LIMIT BREAK COMICS – An Interview with PAUL CARROLL, GARY MOLONEY & GARETH LUBY
WOW! What an in-depth interview CBY contributor Andrew had with the lads from Limit Break Comics. What did it cover? EVERYTHING!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Paul, Gareth, and Gary - thanks for sitting down with Comic Book Yeti today. How’s everything going over on the Emerald Isle?
PAUL CARROLL: Hi, Mr Yeti! Things over this side of the world are good. Sometimes calm, other times manic, and all the time requiring us to figure out how best to navigate the wild world of indie comics.
GARY MOLONEY: It’s been a hectic few months to be honest, but we’re finally getting to come up for air after an intense period of work between the Kickstarter for the Down Below anthology and its production.
CBY: It looks like you’ve all been busy building a roster of new titles since Mixtape and Life & Death were released in July 2018. Why don’t we backtrack to the lead-up of their production - were these anthology titles already in development and Limit Break Comics was formed to facilitate their release, or was forming Limit Break the initial intent, and if so how was it determined that Mixtape and Life & Death would serve as the initial releases?
PC: There are a few sides to this, and our little history gets muddled sometimes. The clearest understanding of it I have in my own head is that after we became friends with Gary and realised we shared similar goals - because myself and Gareth were already doing things with Meouch back in 2017 - we decided we wanted to team up as a collective. At the time we were still calling ourselves a publisher, and it’s something we occasionally refer to ourselves as while reminding ourselves (okay, they remind me) that we don’t have the time or the resources to manage a full publishing company. (To which I say - yet.)
GM: Someone has to keep you in line.
PC: True, I get carried away sometimes. So we were a little group without a name even as we were discussing the anthologies. And those books, that was all Gary to begin with.
Life & Death didn’t become a proper, fully-formed idea until we were on the train back to Dublin from the Cork Comic Expo in 2018, affectionately known as SlineyCon (after Will Sliney.) Mixtape was in the works at the time, but I don’t know if Gary had a title for it yet or if it was this floating idea of one book with many genres.
So we just came together with these two potential books that had their own little stories in them, and a vague notion that teaming up (like the lads in White Noise in the UK) would give us the emotional support if nothing else to keep going. (It was also a great way to get Gary’s books onto tables without him needing to trade solo!)
GM: With Mixtape, at least, it was very much the product of a personal challenge I had set for myself. In late 2017, I decided that after a few years in comics journalism I was ready to turn my focus from talking about comics to making them myself. As luck would have it, PJ Holden was teaching a class on creating comics (specifically four-page Future Shocks) in the Irish Writers Centre at the time. He emphasised that in order to get better you needed to actually produce comics, not just scripts, and get them out there for people to see. The best way to do that was to hone your craft and project management skills through short stories. Not only was it economical in terms of time and money, but if something didn’t work you’d know quickly and could work on it for the next time. PJ was big on the “fail fast, fail often” approach and I still think there’s a lot to be said for it. As a writer though you had to put your money where your mouth was and hire an artist/colourist/letterer to work with.
With all of that in mind, I decided that I’d challenge myself to write and produce a Future Shock-style every month and upload it online for free. Doing that meant I could scratch different creative itches and afforded me the opportunity to work with a lot of talented creators, many of whom have become good friends and frequent collaborators. The idea was always that these shorts would be collected in an anthology that would be multi-genre, but it didn’t have a name at that time. The final name actually came very late in the process. It was originally just going to be self-published without the support of a collective or publisher, but the more we spoke about our own different goals and plans (usually over a few post-con or event drinks) teaming up just made sense, if nothing else to keep ourselves honest.
As Paul said, we were very clear at the time that what we were starting was a collective and not a publisher per se. We were committed to supporting up-and-coming creators with what guidance we could, but between our day-jobs and regular lives we didn’t think we had the time or resources to be a publisher in the more traditional sense with a submissions policy. That meant saying no to people early on who were looking for a home for their book. We’ve evolved what we do since then, we’re a publisher as distinct from a publishing house, but it still ultimately remains a collective and creative support network more so than anything else.
CBY: As you got things up and running, what kind of unforeseen challenges or opportunities arose? What lessons did you learn around getting Limit Break Comics formally established, and what would you do differently if you were starting again today with the past four years of experience to draw upon?
PC: The biggest early hurdle was navigating the indie comics space in Ireland. It's an incredibly supportive community where everyone knows everyone whether you’re small press or a seasoned pro. It's also a scene that's brimming with talent. So as a new creator or group you've to really work to carve out your own niche and make a name for yourself.
See, once we had ourselves set up, we still had that one major issue that every indie creator of comics has: money. An issue that’s especially true of writers who insist on paying the people they approach for work.
