Back to Mad Grandadding

He has become an old friend. And though I can sometimes stumble or struggle when I first go back to an illustration style I haven’t used in a while, it doesn’t happen as much with Mad Grandad. Perhaps it’s because I’ve drawn him hundreds, if not thousands of times, both for the books and in sessions.

Interesting then, that I still enjoy working on these books so much.

Doppelganger-Front CoverThe cover artwork for ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’ is now done and the folks at O’Brien Press will be setting up the cover design while I get on with the pencil roughs for the internal illustrations. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover elements.

I used to use a lot more acrylic paint years ago, but ended up switching over to gouache to get stronger colours and a bit more flexibility – for those who don’t know, gouache is water soluble and acrylic isn’t, which makes them very different to work with. Doppelganger-Back CoverThe other Mad Grandad covers were painted with a little acrylic, but mostly gouache. For the first time in ages, I did this entirely in acrylic – with the usual bit of black shellac ink for the linework – and  I think I’ll be sticking with this approach for a while.

The smaller square picture will go on the front cover, against the usual yellow background. The bigger ‘wallpaper’ picture is for the back cover, where it will lie behind the blurb, the logos and barcode etc. The bits of frame at the top and bottom of the front cover design are cut from the back cover illustration. If you look at the other Mad Grandad books carefully, you’ll see this is true of all of them. Most, if not all, of the O’Brien’s Flyer range are done this way. It’s quite a constricting format to work in – particularly for the central illustration on the front – but the Flyer covers are immediately identifiable in Ireland.

We’re aiming to get this book out by March, which means getting all the illustrations finished by January. Less blogging (and dawdling), more drawing, Oisin.

A Brave New WexWorld

Sometimes I look back over my week (or for the purposes of this blog, the last twelve days) and I find it hard to remember what filled all that time. I know I had a couple of really good sessions with kids and parents in Clara Library in Offaly on the 18th. The rest of that week is a bit of a blur – although I know I did a bit of the Mad Grandad artwork (perhaps his absent-mindedness is rubbing off on me).Wexworlds-Science Gallery-1

I also remember that last weekend  I was at WexWorlds, the sci-fi and fantasy festival set up in Wexford by Eoin Colfer, James Bacon and the Wexford Arts Office. My family came with me, and there were a lot of other families there – including one lot who came all the way from Texas just for the festival. There have been plenty of ‘Genre’ conventions in Ireland before, but this was the first to involve a whole town and make proper use of marketing and PR and include things as varied as exhibitions and a cabaret. I did a session in the library and sat on a range of panels, including a discussion on blending words and pictures, reflecting on the Harry Potter phenomenon, sci-fi for beginners and a reading with other authors in the theatre.

The festival went brilliantly, despite the rest of the country descending into the doldrums following our exit from the World Cup (thanks to Thierry Henry’s blatant hand-ball – apology not bloody accepted, Thierry) and severe floods covering huge parts of the south and west of the country. I had to bypass Enniscorthy on the way down to Wexford because the bridge in the centre of the town was underwater.

WexWorlds-Science Gallery-4Eoin Colfer and Darren Shan were the headliners, but also there to do their thing were writers Michael Carroll, Sarah Rees Brennan, Andrew Donkin, Herbie Brennan, Ian McDonald, film-maker John Vaughn and comics creators Rob Curley, Paul Holden, and Nick Roche, among others. As is always the way with conventions, the participants all had a really good laugh and any people of Wexford who did not take part were as tolerant and understanding as they could be.

WexWorld 1There were zombie classes, lightsaber workshops and films, with the Bui Bolg Street Theatre teaching kids how to make mad costumes, as well as  science talks given by Dr Emma J. King. At the cabaret on Saturday evening, we enjoyed live music, short films, an exotic dancer, poetry and an obscene and hilarious reading by Eoin Colfer, who has probably been dying to swear in public for ages. I also got to indulge my habit of sitting in cafes people-watching and enjoying good conversations.

My thanks to James, Elizabeth, Eoin and everyone who made the festival such fun to attend.

The Vile Desire to Promote One’s Work

I’m still trying to find time to get ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ finished. My editor has sent back the manuscript and I keep promising myself I’ll settle down to the fine-tuning in the next few days, but those few days keep getting filled up with other stuff. TVDTS Ebook Cover-72dpiIn the meantime, here’s a sneak preview of the cover.

Random House kindly supplied the type and the original version of the frame, the rest I did with a mixture of photos and painting, all put together and played around with in Photoshop. If you want to know what that thing is swallowing the woman, you’ll just have to download the book (when I’ve stuck it online, of course).

Since the last update on my schedule, I’ve been to three different schools. I was in St Kevin’s College in Clondalkin to talk to 1st, 2nd and 3rd years and visit their excellent JCSP library. The Junior Certificate Schools Programme is a brilliant project that many more schools should be allowed to benefit from.

On Wednesday, I visited Delgany National School to talk to  . . . well, the whole school, actually. Some of the kids there were, quite frankly, a bit mental and I had a great time in the sessions. I got to see coloured-in Mad Grandad drawings hung all the way across the senior infants room and was stalked out of the school by two girls who shrieked and waved as a I drove away.

