Monday, December 10, 2012

Irish History Goes Graphic: 'Mick' Chats Up Colleen

John A. Walsh, aka “Thick Mick,” (right) is a Boston-based graphic novelist and illustrator who came to our attention during his crowdfunding campaign to fund his opus “Go Home Paddy.” His graphic novel portrays Paddy Brennan, an Irish immigrant in the mid-1800’s, in a dark, serio-comic format, underscoring how far the Irish have come in the United States.  John, by the way, is gracing The (New) Wild Geese with a sketch of its ‘Founding Funders,’ a perk for up to six donors, at press time, still available.

Recently, via IM, John exchanged insights with fellow illustrator, cartoonist and writer Colleen Doran (left), creator of countless books and comics, most recently, having illustrated Gone to Amerikay,” released in April by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. The extensively researched mystery is set against the experience of Irish immigrants in New York City over the course of 100 or more years. Doran’s work has been produced or published by The Walt Disney Co., Lucasfilm, Scholastic, Parker Brothers, Sony, Time/Warner, Harper Collins, Readers Digest, Marvel Entertainment, DC Comics, Image Comics, The Cahners Group, Dark Horse Comics, The Irish Echo, and many others.

Thick Mick: So how far back does your connection to Ireland go? Have your people been here a long time?

Colleen Doran: My Irish family was born during The Famine, so they are pretty tough to have survived and made it here. They came as children, both my great grandfather and great grandmother, which must have been brutal. They married as teenagers in the U.S.A. My great granddad was actually younger than my grandma.

Thick Mick: [An older wife] was uncommon in those days! Do you know where in Ireland they came from? And where did they settle in the U.S.?

Colleen Doran: We believe they came from the County Wexford area, and then settled in the Kentucky/Ohio area, where much of my family remains. ... My grandma was only a year or so older than my granddad, but yes, it was unusual. And what about your family?

Thick Mick: My Father's parents came over during the First World War. My grandmother and her siblings were from Sligo, in the West of Ireland. They were TOUGH people and passed on that trait to my father as well! My mother's people came over in the late 1800s. Both sides settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when the city was still had plenty of work for everyone.

Colleen Doran: Yeah, very tough people on this side, too. It's funny, we found some of their old documents, and their place of origin reads "Hibernia."

Thick Mick: Ha! We saw my great-uncle's naturalization papers, and it listed him as "Ruddy" and originating from Great Britain (still in control of Ireland at the time). That had to have frosted him! ... “Gone to Amerikay” is a BEAUTIFUL book. Truthfully, my wife and I both thought the style was reminiscent of the Golden Age of Illustration: Pyle, et cetera. How did you get involved with [it]?

Left, a panel from the graphic novel, "Gone to Amerikay," illustrated by Colleen Doran.

Colleen Doran: Thanks for the kind words. ... The classic illustration look was what I was going for. Well, Derek McCulloch (the author) and I had worked together on Tori Amos’ “Comic Book Tattoo.” The story we did together went over very, very well, and I'd started developing a new digital style I wanted to explore some more. Naturally, Derek and I wanted to work together again, and for years I'd wanted to do something with an Irish theme. I'd been kicking around the idea of the idea of a graphic novel about Red Hugh [O’Donnell]. But Derek came up with this idea about Irish immigrants, completely independent of knowing that I'd wanted to do a project set in Ireland. So, when he told me what he had in mind, I jumped at it, and suggested he present it to my editor at Vertigo, Joan Hilty. She absolutely loved it. Ironically, very little of “Gone to Amerikay” takes place in Ireland. And, haha, the art style I used for “Comic Book Tattoo” -- we went with the classic style on “Gone to Amerikay” instead. Left turns on every project, that's how it goes!

Thick Mick: Did you have a hard time getting “Gone to Amerikay” approved? And once it was, how long did you work on it for? Was it a labor of love, 'cause it looks that way! Did you really appreciate the research? I've loved it myself!

Colleen Doran: Approval went pretty quickly, but the work took years. Research alone took months. And since I didn't have a script yet, I spent all this time researching Ireland. When I got the script, it was almost all set in New York during three time periods! That was pretty funny, but I learned a lot anyway! Yes, I enjoyed [the research]. I'm one of those people who can get lost in it, though, and need to be reined in. 

