The comic book publisher that gave us ‘The Walking Dead’ has just published a graphic novel on the seamier side of Limerick, writes Don O’Mahony
For most kids, when it came to getting into comics, there were broadly two options available. There were the American comic books, led by the mighty Marvel and DC Comics empires; the titanic twin stables of superheroes and costumed crusaders.
While on the other side of the Irish Sea there was the subversive humour and punk rock attitude of 2000AD. Readers ultimately chose and stuck with one. For Declan Shalvey, it was Spider-Man and the X-Men for him; 2000AD just felt too harsh.
“I was way too lame,” he recalls. “I was interested in good versus evil, you know; crime fighting and all that kind of very optimistic stuff.”
Hailing from Ennis, Co Clare, Shalvey was always interested in art, but to pursue that interest took serious dedication.
The Christian Brothers secondary school didn’t provide for the subject and Shalvey was the only pupil in the school studying it for Junior Certificate. As a result, he had to take classes outside of school hours and paid extra for the pleasure.
“That’s how hard it was once to do artistic work,” he notes. But he stuck at it, overcame adversity, and climbed up the ladder, eventually breaking into the US market providing art for Marvel’s Deadpool and Moon Knight, among others — optimistic stuff.
Currently based in Dublin, Shalvey gained a BA in Fine Art from the Limerick School of Art and Design and his brand new creator-owned graphic novel Savage Town, which he wrote, is something of a homage to that time in his life.
A crime story set in Limerick and told in the vernacular and published by the same company that gave the world The Walking Dead, Savage Town details the machinations of Jimmy Savage, a small-time felon with ambitions to exploit the enmity between two rival gangs. There are no heroes in this tale and there is no grand showdown between the forces of good and evil.
“I wanted to do something set in Ireland and one of the reasons it’s Limerick is a lot of the times when somebody makes an Irish [comic] or especially in crime, they set it in Dublin or it’s about the ’Ra,” he explains, drawn to the opportunity of doing a genre he loves, crime, in a city for which he still holds affection.
After graduating from college there in 2003, Shalvey remained on there another few years before departing by 2008.
“Limerick was an excellent city to be poor in,” he recounts. “You could walk to the pub. You could walk to the shops. There were buses, but you generally didn’t need to take them. Everything was cheaper. It was a great city to be a struggling artist in because you could survive. I could work on my portfolio and get by, basically.
“I feel bad for anyone I know in Dublin now. Artists I know who are doing the same thing, I don’t see how it is possible for them because you can’t dedicate your time full time to art and live in Dublin because it’s so expensive.”
Limerick has had its well- documented problems — much of them occurring during Shalvey’s time there — but it has recently begun asserting its more positive qualities, particularly as an artistic location, a space where culture can be created.
Savage Town isn’t everybody’s idea of art and culture. When news broke earlier this year about Savage Town and its September release, Shalvey was invited to attend a Limerick arts event and was given the understanding that they would be placing Savage Town’s publication at the heart of their programme and creating some events around the
Upon receipt of the first chapter of the book, the organisers’ mood had changed: Shalvey was still welcome to be part of the event; Savage Town, not so much. Consequently, Shalvey declined the invitation.
Since the publication of Savage Town, this remains the only negative response to the book.
“Because it’s about a real place that I care about I was naturally going to be little bit more worried about that. I haven’t heard any negative criticism. Everything’s been really positive so far. Maybe more people would need to read it before anybody has a problem,” he muses.
During the creation of the book, Shalvey felt assured he was doing something right when he showed the unfinished work to an acquaintance from the Garryowen area of the city and they immediately voiced their approval.
“Somebody from Garryowen would not see their estate or the people from that neighbourhood in another form being represented,” he points out. “The lad I know from Garry, he was just excited. He recognised things. He recognised the cars. He recognised faces. They were fictional faces, but he saw the haircuts, the tracksuits, the landmarks. He was really excited by it.”
It’s not stated explicitly in Savage Town’s text but there are very subtle indications in the artwork that hint at the possibility that this isn’t a contemporary tale: One hoodlum plays ‘Snake’ on his Nokia phone, while pub patrons still puff away indoors.
It was important, says Shalvey, to set the story around the turn of this century “because I didn’t want to propagate that this was something that is happening now.”
“This isn’t my hot take on Limerick,” he insists. “This is a depiction of Limerick that said something about the country rather than something that saying something about Limerick.
“I guess I wanted to take Limerick and use that to show how Ireland is a great place but not the diddly-eye, not the picturesque
tourist postcard image that everybody has gotten used to seeing.
“But just because it’s not that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its charm at the same time.”
Shalvey uses this period at the dawn of multicultural Ireland to expose antediluvian attitudes to race. If Savage Town is a success, he hopes to return to the characters five years down the road from the events of Savage Town in order to chart the changing Ireland.
Bringing this Limerick to life are Savage Town’s co-creators, illustrator Phillip Barrett and US colourist Jordie Bellaire.
Describing the veteran illustrator as the patron saint of Irish comics, Shalvey says: “When Phil draws stuff I can feel the character in it. And I thought if I’m going to get someone to draw Ireland I’d want it to feel authentic. I wanted it to look like something that’s made here in Ireland.”
An award-winning comics colourist and regarded as one of the best on the industry, Bellaire is Shalvey’s fiancé. “I had a bit of an in there,” he quips. “She gets what a drab, grey, Irish day looks like.”
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