More Than Lycra? Comic Book Artists Make the Case

Peter McCaughan on how best to access and appreciate the Northern Irish comics industry

The words ‘comic book’ have many connotations. For some, they conjure up images of the crime-fighting, lycra-clad superhumans and billionaire playboy detectives who dominate the art form. Others might hear the word and instantly think of the distinctly British japes of Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan. Still others associate the term with the Average Joe works of Harvey Pekar and Daniel Clowes, the socio-political prophecies of Alan Moore, or other more intellectual interpretations of the medium.

Furthermore, for the uninitiated, and despite globally acclaimed writers and artists such as Garth Ennis and PJ Holden hailing from these parts, even fewer consider comics synonymous in any way with Northern Ireland. But there is plenty to appreciate on home turf, and an imaginative and prolific generation of comic book writers and artists are busy putting Northern Ireland on the comics map.

Catalyst Art’s current (unpronounceable) exhibition, ¿@#!*$, showcases some of the best Northern Irish comic talent. Directors Mark de Conink and Nathan Crothers believe it is important to display this work to the public. 'We are aiming to show comics as a valid art form,' says Crothers. 'They are all too often not taken seriously.'

This general perception seems to be a real stumbling block for artists and writers who work within the medium, and who are keen to be taken seriously and, ultimately, to generate sales. But where does the blame for this lie? The simple answer is that ‘outsiders’ often dismiss all comics as being for children - due, in the main, to the prevalence of superhero comics, one would presume - but Crothers contends that there is more to the art form that meets the eye.

'Comic books are just like any other art form, really,' he adds. 'Compare comics to cinema, for example. You have your really impressive all action blockbuster movies, then you have your copycat straight to DVD movies. It’s the same with comics.

'There are some great blockbuster hero books, but so many numerous other rip-offs. What we’ve tried to do with this exhibition in Catalyst Arts is gather the really good stuff. So not only does the exhibition teach people about different types of comics, it makes for a really good visual arts show.'

de Conink admits that, before the exhibition came to fruition, he wasn’t much of a comics fan. However, this quickly changed when he realised both the wealth of local talent and the potential of the format. 'I come from a fine art background,' he says, 'with a particular interest in taking objects or images in series to build a narrative: obviously this shares a lot with the world of comics.

'Some of the work out there is fantastic, and it's not just one standard format. People use multi-panel illustration and text, or just illustration, and build a unique narrative. It’s such a fantastic, accessible medium.'

Belfast-based writer, Andy Luke believes that the art form can go even further. His recently released comic, Absence, is a semi-autobiographical look at the lives of those with epilepsy.

As well as being available free online, hard copies of Absence were sent out to schools and hospitals in an attempt to educate readers on how to recognise the symptoms of epilepsy, and how best to assist sufferers. Not only is Luke's latest work thoroughly informative, but also a great, heart-warming read, with beautiful illustration by Northern Irish artist, Stephen Downey.

At the launch of the book, Luke admitted - with admirable honesty - that 'the instructional stuff slipped through the back door unnoticed. I wanted to do a populist comic that everyone could connect with. None of this "I don’t like reading comics that are/aren’t about superheroes" nonsense. I just wanted to say, "Here’s a really cool comic. Read it, have fun with it".'

It seems that, for most writers and artists, there is little distinction between mainstream and alternative comics in terms of artistic validity. Internationally acclaimed comic creator and comic book shop manager, Malachy Coney, agrees.

'It’s not the people who make comics that create these distinctions, it is the people who sell and market them. The art form is entirely pure until we pollute it with our own prejudices. There may be an unnecessarily overworked superhero emphasis, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It has kept the industry afloat for over a hundred years.'

Coney - who is about to release his eagerly anticipated Good Craic Comics #2 (pictured above) - argues that comic books and graphic novels are an extension of age-old forms of communication and creative storytelling.

'You could argue that the comic book form is one of the oldest forms of communication in the world,' he says. 'Literally as old as the pyramids, with hieroglyphics on tombs. I’ve heard people say that I work in an "artistic ghetto", but I just laugh and tell them that my art form is older than theirs. They’re the new kids on the block!'

Thankfully, with so many wonderful Northern Irish comic books and graphic novels set for publication in the near future, and galleries like the edgy Catalyst Arts displaying the work, this mindset appears to be on the wane.

Perhaps it is the 'comic book nerds' themselves who help to propagate the notion that comics are an art form for the minority: it may be that they are wary of the mainstream entering their club. Yet, as one of the strips displayed at Catalyst states, 'No matter how nerdy you are, there is always someone nerdier than you'.

For those keen to learn more - or get their hands on the latest Northern Irish releases and meet Northern Irish artists and writers face-to-face - the 2D Comics Festival looms large on the horizon. Get down to the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry from June 2-4.

The Belfast Comics blog is a handy one-stop shop for news and views on the Northern Irish comic book industry, and don't forget Free Comic Books Day this coming Saturday (May 7), when comic books stores across the country will be giving away new and used comics for free.