On Friday, I made my way down to Gorey – but not before discovering I had a flat tyre and having to change the wheel in the dark at six in the morning. Ah, the glamorous life of an author! I visited the Educate Together school just outside Gorey, where they are still getting used to their spanking new building. They have the best equipped staff toilet I have ever seen in a school.

They had had a brief brush with swine flu the week before and some kids had been kept out of school by wary parents, but everyone there looked very healthy to me, including Sarah Webb, who was also visiting. Sarah’s one of those people who seems very airy and laid back but is in fact a hardcore professional – if you work in children’s books, you’ll bump into her all over the place.

And Another ThingI’ve been reading Eoin Colfer’s book ‘And Another Thing’, where he has, with balls of steel, taken on the challenge of writing a sixth book in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series. And has done a damn fine job of it so far as I can see. It’s been over a decade since I read the original series, but ‘Hitchhiker’s’ was the one of the first novels ever to make me laugh out loud. Eoin is one of very few people who could write with the same mixture of passion and irreverence in the sci-fi genre and still maintain the humour and pace. I’m about halfway through and really enjoying it.

I have also been listening to ‘My Man Jeeves’ by PG Wodehouse on audio-book. Warm, delicate whimsical short stories that have lightened some long drives. Don’t know if I’d actually want to get any more of these books, given how much stuff I have to keep up with, but it’s been on my list for years and has been a gentle pleasure to listen to.

I start on ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’ artwork in earnest this week. I’ve a lot of catching up to do between now and Christmas.

Dark Imaginations

It’s probably fitting that I was reading some of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories over Halloween, as he was truly the grandaddy of modern horror. Any secondary school student can tell you that writing in the nineteenth century was a little wordy and long-winded for modern tastes. But with no television, radio, cinema or console games, they had plenty of time to kill, so writers could take their time telling a story.

Edgar Allan PoeIn a world where modern audiences demand punchy, fast-paced stories, Poe’s tales can sometimes seem awkward and unwieldy by comparison. But back in his day, he set the standard for the bizarre. And his influence has reached up from the grave to affect all of us writing this kind of stuff today.

Many of Poe’s creations have been deposed by more recent stories, but he laid the foundations for many future tales of mystery, suspense, horror, sci-fi and fantasy and the just-plain-weird. Look at that picture, you can just see it in his face, can’t you? That’s a haunted man if ever I saw one.

He created C. Auguste Dupin, before Doyle gave us the remarkably similar Sherlock Homes. He wrote ‘The Oval Portrait’ before Oscar Wilde penned his classic tale of a soul captured in a painting in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. In ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, Poe created a zombie. He influenced writers like Herman Melville and Jules Verne  – Verne  was so taken with one of Poe’s books, ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, that he actually wrote a sequel to the tale of the adventures of a stowaway aboard a whaling ship.

EAP-Tales of MysterySo if you’re young and you find the language of the nineteenth century a bit heavy going at times, that’s only natural. We speak and write differently now – but it is just the language. Poe’s stories have still stood the test of time. They’ve been made into comics, radio plays and films. Even two hundred years after his birth, he can still weave an eerie atmosphere, paint a picture in your mind – he can keep you riveted and leave you feeling just a little bit disturbed. Respect is due to Mr Poe.

I’ve been indulging in a bit of nostalgia too, with a collected edition of stories from ‘Battle’, an action-packed war comic I read as a kid. Battle CoverThey had a great culture of researching stories well and a human, gritty style that many other comics of the time lacked. Most of the ones in this book are from before I started reading the comic, but it’s still a treat to see the likes of ‘Charley’s War’, ‘Johnny Red’ and ‘The Rat Pack’.

And last but not least for now, I got to meet and have dinner with Dave McKean the other day, when he came to Easons bookshop on O’Connell Street, in association with CBI. I’ve loved McKean’s work ever since reading ‘Arkham Asylum’ and seeing the work he did for Vertigo Comics back in the 90’s (although I only read Gaiman’s iconic ‘Sandman’ comics as a series much later).

Arkham AsylumHis mixture of superb drawing, painting, collage and photography helped change the face and perception of comics and threw the challenge down in front of every other artist to buck up their ideas. For me, comic art grew up when I saw work like McKean’s. Now he works in children’s books and we’re glad to have him. If you haven’t seen his illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s and David Almond’s books, you are truly missing out.

That’s it for the moment (it was another long one, wasn’t it?). Back soon with some news on the work and where I’ve been.

Hard Times

It’s always been tough to make a living in the arts in Ireland. It gives us plenty of character and much material for moaning. But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do a job you’re passionate about, as well as contributing to your community and to Irish culture.

To help us out in this strange and unforgiving career, we have things like the Arts Council, the Artists’ Exemption and excellent arts organizations like Poetry Ireland and Children’s Books Ireland. A lot of people work very hard to maintain a culture of creativity in this country, so that all of our best writers, painters, musicians, film-makers and other artists don’t automatically say: ‘Hey, let’s get out of this little backwater bog of a country and head off across the pond to where we can actually earn enough to pay the rent!’.

