The craft and graft of the comic creator can often be a solitary affair but the online world is reaping broader connections and an instantaneous feedback loop. We look at some of those flourishing in their trade.
“A lot of young creators think that it has to work like superhero comics. That there has to be a physical copy. But you can just put something online, and if the right people see it, you have access to the whole world”
December 2013. After spending a year in Canada, John Cullen had fallen victim to a ruse that many creatives encounter when trying to get their foot in the door.
“I had been doing a three-month internship as a character designer for a small independent video game developer, hoping to get a job afterwards. When I was let go at the end of the internship, I was totally directionless. It was my first Christmas away from home and I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
The following year, Cullen set an ambitious goal, to publish a daily comic strip online. But unlike many a new-year, new-me regime this one has not just stuck but paid dividends; four years and a hundred thousand followers later, Cullen (now operating under the name NHOJ) has made a vocation for himself.
Originally, the strips were just a good excuse for him to draw every day, but in retrospect, there may have been more to it. “One of the main reasons it helped was to get my thoughts on paper, even if it may not have obviously been my thoughts. It was therapeutic, certainly.” He references an early comic he made, of a clown floating in space. As he burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the final panel cuts to a view from below and the clown now resembles a shooting star.
He credits the accessibility of web-comics with his gradual rise. “A lot of young creators think that it has to work like superhero comics. That there has to be a physical copy. But you can just put something online, and if the right people see it, you have access to the whole world.”
This was just what happened for Cullen; a year and a half into his daily comic routine, he submitted his work to popular web comic creator Lunar Baboon, who was looking for fill-in strips. “I think that was one of the moments where my comic started to really grab attention from people, because he already had such a big audience.”
Since then, he has been building his following on Instagram whilst scaling back his strips to three a week as he finds ways to monetize his work, a constant challenge for comic creators. “I’m not making money hand over fist. Most of my money is via Patreon. The trouble with making money from comics is that people are so used to seeing things for free online. People don’t realise that these are things that people spend hours, maybe even days, putting together.”
Though he admits to seeing comics as something of a job these days, Cullen still finds his work rewarding. “The most exciting part of doing a daily comic is when I come up with an idea I wasn’t expecting to come up with. A lot of the time, I don’t know what it’s going to be until I put the idea down on paper. That’s the magic of it for me.”
“You can be as big or as small as you want. It can be entirely intimate and stay in a bed, or you can travel the entire universe. You can’t really do both in a film or a play.”
Though a barrister by profession, Hugh Madden was always creating art in his spare time. “I did a lot of drawing, a lot of writing, the first ten pages of a novel before moving on to the next thing.” Eventually he decided to combine those disciplines, which led to him drawing tales starring his work colleagues.
“That’s how I started, making playful comics of friends. But then you start making your own characters, thinking they would be interesting to put in a story, and then eventually those friends get cast out!”
With all due respect to those at the Law Library, this has been a wise decision. Madden’s stories are wildly imaginative, filled with vividly drawn characters that he can realise in an immediate fashion. “In a film, if you have a character who’s a duck, that’s CGI or hours of make-up just to get something like that, and it costs a lot of money. Whereas you can get a two or three-page story down on paper in a day or two.”
Something else that attracts Madden to the medium is the epic scale made available to him, which he uses to explore locales as varied as the Wild West and the seas of a Venetian fantasy world. “You can be as big or as small as you want. It can be entirely intimate and stay in a bed, or you can travel the entire universe. You can’t really do both in a film or a play.”
To build these vibrant worlds, Madden pulls from many sources, obsessively researching authentic fashions and architecture from the relevant time period. He constantly searches for inspiration, sometimes finding it in those he passes in the street. “You try and remember people’s faces. What about that person’s nose or eyes worked?”
In the last year, Madden has taken to illustration full time. He recently launched the first part of a western revenge series called Madame Moustache and is hard at work on the next chapter in the story. Loosely based on the true story of a brilliant moustachioed gambler in the days of the Wild West, Madden has used her life as the basis for a deliriously entertaining western pulp. Thankfully, the book is starting to find its footing at conventions.
“It’s difficult to get an audience. Often people want a very specific and familiar thing. But a lot of women connect to the idea and the concept, especially when you tell them her story. They can appreciate a woman who murdered her husband because he stole all her money,” he laughs.
In the space of two years, Madden has maintained an impressive output, creating two ongoing series whilst simultaneously working on a larger graphic novel. When asked which is his favourite, his response reveals the exacting standards he holds his work to. “I think the favourite book is always the one about to be made because it has all the potential to be great and flawless and perfect.”
He pauses for a moment. “And then the minute you put pen to paper you just make everything worse!”
