasts 140 pages. To mark the release, Kevin Squires interviewed Patrick for rabble.ie
KS: Hi Patrick! Please introduce yourself. How did you get the ‘comic bug’? Do you have a day job, or is comics how you make your living? PB: I’m Patrick Brown from Belfast, and I’ve literally been drawing comics longer than I can remember. When my Auntie Jean died six years ago, some drawings I did when I was five or six were unearthed from her roofspace, and they had speech balloons. I’m told that when I was six or seven, one of my primary school teachers devoted an art class to drawing comic strips, because she couldn’t get me to do anything else. I remember me and my cousin David Cousley (a very talented painter and illustrator) taking comics apart to see how they fit together, and then making our own – I can’t have been more than eight.
I blame my late grandfather, Alec Magill. He was a Dudley D Watkins fan, and subscribed to the Sunday Postfrom Scotland just for The Broons and Oor Wullie. When I was small my family moved to England for a few years for my dad’s work, and Granda posted a copy of the Beano for me and the Beezer for my brother every week. From there to Tintin, and then 2000AD, and so on.
I have a day job with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Worked there for six years before I discovered that Belfast cartooning legend Davy Francis worked one floor down from me.
Also, for the last couple of years Andy Luke and I have been running a stall at the Black Box Bazaar (formerly the Black Market), a monthly handmade arts fair held at the Black Box, a nightclub-cum-arts-venue in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, selling small press comics from all over Ireland, including our own. It’s been a good outlet and has introduced Belfast to the work of Phil Barrett, Paddy Lynch, Deirdre de Barra, Archie Templar and many others. Unfortunately the city council has decided to enforce a 400-year-old law that says they have exclusive rights to run markets in Belfast, putting extra costs on the organisers, so it’s going to be less frequent from now on, which is a shame. The next one is on Sunday 11th December 2011.
KS: The Irish Comics Wiki says you failed your foundation year in UCU – it doesn’t say if you re-sat and passed, or just gave up on the ‘academic road’. What was the story there?
PB: That was complicated. I did two years of a degree in French and Spanish in Nottingham, then dropped out, thinking it was because I wanted to be an artist, not realising it was also because I was suffering from depression. I got into art college, got on okay to start with but then the depression got on top of me again, and I made a mess of it. Once I got myself together enough, I gave up formal education as a bad job, entered the workforce, and have carried on drawing and learning in my spare time. The depression is still there and rears its head from time to time, but I’ve learned to manage it.
KS: So, what started your ‘obsession’ – if I may call it that – with Irish folk legends, in particular the Ulster Cycle? I can see from your end notes to the Cattle Raid that you have put a lot of research into the project.PB: My interest in the Ulster Cycle is a thing in itself, and I’m not really all that interested in Irish folk legends in a wider sense. I stumbled on a copy of Thomas Kinsella‘s translation of the Táin in a second hand bookshop while looking for research material for a comic I was thinking of doing based on the notion of a historical King Arthur in the post-Roman “dark ages”, and thought this stuff was just so much more immediate and visceral, the characters so much more vivid, than any Arthurian story I’d read, and it was not only Irish but specifically northern. What especially interested me was that there was a whole cycle, it wasn’t just one story.It seems to be a trait of my personality that if I find something that excites me, whether that’s a band or an author or whatever, I want to know absolutely everything about it, so I went looking for all these other stories in libraries, and just got more and more into it. I ran a website for a while trying to collect them all. This would have been in the late 90s, the web was still quite a novelty and I was excited by that as well. I’ve even learned a bit of Old Irish. A couple of years ago I went to an academic conference on the Ulster Cycle in Coleraine, and was pleased to find very little of it went over my head.
KS: Please, briefly, explain the Táin Bó Cúailnge for those who may somehow never have heard of it…PB: There’s plenty of people like that, particularly in the north. But it’s the nearest thing early Ireland produced to an epic, a war story set in a pre-Christian heroic age, concerned with death and violence and duty and becoming and being a man, a bit like the Iliad, only cruder and more grotesque and funnier. It’s got great characters – the cocky teenage hero Cú Chulainn, the old soldier Fergus who wants to restore his honour but fails because he loves his foster-children more than he hates the man who dishonoured him, and of course the sexually voracious queen Medb, who’s never been told no. It’s also a bit of a mess, built out of fragments and episodes written by different people at different times and strung into an order that tries to make sense as a plot but doesn’t always succeed.
KS: The Táin has been interpreted in various manners over the years, sometimes in highly political ways (e.g., Republican and Loyalist adoptions of the legend of Cú Chulainn to suit their own particular narratives). Would you say your adaptation is ‘ideological’ in any way?PB: I hope not. My first priority has been to find a coherent, meaningful story somewhere in all the chaos, but that’s a new construction and will obviously be informed by what interests and motivates me. I’ve always wanted to take good and evil out of it. Cú Chulainn is the hero in the sense that he’s the protagonist and he’s a larger than life character, but he’s not the “good guy” overcoming the “bad guys”. All the characters have their own motivations, and it’s the conflict between those motivations that produces drama. And they all do terrible things, but for the most part those things are not seen as wrong in the context of the society they live in. That’s more a storytelling preference than a political one, but it’s one of the things I like about the original stories, particularly the earliest versions (Medb tends to become more villainous in later versions).One way that political ideas influence my version is in making it a masculine story. David Morris, a cartoonist from Belfast who now lives in England, once told me he saw it as being about “male isolation”, and that got me thinking. The prehistoric warfare setting takes away a lot of the niceties of civilisation and shows human nature in a rawer, more extreme state than you would normally see, and, Medb apart, takes the male characters away from the influence of women for an extended period of time. I wanted to talk about the male experience in terms of the sacrifices and obligations of manhood and the things that men lose, or are denied, when they leave childhood behind. Cú Chulainn’s story makes a lot of sense in those terms, as do Fergus’s and Ailill’s. It’s one reason why Medb dominates proceedings much less in my version than she does in some modern interpretations.
