Local Stories: An Interview With Barry Keegan

One of comic book delights of 2018 for me was discovering the writing talent of Barry Keegan. I was already well aware of his skills as an artist but The Bog Road showed me his skills as a writer. It was one of my favourites from last year so I had to ask Barry all about it.

The Bog Road is based on some local legends. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what made you decide to tell this story?

I was inspired to write this story after I moved to County Laois. For me, this was the first time in my life where I was living in an area surrounded by the countryside. Up until then I had only lived in Dublin and Birmingham, so being around nature really struck a chord with me. It felt interesting to feature a story about a place that might not have been featured in a  graphic novel. I wanted to create a story that would pay homage to the area and hopefully make the locals feel proud of it.

The book is actually less about local legends and more about local geography and nature. For example, the mountain Slieve Bloom that features in the story is one of the oldest in Europe. With that fact alone and how it’s roughly in the centre of Ireland I couldn’t help see it as a hotspot for the spirits of nature. Also there is the River Barrow which flows from Slieve Bloom. When I created the water spirit Barrow I couldn’t help give her a sister spirit named Nore which ties in with ‘The Three Sister’ rivers taught to children in Geography class. This nugget was fun to play off and bring one of The River Barrows sister rivers into the story. Another interesting location was The Rock of Dunamase which is an iconic castle in Laois. Over the decades it has been held by many different people so I felt this was a great location to set a powerful scene in the story.

This is your first foray in writing. Was it intimidating sitting down to write your first book?

I had some failed attempts at writing books in the past. These attempts were good practice in that I had clocked up a lot of mileage on the keyboard. So from actually doing the writing I didn’t feel too nervous about that. My main concern was writing a book that wasn’t going to be overly descriptive and obvious. I wanted it to be subtle enough so the reader would not be left confused.  For the most part I think I was successful in finding a balance.

You picked up a writing award in the ICN Awards so that tells you that you’re doing something right.

I was really delighted with that award and it gave me a lot more confidence to go on and try to write even better stories. Also I’d like to think the book being regarded so well in the awards shows that there is a large appetite for more books about Ireland.

Did you being writer and artist affect how you approached the book from an art point of view? Did you do the script first and then sit down to draw?

Yes it had a massive impact and gave me the luxury to bounce between writing and art. I started with the script and added vague descriptions of visuals on each page. It was mainly focused on the dialogue with a loose idea of where the scene was set. Then I went to thumbnail the page layouts which would highlight problems with the dialogue and send me back to the script for edits. I found after doing the layouts my script was too ‘wordy’ so I had to focus more on economy of words. When I was happy with how the script and layouts worked together I began drawing the pages. Even then when time passed from drawing I went back to the script and made more edits to some dialogue that perhaps didn’t feel right. The whole process felt quite organic and I will use it for the next book.

I mentioned the writing award, but your colourist, Chris O’Halloran, picked up an award for it and your letterer, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, did very well in the voting. Can you tell us a little about getting the team together and working with them on the book?  

I’m trying to remember exactly how it all played out but I had shown the pages to Declan Shalvey for feedback and he recommended talking to Chris and some other colourists from Ireland. Chris was available and asked me what I wanted to see in the colours, he was really open to whatever I wanted. I was happy for what he thought would work outside of a request for a certain mood to be present and a lot of texture. We also had another colourist finish the book from Brazil named George Patrick Gama. I was a bit worried about another colourist emulating the gorgeous colours that Chris had established from the start but George did a great job. The palette really has been a big feature to all the positive feedback the book has been getting so I was delighted Chris was there to make that impact. Hassan was recommended by Chris which helped a lot because I didn’t know where to start in finding letterers. I was tempted to do it myself at first but in the end I’m really happy because I wasn’t too practiced at it. Also Hassan’s contribution added so much character to the book. He put stuff in there I really hadn’t considered so I’m happy I left it to someone who was really passionate about it.

You’ve worked with Atomic Diner before, is that what influenced you to publish through them?

Yes that was a big influence in choosing Atomic Diner. I felt really comfortable going with them and the whole process was seamless. Also when you look at their back catalogue of books they all feature stories centred around Ireland and Irish history. I think it was the perfect home for The Bog Road to sit alongside them.

You’ve hinted about doing more. Will it be more of the same characters or just something in the same vein?

Yes a few of the characters will return and some of the environmental themes from The Bog Road will continue over into the next book. The main human story will be new with a fresh cast of Irish people who have their own challenges. I am releasing this book in smaller chapters so that I can have more regular work published. So far the artwork for chapter one is 90% complete with colours, letters and edits left to do. I’m hoping to have it on shelves before May.

The Bog Road is available in all good comic shops. You can follow Barry Keegan on Twitter or check out his art on his artist Facebook page.