Hound: An Interview With Paul Bolger

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Without a doubt, the big success story of 2015 was Hound which was released to great acclaim after being funded on Kickstarter. With the second book funded and due to be released in summer 2016, I asked co-writer and artist Paul Bolger about the book and what we should expect in book 2. I think you will find this very interesting as Paul goes into such detail about various aspects of Hound. I would like to thank Paul for putting so much into his answers.

I do an interview feature called 7 questions and the 7th question is about the creator’s favourite Irish book and Hound is was among the most mentioned. There has been a lot of positive feedback from creators and fans. That must be gratifying after all the hard work of the first Kickstarter project.

It is, and was also a bit overwhelming and mind-blowing to see how our readers and reviewers responded. The reaction gave me the confidence to get into book 2 and other projects I have in mind with gusto. What helped too was the book’s production value – we did the best we could to make it stand on on its merit against a book from anywhere. I think people liked that as it felt value for money when they bought it. So the style and story were as important as the print quality and “feel” of the book in one’s hand. I’m a collector myself so I made it something I’d like to own.

When I first thought about doing the story of Cú Chulainn (as an animated film a lifetime ago) it was to try and show Irish kids our heroes are worth looking up to also. Not really the historical ones as that goes without saying (for good or bad) but the mythical ones – the Otherworldly guys and gals that inspire and terrify.

The other big aim back then was to do it in Irish as in as Gaeilge. To have in the mother tongue would be a dream come true for me. My own grasp of Irish is negligible but I’d love to see it out there some day as “Cú”.

Now that part 1 is done and 2 and not too far behind I am delighted it has hit a nerve here. Next move is to take it to the wider world. Speaking of which I’d like to take this chance to thank each and every person who backed the book on Kickstarter, bought it at the cons I attended last year and yourself, the ICN team, John Hendrick and the team at The Big Bang, the Pubcast guys and anyone else I forgot – too many to mention.

The book had real movie feel. You could really tell that you were looking but it also had some comics touches with the designs.

I come from a film and animation background. I got my first job drawing on The Land Before Time in the Bluth studios in Dublin in the late ’80’s soon after I left college. Back then all I wanted to do was draw comics but the only “drawing” work that resembled this back then was in Classical animation which was great. I didn’t want to move to the US or the UK at the time so I went to Dublin and started drawing dinosaurs. Never looked back.

Back then the kind of comics I wanted to do were sort of like what Hunt Emerson, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Peter Bagge et al had done in the 60’s and 70’s – black humour underground irreverent style wackiness. A lot more left-field than Hound. 2000AD also inspired me back then of course, as did the European styles on show in Heavy Metal – Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Dino Battaglia, Alberto Breccia, etc. The problem for me then was I felt couldn’t draw the way I wanted to so never went into comics full-time and when the animation work came up I leaped at it. Best thing I ever did. I went back to school after 4 years of college when I started working on films.

I learned so much in the 2 years I spent in the Bluth studio and the time shortly after working with Richard Williams on his lost epic The Thief & The Cobbler. What is surprising is that along with learning how to draw (to a level that I felt good enough to ask people to pay me to do more of it) I worked out how to tell stories through pictures. Also how not to. Which is important. Knowing what NOT to do is key.

I did a lot in film from features to shorts to animating, directing, writing, storyboarding – I even had my own studio in Dublin in the 1990’s called Dagda Film. We did a feature there called Felidae – Google it – some of your readers might like it. Not one for the kiddies – even though it looks like it is.

I came extremely late to the comics creator game so I had to leap in the deep end and come out with something that looked professional. I couldn’t expect people to buy a book as big as Hound if it did not hold up against any book any where. It may be small press in terms of how we did it (crowd funding, etc.) but it is aims to be big – as if a major publisher produced it. Hence the hardback edition.

Being a comics fan, but never having worked in that industry professionally, I went into overdrive learning and relearning the language of comics. If I truly wanted to create my own book I had to become more than a reader or fan. I pored over all the usual “how-to” books (by Eisner, McCloud, Stan Lee and so on) and I copped on quick that comics really are a different beast to films. People think comics are storyboards – they are not.

They are closer to what I would call “Beat Boards” – the main story-points – the series of images that you should be able to put on a wall in the order you think best and get the main thrust, if not more, of your story without dialogue.

