INTERVIEW: ALAN NOLAN ON SANCHO
With his announcement at Octocon at the end of 2013 that more Sancho was on the way, I wanted to talk to Alan Nolan about the series beginnings and what to expect from the new book.
There is an abundance of Irish comics being published now but it was a very different story when you were starting Sancho. What made you want to get into small press publishing?
I was always interested in British comic creators, so about ten years ago I went to a Bristol comic expo where Dave Gibbons, Alan Grant and a load of 2000AD and DC Thompson people were guests. The exhibition space was huge (it was in the huge V&A hall at Temple Meads) and they had a whole aisle of small press tables. I had never really considered doing small press stuff before, but as I looked at what was on offer I realised that I might be able to do better myself! I was a graphic designer, and the actual design and finishing of the small press stuff on view at the time (with a few notable exceptions, Brodie’s Law being one) was pretty poor for the most part in my opinion, whatever about the concepts and stories. So I went off, thought up a basic idea for a comic book, contacted Ian to work on the characters and script with me, and after much blood, sweat and beers, returned to Bristol the next year with Sancho #1.
What inspired you and Ian Whelan to do a western style book like Sancho?
I always had a great love of westerns as a movie genre, and Ian and I were great fans of 80s and 90s westerns like Pale Rider, Unforgiven and (my own personal favourite) The Three Amigos, so the character of Sancho came out of those – his costume, with the long duster coat and priestly garb, from Pale Rider, which also provided his air of mystique; his character, the spell-slinger, being dragged
reluctantly out of retirement for one last case from Unforgiven; and the Mexican comedy elements from Amigos! The horror stuff came from the Italian movies we used to watch when we were much too young, like Argento’s Suspiria and Tenebre. (Argento also wrote Once Upon a Time in the West).
I was reading the “Demons of Dublin” collection in preparation for this interview. Sancho always had an Irish sense of humour but in those stories there seemed to be a conscious effort to have more of an Irish element to them. I’m thinking of the leprechauns in particular.
Although Sancho is a Mexican ex-Catholic exorcist, he’s based in Dublin and his sidekicks are Tom Frost, a bizarre floating six inch tall rat/bat/lizard style elemental who speaks with a Dublin accent, and Willie O’Malley, a blind, elderly ex-priest. There’s a huge tradition of horror and otherworldiness on this island and Sancho (and me and Ian) taps into that, battling leprechauns, banshees and even the
reanimated corpse of Bram Stoker. I think to make a title stand out, it has to be a little different from other books on the shelf, and basing the characters and stories in Ireland gives it that edge. Atomic Diner are doing the same thing, basing all their titles in their alternative-Irish ‘Curley-verse’!
I have some original art from the “Big Trouble With Little People” story. I found it interesting that the page wasn’t that different in size to the published book. What is your process for drawing a story? Does it change much when you’re the one doing the writing?
When I’m writing the story myself, I’ll do it the usual way – script first. Even if I’m drawing it myself I’ll put in full, florid panel descriptions, so it doesn’t tend change a huge amount from script to page. Although being my own editor gives me scope to chop and change bits at very short notice if something isn’t working or a better approach suggests itself. I tend to work into an A3 page and then scale down for US size, but, having said that, some of the books in the Murder Can Be Fatal series for The O’Brien Press were drawn on A4, mostly for speed and also because the finished printed page size was going to be smaller than US.
I was at Octocon when you casually dropped the news that you were doing a new Sancho story. What was it like going back the character? Was the idea of doing more stories always there?
I always wanted to get back to Sancho, and Ian has had a great storyline on the back burner for ages. The books I have been doing for The O’Brien Press have taken the lion’s share of my time for the last while – I have done six 80-130 page books now in two years – so it’s taken me a while to find time to concentrate on my favourite imaginary Mexican. We have a main book that Ian is scripting at the moment, but before that, we have a small 8 page taster, a sort of lead-in to the big story, that I have written and am drawing right now. This will be out shortly!
Anything you can you tell us about the story?
The lead-in short is kind of like the pre-credits sequence to a Bond movie, (with the main book being the actual movie!) Its job is to re-introduce the characters of Sancho and Tom Frost and set up the action for the main event. The short comic is called “Land of Saints & Psychos” and is set in Ireland. The main comic will be a longer format book, US size, and will involve time travel (sort of), Sherman tanks, evil from beyond the grave and the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I can’t tell you the name, because we haven’t thought of it yet!
For someone who hasn’t read Sancho, how would describe the character or books to them?
They are black comedy horror books featuring a dour, demon-hunting, Mexican ex-Catholic exorcist priest and his sarcastic, six-inch elemental sidekick.
During the gap in publishing Sancho, you did some books for O’Brien press (The Big Break Detectives Casebook and Murder Can Be Fatal mysteries). They were more child friendly. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
I approached The O’Brien Press with a collected edition of Sancho, but, although they liked it, it didn’t fit in with their publishing model – kids fiction and adult non-fiction. I had been working on Butterknut & Kronk for the Irish Times – it was a cartoon strip with science experiments for young teenagers, and was getting a great kick out of that, figuring out how silly and sarcastic I could make it – and O’Briens had seen that strip, along with a couple of kids sports strips I had done for the Times, and they asked me if I could come up with any ideas for graphic novels for children. I met them a week later and pitched some concepts and the Murder Can be Fatal series came out of that. I had been working previously on RíRá, the great Irish language comic, and had come up with the idea of child detectives who solve crimes in their break time, so the Big Break Detectives Casebook grew out of those strips. I have always been interested in detective fiction and sci-fi, and my books are filled with nostalgia for the TV shows, movies and comics of my childhood. I have my own kids now, and I like to be able to write and draw stuff that they can actually read!
I have a new one, Fintan’s Fifteen, coming out in April. It’s a sports book, about the worst U12s hurling team in Ireland. It’s got comic strip as well as illustrated text pages, and I’m very excited about that! There’s a new website at http://www.fintansfifteen.com.
Anything else in the pipeline?
I’ll be finishing the short and then working hard on the main Sancho release. As well as that, I’m working on a few more children’s books for The O’Brien Press, all of which will have comic strip elements. Later this year I will be colouring and lettering Gerry Hunt’s new Irish historical graphic novel for O’Briens – we worked together last year on 1913: Larkin’s Labour War and get on great, Gerry is a national treasure. And, I have been scripting a three issue arc of Rob Curley’s fantastic League of Volunteers called “The Rising of the Moon”, for Atomic Diner – I’m delighted to be doing that!