Which is why it’s so important to sign up for the National Campaign for the Arts. The government, faced with an economy that is looking more and more like a disaster movie, is threatening huge cuts across the arts. We’re often seen as a soft target, because nobody will die from lack of painting, or from being deprived of a theatre visit – which would be a fair argument, if those in charge could run the more vital services properly as a result, which they seem unable to do.

Griffeen ValleyBut cutting the funding to the arts will affect everyone from schoolchildren to film studios. These cuts mean there will be less books published, less art, less music and film and theatre. We’ll have to import it all instead. And since our kids could well end up paying off the huge debts we’ll have run up by the time they finish college, they’re going to need initiative and fertile imaginations to succeed. Assuming, of course, they don’t immediately head off to all the other countries that are, by then, providing all of our culture and entertainment for us. That’s where the arts come in.

For some reason, Arts, Sports and Tourism are all run by the same government department. I’d love to know who thought that was a good idea. Martin CullenIn case you didn’t know (and there are many who don’t), the minister in charge of this bizarre mix of responsibilites is Martin Cullen – him in the picture. We need to show the government how many people these cuts are going to piss off. If you are one of those people, please click on this ‘I Am Really Pissed Off’ link right now and sign up.

Another major issue in the book industry is digital publishing. It’s happening big and fast and anyone involved in, or with a passion for, books needs to educate themselves about the positive and negative aspects. You can see an article I’ve written about it here, or get the December issue of Inis Magazine, which has a number of articles devoted to digital matters (including my one).

CBI Digital Publishing ForumChildren’s Books Ireland are also holding a one-day seminar on digital publishing, with speakers such as Eoin Purcell, Susan Carleton, Ivan O’Brien and Vanessa Robertson. It promises to be an informative session.

I was also recently sent a link to an excellent article in the Guardian on Waterstone’s, who have come to dominate the book market. It describes how the retail giant’s competition with the likes of the supermarket chains has created a culture of massive discounting on books – a culture that is constricting what kinds of books publishers can publish and driving independent booksellers out of business.

Discounting the prices of books has become a massive problem in publishing, causing no end of tension between publishers and authors. Authors normally get a percentage of the recommended price of the book – or in rare cases, a percentage of the final price the book is sold at. But as contracts get increasingly complicated, the proportion of books sold as part of some special discount deal or other is getting steadily larger, so authors (and publishers) are being paid less and less for each book. There is also no set standard for ebooks in contracts – so that’s a whole other can of worms that is only now being levered open.

As it stands at the moment, you could have a bestseller every year in Ireland and still not make a living. The market is just too small. Let’s hope that after the government and the retailers’ race to the bottom in the price war have done their worst, Ireland still has a native publishing industry worth talking about.

Making Nasty Faces

As some children may be aware, it is Halloween. On Saturday night, Weird-Wide News received reports of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, vampires and other vile creatures stalking the streets of Ireland. Some fairies and princesses were spotted too, though they may not have lasted too long out in that chaos, magic wands or no magic wands.

Houses need protection on Halloween night, and nothing offers better protection from the undead and all those other creepy things than a good old-fashioned pumpkin-head.

Since obtaining a stepson, I now have an excuse to do things like help him make pumpkins and costumes. Here’s my quick guide to making a cool pumpkin.Pumpkin-1

Step 1: Cut off the top of its skull, making sure you cut it in one piece, so you can use it as a lid. The stem makes a good handle, if there’s enough of it left.

Step 2: Using a water-soluble marker (like a white-board marker), draw the face onto the best side, making it look suitably nasty.

Pumpkin-2Step 3: Scoop out its brains (the gunk and seeds inside). The pumpkin is easy to hollow out. Scrape the inside as clean as you can – I find a soup-spoon works best.

Step 4: Using a sharp, thin knife, cut out its eyes and nose. Be careful with the knife – if it can cut holes in a pumpkin, it can cut holes in you. Only fake wounds are cool on Halloween. If you’re a child, you may need adult supervision. If you’re an adult and you cut yourself, it’s your own damn fault.

Step 5: Cut out its mouth and knock out the teeth to make suitable gaps. Then use a damp cloth to wipe off all the pen marks.Pumpkin-3

Step 6: Light a candle or two and place them inside (tea-lights are best) and put the lid back on. It helps if you scoop out a little socket in the floor of the pumpkin for each candle. Now your pumpkin has come to life. Turn out the lights and see that spooky face emit an unearthly glow.

Pumpkin-5Step 7: For best effect, set up your staging with a cloak or costume to shine through the front window and scare trick-or-treaters. The less people call to your door, the more junk will be left for you – unless you’re the weird, health-conscious type who hands out apples and mandarins. That said, a nostalgic part of me does lament the loss in popularity of monkey nuts.Darth Maul

If you’re too old to go trick-or-treating yourself, find a child you can help with their costume on the condition that they share some of their takings with you afterwards. This year, my stepson and I found the Star Wars character, Darth Maul, proved very successful in parting people from their goodies.