Film deals in time and sound. You have neither in comics. You cannot draw sound or time as such so the trick used to create the sense of these requires another way of thinking. This was important to me when tackling Hound. I had to be careful I didn’t “storyboard” the book – which would have meant it being a 2000 page comic instead of the already insane 500 page target we are working to now. So I focussed on the beats and tried to fine tune them down to their essence so as to get the story point across clearly and leave the audience fill in the gaps like in a novel. Plus it has always has to be moving – the first point or beat feeding the second or setting up a reveal or event later in the story.

Regarding the art style; my first designs were cartoony – more like anime – you can see an old animation test I did of it here when it was going to be a 2D film in the 90’s.

When the time came to do the actual book I played about a lot with process. I was going to do it in ink on board with the brushes and pens but after a few tests I wasn’t happy. So I tried it digitally and got what I was after – stark contrasted black and white art. I limited the palette to B&W with the red, to suggest the supernatural side of the story, and off I went. I wanted Hound to look and feel like a classic adventure comic as I love all those old black and white comics of the 1940’s and 50’s like The Spirit, Modesty Blaise, Prince Valiant and artists like Milton Caniff, Frank Frazetta, Burne Hogarth, etc.

Hound is basically a Western set in the Irish Iron Age. Cú is like the tired gunfighter who hangs up his guns for family life and is forced to fight again by circumstances beyond his control. This is the underlying theme of it all – a warrior who refuses to go to war for love (in Cú’s case) but then has no choice when the shit hits the fan.

Long before deciding on the art style we spent a lot of time on the characters. Working who is who and what they should do to show us why we should care about them.

Character became king and we went after the story that way in the script to avoid the trap of a grimy take or a Conan the Barbarian approach – I wanted to offer another way to look at our heroes by making them real people but in an unreal world. That is why I avoid drawing overly busy backgrounds or spend too much time showing off how well I researched the period or could draw Iron Age houses and props. It soon became all about suggestion rather than detail.

So the haze of mist and splashes here and there of detailed backgrounds against suggestive backgrounds throughout the book meant I could focus on what the people in this world were going through. Atmosphere is a lot more important to me than drawing archeological or architecturally accurate sets. I also took the term “Celtic Twilight” to heart along with the line from Yeats’ poem Heavens Embroidered Cloths and tried to capture in (digital) ink the timeless words, “Of night and light and the half-light”. This line sums up Irish mythology to me. It the foundation of Hound.

What’s the biggest difference between working on the comic and planning the movie?

There are 3.

1. Scale

Doing a book needs a lot less people than a film. Granted the Kickstarter campaigns took a team but the actual book is me writing and drawing, Dee Cunniffe lettering and prepping the pages for print and Fran Walsh doing the graphics. There is a backup team handling the printer and other merchandising. This is done through the project partners BreakThru Films – so I would say we have a team of about 6 or 7 people big shout out to Hugh, Tomek, and Marta) handling the production of the books as opposed to the 600 or 700 we would have on the film.

2. Control

Or “Final Cut” to be more accurate. Doing the book this way (through crowd funding and self editing, with help from my partner on Hound, Hugh Welchman) meant I could tell the story I wanted without having to change it or bend it to fit some category or box ticking exercise an investor might demand on a film to get their money back. With so much money at stake on films, and especially big ones like Hound is aiming to be, it is an uphill struggle from the get-go to stay true to the vision and the story presented. It is not about me telling others to do or being on a power trip or trying to be a control freak. We are treating this like a novel where the story is being told a particular way in a particular voice and that is supported and respected by the publisher.

3. Budget

Producing a finished comic is a lot cheaper than producing a finished film. Also using Kickstarter to fund it meant that we could bring on fans and backers as investors from the outset. All genuine people who want to help realise what they know to be a worthwhile project by buying a book and more with their hard-earned cash and more importantly trusting us to deliver a top line product in the end. They are as much part of it as me or anyone else in the team. We all own a piece of Dogboy. Knowing they are with us and patient while we soldier through on the funds raised is important. Book 2 is taking a bit longer than 1 as I had an eye infection late last year which meant I could not draw for 2 months. It has delayed us a bit but people are forgiving and will be happy when they get their book. I am not so sure a huge machine like a movie would or could have waited for me to recover and carry on. We all knew things would be tight financially, and they are (it’s not easy we all know to write, draw, print and distribute our creator owned books of any size or style without a publisher on board), but I hope it will be worth the wait. It is looking and reading good, even if I do say so myself.

