INTERVIEW: A Murder Can Be Fatal Talk With Alan Nolan

With the release recently of the first of Alan Nolan’s A Murder Can Be Fatal series of graphic novels from O’Brien Press, I caught up with the County Wicklow native and got the inside story on how this project came to fruition, his experiences in producing the works and working with O’Brien Press. So read on…

David O’Leary: Hi Alan, many thanks for talking with us today. 

Alan Nolan: No problem. It’s easy to get me to talk. The trick will be making me shut up.

DO’L: Your new graphic novel Death By Chocolate has just hits shop shelves marking a new venture between yourself and O’Brien Press. Following the success of Gerry Hunts Blood Upon The Rose O’Brien Press seem to have embraced the graphic novel and have taken the unusual step of commissioning not one but a series of works from you. Can you tell us how that partnership first came to fruition?

AN: I approached The O’Brien Press with a collected hardback edition of Sancho that I had printed, just the stuff that myself and Ian Whelan had done together, with the hope that they might be interested in publishing it, or something similar. I knew they were Ireland’s biggest publisher of childrens’ books, so thought they might think it’d work for teenagers. Ian and I had been self publishing for years and it was always great fun, if a costly and frustrating affair. As it turned out when I sent the book in, Michael at O’Brien’s had seen some cartoon strip work I had been doing for The Irish Times and was trying to contact me, so there was a nice bit of fate on the go. They weren’t that interested in Sancho (a bit too adult for their target market) but they asked me if I had any other ideas, so I brought in eight or nine very rough concepts for books, each with character sketches. O’Brien’s ended up going for six of the ideas, which was fantastic.

DO’L: When deciding to write to a younger audience were there any difficulties you faced while writing that you had to overcome considering previous works like Sancho were in the horror genre?

AN: No difficulties at all! I’d always been a fan of comics for younger kids – I’d been brought up on a diet of The Beano, Dandy, Topper, Beezer, Whizzer & Chips, Whoopee, Cheeky, Oink, etc. etc. (This was before I got into war and sfi-fi comics) and I’d been doing a strip – Na Bleachtóri Óga — for the Irish language comic RíRá which is aimed at primary school kids. (This strip was one of the concepts I pitched to O’Brien’s and has been rewritten and redrawn, had a whole load of stuff added, and is out in October as The Big Break Detectives Casebook.) Sancho was always more of a humourous comic than a horror comic, so I am happy working with the funny stuff!

DO’L: I mentioned in the review of DBC that the book caters an audience of all ages and that mix can sometimes be difficult to get right and sadly there aren’t enough titles from any publisher that can boast that. Was it a plan of yours when producing DBC that the book be as accessible as it turned out to be to different age groups?

AN: I think the trick when writing for kids is to not talk down to them — you raised this in the review of Death By Chocolate, but it was something myself and O’Brien’s had discussed. The other thing I do in these kids books is to always set the characters a little bit older than the market I are aiming for — no kids want to read about kids smaller than them, they always want to play with the bigger kids. I also tried to keep the dialogue in all the books fairly sophisticated, even in the Big Break Detectives Casebook which is aimed primarily at readers of 7-12 years. I want to make sure they appeal to adults as well.

DO’L: What have you found the response to the first books release to be like?

AN: Very positive! I believe sales are good so far (it’s great to go into bookshops and see it on the shelves) and I’m getting loads of emails saying nice things, which is a new experience for me!!

DO’L: The two main characters in DBC, Petit-Pois and Tesla were great protagonists. Will they be making appearances within the remainder of the books or are there plans to do more work with them if not?

AN: No, the four books in the Murder Can Be Fatal Mysteries are stand alone books so the characters won’t cross over. But I love all of them and if one set of characters proves popular I may return to them — I left all the endings open for sequels!

DO’L: The series of books under the ‘Murder Can Be Fatal’ series will be done by yourself but even at this early stage is there scope to do more when it finishes?

