Interview: Rob Curley and the Atomic Diner Universe


My first introduction to Irish comics was through the Atomic Diner Universe. From Freakshow to the League of Volunteers, Rob Curley has been involved in the Irish comic scene for years. I decided to have an in-depth with him about his comic work.

The first time I noticed your work was when I spotted a copy of Freakshow issue 3. The cover had “The Director” on it. I was wondering what the process was like creating his look and origin. Stephen Mooney and Stephen Thompson were the artists at that time.

The Director, like most of the villains in Freak Show was a combination of my love of old movies mixed with being brought up by my dad who had strong views on politics including the American/Russian relationship at the time. For me the Director wasn’t a true villain but someone who thought he was doing right. He saw America as a child lead astray by shallow promises and a fickle lifestyle and he wanted to show this child the right path to becoming a mature adult.

His look was a combination of a military style Russian uniform mixed in with a mad dictator. I had always loved Charlie Chaplin movies and wanted to bring some of that sensibility to the book, which shows up a lot more later on in the story especially during vol 2.

The series had a lot of great villains. This seems to be something that comes back again and again in your work. Is it something that you think is important?

I absolutely love villains, as far as I am concerned a hero is only as good as his villains. What would Batman be without The Joker or Two-Face etc? A villain sets the tone of a book and gives the hero his challenge so the more worthy the villain the more worthy the hero. They don’t necessarily have to be serious but they do need to be entertaining and above all be believable and have a reason for doing what they do. They need depth, we need to feel some understanding toward them.

Do you have a particular favourite?

The Director is certainly up there. I also like Frightener from Atomic Rocket Group 66. From the newer books I like Bocanach, although technically he’s a mythological character.

Another couple of aspects of the series was having a lead character who was gay, in Jack, and a strong female character, in Susan. I liked how they were driven by the story (it sets Jack and Susan on their journey) as opposed to something added just to do it.

I really do have a soft spot for Susan and Jack. They started out as a couple and drifted apart when Jack finally admitted to himself that he was a gay man. This revelation never stopped them from loving each other, it just meant they had to deal with each other in a different way. They are both worldly people who have seen a lot in their life time. They became the mother and father of the dysfunctional family that was Freak Show.

You had a special issue with art by Bob Byrne. What was it like working with him?

The process was the same as with most artists but Bob did have an understanding of what I was trying to achieve with Freak Show. I guess like me he understood that life has a darker side. I felt Bob was perfect for that particular issue because of the nature of the story. Middle America’s fear of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. I used a piss take of Disneyland as the setting for the story which I felt was the perfect symbol for middle class white America.

The next book I recall is Atomic Rocket Group 66 with Will Sliney. What were the influences behind that book?

ARG 66 was still me playing around with the American dream during the 1950’s but this time using the more traditional super hero as the starting point. Again my influences where 1950’s cinema, comics and politics. The Frightener who was faceless, was a representation of mainstream society’s fear. The idea being you saw whatever you feared the most when you looked at his blank facade.

It seems to be a genre/time period that a lot of creators have visited in the meantime. I’m thinking of books like The Marvels Project.

I think the time period has always been fascinating to a lot of creators. The 1950’s were like a blueprint for modern society. The Second World War was over and it was the first time people were introduced to the idea of marketing. Now we had aspirations and we could show them to the rest of the world through the products we bought. it was also the first time that America really began to use cinema to create an image of itself, one that still resonates today.
You’re going to be returning to the world of Freakshow and Atomic Rocket Group 66 with Night Ghost. What’s it like revisiting some of your earlier creations?

Night Ghost is an Irish character who fought alongside the League during the Second World War and who moved to the U.S. in the early fifties. First to New York where he goes up against some of the Freak Show villains and then to Chicago where he joins Atomic Rocket Group 66. The story is set in Ireland during the 1980’s where he has written an autobiography and is retelling his story to an audience at a book signing in Eason’s. It was great fun writing it and great to bridge the gap between my old Freak Show world and the Irish themed work.

You kind of took a bit of a break before coming back with some books that were more Irish centric with Jennifer Wilde, Roisin Dubh and The League of Volunteers. I always wondered if being a comic store owner gave you some feedback to move to comics that had more influences from Ireland or was it something else that provoked the change?

