Above is a series of extracts and individual drawings from My graphic novel, Columba’s Cross. I really enjoyed drawing these. I use myself as a model a lot in my work. The main reasons for that are I use establishing photography for my comic books and the other main reason is – I’m cheap and available at weekends. In the novel I play the “Provo” (Provisional IRA man). Now, don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no first-hand experience. I know this may come as a shock to some but Arnold Schwarzenegger had none either when he played the Terminator. In lieu of a real IRA man, I decided to model the part instead, so much for authenticity then…
My “Provo” uses a Thompson Sub Machine gun as weapon of choice and as far as I remember so did the actual guys. I think I remember reading that they managed to get their hands on a few somewhere. God knows how you go about doing that. Do you place a discrete ad in the personal column…”Wanted sub machine gun for ongoing project must suit small insurrectionist with 34″ waist, 38 ” chest. No time wasters please”.
It was not just the weapons but the subtle details of the British Army uniforms that came to mind. The British Army has a unique form. It is made up of regiments. Many of these were originally associated with British cities and regions. The Regiments were easily identifiable by the different styles of beret worn by each regiment. In the case above I remembered one very distinctive plume worn by the Royal Fusiliers. Their red and white Hackle Plumes were instantly recognisable.
But, for all the reminiscence,Columba’s Cross is not really a story about the Irish Troubles it is a Comic book. It is a short fantasy tale of retribution and redemption that merely uses the history of Derry as a backdrop. This allows me to photograph my immediate surround, using it as reference. The story only opens in the war zone of Derry’s Bogside in 1973. A bitter provisional IRA man, high above the bog, at the site of the old Long Tower Chapel and graveyard, has a British army foot patrol in his sights. As he aims down his sights he notices a glint of gold at his feet and stops to pick up a gold cross with a gem at its centre… what follows is pure fantasy; a journey back to 6th Century Ireland, to the time of St. Columba, complete with alien invaders and the long lost Amelia Earhart.
In the best traditions of writing I’ve taken the landscape and the history of my city and of my youth and woven a tale around what I know. Although very much a fantasy/Sci-fi story, Columba’s Cross is still the first Irish graphic novel to backdrop the troubles. I’m hoping to bring this tale out sometime this year as an E Book perhaps as a serial with downloadable short episodes. let me know if you’d like that…
The first artwork above is an extract from the first page (above) of a graphic novel, Columba’s Cross. It shows a man sitting in a cell circa 1973. He has been interned in the cell without a trial. He is in the Maze prison and is under threat of torture. Although this graphic novel is not my first politically motivated art, the creation of Columba’s Cross and the drawing out of this scenario was a cathartic process for me.
I am now in my late fifties and like many of my generation, I experienced over thirty five years of a war zone through the Northern Irish “Troubles”. And, although I was never interned or imprisoned, as a Northern Irish Catholic during the conflict, the thought that I could have been, at any stage, was always there.
Sometimes when you see those deeply affected by the troubles on TV especially those who have been grieving for years you can’t but help but feel so sorry for them. I just felt based on my own experience that writing down what they feel, whether that’s in the form of a poem or a short story or a graphic novel, may help in some small way, simply putting down their thoughts so that they no longer exist solely in their heads.
For me it was the every act of committing those experiences to paper had a definite positive effect. I’ve had contacts from readers who have expressed how reading of my experiences helped them. I think it was Aristotle who said “the idea of losing our own troubles by immersing them in those of someone else” I feel that this may provide a little solace to others and (in some way) contribute to dealing with our troubled past here in the North.
There is some current thinking that reflects that this would be beneficial. Dr Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, outlined his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a lecture called Putting Feelings in to Words. In a recent interview with The Telegraph he said:
“Expressing yourself in print was “a sort of unintentional emotion regulation. It seems to regulate our distress, I don’t think that people sit down in order to regulate their emotions but there is a benefit. I think it could play a role in why many people write diaries or write bad lyrics to songs – the kind that should never be played on the radio.”
“Dr Lieberman proved the therapeutic power of writing by scanning the brains of 30 individuals while they described distressing pictures. He found that the act tended to reduce activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain connected with emotion and fear and increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the mind’s regulator. This suggests that the mere action of writing about an emotion was a way of calming down the brain and re-establishing mental balance. Often the author is unaware of the therapeutic effect of the task, it was claimed.”
The drawing of: old detention centres; policemen; prison officers; British Army soldiers; the old Bogside (an area of Derry) and Provisional IRA volunteers definitely brought long buried experiences to the fore, those drawings have also been a form of exorcism for me, the artist.
Giving long gone, ghosts flesh in the form of digital drawings, has also given me a sense that perhaps, these negative violent events could also be used, (not just by myself, the artist) but by others, as a way of telling difficult stories,providing a way of “getting them out” and presenting those stories in an accessible universal way – in the form of graphic stories, or as art works in their own right.
They say, “if you’re going to write, write about what you know” with that in mind, I set the novel in early 1970s when the conflict was at its worst.
There are many graphic novels set in war zones, World War 1; World war 2: Vietnam, etc… I don’t know if I could have completed the necessary research to set my story in any of those particular conflicts. But when I began this story I quickly discovered, that I really knew the fine detail intrinsically. I remembered the uniforms, the guns, the vehicles,from that period. All that knowledge just sitting there…
The British army, for example, changed their battle dress many times over thirty years. The standard uniform of the 1970s bears little resemblance to the contemporary one. I had all this useless knowledge. I was familiar with the fact that the army used SLRs (Self Loading Rifles). That was the one they had back then. It made sense, therefore, to set the story within a very familiar context.
As boys and teenagers we would have been familiar with stories of older brothers, uncles, fathers being dragged out of their beds at night by The British Army or the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), and taken away to holding detention centres and then disappearing into high security prisons. So, I was also familiar as to the form of those places. The security, the barbed wire enclosures, armed guards, brutal prison regimes and allegations of torture,and the rumours that they were staffed by religious bigots only there to get at Roman Catholics. All this would have been common parlance in the Derry of the early 1970s.
Equally, on the other side of the coin we were also familiar with the other protagonists in the conflict, the IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army). Although, they were a guerilla army with no formal structure they did favour certain types of weapon. The central character, Colm O Neill, brutalised by his experiences in the Maze Prison joins the IRA…TO BE CONTINUED…