“I’m actually barred from Dublin City Comic Con due to the ‘erotic nature’ of my stuff.”
When pressed for a reason why he didn’t get accepted into art college, Olly Cunningham shrugs his shoulders. “Probably because I was drawing monsters with penises instead of shoes or something.”
After this brief flirtation with higher education, Cunningham spent the next two decades in a variety of jobs ranging from DJing to hairdressing, which he is still doing today. Worst of all was his stint as a gravedigger, a job that regularly showered him in “dead body water that smelled like cabbage.”
It was only in the noughties he found himself gravitating back to comics, thanks to the work of Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes. A couple of years later he returned to drawing, and after launching a clothing line that failed to take off, decided to write, draw and release the first part of what eventually became Skunk Ape.
Recently completed and collected in a single volume, Skunk Ape is a sprawling work, bursting with freakish imagery and surreal scenes. Recalling the postmodern madness of Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs, it depicts a group of dodgy Dubs popping pills as they’re drawn into conflict with mythological creatures and nightmarish insectoid monsters.
“The starting point was all these stories that had happened to me, or I’d heard from friends. I had them all on the notes on my phone,” he explains. The monsters came later, carried over from his clothing line. Cunningham’s penis rocking monsters had finally found a home.
“They just seemed to fit. I was taking bits of art and ideas and conversations and putting them into the work and seeing what happens.” When describing the tone he was trying to achieve, he says he wanted something dark, scary and “in one key”, citing his favourite metal and punk bands as inspiration.
Plotting was minimal – the outline for the middle act of the graphic novel was written in a half hour – but the scattershot approach seems to have paid off. Skunk Ape in its finished form is an exciting and vital Irish work, equal parts hilarious, poignant and revolting.
Now that Skunk Ape is complete, Cunningham is moving on to his next project, an unconventional take on a well-known Irish figure. He’s intentionally vague on details but promises it will be of a piece with the often toe-curdling nature of his previous work.
“Joe Cummerford, who’s an Irish independent filmmaker, once said to me, ‘when you read a book, it’s easy to pretend you didn’t see it. But once you actually draw it, people can’t ignore it.’” It’s that freedom to push boundaries and be in complete control of his work that drives Cunningham to keep working in comics.
Alas, that freedom occasionally comes with disadvantages. “I’m actually barred from Dublin City Comic Con due to the ‘erotic nature’ of my stuff,” he laments. “I guess they don’t want the hassle of kids going “Daddy! Daddy! Why is this woman sucking a yeti’s cock?”
“I love the idea of creating a world and an atmosphere and an arc for people to follow.”
Clare Foley was always destined to go into art, having attended her first art college aged 16. The only question was which discipline she would enter.
“I did consider fine art, but one thing that left me cold to it is that it doesn’t explain. It leaves you to interpret, which is great, but I love the idea of creating a world and an atmosphere and an arc for people to follow. And I think you can only do that in sequential art. You can create a world that people get lost in.”
Although she eventually chose a path in comics, the years spent honing fine art techniques have been invaluable to Foley’s development as an artist. Her work uses haunting watercolours, a rarity in comics, to envelop the reader in a sense of foreboding and dread.
It’s this dedication to tone that drives Foley. When asked for influences, she cites Donnie Darko and Pan’s Labyrinth, films with “an oppressive atmosphere.”
“There’s certain films that stay with you forever in terms of the mood and the atmosphere. That’s way more important to me than the story, the characters. That stuff will disappear. But that feeling of dread that a dark film leaves you with is fantastic. I like coming away from something thinking, “God that was just horrifying!”
That fondness for “an awed sense of distress” led to her adapting Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Grande Breteche.’ She had been incubating the idea since she was 16, making an outline and rough sketches of the story, but it was only in her final year of college that she felt she had accrued enough skill to begin crafting pages.
“For my very last college project, we were allowed to design our own briefs, so I did four pages from the novel. My teacher was very supportive and said ‘this is amazing, you really have to continue this.’ So as soon as I finished college, I did the rest of it.”
It was a long and exhausting process to produce the 65-page adaptation, but there was room for play along the way. “The entire thing is photo referenced, so I would dress up my friends in the costumes and take photos of them. They loved it.” When asked if someone posed for a particularly revealing shot of the protagonist, she laughs. “They were very lenient.”
Since then, Foley has been courted by a range of collaborators, having completed four stories this year alone for various anthologies. Though she enjoys working with writers, she’s looking forward to working on another adaptation of her own conception.
Indeed, her loyalty to her own idiosyncratic passions continues to pay off. “Often kids will come up to my table at conventions and think it looks boring, but their mum in her 40s will say ‘ohhh it’s Balzac, that looks interesting!’ and buy it!”
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Portraits: Killian Broderick