Sometimes it's hard knowing when to quit and get on with it. For example, I recall spending over four hours trying to research a chair that appears on only three pages. Over two weeks trying to get the right color on a uniform that appears in two panels. You forget that old etchings you may use for reference are almost always going to be black and white. Most pages required research for each shot, which is grinding after awhile, because you just want to be able to draw. And so often it was stop and start, even when I thought I'd pinned down a scene weeks before starting the scene. Something always came up. And I hate making mistakes, so I kept out-thinking myself. It's great having a job where you get to read wonderful books, though!

You obviously did a huge amount of research for your book. What were your sources and how much time did you spend on the Internet? For my part, way too much time, because once I get websurfing, I surf all over the place.

Thick Mick: Well, your research comes through clearly. I tend to not focus as much on clothing, et cetera, since my goal is to make EVERYTHING in "Go Home Paddy" as rough, almost ugly, as possible. The story is very dark. I spent weeks on the Net, but as always, books were the greatest source of knowledge and information. Living in Boston, I've had access to wonderful resources at the library.

Colleen Doran: I am curious why you decided to do a story about The Great Famine as opposed to one more closely related to your own family story. And I ask this as someone who didn't do a story about The Famine, even though my family were famine immigrants.

Thick Mick: I think I choose to start “Go Home Paddy” off with The Famine because it's really the starting point for the Irish in America. It was the motivating factor for not only the Irish coming here, but also for what they did once here.

Right, a panel from "Go Home Paddy," the story of Famine emigrant Paddy Brennan, by John A. Walsh.

Colleen Doran: It's great in cartooning to use a style that suggests things. You get your point across with a kind of visual shorthand. I tend to go the other way, very illustrative. It's cost- and labor-intensive.

Thick Mick: “Yes, "visual shorthand" is the perfect way to describe it! ... Did you have much influence on the script for “Gone To Amerikay”?

Colleen Doran: I had almost no influence on the script. The editor helped shape it. When I had a problem, I spoke up, but there were few problems. But it's one thing for the writer to write "cast of thousands" and another thing for me to draw it. "Arrives on the dock in 1870". OK, now I have to go out and research all of that. And that can take days just to research one scene.

I only recall asking to add one thing, though, and that was the Irish Hunger Memorial. I'd been visiting New York with my brother, and we stumbled across it. I thought it would be perfect to add to the book, so we slipped it in. But Derek is such a terrific writer, so careful and everything he does is highly crafted and constructed. I'd hate to get in and fiddle with anything he writes.

I don't do that sort of thing anyway. I almost always get to work with terrific authors. If I don't like the writing, I just quietly get away from that writer as soon as possible. Life is too short to draw bad books.

[After the Hunger Memorial] we moved on to the Police Memorial down the street. There are many policemen in my family: my father, grandfather and brother. Then we moved on to the 9-11 disaster site. It was some day. After we decided to go down to South Street Seaport and get lunch. We had lunch at the Harbour Lights restaurant. Four years later, the owner of that restaurant, prominent Irish-American J.P. Delaney, held the book launch of "Gone to Amerikay" in that same restaurant! His family owns Rosie O'Grady's. And if that's not a small-world moment, I don't know what is!

Thick Mick: Cool anecdote! How has the reception been for “Gone to Amerikay”?

Colleen Doran: We've gotten an outstanding critical reception. We were written up in The Wall Street Journal, and a number of other major newspapers. It's been wonderful. And we were just listed as one of the “Best Adult Books for Teens” for 2012 by The School Library Journal. When you think of how many books get published, getting on any year-end best-of list is kind of a miracle.

Thick Mick: Do you plan on creating more work with Irish themes? Writing and illustrating something about Ireland yourself?  Also, as you worked on “Gone to Amerikay,” did you feel any the need to portray the Irish in any certain way?

Colleen Doran: Well, I'd like to get back to taking a shot at the story of Red Hugh someday. But that has to be off a good bit in future since I'm pretty booked right now. My hope on “Gone To Amerikay” was to portray the Irish as accurately as possible. The Irish people I know who read it liked it. We were especially happy to hear from Philip Chevron of The Pogues who had wonderful things to say about it. The story was originally inspired by a Pogues song, but for legal reasons we had to scoot off that idea. So getting his approval on the finished work was gratifying. WG

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