Barry Devlin (of Horslips fame) co-wrote the book with you. Can you tell us about his contribution to the book?

Barry first got involved after I met him through a mutual friend who brought us together to make a movie. The idea was Barry would write and I would direct but it never happened but we both hit it off and I told him about Hound. I asked if he’d be up for helping co-write the screenplay and soon read his version of Cú Chulainn and loved it. Especially how he handled the characters. It was not how I would do it but I saw a way that he could add to my take and here we are. We had gotten some money from the Irish Film Board around that time to develop the film and it seemed like a good fit too.

I was always a big fan of Barry’s and Horslips and their take on The Táin was one of my favourite albums growing up. They say never meet your heroes but I am glad I met mine. He is still talking to me too these days so that can’t be bad – we must be doing something right, seeing as I took what he wrote for the film and used as much as I could but not in the order he had advised but Barry co-wrote the screenplay so by default co-write the books. There is a lot in there from his original pass – especially when Cú meets Emer and how it all unfolds later in books 2 and 3 when the war for the Bull starts and the tragic single combat of Cú and Ferdia not to mention the politics that come into play between Morrigan, Queen Maeve and King Connor. Really adds a nice depth to the story.

It was Barry’s idea to think of it as a Western set in the Iron Age. This appealed to me thematically as well as the epic nature of some John Ford films and the later stuff like Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Unforgiven. The dark hero turned underdog living in an expansive half real world full of larger than life but believable characters all pulling him in different directions or none at all.

I must mention Dee Cunniffe’s lettering. That really added something extra to the book.

It sure did. Dee has been great on Hound. We are currently working through the lettering of book 2 as I write and killing it. We came up with our own language to the lettering riffing on what we knew and liked from existing books and trying to bring something of our own to the pages. We made up some of our rules, followed some accepted ones and broke a few more to get what we wanted.

For example the idea of Morrigan as a voice in Cú’s head needed her own font and balloon style to suggest that – her other guises Calatin the weird priestess and the hooded crow also use this. She is the only character that has this. The regular humans speak as we would expect in a familiar font in familiar balloon shapes.

After Dee and I found what we liked he went about following my rough placement for the balloons and with a bit of back and forth we developed what I thought might add some volume to the sound effects and shouts and that – by warping and twisting some text or forcing other parts out of the panels – it’s not so much new as it is our take on lettering. Dee continues to plus the pages with the lettering. We are pushing all that even more in book 2 to try and ramp the level of “noise” in the story. When Cú goes to Skye for example he can no longer hear Morrigan – so he has peace for the first time…then we see him eat at his own confidence and place in the world through actions not thoughts or words – the lettering becomes more linked to that world.

His input has been integral on the page layouts and printing too. He catches all my screw ups (there are loads on the technical end believe me). Couldn’t do it without him…I hope he is available for book 3 when it comes around as he in demand for a lot more than lettering these days. Deservedly so. Top man is Dee.
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I want to go a bit into the characters. What I like about The Hound himself is that he was the Marvel style hero with a flaw before there was a Marvel. I find that really interesting.

Flawed characters have been around a lot longer than Marvel. Yer man Shakespeare had a few of those as did Homer in his time.

Seriously though the appeal of Cú to me is the appeal much of the older Irish myths have – they are all real people – even the gods which are not really gods they are more like ancestors and people than all-seeing personal deities that answer prayers. They all have flaws and fall and rise by them.

I never took to the Leprechauns and the later takes on our myths and legends as they were poisoned by the Catholic Church and later writers who saw no value or saw the threat the beliefs or at best acceptance of knowledge of pre-Christian Ireland was to their new power grab. Sounds a bit heavy and deep but if you want to destroy and rebuild a conquered people for your own use and abuse first thing to go are the parts of the culture that block the invaders’ own agenda and mythology.

I like how, for good and bad, how the so-called “Celtic Twilight” of Yeats & Co. claimed back some of that lost heritage. With the year that is in it, it feels like now is when we can learn to live with all that stuff from all sides. There is no one way to tell those stories. For me I just like the grey nature of the characters – not the black and white or right and wrong/good and evil simplistic takes presented in some versions of our stories. I was at a talk by the now sadly deceased Daithi O hOgain of UCD a few years and he mentioned this. This idea of who we are in the world and how we see ourselves. What does it mean to be Irish? What does it mean to be human in a world that is out to get us every day? There is good and there is bad out there. When we are presented with it our reactions or part played in the creation of on whatever side determines who we are. Prof. O hOgain talked about how egalitarian Ireland was before Christianity. Not sure about that – from what I read it was as unfair back then as it can be now with idiotic leaders destroying lives around them for greed and more. I think nothing has changed except for in Cú’s time they sorted shit out with swords – we go to court. Or England.

