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Adam Maguire, Irish Times, 4 October 2008
For the past two years, Dublin artist Bob Byrne has been writing his "silent" comics for 2000AD - best known as the home of Judge Dredd - and their unique style has earned him both an international audience and a considerable reputation, writes Adam Maguire
'I THINK IT'S CHEATING - comics don't need words," Bob Byrne says in a matter-of-fact tone. "But listen, there have been times when I thought 'I could save myself 60 pages of work with just a sentence or two of text here'; it can be frustrating."
Telling a story without words may seem illogical to some and impossible to others but to Byrne - a self-taught Dublin artist - it has become second nature. For the past two years, he has been writing his "silent" comics for 2000AD - best known as the home of Judge Dredd - and their unique style has earned him both an international audience and a considerable reputation.
"The magazine had a kind of 'young talent' competition a few years ago, so I sent in something and people went nuts for it," he says when asked how he got his foot in the door at one of the few remaining comics with a worldwide readership. "After that, I sent in another wordless piece to be used in one of their regular features, but the editor said it didn't really fit in . . . then he suggested I do a few more in a similar style and we make it into a feature all of its own."
That suggestion by 2000AD editor Matt Smith developed into Bob Byrne's Twisted Tales, a now near-monthly occurrence within the pages of the UK publication. The technique of using just pictures to tell the story has continued to date too, something which Byrne describes as the purest use of his medium of choice. "The dialogue in a comic often drags the reader along and tells them what to think or spells it out for them, so they don't really have to pay attention," he says before going on to explain that dialogue can get in the way of the artwork in both a figurative and literal sense.
"In many comics, the pieces are drawn and written by two separate people and many artists hate dialogue because the speech bubbles block out so much of the panel they worked hard to draw. Then again, in some cases they're used by artists to cover up things that they don't like drawing, like feet or legs."
The reaction from the comic's readership to his wordless work has been strong and largely positive so far, although there is certainly no consensus. "If you go onto the magazine's forum, you see a lot of people who love it and a lot who hate it," Byrne says. "Some people complain because there's no text, or because they want colour rather than black and white. I think that's part of the reason why Matt likes using my stuff - it gets people talking."
Indeed the suggestion was recently made on fan-site 2000AD Review that the commissioning of Byrne's work will be one of the most important aspects of Matt Smith's legacy; readers generally appreciate his willingness to do something fresh, even if they dislike the end result.
But even if Smith's decision was made purely to provoke debate amongst readers, it has had some unintended but positive consequences for Byrne beyond the added attention. Not only does it place him within the elite group of Irish artists who get a regular spot in an internationally-respected publication, it also puts him into an even more select group of international artists who get their name used in the feature's title.
"Yeah, I'm the mac-daddy, I'm the king," says Byrne with a large smile on his face and his tongue placed firmly in his cheek. "So many people would want to kick my arse if they thought I was seriously saying that!" he says hastily, going on to name Stephen Mooney and Stephen Thompson - two other Irish artists who have gone on to produce for high-profile publications - as the real kings of the Irish comic world.
But as much as Byrne may try to play down his success, it is hard to diminish its importance for the emergent Irish scene. What makes his achievements to date even more notable is his regular use of the self-publishing route, which has culminated in the release of Mister Amperduke, a graphic novel five years in the making that contains 160-pages and 2,000 individual panels but not a single word.
"Labour of love? I don't know if love is the right term - labour definitely, but it's been amazing to see it finished and out there," he says, adding that his work in 2000AD has made its release all the more successful. "The first six-page story [of Mister Amperduke] appeared in the magazine two years ago and because it took so long produce after that the hype built. People were expecting it for years and since it came out, the reception has been deadly. Without actually spending money to promote it, it's nearly paid for itself already."
As difficult a task as its creation may have been, Byrne admits to feeling "post-natal" after its release, saying he even found himself slowing down towards the end of its production just to avoid the inevitable after years of it being his private pride and joy. "I found myself tweaking panels for no real reason and I realised I could have wrapped it up in a day or two but was taking weeks. I had to force myself to finish it."
Since its release, Mister Amperduke has sold mainly through Byrne's website, www.clamnuts.com, and largely thanks to his work in 2000AD it has seen orders come from the UK and the US, in addition to those made locally. A sale that sticks out particularly in Byrne's mind was to one Alan Moore, creator of the award-winning Watchmen graphic novel and general comic-book deity.
"I had spoken to his daughter, who also makes comics, I gave her a copy and she liked it, so she ordered one for her dad," he says. "Doing up that package and writing that letter was quite a weird feeling." Coincidently, Moore happens to be one of the few other artists to have had his name included in the title of a 2000AD comic.
Of course, organising the package for each order is part of the process of self-publication and it is a very fitting venue for the graphic novel as its origins debuted in a comic called Mbleh!, Byrne's first self-publishing venture.
The first issue of Mbleh! (the "M" is silent) arrived in 2002 having grown from the frustration Byrne felt at waiting months for responses to submissions. Despite picking up a distribution deal from a major player, it only lasted three issues, which was still long enough for Byrne to learn a lot.
"I didn't know how I was going to sell it or who was going to buy it. I didn't know what I was doing and in hindsight it was a badly put together comic," he says, adding that his focus at the time was on getting work released rather than perfected. "By the time I'd gotten to issue three I'd sort of outgrown it."
Mbleh! was followed by Shiznit, a pocket-sized and free comic book which targeted anyone but your stereotypical comic reader. "The idea was to make it small and put it in places where non- comic readers would see it, like hairdressers, music shops and bars," says Byrne. "It was a way of giving new artists an Irish outlet to get published in. When I was 14, I wished there was something like this around."
Byrne's profile within the Irish comic scene skyrocketed on the back of the four editions of Shiznit he released. Despite this, the lack of content from other Irish artists along with a difficulty in raising ad revenue for a magazine with sometimes abrasive content made it an uphill struggle for him.
"I felt I was second-guessing the reader and found myself holding off on the more extreme humour in order to keep the advertisers on side," he says. "It was only really in the fourth issue that I went all-out and wrote the kind of things I wanted to write." Shiznit has not officially ended its run but it has been put on ice indefinitely by Byrne, who says a new free comic is on the way soon.
The bulk of Byrne's work in the near future will be with 2000AD, however, along with the publicising of Mister Amperduke. And while he has been extremely successful in carving out a niche for himself as a silent comic artist, he hopes to exercise his dialogue talents in the near future too.
"Telling a story with words is easy to me, especially after spending so long using images only," he says. "But I hope I can use the images as well as I do now and not rely on text to tell the story."
Whatever way Byrne does approach dialogue, it is unlikely to be formulaic. In the foreword of Mister Amperduke, he quotes American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, saying: "I stare at a blank piece of paper, create a problem that never existed before then I solve it to my own satisfaction."
For an artist who has just published a 160-page novel, which he admits could have been halved in length had he given in and written those two lines of text, it is difficult to mistake its relevance.
Bob Byrne's comics and graphic novel, Mister Amperduke, are available through his website www.clamnuts.com or at comic shops including The Comic Shop, Crow Street, Temple Bar, Dublin and Forbidden Planet, Dublin