And while we thought we could manage money okay, and just slowly release books… we didn’t plan on 2020. I was out of two jobs in three months, and we had lost all conventions. That’s where money became a huge obstacle, because it can take a long time for a book to earn back the investment that went into it, particularly when it’s a single writer putting something together and hiring their collaborators. When the sales of one book are meant to fund the publication of the next, it can stall the process. It’s just the nature of things, especially as a writer looking to publish independently.
For me, at least, that’s where the time I had off work became an opportunity. It was time to learn and to manage the book that would become Turning Roads, which had been an invaluable experience in terms of figuring out how to make comics.
Four years after doing all this… I would probably have invested in a one-shot book sooner. Series and anthologies are great, but I’m still itching to get a book out there that people don’t need the next part to complete the story.
GM: I think perhaps we were overly concerned with the need to be producing new material regularly or risk being forgotten. This was something that a lot of people had said to me just after Mixtape was published and it kind of put the fear of God into me. Nobody wants to meet an enthusiastic reader, eager to read your new book, only to disappoint them with the news that it's still ages away. The thing about short stories and anthologies is that theoretically they can be put together very quickly. You know you’ve got four pages to work with and there are limits to what you can do within the space. It’s a chance to get in, explore an idea, and get out. If you put it online, you can get immediate feedback as well. Working on a longer form story be it a one-shot or a serial requires more pre-production and planning to do it right. The upfront investment from the writer’s perspective is also a huge factor to consider and one more easily spread out when you’re doing short stories. I think what the pandemic has shown us though is that people are willing to wait and give creators the space they need to develop their projects. The audience will still be there for you and even if they’re not, you’ll find a new audience waiting in the wings. It’s okay to take your time.
Following on from what Paul said, one of the things that we ought to have invested some time in sooner was crowdfunding as a way of getting books made. It wasn’t really the done thing in Irish comics at the time. There were only a few projects to base interest off and many of those weren’t comparable in terms of scale. Some even viewed it in very negative terms, like you’d be seen as a failure for relying on it. There was also the truism going around that crowdfunding wasn’t a place to build your audience, it’s where you direct your existing one. In retrospect, I think lots of creators were waiting for someone to take the plunge because once the seal was broken crowdfunding became ubiquitous within the Irish indie scene and a viable source of funding. It’s led to our work reaching far more people than it would have otherwise.
PC: Exactly that! Crowdfunding has been a game changer!
CBY: Limit Break has clearly built its catalogue on a backbone of anthologies comprised of both Irish and international contributors. While I saw the recent talent solicitation post for Down Below on the Limit Break site, can you provide some insight into your selection criteria and editorial/publication process? Do you have hard page limits or publication length in mind for your printing process? How are you determining what gets included, and how it gets presented in juxtaposition with the other pieces to make the most cohesive overall book?
PC: I can address the production side first, because that’s what reflects on how our other decisions go. It all starts with a spreadsheet. I knew from Turning Roads what a book with 18 stories looked like - and we ensure all the stories are the same length, so it’s easier to navigate the rest of the process - so we started with that as our cap, and with an idea of how high our Kickstarter might reach. (I mean, we were wrong. It did much better, and I’m still shocked every time I see the figure.) So when myself and Gary were deciding on what to include in Down Below, and having many more stories to look at than I’d had a year prior, we looked at how many more we could fit in without blowing the budget. Spreadsheets are great and have saved my butt many a time.
So, that’s how we knew how many stories we could fit. Now we can look at the selection criteria. We each approached it looking at the same things from different perspectives: how closely did a story stick to the myth? Was it a straight retelling, or did the pitch do something interesting? Was there even a story in the pitch? Would it fit into four pages, or were the creators underestimating the space their story would take? And, of course, was it a noir story?
I took the approach of judging the stories first, blindly, so I wouldn’t be influenced by who wrote the pitch. It meant only looking at how many pitches we’d received during the submission window, instead of where they came from, but it allowed me to keep my head clear and make decisions on the stories before looking at who was planning to make them. After that, then, I looked at portfolios. And that’s where the majority of issues came from, and also how we made our decisions where two creators pitched similar stories. I’m going to say this here, because it warrants repeating: make sure comic pages are easy to find in a portfolio. An editor shouldn’t need to click into every cover image of a gallery to find out if it has comics or pinups. An editor also shouldn’t have to download a copy of your book - even if it’s free - to see your portfolio. Or request to follow you on Instagram because your portfolio link is a private account. These were all things that went against people when we were looking at portfolios, and they’ll shape the decisions of anyone who isn’t already familiar with your work. Which, for us, was most of the people whose work we were viewing.
We loved getting to pick stories that, for the most part, looked at different myths. As I write this, we’re in the process of discussing the running order for stories for Down Below, which will require a balance of story pacing and art styles throughout, wherever possible. My trick with Turning Roads was whether someone put title credits on the first page of their story or not, the art styles would be distinct enough to know when one ended and another began. That’ll be the challenge for this next book.