I think people like good and bad – it’s an easy setup to respond to. Especially for kids and simpletons – not that kids are simpletons. As for some adults I’ve met – but that’s a whole other story. I wanted to avoid that trap of good guy bad guy in Hound and try to show the characters as conflicted as we are in our own lives. The never-ending battle between what we think is duty or right versus what we know to be wrong or unfair. And how we deal with that.

I could write an essay on all this but suffice to say each character in Hound has his or her or its own agenda. The drama starts when they get in each other’s way. Like all stories. Like life. We meet those who block us from what we want or need and the fight begins.

What is interesting about the original myth is the culture and society it takes place in. It was probably first written down in the either the 6th or 8th Century CE and then in the 12th Century Yellow Book of Lecan among others) and sort of standardised. Each and every time it was written it reflected the time it was written so the beheading you read about in the Thomas Kinsella version for example may well have to do with the Viking invasions rather than the Iron Age (around 800-1000 years earlier) but never let the truth get in the way of a good story right? What I tried to do with each main character is riff on the source material in a way that stays 90% true to the mythology but reframes it through the eyes of Morrigan – an unreliable correspondent. She tells us her version of events…for various reasons. As a writer it gets me off the hooks when I have to “tweak” something in the source to make it fit my version or to allow the reader a moment of clarity as the goddess gives us some context or reason for a scene I made up to connect certain beats.

For further reading, if anyone is interested, there is a great little book on the culture of The Táin and the times of Cú Chulainn called Aspects of the Táin by JP Mallory – it debunks some of modern-day perceptions and supports others.

Another interesting character is The Morrigan. The first book was from her point of view. What about the character appeals to you?

The War Goddess. Queen Bitch. Or is she?

In the old stories she one of three shapeshifting creatures who side with the winner of wars – changing sides all the way through battles helping those who are winning. Cruel and unforgiving – like the Norse goddess Freya a bit. She is one of three sisters or queens of the Tuatha De Danaan – the others being Badb (pronounced “Bibe) and Macha (“Maha”) – they are war, pestilence and death basically. I could not get into the trinity of witches in Hound due to space, so I combined all of their being and actions into one; Morrigan. She is the shapeshifter who becomes the crow (to get around and terrify warriors who don’t want to be eaten when dead), the Fomorian Priestess “Calatin” (a further amalgamation of lesser characters in the original stories) who advises Maeve, and the beautiful Ravenhair (our pet name for her in human form) as the seductress who uses her looks and charm to woo men and women alike to get them to do her bidding.
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In Hound Morrigan is the last of her kind. As seen in the opening of book 1’s prologue she tells us what happened to her people, the Tuatha De Danaan, and how she is now weak and almost forgotten, living a shadowy life in the depths of Newgrange – the passage to the Otherworld and more importantly her source of power and life. But it is not enough as she can only thrive when she inside the chamber. To really get out among those she wants power over she needs war. Erin is at peace when Cú is born so she sets a chain of events in motion that will culminate in a war that she knows will give rise to her existence and allow her to once again reign over the world of humans like she did aeons before when the De Danaan (aka The Long Lived) ruled.

She is a manipulator, a bit unhinged maybe but in full control of our hero because she did something when he was a child. She now speaks to him in his head sometimes and sometimes directly.

She also manipulates other characters by other means as outlined above. She acts as Queen Maeve’s advisor and King Connor’s tempter. She is not omnipotent or omnipresent as she can only be in one place at one time and affect those in her vicinity at any given time. So she is like a farmer of discontent sowing seeds in fields ripe for growing such crops and boy is she good at it.

The first volume takes us from Cu Chulainn’s childhood to the Isle of Skye. What can you tell us about volume two?

