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From The Irish News, 29 May 2009
West Belfast artist Stephen Downey's debut graphic novel Cancertown is a funny fantasy horror story largely set in a hellish parallel dimension. David Roy spoke to Downey about working on the book currently generating a buzz among comics fans.
A LOT of kids grow up reading comics. While many of them fantasise about one day drawing their own version of their favourite superhero or perhaps even inventing a whole new comic book character and universe, few ever get to realise such dreams.
However, west Belfast artist Stephen Downey has worked hard to make his dreams become reality. Weaned on Marvel titles such as Daredevil, Thor and Black Panther, the cold hard proof of the 24-year-old's endeavour can be foudn in the form of newly-released Insomnia Publications title, Cancertown.
Written by up-and-coming comics scribe Cy Dethan, Downey's distinctive artwork brings to life this story of a terminally ill man's clashes with the monstrous population of a parallel world.
Having generated extensive pre-orders on Amazon, the book was recently launched at the Bristol comic convention. It will receive its official Irish launch tomorrow afternoon at Forbidden Planet in Belfast.
"It's the first time I've actually seen my work in print," enthuses Stephen about his debut graphic novel. "The whole presentation looks really good, I'm really happy with how it's turned out." Weighing in at 150 pages of humorous carnage, the finished Cancertown book represents a solid year of work for the team who created it. Along with Downey and Dethan, letterer Nic Wilkinson and colourist Mel Cook worked tirelessly to ensure it looked as good as possible.
Downey explains the intense work rate involved in producing Cancertown: "I was mostly doing about four pages a week on cancertown, pencils and inks," he remembers. "But, at the same time, I was also finishing my psychology degree at Queen's. Sometimes I'd have to stop for a week to take care of that stuff."
Given the fact that he's also an in-demand tutor of traditional music who played flute and toured internationally with the Riverdance-style show The Rhythm of the Dance after leaving school, you have to wonder how this particular renaissance man finds the time to lead his exciting triple life.
However, it seems that the economic benefits of both Downey's academic and musical activities were really just supplementing his main passion. "I'm really looking forward to the summer," comments Stephen, who can now look forward to regular comics work replacing student loans and lesson fees as his main means of income. "Apart from playing at the odd wedding I'll have loads of time to sit and draw."
Having done such a good job working on Cancertown. Downey is currently drawing a new Cy Dethan script called Slaughterman's Creed. But how exactly did he kick open the door to the comic book kingdom?
"At a comic convention up in Derry I heard about these two major 'cons' over in England where everybody gets jobs," remembers Stephen. "I went over the following year to the one in Birmingham, where I met Alasdair Duncan from Insomnia. I'd brought over a few samples of work, which he looked at and liked. "A few emails later they'd looked at my online portfolio and basically said they had a job for me if I wanted it."
The job was a priority script by Cy Dethan, Cancertown, which Downey took to almost immediately upon reading the first of its five chapters. He says: "I like to draw things with lots of shadow and based in reality, but then I also like to take a break now and again and just draw crazy stuff. I loved that Cancertown had this really good balance between realism and fantasy right from the start. A big monster always seemed to appear at exactly the right point in the story."
Having discused the appearance of the charactes and their environment via emailed sketches, it was time to start the protracted process of creating the book for real.
While Downey's natural passion for realistic drawing often based on reference photographs stood him in good stead for those portions of the book set in 'the real world', Cancertown itself literally had to be drawn purely from his imagination. "Sometimes, you read a script you just see it like a movie in your head, like when you read a book," explains Stephen. "Often I make out rough sketches, then sit back and look at how to make them work in more of a storytelling way. You also want to make even the simplest stuff look interesting."
He adds: "Any time people tell me about something they don't like, I always just say it was Cy's idea!"
Having now got his foot firmly in the door of the comics industry, Downey is in a position to offer advice to those who would follow in his footsteps. In the main, he advises hopeful artists not to be shy about putting themselves about.
"You can send portfolios to people online, but when you actually go to the conventions you can make loads of contacts in person," he says. "It's good to actually meet people and make a good impression. You'll also find out about stuff you hadn't even heard of before.
"Really, I'd advise people to draw every day and not to worry of the first stuff they draw isn't very good. Keep at it and you'll keep getting better."
Having recently met with the head of DC Comics, with a little luck Downey himself could be set for bigger and better things before too long.
Stephen Downey will be signing copies of Cancertown tomorrow afternoon at Forbidden Planet, 52-54 Ann Street, Belfast. Visit him online at www.stephendowneygallery.com, where you can read the whole first chapter for free.