I ran out of steam with Freak Show and started asking myself what exactly it was I was trying to achieve. I had had a niggling feeling for a while about doing books that where Irish themed. We must have been one of the few countries who consume comic culture and yet had no stories of our own. I started reading up on my Irish history and mythology and began to get very excited about the potential for an Irish universe of characters. Both Roisin Dubh and Glimmer Man where the first two characters I came up with. It was like stepping through a door into a whole new world of possibilities and the best thing about it was the endless wealth of material already there just waiting to be built upon.
One feature of your new books is that you have moved to plotting on a lot of them and allowed other writers onboard. What influenced you to pick Maura McHugh, someone who is a great writer but hadn’t written any comics up till then?

I have known Maura for a long time and I was aware of her short stories and prose. I thought Maura was perfect for Roisin considering just how much she knew about Irish mythology and her love of strong female characters. Maura brought an amazing amount of energy to the project and a real focus that benefits the books greatly.

What was your pitch for those books?

Roisin was a loose pitch based around the core of her origin involving Abhartach being brought back from his eternal slumber and murdering her parents, setting Roisin on a long dark path of revenge and soul searching. I had already written a first issue for Roisin but wasn’t happy with the direction it was going. Maura pulled it all together and helped bring Roisin’s world to life.

Jennifer Wilde was a more thought out idea concerning her origin and the basic story plot. I had orginally thought of Jennifer as a time traveler who began her adventures in the 1980’s. A cross between Tank Girl and Dr Who but the idea of setting it in the 1920’s came to me and it just made perfect sense especially with that being Oscar’s timeline. I really enjoyed mixing his life story with my own fictional ideas. I have a real soft spot for ghosts. There is something magical about a persons essence remaining after they are gone.

Your artists on those books were Stephen Byrne and Stephen Downey. You’ve a lot of great artists on your books including Luca Pizarri, Ruari Coleman.. the list goes on. How do you typically find artists for your books?

It’s getting harder that’s for sure! Mostly I have been lucky enough to know most of the people I worked with. I do get people sending in portfolios and if someone has a talent it really stands out. I have a lot of plans for the next couple of years so I really need to start bring more creators on board.
You also brought writers Neil Sharpson (on League of Volunteers: Return of the King) and Darrin O’Toole (Glimmer Man) on board. They have expanded on your first League of Volunteers arc, what’s it like seeing creators expanding on the universe you created?

It’s great fun seeing other people expand your characters and what I found most interesting is how other people see the characters. It’s not always a shared vision but a happy medium can usually been found.

Writer Mal Coney is working on Noe: The Savage (with Stephen Downey again on art chores for you). What were your influences when you came to creating the character of Noe?

I had read the book The Stolen Village by Des Ekin and was amazed at this historical reality. It had everything you could want in a story from adventure to heartbreak. The fact that it happened still amazes me. I have always loved pulp characters like Tarzan and The Phantom. Noe is a nice mixture of the pulp and more traditional Arabian Knights tales mixed in with a very realistic tone. Mal is an amazing writer and brings life to anything he is involved in.

It’s kind of separate from the rest of your universe.

It is but I have a crossover planned which will bring in all the characters in the AD universe spanning ten centuries or more and involving a lot of mythological characters and ideas. I’m hoping it will blend my own universe with that of traditional Irish mythology, making it all one long lineage.

Art by Stephen Byrne

Art by Stephen Byrne

Atomic Diner has a lot of books on the go. What’s next on the release schedule?

This summer we have Grainne O’ Malley: Queens Gambit, Glimmerman # 3 and Crimson Blade # 2. I’m also hoping to have a few more League issues out by the end of the year.
You’ve been a part of the Irish scene from the very start. How do you
think has changed over the years?

Well it has become a lot more professional and people are starting to make a living from their work which of course is the dream. We have a lot more people now, willing to express their ideas and take a chance with their art.

Your recent induction into the ICN HOF was greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. It must nice to be recognised for contribution to Irish comics.

Its always nice to get any kind of recognition. knowing that your work has had any kind of impact on people especially a positive one is very rewarding. The purpose of any art form is to communicate to others and everything else is just window dressing.