GM: For me, comics are always getting the most out of the limited space you’re given. Short stories even more so. When considering the pitches we got for Down Below there were a couple of factors which played into our decision making. First, did the story work as a self-contained short. This was crucial. A lot of people gave us the beginning of a story with no resolution. This didn’t mean the story couldn’t be open-ended or that it couldn’t imply a broader world in which the characters operated -in fact, the best ones did- but rather that the four-pages being proffered had to work as a narrative of themselves. We wanted our readers to be satisfied with each story. If at the end of it all they wanted more, that’s great, we’ve done our jobs, but only if it’s because they like the taste rather than still feeling hungry. So while some of the tales you’ll find in Down Below start off in media res or leave you pondering a mystery, they still follow a logical story structure. It’s the one thing I’ll always remember Rob Williams hammering home at one of the Thought Bubble Pitchfests. It doesn’t matter what kind of page count you have. You still have to give your story a beginning, middle, and end. Otherwise it isn’t really a story. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. There’s a thesis posed and your story either proves it or disproves it.
Second, I looked at the myth that the creative team were playing with. Did they truly understand it? Were they bringing something new or just playing the greatest hits with added saxophone? This is where a lot of the teams fell short. They were only interested in retelling the myth rather than adding to it. I wasn’t interested in stories that simply place the tragedy of Orpheus and Euricides in a 1930s settings or reframed the God as mob bosses. There had to be something more to it. I was drawn far more to those stories that took the thematic core of the myth and used it as a prompt to build a story from rather than straight adaptations. Their inspiration might be less obvious when reading the first time through, but those stories capture the spirit of the original myths and engage with them critically.
Of course, as Paul notes, the diversity of myths was important to us as well. We couldn’t have the book be made up solely of reinterpretations of the taking of Persephone or the fall of Icarus. Some really good stories didn’t make the cut because there was another that shared its subject matter and did more with it.
Third, there was the noir of it all. This was something that a lot of people struggled with in that they tended to focus on the aesthetics rather than the themes of noir. For them a story was a noir if your characters wore pinstripes and fedoras. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, but an aesthetic is not a genre. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find elements of that in the stories that made the cut but noir isn’t all Raymond Chandler stereotypes. It’s about a bitter sweetness that permeates a particular piece. And that comes from the main character struggling against societal structures far more powerful than themselves. The insidious kind that can’t be beaten in submission. The endemic and systematic kind that taints a society. The kind for whom the antagonists are merely a representation of. Whether its organised crime, widespread addiction, or police corruption. They require collective action rather than a jaded PI with a hero complex. So such victories as they have are fleeting, but it’s all that they have, and it’s that element that the best noir authors hone in on. So, the stories that made the cut understood that and knew how to distinguish a noir comic from other forms of crime fiction.
Paul has addressed most of the production aspect. We were very much bound by our budget when it came to the page count. There were certainly stories we’d have liked to include had we the space for them, but you have to be realistic and in some ways pessimistic. You can’t assume you’re going to succeed and even if you’re confident that you’ll reach your goal, everything afterwards is meant to be a bonus. Many a crowdfunded comic has gotten in trouble by underbudgetting or deliberately setting a lower target on the assumption they’d make their stretch goal which is really the true amount needed to fund the book. Bear in mind as well, this was only the second time we’d done a big campaign like this. We were looking for a lot more money this time around. There was always the possibility that Turning Roads was a fluke. The economy was in a totally different place. People didn’t have the same level of disposable income. So, it was always a risk. Thankfully it paid off and we’re going to have this wonderful book to show for us, but Murphy’s Law says that had we started with a larger goal that we may not have reached it.
CBY: From a business perspective, with the ensemble of creators involved in the anthologies, do you have a standard model for writer/artist compensation you’ve used for each book? For instance, Plexus is written solely by Paul, and Old Game Plus was written by Seamus Kavanagh, but both have different artists for different segments, whereas Turning Roads is comprised of a range of different writer/artist contributors. How are work-for-hire or profit share elements in book sales handled, and has that process changed title to title depending on the working arrangements of contributors?
PC: We only have one policy: pay the creators.
Our books fall into three categories, broadly: those with one creator (specifically a writer) paying everyone to work on their stories, those with a creative team managing the book (i.e. Meouch) and open-call anthologies where multiple teams are working on stories.
So, the likes of Plexus, Old Game Plus, Mixtape, they’re funded by the writer, and the writer keeps the money from sales. Which, let’s be honest, is rarely enough in indie comics to recuperate costs.
With Meouch, myself and Gareth split costs and profits equally, and I do a lot of extra running around to promote it (and Limit Break generally) to slightly make up for the difference in workload between a writer and an artist.
