The Raid: An Interview With Paddy Brown

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With the last issue of The Cattle Raid of Cooley being released in 2015, I thought an interview with creator Paddy Brown was long overdue. We cover everything from its beginnings back in 2008 right up to its completion. Enjoy.

The final issue is under you belt now. How does it feel to finish?

Pleased with the work overall, and very proud to have attempted and completed something so ambitious. 272 pages plus notes!

What made you decide to adapt the Táin?

I started with the idea of a King Arthur story based on the possibility he might have been a real person in the post-Roman period – I liked the idea of making the story and characters unfamiliar by stripping out all the later accretions, all the romance, and setting it in a post-colonial civil war setting rather than a version of the high Middle Ages. The main thing I wanted to do was to make the past the present for the characters – it’s not some magical fantasy land, it’s just the time and circumstances the characters happen to live in. So I set out to do some research, picking up books here and there that I thought might help. In the process I found a copy of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin in a second-hand bookshop, and when I read that I abandoned any thought of doing King Arthur. It had all the stuff I wanted to do with Arthur, but the characters were so much more vivid, and there was a deadpan, callous humour to it that appealed to me as a long-term 2000AD reader and John Wagner fan.
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The other thing that appealed was that it was not only Irish, but specifically northern, in a landscape I know, so it felt very much mine, while also being unfamiliar. I didn’t learn any of these stories as a kid, unlike a lot of people south of the border, so I was coming to it fresh. That meant I could treat it as a work of fiction, not a piece of national heritage. I also wanted to make it down to earth. Thomas Kinsella said he used the title “The Táin” because he wanted it to sound like an epic, and “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” sounded like a western. I didn’t mind it sounding like a western. Westerns are the last true epic genre anyway.

Did the book change much from its initial conception to the final published work? I was wondering how much was planned as I read somewhere that you worked without a script.

Yes, it did change quite a bit. I made a couple of false starts at it. It’s a difficult story to adapt, because the original seems to be an attempt to reconstruct the story from scattered fragments written at different times in different styles, so it’s very choppy and there’s no clear through-line. Also, understanding what’s going on depends on knowing stuff from other stories. A lot of adaptations try to solve that problem by doing it all chronologically, starting with Cú Chulainn’s birth, or the story of Macha’s curse, but that didn’t seem satisfactory to me. Then I realised there’s a section where Fergus and the Ulster exiles in the Connacht army tell stories of Cú Chulainn’s childhood, which gave me permission to include flashbacks to these other stories while remaining true to the style of the original.
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Eventually I found my through-line by figuring out what all the major characters wanted. Then I broke the story down into an outline, which was about four or five pages long. I added a completely superfluous romantic subplot, because I had thoughts of trying to pitch it to mainstream comic publishers. Then, on PJ Holden’s advice, I did a shorter story in the same idiom and setting as a kind of warm-up and calling card, which was Ness, the story of Cú Chulainn’s grandmother, and when I finished that I went straight into the Cattle Raid. I didn’t consult my outline very much, I think because I’d internalised it by doing the work to break it down, and like Ness I improvised it page by page. There’s an interview between Alan Moore and Dave Sim in the back of a few issues of Cerebus where Moore talks about what he calls “high altitude mapping”, saying that if you get the overall shape of the story right to begin with, all the details will fall into place, and I think I’d mapped it pretty well. I was also following Neil Gaiman’s advice on writing a novel – if you break it down into a regular schedule of small, achievable chunks you can work steadily through it without getting daunted by the size of the whole.
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The main changes from the outline were losing the romantic subplot, and expanding from nine chapters to ten. The only thing I wanted to put in but couldn’t find a way to was the difference between Cú Chulainn and his charioteer Láeg’s attitudes to the horses. I wanted to have Cú Chulainn treat them just as transport and not give them much thought beyond that, but for Láeg to treat them as living beings and allies that he cared for. But sadly, I couldn’t find anywhere it could fit.

You drew the book in red biro with no pencils. What was the thinking behind that?

When I go life drawing, my best work is usually done quickly in indelible media. I find if I take away the safety net I become more assertive in my drawing, second-guess myself less, and get more done. It’s the same improvisational approach I took with the writing. If I had to draw anything complicated or unfamiliar, or work out a difficult pose or composition, I’d sketch it out on another sheet of paper first rather than work it out in pencil on the same page, to keep the drawing fresh. I don’t remember why I started in red. For some forgotten reason I drew Ness in red then converted it to black and white when I scanned it, but people liked the originals, so when I started the Cattle Raid I stuck to red.
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I particularly liked your covers. What was the process for those?

The choice of image was mostly instinctive – I just drew what occurred to me to draw and used what worked. The drawings were done in biro, same as the strip pages, and then coloured in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet. I don’t use the “flatting” approach that a lot of colourists do, because my drawings don’t have as clearly outlined areas as most comic art. I put the line art on a layer set to “multiply” so the layers underneath show through, and mostly just use the paintbrush tool on different layers under the line art, although there are some gradient fills in there as well.
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The Irish comics scene has changed a lot since you started including a few more adaptations featuring Cú Chulainn. What do you think of the current output?

I’m a bit out of touch. For a variety of reasons, mostly personal and family circumstances, I haven’t been paying as much attention to what’s going on as I perhaps ought to in the last couple of years. But I try to keep an eye on ICN, and I’m always impressed by the quality and variety of work on the Art Picks posts.

I could get all proprietary about other people doing adaptations of the same story, but it’s old enough to be well and truly in the public domain, and complex enough to take very different interpretations. Will Sliney, Paul Bolger and I have taken such different approaches to the material that I don’t think we’re stepping on each others toes in any way. Read ’em all, make up your own mind. But curse Will for getting his finished first!

Any future works planned?

Nothing specific at the moment, I’m still getting my breath back. Since I finished the Cattle Raid I’ve been trying my hand at music and acting – I’m in The Jazzabelles, an original musical about three women in 1950s Belfast who become a jazz trio, that’s touring Northern Ireland at the moment, for which I also drew the poster. (Still two shows to play, in Downpatrick on Friday and Armagh on Saturday – dates and links for tickets here), and my blues band is almost ready to get off the ground.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley is available to buy on Paddy Brown’s Comicsy page and you can follow Paddy Brown on Twitter here.