INTERVIEW: O'Brien Press MD Ivan O'Brien

ICN is delighted to present a talk with O’Brien Press Managing Director Ivan O’Brien about the company’s fledgling graphic novel programme. Recently our own Hilary Lawler and I got the chance to talk with Ivan where we discuss the genesis of the programme with Gerry Hunt’s Blood Upon The Rose and the successes seen with Alan Nolan’s ‘Murder Can Be Fatal’ series of books. We go into how Damien Goodfelllow’s Brian Boru came to be and talk of the future and Ivan’s comic collecting from his past! So read on…
ICN: Ivan, many thanks for joining us today for a chat. 
IOB: No problem at all. We always enjoy your podcasts and interviews, so it’s great to be a part of that.
ICN: Thank you! You are probably the first major publisher of novels in Ireland or the UK to embrace the graphic novel medium as a means of telling stories. What was the attraction of moving in this new direction?
IOB: You can’t keep doing the same thing in publishing: the world moves on, people get interested in different things and the tools and talents available to you change as well. Apart from anything else, it gets boring if you don’t change! We have always tried to innovate and experiment with new areas: we were the first Irish publisher to take the children’s market seriously, and the first to publish true crime, for example. Graphic novels seem like an area where we can use our core skills, which are using words and pictures to tell interesting stories, to make great new stuff!
ICN: The first book published was Gerry Hunt’s ‘Blood Upon The Rose’. Gerry had been creating his ‘In Dublin City’ series of graphic novels for years and an historical piece like BUTR was a new direction for Gerry. Firstly, how did Gerry come up on your radar and when he was aboard how did the subject matter come to the fore?
IOB: Emma Byrne, our amazing designer, is a comic fan and she loved “In Dublin City”. While we had never done a graphic novel before, we thought there was some clear and obvious talent there so we called Gerry, met him and threw around some ideas. Given his interest in Dublin and its history and buildings, we got fairly quickly onto the idea of an historical book and from there, one idea leapt out: 1916 is the single most significant historical event in the country’s history, and it grew from there.
ICN: Following the success of BUTR, Gerry embarked on a nationwide tour of promotion for the book and remembrance of the War. Did its success surprise you any bit or give the company validation that printing an original graphic novel was a good direction to go?
IOB: A bit of both, to be honest! We had confidence in it and knew it would succeed, but thought it would take a lot longer than it did. We initially had a very hard time selling the book into bookshops, because they couldn’t get their head around the idea of an historical graphic novel: if its history it’s serious and for adults, and so can’t have pictures, but graphic novels are for spotty teenagers, and so can’t be about history! Thankfully some people got it from the start. What really made the difference was some great publicity, particularly in the newspapers, which got people looking at the book seriously and saw it moving to the front of bookshops pretty quickly! It also gained huge traction in schools and libraries, where people realised that it was a fantastic new way to get kids interested in their own history. Then the Pearse Museum called with the idea of an exhibition and it just grew from there. The first print run, which we thought would last 18 months, didn’t last 6.
ICN: Having worked in a successful family business for so many years now, have there been any children’s books that stood out for you personally?
IOB: Children’s books that we have published in O’Brien Press? Absolutely: there have been a few books that just engrossed me completely and which are my personal favourites. Aubrey Flegg’s magnificent Wings Over Delft, the first book in the Louise trilogy: a hugely ambitious historical fiction that is amazingly subtle, dense and readable. Conor Kostick’s Epic always makes me wish that computer games that good had existed when I was role-playing as a kid, while subtly making you question authority and how the world works. Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne just grabs you from the first page and never lets go. I guess this shows where my personal tastes lie: all three have a fantasy element and are the first title in trilogies – and all have translated into a range of languages worldwide!
ICN: 2011 saw a big push in the graphic novel programme you have with Alan Nolan’s insanely popular ‘Murder Can Be Fatal’ series, the Big Break Detectives and Damien Goodfellow’s brilliant Brian Boru book. In the case of Alan who has been working in the medium for years, this was natural territory for him. What have you made of the response to the first three books?