Then with things like Turning Roads and Down Below, the contributors are paid a flat rate (advertised in advance) per page, whether it’s one person or four working on a story. Those teams organise themselves, and handle their own finances, which is common practice with anthologies that don’t pay specific page rates per creator in a book. The editor of the book then keeps the profit off the back of sales, which in the case of Down Below is a split between the two of us. With those sorts of projects, the crowdfunding pays for the printing, but doesn’t necessarily pay us anything up-front.
Incidentally, those three approaches were developed separately and, at least under the banner of Limit Break Comics, in that order.
GM: For complete transparency, nothing in any of our books constitutes work-for-hire in the sense that the payment of a page rate to an artist is us buying their creative rights or allows us to assert that we own the stories in their entirety. This is still fundamentally creator-owned work wherein we work with collaborators who share in that ownership. Paul and I are very clear when working with new collaborators that it’s a team effort and that each of us owns the story. The artists we work with are free to use the story in whatever way they see fit, including hosting it on their website and publishing it in their own collection if they so wish. What a page rate represents for us is respect for the time that our collaborators put into their work. I don’t want to get drawn into the “writer vs artists” debate because it’s stupid and helps no one, but the simple fact of the matter is that it will take an artist longer to draw a page than it did the writer to draft it. The physical toll is also considerable. Artists can only work on one project at a time whereas writers can juggle them. The page rate is reflective of that in creator-owned work and that’s how we treat it. Comics are collaborations, a partnership, and you’ve got to look after your partners and treat them right.
Insofar as our anthologies like Turning Roads and Down Below are concerned, the collective page rate paid to each creative team is a licence fee of sorts to subsidise the creation of the comic. Creators retain full ownership of their stories. Our agreement with those who participate in these collections is that Limit Break gets first publication rights and an exclusivity of twelve months, but after that time period has elapsed they can republish it wherever they like. That was very important to us as without naming names, we’ve seen other anthologies whose creative ownership agreements we’d fundamentally disagree with when considering the compensation that was offered (or lack there of in some instances). It’s part of what took us so long to have an open call anthology of this kind. We wanted to make sure we could offer a page rate which was fair when compared with our publishing plan. In an ideal world, we’d be able to offer the creative teams a higher rate and hopefully one day we will, but the approach we’ve taken to date is one which everyone seems happy with and is in line with our policy that everyone should be paid for their work even in anthology projects.
CBY: For Gary’s title, Lens, it was released with other print/publishers involved - can you speak to your experience with the handling of rights and their transferral upon deciding to have Limit Break Comics put out the collected edition? Any legal do’s and don’ts you’d like to share with other creators trying to understand the distinctions of working with a publisher or self-publishing, and the ramifications of approaching it through either path?
GM: This wasn’t as big of an issue as you might think. When I first pitched Lens to Claire Napier for her Bun & Tea magazine, she was very clear at the time that what was being proposed was a first publication scenario by way of serialisation and that after the project was completed, we could release it in a collected edition or any other format we wanted. The only thing that was needed on our end was to acknowledge that it was published elsewhere in the indicia which is totally fair and something I would have wanted to do anyway. That understanding was ultimately reflected in the contract that we signed prior to any commitments being made. I suppose that’s the biggest advice I would give to other creators. Prior to releasing the complete first season of Lens in print, I reached out to Claire again as a courtesy to make sure she was okay with me doing so or if there was an issue with that. No such issue arose, but it was still good practice to double-check. A lot of problems begin life as a failure to communicate, so if you’re open and honest about your expectations and maintain a dialogue throughout, it makes life a lot easier for everyone involved in a creative project.
As for advice I would have for creators trying to navigate the nitty gritty of contracts and the like, I think you need to be very careful out there. If you’re transitioning from publishing stuff yourself to working with a publisher, you’ve got to be very careful what you sign. I’m very lucky in that I had a very good working relationship with Claire and we all wanted to do right by each other, so when difficulties did arise we were able to work through them from a common place of understanding, but that isn’t always the case. We’ve all heard the horror stories of those who have signed predatory contracts and found themselves at the mercy of a publisher who ultimately does not have their best interests at heart. It happens to the best of us. If you’re lucky enough to get a publishing contract, read it closely and thoroughly. Have someone else read over it as well and ask them to explain their understanding of it. If you have any doubt over anything in the contract, don’t be afraid to seek advice from your peers, professionals, or a lawyer if the situation calls for it and you can afford one. Trust me, while there may be a cost involved with having a lawyer look over your contract, it’s nothing compared to the peace of mind you’ll have after the fact.
Also remember that in most instances, being offered a contract is the start of the conversation rather than the end. If there is something you don’t like in there or can’t stand over, discuss it with the other party. You can’t do business with someone if you’re not willing to engage with them if you have a problem. There’s a good chance they may have some flexibility and a good publisher will work with you to find a compromise that you can both live with. Ultimately, be willing to walk away if the deal doesn’t suit you.