KS: Outside of the various versions of the Táin itself, in terms of writers and comic book artists, who would you say are your influences (if any) in this project?PB: I think my most formative influences in terms of storytelling are probably Hergé and George Lucas, and then John Wagner and Pat Mills, the main writers behind 2000AD, but I don’t know how clearly that shows. Alan Moore, probably inevitably, is also a big influence in terms of ambition and how much meaning you can put into a sustained narrative in comics form.
In terms of drawing style, my biggest influences are probably comics artists Eddie Campbell and Donna Barr, who inspired me to loosen up and stop second-guessing myself so much, Mick McMahon and Steve Parkhouse for making the setting the present, that sense of being there and feeling the grass beneath your feet, and the late children’s illustrator Charles Keeping, who just drew so damn well he inspires me to do better.
KS: Some of the language used in the series is very ‘modern’, was there a specific reason for this? Offhand, I seem to recall one of the early drafts you republished as an ‘extra’ in one of the issues being a lot more ‘traditional’ or archiac (though it’s possible I’m misremembering that).
PB: One of the things I’ve always been concerned with is making the setting the present for the characters. This isn’t some distant, misty, alien place painted by Frank Frazetta – it’s just where these characters happen to live. I want it to feel real. If my earlier versions seemed more archaic, that’s probably just because I hadn’t figured out the writing style yet.
KS: You publish the Cattle Raid series online, for free, long before you bring out hard-copies. Do you find this is financially sustainable? Do you even care about the financial aspect?
PB: I’m not really making any money at this as yet, and it’s not really my motivation. I recently gave a presentation at Comics Barcamp, an event in Belfast about exploring the commercial possibilities of the local comics scene and becoming more professional, but I kind of went off-message and celebrated amateurism and how it allows you to follow your own muse and try stuff out. But by the end of it all I’ll have a book, and hopefully that’ll be something I can take to publishers and make a bit of money from. Hopefully…
The web serialisation is something I stumbled on as a way of motivating myself to get the work done. This is a big book, and was meant from the start to be a big book. The page-per-week schedule, and knowing I have readers waiting for it, is very useful helping me get through the work steadily and not not being daunted by the size of the whole.
I have no ideological attachment to self-publishing. I actually prepared the Cattle Raid as a proposal that I was going to try submitting to publishers. I’d lost confidence in my drawing, and was only going to write it and hopefully find an artist to draw it. But PJ Holden, in his wisdom, told me I was mad. No publisher would take a chance on such a long project by an unknown. He suggested doing a shorter story in the same sort of idiom as a tryout, and with that under my belt I’d be in a better position to approach publishers. So I looked at the other stories of the Ulster Cycle, and thought Ness was one I could probably bring in at 20 or 30 pages.
As it was a tryout piece to demonstrate my writing ability I thought that I may as well draw it myself rather than try and find somebody else to do it, and after I’d done a few pages I hit on web serialisation as a way of motivating myself to get the work done, as I’ve said. In the end it took me 72 pages, and by the end of it I was feeling much better about my drawing and my general approach, so I thought I may as well just keep going and do the Cattle Raidthe same way. Also, about twenty pages into Ness I went to the 2D Festival in Derry and discovered there were all sorts of other people in Ireland self-publishing comics, so I kind of fell in with them. Like I said, by the end I’ll have a book I can approach publishers with, and with a substantial piece of work like that under my belt I hope they’ll be more receptive to some of the other ideas I’m toying with.
KS: In terms of the Irish comic scene, what is exciting you right now?
PB: I think what Rob Curley’s doing at Atomic Diner is fantastic. You can’t fault him for ambition, and his stories are great fun – sometimes I think he could stand to pay a bit more attention to copy-editing and lettering, but that’s a minor quibble. He’s making adventure comics that aren’t derivative of the usual over-mined American idioms, and that’s brilliant. I’m particularly enjoying Jennifer Wilde, which Maura McHugh is scripting for him and my pal Stephen Downey is doing a wonderful job drawing.
And O’Brien Press expanding their graphic novel line is an encouraging development, although I haven’t read any of their new ones yet. I understand Paddy Lynch is doing a book for them, which I’m excited about. He’s a talent, he’s been putting out short self-published pieces like In the Aquarium and Last Bus over the last several years, and I’d love to see what he can do with something a bit longer.
John Robbins has been ploughing his own very singular furrow for over a decade, and he gets deeper into human experience than probably anyone in Irish comics. Recent books like The Monkey-Head Complaint,Enter Out and The Well Below are excellent, hard-hitting contemporary fiction. Anna Fitzpatrick is a superb artist – her digitally-painted webcomic Between Worlds takes a bit of following, but is visually absolutely beautiful. Gar Shanley is one to watch as a writer. He’s done some darkly funny satirical comics like Superhero Showcase and Supernatural Showcase, and he’s been talking about a kids’ fantasy series he’s planning with artist Deirdre de Barra which I’d be very keen to see happen.
KS: Finally, if you had to recommend one title (be it a single comic, graphic novel, or series) that, – ahem, serious cliché alert – “you must read before you die”, what would it be?
PB: Good question. I suppose the towering achievement of the medium, 25 years on, would still have to beWatchmen. It’s a bit dated, but in terms of ambition, intensity and artistic unity it hasn’t been surpassed.