IOB: It’s funny how we ended up working with Alan! We saw his work in RíRá, the Irish-language comic, while he saw Blood Upon the Rose. We both wrote to each other on pretty much the same day, so it was no surprise that we got on so well when we met. Alan pitched us three ideas and we loved them all – he may be regretting having taken on quite so much work, but the books are just great fun and so creative.
His books are the first kid’s graphic novels that we have done: the market is still trying to get its head around the concept, I think, but we are happy with the reaction so far. Alan is wonderful at getting a bunch of kids completely fired up about comics, and he’s going to go far.
ICN: Brian Boru is Damien’s first published work. It is a lovely rendered book with some excellent narrative which is great to see from a newly published creator. What was the process involved in getting Damien on board and how did the subject matter come up?
IOB: Damien was a bolt out of the blue: he’s based in Galwayand has never been part of the indy comic scene, but saw Blood Upon the Rose and contacted us with the idea of the Brian Boru book, initially called Constant Conflict. He worked so hard on that book and went through a couple of major rewrites until he found the perfect voice. For a first book it is quite exceptional – the writing, drawing and colouring are all top-notch and we are really proud of Brian Boru.
ICN: With Gerry and Damien’s books focusing on pivotal points in Irish history, is that a direction you want to see future releases follow?
IOB: Absolutely! When we published Under the Hawthorn Tree, there were no Irish historical fictions for kids. We think that the potential for historical graphic novels is similar, and have several more in the works for the next few years. We are realistic and know that there is no point in trying to compete with the likes of Marvel or Dark Horse by doing superhero stuff, but there is certainly a space for a publisher doing quality historical works.
ICN: “Childrens Book writing is a tough business to be in” is something you mentioned on a local radio show earlier this year.  When the going gets tough what keeps you motivated?
IOB: Quality, and success. When you make something great it is just worth the effort. We have a fantastic team here who all put everything they have into all that they do, and we have found over time that quality will find its way to the top, and be successful. For some books that success is in terms of great reviews and respect, for some it is foreign translation while for others it is sales, but making things that you can be proud of is the best motivation there is.
ICN: A thorny issue with comics fans today is the issue of comics distribution. Monthly issues are only sold in specialist shops and have not been on a ‘news stand’ in over 10 years. O’Brien Press, at least in this country, have shown that comic/graphic novels sold directly through local book stores can pull in the casual customer so much easier than the casual customer having to find a comic store to find the same comic. I acknowledge of course that there are many more book shops than comic stores in this country but do you think it is time that a rethink of comics distribution comes about?
IOB: Absolutely. There are lots of people who would buy and read a lot more comics if they only had access to them, and the diversity of talent inIreland, in particular, deserved the chance to be seen much more broadly.
ICN: 2012 will see the next two books from Alan Nolan come out. Have you anything else in the works besides that?
IOB: Three, actually! Two more in the Murder Can be Fatal series, and Fintan’s Fifteen: a kind of Mighty Ducks story for a school hurling team. We have several more that are pretty advanced at this point, but if I told you what they were I would have to kill you: sorry!
ICN: With the successful launch of 3 brilliant children’s graphic novels by Alan Nolan, do you see a viable market for Irish graphic novels aimed at young adults and older in 2012?
IOB: Without a doubt. Not everything will work, but that’s the nature of all publishing. The talent is here, the public will buy if people like us do our jobs well enough!
ICN: Growing up, were you a fan of comics at any point?…and if so what comics were they?
IOB: Absolutely, and I have quite a few boxes in the attic to prove it! I always enjoyed Beano and Dandy: a bit of 2000AD but not hugely. My favourites later on were Sandman (I have all 75 original comics), Cerebus (until it got tedious), Bone (which I try to get all my nephews and nieces to read: your first fix is free!) as well as the other usual suspects: Frank Millar, Watchmen, Bill Senkiewicz, Brian Talbot etc. Haven’t read so much recently, but it’s such a great medium that it’s time it had an Irish home: we hope that’s us!
ICN: Thanks for your time Ivan, take care.