Marty Neill, Creative NI, 6 June 2003

Comic book guyEdit

Far beyond the Hollywood franchise machine there is a world of writers and artists creating some of the most subversive, underground art you can imagine. And there's one on our doorstep...

Mal Coney has got a thing about elephants. That’s right you read it properly, elephants. Great big hulking mounds of matter clambering around the place or sitting down in the corner of the room and refusing to budge. He reckons that a lot of people don’t actually tend to notice them, even when they have them standing on their toes. Mal told me this a few years back in an empty Ulster Hall where we were talking shop for a piece in Blank Magazine and it seems he’s had them on the brain ever since.

At that time, Mal was at the top of his game. He’d landed a huge gig writing The Darkness, the story of a mafia hit man with a dark, damning gift. The comic was a worldwide smash and Mal was in high demand. Around this time he also got to work on other prestigious titles, including Witchblade and Vampirella. Remembering the time Mal admits,

“I was very much discovering what it was to be a writer in print, and making all the mistakes in print. It was a great learning curve and the money was tremendous, that was very exciting for me coming from a background where I had absolutely no money at all.”

And around this time he took the opportunity to expand his horizons,

“The upside of it was that it gave me the freedom to be able to go to America and explore America and have a really good time. And the down side of it was that I got to see the slimy underbelly of the industry and of the two it proved the stronger. So I had to break away from the industry for a while.”

But for all the good that came from this time, Mal reserves words of warning for those climbing the ladder of success without counting the rungs on the way up.

“When the rewards are good it’s fantastic but when you fall from these Olympian heights you just keep on falling. Until you wake up one morning and realise that, y’know, what am I losing here? As long as you remain intact you can get up the next morning and create again.”

The success was a far cry from Mal’s underground beginnings in the comic world that included creating subversive characters like Major Power and Spunky, a pair of gay superheroes, and Holy Cross, a series of stories set in Northern Ireland that found a home on the renowned Fantagraphics publishing roster. And in the end, his experiences in the heart of the industry led him to take a little time out in order to re-evaluate his career and to get back to the reasons that he first began writing and sketching.

Ouija Board, Ouija Board is Mal’s return to the fray and a revisiting of his roots. Again dealing with his own view of Belfast and the dynamics at play in Northern Ireland, the stories can be found in the locally produced Fortnight Magazine. The June 2003 issue features a story regarding the disappearance of the elephant that had previously occupied the space above the door of the old Elephant Bar on the corner of Winetavern Street and Castle Street. In this writer’s opinion the piece is a fairly heavy political metaphor for what’s happening in the Province of late, with the removal of the old cracked elephant heralding a new Belfast that is radically changed from the one of old.

Explaining the idea behind the stories Mal says,

“That’s how I sometimes feel about life in general that I’m trying to ask questions like why are we here, what are we doing here and why are you doing that, don’t you realise that hurts other people? But I’m not getting any answers; people won’t answer me sufficiently so I feel like I’m using a Ouija board. I’m shouting at the top of my voice to see if there is anybody out there and the only response I have is how I see it, how I see the situation. I’m not saying that this is right; my perception is like yours, it’s subjective. But this is my voice. This is the medium I choose to exorcise my vision of what the world is like.”

And Ouija Board, Ouija Board is the beginning of a mass exorcism for Mal, the heralding of a grand plan that includes the setting up of a publishing house, Banshee Comics, and self-publishing with assistance from the Arts Council.

All told Mal is optimistic for the future,

“This very moment is just the beginning and I hope that by August I’ll have the first book on the shelves, Good Craic Comics, which is amazing because we have to try to sell it in America and people are telling me that I can’t use the word craic in America because it has a different meaning. It’s time they learned what we mean when we say craic, they can’t copyright a language.”

It’s great to have Mal back from the business world, leaving the suits and company men to what they do best while he gets back to producing wholly necessary biting satires on our own way of life whilst retaining that ever present, broad streak of humour that balances out his own personal cosmos.

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