Volume 2 is where Cú grows up. Up to the point where he is banished and arrives on Skye he has been like a warrior monk or monkish warrior – an ascetic. He was, as he said in the story, married to his blade – obsessed at being the best at whatever he did even if fame makes him a little uncomfortable. He lives to serve his uncle, King Connor. Since killing the blacksmith’s dog he has become the King’s bodyguard and is kept on a long but loose and metaphorical leash. No-one, not even the King, reins him in so he is a tornado waiting to tear up anything he comes across. Couple this with the voice of Morrigan eating at him when he is in trouble or confronted by a situation of life and death other glory he is best avoided. When he meets Emer, and breaks a golden rule losing more than his Red Branch brooch and cloak his world is turned upside down. When he gets to Skye he is still a show off – sort of like a nervous reaction – it’s all he knows how to do in the company of others like him. Like a talented but socially inept sports start switching teams he wants to prove himself but cannot see the insult or harm his carefree and undisciplined ways causes.
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What this means for book 2 is Cú has some learning to do – the hard way. So he ends up standing out at the martial school on Skye but while there makes more big mistake – his second strike. He has one more and he is out. This will all be revealed in the coming books. All I can say is in Book 2 the stakes are raised, Cú grows up, and the war drums beat as Morrigan starts to stir an unmerciful amount of shit between the kingdoms now that her living weapon has returned. Will he fight or won’t he? And what will Morrigan have to do to get him finish the war she is about to start?

Moving on to the Kickstarter, you had some very interesting rewards including the chance to get a copy of volume one.

Thanks. We realised not everyone got a copy of book 1 first time out or when it was on sale at the various cons or in Big Bang last year. We thought we would do a limited 2nd edition to the same spec as the 1st so people could buy book 2 knowing they could still get a copy of 1 to make up the set. I’ve seen them. They match the 1st edition in every way except they are not numbered. So that was good for us for sure. There are some copies of that left over now too so we will be selling them on the web-shop (www.houndthemovie.com/shop) and through the Big Bang again if anyone missed out.

I thought the shield and the “guest star” goals were particular good.

The shield is very cool – the bronze hurley too. The shield-maker made a sheath for the hurley also and an absolutely fantastic piece of kit it is too. They are both life-size – not really reenactment ready but I guess you could try. The hurley in particular is a beast and feels like a big tomahawk in hand. Deadly.

They were offered to us by a backer of book 1 from Australia called Owen Bright. He makes these for a living. He brought in a friend of his from New York, Chris Levatino, who is a specialist in Bronze Age weapons (www.bronzeagewarrior.com). Together they made those rewards to help us fund book 2. Both are really nice guys, big fans of Hound and went way above and beyond the call with what they did for Hound.
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The special guests have proved to be very successful for us – we did it in Volume 1 also and people seemed to like the idea. One or two even came back to be in it again. Some as recurring (which I believe you are one of David – the drawings are on the way soon). I think backers enjoyed seeing themselves in the story. I had to dress them up a bit of course but everyone sent me photos based on the rough layouts so I have some good reference to work from. One in particular wears a pork pie hat and glasses so that was interesting o work out a way to get them into an Iron Age character – I did it though…and how. He is a Druid on the Isle of Skye. Some others are warriors listening to Maeve rabble rouse her men to march on the north while others star as warrior foolish enough to tackle Cú – some even lose their heads because of it. All in good fun and a nice thing to have to show the grandkids. It also helped raise a lot of much-needed funds quickly. I’d advise anyone trying a crowd funding campaign to devise a reward or three that is high-priced so you can raise your money with less rewards. Selling books alone would not have got us over the line. We have to devise a few unique rewards and make them so limited that we could up the price and make it really special for those who bought them.

What is the timeline in relation to the release of book 2 and 3?

As I said above there was a delay with that eye infection I got so best I can say is summer 2016 for book 2 and winter 2016 for book 3. I am going straight into book 3 after 2 is done – no waiting. We may run a third Kickstarter to help with that. We’ll keep you posted.

Anything else planned for 2016?

Hound pretty much has me till the end of the year but I have 3 other (a lot smaller than Hound) comic books in prep (which we hope to announce by autumn), an animated feature in development, a script for a live action feature I am hoping to write with a friend based on his new play and probably a ton of other things I need to do to pay the bills. Plus Hound the movie which is gaining some ground at the moment – more on that anon.

I need an extra 8 hours in the day and an extra day or two in the week…or never sleep again.

The images used in this interview were all taken from the Hound Facebook page where you can follow the progress of Hound.