Another thing I’ll say is that you should have a written creative agreement with your collaborators on every project you work on. Even if you’re operating at a small press level, it’s just good practice to get everything in writing so that everyone understands what their rights and responsibilities are. If issues do arise, then you have something concrete to come back to and use as the basis of your discussion. Contracts don’t need to be complex, they just need to reflect whatever agreement you’ve reached. It may seem overly formal and awkward, but you’ll all sleep much better having something like that which protects your respective positions.
CBY: With both Jane in Lens, and Frankie in Paul’s series, Meouch, the lead characters are assassins by trade, albeit in worlds of very different tone. What has drawn both of you to telling stories from this unique occupational perspective? What does it allow you to explore, and what limits do you come up against when framing your plots through these characters and the outlooks they offer? To that end, Lens is complete, but what length of arc is in store for Meouch as Frankie’s story unfolds?
GM: Lens came from a writing exercise I did as part of a comic storytelling class that Declan Shalvey was teaching at the Irish Writers Centre a few years back. The challenge was to come up with a tight, three-page story that we could workshop as a group. In brainstorming for that, I had this image of what appeared to be a photographer setting up their equipment and talking about their craft, only to reveal that they’d assembled a sniper rifle rather than a camera. Something about the juxtaposition fascinated me, as did the realisation that a lot of the language used in photography could apply equally to assassination. I could see there was a good deal to play with there.
I outlined what would end up being the first three pages of Lens and shared them with the class. Everyone liked it, but ultimately I decided to develop another story because Declan advised that what I had with Lens seemed less like a self-contained short and more the beginning of a longer piece, encouraging me to keep it in my back pocket for the time being.
But the character of Lens herself, Jane Danner, stuck with me. This idea of someone committed to the craft of photography, the pursuit of the perfect shot, and began to view taking lives in a similar manner. There is cruelty and sadism in the pleasure she takes in her work. She’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. That’s one of the draws for me with Jane, trying to find a way to get the readers on her side while also not wanting them to forget she’s a coldblooded killer. It’s the challenge you face when centering your story around an assassin, reckoning with the morality of it all, and particularly when Raquel’s art frames Jane as this sheer force of will. It’s a tough line to walk, the first John Wick gets around that problem by having him already retired by the time we meet him. When he kills, it’s as a response to wrongs done to him. Our solution is closer to how Christopher Priest handled Slade Wilson in his Deathstroke series. You unapologetically steer into the vicious bastardy of it all. Jane is in this squarely for herself and we don’t try to pretend otherwise. This isn’t to say that Jane is completely heartless or without redeeming qualities, that’s something we’re going to explore more with her down the line, but for this first mission I wanted the readers to get caught up in her euphoria. The aim was to show you the murky world of hitmen as Jane sees it; a game to be played and beaten before revealing how she made it all happen. If you’re a little horrified by how much fun you had getting there, then I think we did our job right.
There’s also an element with Jane of someone who is overly obsessed with their work and starts to lose other parts of themselves in the process. We see that with Jane throughout Season One but particularly when she tells Keith that the reasons behind a hit don’t matter to her anymore, that all she focuses on is the act itself. She no longer cares why someone has been marked for death, all that matters to her is that they have to die. Jane is a warning for what happens when you allow your job to become your life, when there is no separation between the work and the private personas. It blinds her to much of what’s going on around her and comes back to bite her towards the end of the book. She doesn’t see the bigger picture and pays the price for it. Maybe I was trying to tell myself something!
It’s interesting because prior to working on Lens, I hadn’t actually dabbled much in crime/espionage fiction. It was a genre I enjoyed a lot, I’m a major Le Carre fan, but not one I never thought to write in. I suppose I saw myself more as a science-fiction or fantasy writer. Because of Lens though, I’ve found myself becoming a lot more comfortable in that noir/crime space. I feel like I’ve found my groove at this point.
I note as well that I see the collected edition of Lens as Season One. Raquel and I hope to return to Jane someday. Our plan would be to have each season work as a standalone story akin to an airport thriller, not requiring readers to have read the one that came before. That mission-style format is something that works very well in spy fiction as any fan of Jack Reacher or Mission: Impossible will be aware. For those who do read them all, though, they’ll be able to see the connective tissue and get more out of it. That’s the hope at least.
PC: Frankie was actually Gareth’s baby. He asked me to work with him on the book, and I just went with it. We shaped the development of it together, like whether Frankie swears or not (he doesn’t, only in cat puns) and the sort of tone of the book.
GARETH LUBY: Frankie was my baby, literally. He was a kitten I had back in Ireland and from day one he was stone mad. I had scars and scrapes that made my eyes water at times. I remember at times thinking “this Cat could kill someone.”
