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Way below the belt

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The Irish Times, 13 January 2001

Way below the beltEdit

The man from the Arts Council must have suspected an elaborate prank. On his desk, a letter seeking public funding to - get this - draw comic books! Chuckling, no doubt, he scanned the room for the basket marked "No". "The Arts Council rejected our grant application. They never really gave us a straight answer. Perhaps they didn't take us seriously," says writer/illustrator Brendan Byrne, founder of Ireland's first fully realised professional comic, the bleak and irreverent Toenail Clippings.

"We imagine Toenail Clippings will appeal to people who feel they have outgrown comics. People tired of the same hero-versus-villain storylines. We want to entice them back into the hobby stores with something different and challenging," he says.

Toenail Clippings was conceived and executed by a group of art graduates with a shared interest in radical left-field comics, adult-oriented publications which eschew the genre's hammy moral conventions. Their refusal to cleave to the goodguy-coshes-bad-guy stereotype imbues the comic with sass and impertinence. Slick production values, painstaking attention to detail and a generous dollop of millennial nihilism distinguish it from a widening field of indigenous rivals.

Five core contributors - four Irish and one Paris-based Mexican - dish up a mind-bending range of visual styles influenced as much by Kafka and Cronenberg as Batman or X-Men.

Toenail Clippings's narrative demonstrates a heavy slant towards juvenilia and gross-out humour. Expletive-peppered dialogue and lavatorial japes abound. Er, is this supposed to shock us?

"The artists never set out to be controversial or alternative. We're not looking for cult status. Toenail Clippings is a reflection of the individuals who made it. We are all left-of-centre people. We listen to alternative music, we enjoy alternative movies. So, whatever we produce is going to contain those values," Byrne says.

While offering much that is idiosyncratically Irish - the lead strip in Issue 1 chronicles the exploits of a rabble of cider-swilling Dublin heavy-metal fans - Toenail Clippings is targeted at an international audience. The domestic comic market is too small to sustain the project, and Byrne and his collaborators are under pressure to cultivate a global readership.

"The US and Europe are where it's at. If you want to break into comics, you've got to gain a foothold in those markets. Ireland doesn't really count. It's basically a backwater," he says.

"Comic-book distribution is controlled by a limited number of wholesalers. If you want to reach a large market, you have to attract their attention.

"The distributors will not take on a new comic until it has run for a minimum of three issues. Our primary goal at the moment is to be picked up. It is the only way we will reach retailers outside Ireland."

After the Arts Council shot down Toenail Clippings's funding application, a pitch to FAS yielded a £2,000 startup grant. While his co-conspirators honed their inking skills, Byrne signed on for a course in marketing. His business savvy has served the fledgling label well. "This is a fully professional operation. That's why we are different. Everyone involved has a personal stake in the success of Toenail Clippings."

The imprint operates an open submissions policy. All drawings and writing received will be considered for publication. Byrne is laying plans for parallel, once-off editions showcasing individual artists.

"Toenail Clippings is a forum within which contributors can learn their craft. There's a lot of talent out there but because of the virtual non-existence of an Irish comic industry there has been no regular outlet for it. Hopefully, we can do something to change that. We want to put Irish comics on the map."

Toenail Clippings, Issue 1, is available at Sub City and Forbidden Planet. £2.95. Website: www.bigifpublications.com

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