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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 26 October, 2014

Column: A novel approach to exploring Irish history

Comic book writer Sean Michael Wilson discusses the value and challenges of depicting history in graphic novels.

Seán Michael Wilson

MYSELF AND A fellow writer, Benjamin Dickson, felt frustrated over the coverage of the various Occupy and 99 per cent protests, which erupted across the world in 2011, in the mainstream media. So, we decided to add our voice to a more intelligent take on protests, why they were happening, and the important social issues connected.

Much of modern society was founded in such popular protest, and today’s movements have a long heritage – in Ireland perhaps more than in most countries.

We decided to write a book about the history of popular protests movements over the last 200 years. A chapter is dedicated to Ireland because we didn’t want the book to be just about the USA or the UK – so we looked at events that happened within a wider scope of English-speaking countries: Australia, South Africa, and also in the colonial periods, so we have a chapter on Canada, India and Jamaica. Being a Scottish guy from an Irish family, I also wanted to include chapters set in Ireland and Scotland.

The Scottish chapter is very specific – all set in the events of 1919 in Glasgow, when tens of thousands of people took to protesting in the street and social revolution seemed a real possibility. But for the Irish chapter I decided that the opposite approach would be good – to try to look at the broad sweep of Irish rebellions and popular uprisings from 1791 to 1922. As a kid in Edinburgh, I was brought up very much with Ireland in the background and a strong sense of my Irish origins. Researching and writing that chapter of the book was also an important chance to learn more about Irish history, on a personal level.

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Frame from Fight the Power! (Irish Rebellions 1791 – 1922)

The rebellion in Ireland

Initially, the idea for the work came to me as a parody of the history series by Winston Churchill (A History of the English Speaking Peoples). Instead of “great leaders” and battles, I thought, why not do one about ordinary people’s struggle? Calling it “A visual history of protest amongst the English speaking peoples” occurred to me as a joke at first, but then I saw real value in combining the visual, historical and linguistic to tell a story.

The book looks at various popular protests in the whole of the modern era, meaning roughly the last 200 years. In Ireland, we look at United Irishmen of the 1790s, the ‘monster meetings’ of Daniel O’Connell, the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, Parnell in the 1880s and right up until the establishment of the Irish Free State. So, it’s an overall look at the history of popular protest and rebellion in Ireland.

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Frame from Fight the Power! (Irish Rebellions 1791 – 1922)

A different approach to storytelling

Why did we do this as a comic book? Firstly, because of our own love of the art form and the pleasure we get from using it to go into complicated cultural issues. Secondly, because it CAN – there is still a very silly outmoded idea that comics are just for kids. That is wrong and always has been. It’s a bit like saying that music is just for kids, because of children’s nursery songs. The obvious truth is that just as we have music for kids and music for adults, so we have comic for kids and comics for adults. Which does not mean pornographic comics, any more than music for adults means pornographic music! It just means music or comics at a sophisticated level, that adults can enjoy.

So, us retelling these stories in graphic form is just one more little example of how comic books can be used to tell sophisticated stories and take on culture and history. In fact, there’s a case to be made for saying that comic books can do this type of thing better than normal text books, because the interplay between the visual aspect and the textual helps to bring these kinds of complicated issues to life. It certainly seemed that way to us – I feel more informed about and connected to my Irish heritage as a result.

Sean Michael Wilson is from Scotland and now lives and works in Japan – the only Scottish professional comic book writer currently to do so. He has written 17 comic books for US, UK and Japanese publishers, often working with Japanese and Chinese artists.  He is also the editor of the critically acclaimed collection ‘AX:alternative manga‘ (one of Publishers Weekly’s ‘Best ten comic books of 2010’). Visit his website seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com

Fight the Power! is a unique historical graphic novel, published by New Internationalist, which captures key moments in the fight against oppression through the centuries.

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