At the time I was drawing pin-ups and doodles here and there, nothing to write home about. I did a very small comic show in Dublin back in 2016 I think, and this is where I met Paul. We had similar goals in that I wanted to draw comics and he wanted to write them. Some time passed and one day we met for a coffee and decided to brainstorm ideas. I think at the time I had some fresh scars from Frankie.
This lead to a conversation about my idea to make him a murderer/assasin. So the creative juices started to flow, fueled by coffee; we came up with a premise together and Paul was pumped to write it as much as I was ready to draw it.
We decided to start small and do a zine about the crazy muder cat, one as I had never drawn a comic and Paul thought it would be best not to jump in at the deep end.
Now I can say looking back with my hand on my heart that the first draft of Frankie was not good. Frankie did not look anything like he does today. He looked more like a feline Stewie Griffin and my sequential art was so bad… Just awful!
But we did it, Frankie was a thing! We made a thing! And people loved it.
Meouch is a fun book, purely because that's what we wanted our first comic to be. Myself and Paul were both huge fans of Skottie Young’s I Hate Fairyland and that book opened our eyes as to how we could achieve over the top gratuitous violence and mesh it with the Awww factor that comes with a little cute kitty.
To this day I am blown away by the response Frankie gets when we bring the book to shows - people just go crazy for him. It is a constant source of pride in what myself and Paul have achieved together.
We are now two issues in and Frankie is looking good. He is cuter, deadlier and even more murderous! I look forward to the future for this book, as I have learned so much doing it. Having Paul and Gary (Comic experts) has always been a solid source of support though the process.
PC: Side note: this current arc of Meouch ends after issue three, and we’ll figure out what happens next from there. (I have story ideas, but we need to look at things like…our own lives.)
CBY: From Jonathan Swift through James Joyce, Kate O’Brien, to more recent luminaries such as Seamus Heaney, per capita, Ireland boasts one of the most impactful literary traditions in the world. I’ve been based in Fiji for the past decade, and the dialogue around national identity and shared aesthetics has been a point of consideration, so I’m curious as to Irish perspectives on this, as another island nation. With your support of comic books and graphic novels as a vehicle for Irish creatives, do you find the medium treated with more or less respect by the critical community and readers amidst the general public relative to solely literary work as a consequence?
PC: This is one where we need to watch what we say…
The general public are becoming increasingly accepting of comic books. People who are involved in organisations dealing with the selling or lending of books and the concepts reading for fun and reading for literacy, are all not just accepting of comics, but encouraging them to be read. (This is literally my whole Real Life Job, by the way - I work with Children’s Books Ireland on book-gifting projects to get books into the hands of more children and young people, and comics features heavily in that. It’s the most Wholesome Job I’ve ever had, and I’m still pinching myself several months in that I get to do this for a living.)
Where solely literary work comes more into play is funding applications. Comics and graphic novels are still in that weird space of being both literature and a visual art form, and while the Powers That Be consider them Literature, I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who make the decisions about what gets funded don’t fully understand the process of making a comic. (I just hope they don’t think all comics are like Marvel and DC, because otherwise we’ve got a much bigger battle ahead of us in terms of gaining respect - and funding - for comics in this country!)
GM: Comics’ place within the Irish literary and media landscape is an odd one. Unlike many of our friends in Continental Europe, there isn’t the same tradition of album comics in Ireland. Nor do we have that newsstand culture that they had in the US. For the most part what we ended up with were some US imports or reprints, but mostly such offerings as were available from the UK market. Distribution among newsagents was dodgy at best so the idea that you’d follow a comic on a week-to-week basis wasn’t realistic. Lots of Irish people would have grown up with comics like The Beano, Bunty, or 2000AD but they were something you were gifted at Christmas usually in an Annual format which would have also included puzzles, games, and prose pieces. So, there is an awareness of comics and some may have fond memories of them, but their relationship to them is that of a stocking filler rather than a unique creative medium of itself. The ease with which comics are available nowadays has helped to change that slowly but surely. We’ve an incredible library-system in this country which is very supportive of comics and strives to make them available both physically and digitally. You’ve also seen over the last decade libraries become involved in encouraging young people to make comics through initiatives like the Teen Graphic Novel project among others.
Insofar as the critical and journalistic side of things are concerned, when the Irish media do engage with comics they definitely come at it from the perspective of wanting to support the creators involved. That’s the thing about us, we like to see each other succeed. Ireland is a relatively small country and there is a sense that even if you don’t know someone there is more than likely a connection between you only one or two steps removed. We’re very quick to dawn the green jersey if we see one of our own succeed in their chosen field.