AN: Yup, if they do well! The four books are comedy mash-ups of my favourite crime and sci-fi literature and TV shows and can be described as Agatha Christie meets Tintin, Columbo (via Flann O’Brien) meets War Of The Worlds, etc. etc. so there’s plenty of scope, I could keep on going for quite a while!

DO’L: O’Brien Press are probably the biggest publisher to print graphic novels in Irelandin recent memory. Do you think that finally there is a growing acceptance of the genre when this happens?

AN: Definitely. Gerry’s Blood On The Rose was and is a big seller, and was kind of a wake up call to the publishing industry inIreland. They reaslised there’s a market there. It helps that a good few people in The O’Brien Press, including their managing director Ivan and Emma Byrne, their designer, are comic nuts!

DO’L: The next book slated is Six Million WaysTo Die’. What can you tell us about this upcoming book?

AN: This one is a Murder Can Be Fatal mash-up of The Fall Guy, Bionic Man, Logan’s Run and Back To The Future. It’s about a stuntman/daredevil called Rex ‘Thunderclap’ Aldrin who is seriously injured while attemping a dragster jump of an Arizona canyon. When he comes out of his coma six months later he realises that the world has changed, the Japanese won WW2 and invaded theUSA. He also realises that his body has been rebuilt with biotronic cyborg parts. He tracks down the point that history changed to this new timeline to the night that the Titanic DIDN’T sink, and using a prototype time machine left in his scientific saviour’s secret lab, travels back in time to ensure that the Titanic DOES sink and that the proper timeline is restored. It was great fun to write and draw, despite the recurring tendonitis it gave me!

DO’L: When Blood Upon The Rose hit, Gerry Hunt went on a tour of promotion. Although that was partly to do because of the subject matter, it seems that something similar to schools or youth book events could be beneficial to exposure and sales. Is there anything planned like that?

AN: Yes, I have a list of dates for appearances and workshops in libraries and schools starting in October, which is Childrens’ Book Month. I also believe I’ll be doing some signings in book and comic shops. 6MW is out at the end of September and The Big Break Detectives at the beginning of October so I’ll have loads to sign then!

DO’L: I spoke with Gerry Hunt after he completed BOTR and he mentioned the working his relationship with O’Brien Press while producing his book as being one of great support. What was the production relationship like when producing this series?

AN: I have to concur, O’Brien Press have been nothing but helpful and encouraging since I started the books. Mary Webb edited the Big Break Detectives Casebook and literally only had a few comments on full stops and commas, and Helen Carr has been a fantastic help with the Murder Can Be Fatal series, particularly on the time travel one which was a bit of a mind bender, bearing in mind that I was trying to write it while drawing DBC

DO’L: When you have work completed on this series of graphic novels, have you anything planned to follow on with?

AN: The next two books in the Murder series, Destination:Homicide and …And The Blood Flowed Green, are due out next year, so I’m busy with the first of those at the moment. I am also working on a 64 page book about the fictional “worst U-12 hurling team in Ireland” called Fintan’s Fifteen which I’d ideally like to squeeze in next year. After that I’m thinking of a quasi-historical GN featuring the untold story of WB Yeat’s membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn and his magickal bust up with Aleister Crowley AKA The Great Beast and “the wickedest man in the world”. So back into Sancho territory!

DO’L: You produced a lovely hardcover collection of Sancho not so long ago. Do you see yourself returning once more to the title?

AN: I’d love to – Iano has a ton of ideas for stories, as do I, but I can only draw so much… In the meantime Sancho has a little walk-on cameo in DBC, see if you can spot him. I’m planning to give him a bigger cameo role (a speaking part!) in Destination: Homicide and may even try to work his six-inch-sidekick Tom Frost into it as well. Very fond of the aul Sancho, I’ll never give up on him.

DO’L: Alan, thanks once more, take care.

AN: You’re welcome, Dave!

The next book in this exciting series Six Million Ways To Die is out in just a few short weeks and will be available from book shops everywhere. Death By Chocolate is on shelves right now.