As part of that, you’ve started to see some of the more established pros getting the occasional guest spot on national radio and television talk shows when they’ve a new book to promote. Often some of that time is taken up by explaining what comics are or the state of the industry. There is a residual necessity to explain that comics aren’t just for kids and how the industry works but while that’s well-worn ground for us creators, it’s something that popular Irish media is only really coming to terms with. We’ve a bit of a way to go before we’re seen as more than curiosity in that sense.
What I will say though is that we ourselves have had nothing but great experiences from our interactions with those in Irish critical circles. From an early stage in Limit Break’s development, we’ve had passionate and interested journalists from the national newspapers reach out and cover our work. We’ve been very humbled to see books like Lens, Turning Roads, and Mixtape show up in end-of-year round-ups by the two leading newspapers in the country. Those journals will often only have a handful of articles covering comics every year, so to be included within those columns is a huge honour. Those within critical and journalist circles who get it do what they can to spread the good work. Our role as creators is to produce the kind of work that makes their job a lot easier and get comics into the hands of the community where we can.
CBY: Within the broader national identity of Ireland as a shared cultural space in which to work, what do you all have in mind to distinguish Limit Break’s brand identity? As a collective, is this something being discussed with the other creators, or is it something you’re curating through intention and selection of material for publication? In consideration of noted recent inroads by Irish comic creators, how do you intend to have Limit Break Comics continue to differentiate itself through its future titles, adding to these traditions and the culture at large?
PC: I sometimes joke to myself that I take a stance of aggressive optimism. I’m not even sure if that’s correct, or if I just like how it sounds. For me, Limit Break exists to be as supportive to as many people as possible. We started because we wanted to help lift each other up. Our crowd-funded anthologies are the only ones like them in Ireland. The folks we’ve worked with most recently - Seamus Kavanagh, James Killian, Leeann Hamilton - are people who need the assistance of a group in one way or another. Of the three, Seamus is an official member of the team, whereas James and Leeann are sort of free-floating Honorary Members so they don’t feel an obligation to be stuck with us.
As far as future titles are concerned, we’re generally concerned with working with people who want to be part of a community and who get who we are. We have a mix of books and stories - covering multiple genres and exploring different themes and topics - and if I was to turn around next week and say “I want us to open up for submissions of books”, that’s what I’d be looking for. Something that looks at sometimes difficult topics in a meaningful way, from creators who aren’t just looking to piggyback off a label without knowing where it comes from. We started as just a group of friends, and that’s core to how we manage ourselves still.
I do, occasionally, need the lads to stop me getting carried away.
GM: It’s something we take very seriously. I admit I struggle when framing something like this as brand identity. The work we publish under Limit Break is us as individual creators and the particular creative urges we’re trying to satisfy. We want to push ourselves, explore different genres, themes and formats. I wouldn’t turn around to Paul, for example, and say that a comic he made couldn’t be put out under the label because it wasn’t on brand. If there is something that one of us wants to pursue, we aim to support each other in that regard and to facilitate them as best we can with whatever assistance they need.
Inasmuch as we are informed by being Irish creators, we’re not seeking to make work that is exclusively aimed at an Irish audience. We obviously want to tap into that background where it’s suitable. If you were to force me, however, to describe our “brand”, I would say that our early years were defined by the short story which is something that has significant roots in the Irish literary tradition. There is a skill to being able to tell a complete story in four pages and it requires you to be self-disciplined. I subscribe to the view that it’s actually harder to write a short comic than it is a long one. Comics are by their nature an exercise in economy of space and language, short stories even more so. Every panel and word balloon has to count, there is no room for that which doesn’t serve a purpose.
Short form narratives are an approach to storytelling that have become somewhat undervalued in the Direct Market. Anthologies are one of the main ways of getting your work seen by a wider audience, but there is a perception that they either 1) don’t sell or 2) are inconsequential. A lot of our titles aim to disprove both of those assumptions. That’s why the myth-anthologies are so important to us and why we present them as graphic novel collections. They’re about providing a showcase for amazing talent from around the world, yes, but also giving you new insight into old legends through a genre lens. The individual stories stand on their own, but together we hope they offer a general understanding and examination of the themes to be found in the relevant mythology.
So, while we’ve begun branching out into longer form material, what I’d like to see Limit Break retain is its belief that short form narratives are worthy of themselves and deserving of readers’ attention. They are made no less consequential by virtue of their length. Neither should they be viewed as simple calling cards or advertisements for future work (though we won’t say no to that either).
CBY: From the anthology model you’ve employed thus far, connecting with creators in a manner that builds up their portfolios, do you see a pipeline for contributors to build upon some of the short story elements or characters introduced to offer up full-length books in future titles? Is there anything you’re looking for that you haven’t yet been able to find, or are you inundated with properties piling up too fast to publish them?
PC: I wouldn't say we’re inundated. But if you took even a quarter of the short stories we’ve published in anthologies and looked at making full-length titles out of them, that would have a massive knock-on to how we manage at conventions. Between Life & Death, Mixtape, both issues of Plexus, Limit Break Presents, Old Game Plus, Turning Roads, and Down Below, that’s over 60 short stories between four and eight pages in length. More than a few of them could function as blueprints for longer stories.
There’s always the temptation to return to older work and attempt it. In my own case, at least, I’m looking at the worldbuilding of a couple of stories towards a future project, rather than telling the same stories over a long period.
But really, for now, there are no plans in place to attempt anything like that on a grand scale. I think I’d need to rent a room somewhere to store all the stock if we expand too quickly.
GM: Please don’t add to my “to-do” list. I spin far too many plates as it is. I don’t think my sanity or relationship could survive it. There are, of course, longer stories you could spin out of some of the shorts we’ve put out over the last number of years. I myself would like to return to a few of my own in time, but I think it’s always better to be forward-looking with creative endeavours and striving toward something new in your work.
CBY: What other companies are taking approaches to business which Limit Break Comics finds useful as you build the collective? And, finally, beyond business considerations and seeking new talent for future publications, what other comic titles are already out on the market which are providing you with creative inspiration? What books haven’t you been able to put down once you pick them up?
PC: They’re not technically a company, but Stray Lines in Ireland served as a big inspiration to me when I joined the Irish comic scene back in 2015. I loved how they handled being a group of creators producing their own work, and the positive energy they put out into the world. Though, I do need Gary and Gareth to stop me following completely in their footsteps and setting up events…
GM: Don’t get him started. Paul could end up planning world domination if left unattended for too long. Similarly though, I wouldn’t look to a company per se, but in terms of the atmosphere we’re trying to foster, I’d look to something like the Cork Comic Creators, which is a group from my hometown that host monthly meet-ups aimed at providing a forum for people to talk shop, find collaborators, get advice and help others. In addition to that they run short workshops at each event, publish seasonal anthologies, and do vital outreach with schools/youth groups in the area. I always say that if you’re based in Cork and you want to learn how to make comics, they should be your first port of call. It’s the kind of group that I wished every town had. While we can’t offer that same experience through Limit Break, my hope is that people see us as a group they feel comfortable approaching for advice or guidance on getting started and staying in comics. From our experiences at conventions to date, we seem to be on the right track.
GL: I would agree with Gary on that point, the last convention we all attended was a real eye opener to me. I couldn't believe the amount of people who came up to us looking for advice on how to get started. The guys (Paul and Gary) were inundated with people asking the best practices and how to get involved in future anthologies with the group.
The best thing about this was the amount of referrals that our peers in the scene made, it seemed that we are becoming the people to talk to in the Irish comic scene for aspiring creators.
PC: As to your other question, right now, the book that’s keeping me inspired is Something is Killing the Children. I’d been yearning for a good horror title, and I’ve been hooked since I read the first issue. It’s led me to making a bunch of my own horror shorts, with a one-shot novella on the way at some point in the future, and constantly forces me to revisit the genre.
GM: My “to-read” pile has gotten a bit out of hand since becoming a parent, but there are some books I do try to carve out time for. I consider books like Radiant Black, Rogue Sun, and The Dead Lucky to be appointment readings. The Massiveverse as a whole has been doing really interesting things with the modern superhero book. I’m someone who grew up on the Bendis and Bagley Ultimate Spider-Man and the Massiveverse feels somewhat like a spiritual successor to that in terms of putting character to the fore and subverting the expectations of the genre. They all give the cast quiet moments to themselves where they can just breath and take it all in. It’s those interludes that make a book special, that gives the bombast its weight. This is something that the creators involved have done in their WFH books and I’m delighted to see them maintain that now in the creator-owned space.
Anytime Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker put out a new Reckless graphic novel, I get a bolt of creative energy. There is just something about the tone those books strike, the mood they invoke, that clicks with me. It’s the type of pulp/noir storytelling that I just can’t get enough of, a vibe I try to tap into in my own work. Reckless is also an example of two of the industry’s best pushing different formats within the Direct Market and challenging the assumptions of what readers will tolerate. That’s something you’ve got to respect and I’d love to see more of.
GL: My reading pile is all over the place if I'm honest. The reason being that when I moved to London I couldn't take all my books / single issues with me, so every trip home a little bit of the collection is brought to London.
But what I'm currently reading is Kirkman & Samnee’s Firepower. I love Samnee’s artwork in this book and Kirkman is Kirkman. Also I am on the same boat as Paul. I'm hooked on Something is Killing the Children. I love this book so much. But on top of that I'm getting through a backlog of older stuff. I'm still working through my Invincible compendiums and Usagi Yojimbo, and whenever I have a few minutes I love to dive into some classic Calvin & Hobbes.