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MARTIN CONAGHAN
writer & editor at Insomnia Publications
Published by: Insomnia Publications

Interviewed by: Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 5/23/2009)

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Martin Conaghan

Richard: How were you hired as editor for the new Vigil imprint?

Martin: I've been working with Insomnia Publications for the last few months on my forthcoming graphic novel about Burke and Hare, in addition to working on a short story for their Layer Zero anthology title.

Recently, I and Insomnia's creative director Nic Wilkinson had been talking about the number of submissions the company has received based around historical adaptations, so we thought it might be a good idea to create a line of books that specifically develops biographical stories - and Vigil was born out of that. Burke and Hare will be the flagship title of the line, and should set the tone for all future books in terms of style, layout and content - so I offered Nic my help in filtering out the submissions and guiding the line towards some common themes, ideas and goals.

Richard: What is the Vigil imprint going to focus on?

Martin: It will specifically deal with historical graphic novels and stories of a biographical nature. Books will be between 80-120 pages in length with extensive research notes and additional supporting material.

Think along the lines of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s 'From Hell' or Frank Miller’s '300'; we’re looking for rich stories based on fact, not facts dressed up as fiction. The stories will hopefully be about significant global events, the life of a famous personality or historical figure, cultural events, political scandals, wars, assassinations, rock stars, miscarriages of justice, cover-ups, conspiracies or inspirational tales from ordinary lives.

Richard: Do you see the Vigil imprint as having a place in the comic market?

Martin: Definitely. I think it's been demonstrated that material like this - ie. historical works or graphic novels of a biographical nature - are both engaging and entertaining, and they have a mass-market audience. 'From Hell' and '300' are probably the best examples, but there are numerous other works out there that have followed a similar path; Brian Michael Bendis' 'Torso', 'Regan' by Andy Helfer, Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton - and 'Purple Days' by Charles Sharr Murray and Floyd Hughes about the life of Jimmi Hendrix. You only need to take a look at the biopic market in the cinema and DVD - most of the Oscars get handed out to movies based on real-life events or people - we want to do the same in comics.

Richard: What future plans do you have for the Vigil imprint?

Martin: For now, we want to see submissions and ideas. History is ripe for the plundering, and if creators can uncover an interesting slant on real-life events, we'll consider it. It can be about anything or anyone they like from history - as long as it actually happened. We're okay with the facts being distorted slightly to fill in the gaps or dramatize events, but we would like to see a broad range of fresh material, from ancient stories about war and politics - to modern-day analysis of recent events and the incredible lives of popular and ordinary figures.

Richard: You worked on 'Burke and Hare' - what is it about?

Martin: Burke and Hare will be released in August with artwork by Will Pickering. I was invited to pitch in an idea for Caliber Comics' proposed 'Gothic' line of books in the early 1990s, and O chose to write an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short horror story 'The Body Snatcher', which is a work of fiction about 19th century grave robbers in Edinburgh. However, after digging up some research of my own on the subject, I discovered that the real life characters the story was based on - William Burke and William Hare - was entirely real, except that they were murderers, not grave robbers. It struck a chord with me that the common misconception about their deeds tended to focus on grave robbing, when, as far as history is concerned, they never set foot in a graveyard with the intention of stealing a corpse.

They murdered 16 people over a 12 month period from 1827 to 1828 and disposed of the bodies to the Edinburgh medical establishment - creating a massive public scandal and marking themselves out as Britain's most prolific serial killers. They're still listed as the most prolific serial killers in British history - despite the numerous claims and suspicions about Harold Shipman. The whole tale is steeped in facts, coincidences and murky history, so I wrote up a 48-page script for Caliber using 'From Hell' as a blueprint - with all the appendix notes and concept material crammed in at the back, but Caliber ceased publishing shortly afterwards, and the script fell into limbo. I eventually got out of the comics industry for almost 10 years while I went to ply my trade as a journalist at the BBC, and forgot all about it.

Then, last year, I approached Nic Wilkinson at Insomnia about it, and she pounced on it - but asked me to expand it to 80 pages. I tracked down Will Pickering, having worked with him on an issue of Caliber's 'Raven Chronicles', and he agreed to produce the art. I can't wait for it to come out - the artwork Will has produced so far is really quite stunning - very atmospheric and 'of the era'. It'll be a refreshing change for the market to see something like this.

Richard: What was working on "Burke and Hare" like?

Martin: It's a long and complex story - even though it all happened over a 12 month period - and there's lots of legal twists and turns, not to mention a lot of claim and counter-claim in the numerous books written on the subject.

Worse still, there's a massive misconception to break down about Burke and Hare being grave robbers, so it's been a long road from the mid-1990s to 2009 in terms of digging up old research, re-writing the notes, watching movies and documentaries, re-shaping the script and tracking down an artist who was up to the challenge.

Will has been working tirelessly on tracking down visual references for the various Edinburgh locations in the book, in addition to the various real-life characters who drift in an out of the story, so it's going to be as fact-based and realistic as possible, without seeming staid.

Richard: Why did you decide to write 'Fallen Heroes'?

Martin: Again, Nic approached me about some of the material Insomnia was developing, and mentioned that they were looking for a writer to adapt Barry Nugent's self-published novel. She passed me on a copy of the book, and I loved it - it's almost like Barry was writing it to be adapted as a comic. It's a very visual book - crammed with colourful characters and snappy set-pieces - so I jumped at the chance to work on it. I have another project I'm working on at the moment for Markosia, which should come out in 2010 - so I'll probably start the script for 'Fallen Heroes' in the autumn, and it should come out late in 2010.

Richard: What do you do working at the BBC?

Martin: I work in Sport as a broadcast journalist - so I write sports news and football match reports for the BBC Sport website, but I also read out the sport bulletins on BBC Radio Scotland a couple of times per week, which is good fun.

Richard: What was your first published work?

Martin: Apart from minor things in various small, self-published comics, the first item I was paid for that saw widespread distribution was an interview with Steve Yeowell in Aceville Publications' 'Comic World'.
I did a bunch of interviews and reviews for 'Comic World' with the likes of Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Duncan Fegredo and Rian Hughes, then I did a one-off 'Tharg's Terror Tale' for 2000AD. After that, I mostly did features for broadsheet newspapers, and worked freelance for the BBC before going full-time.

Richard: What is the secret to being a good writer?

Martin: Style. And I don't mean the ability to write as a sci-fi writer, or a crime writer or a horror writer. I mean the elements of style; the ability to construct legible sentences, getting punctuation right, knowing the difference between its and it's, their/there, who's and whose - getting your message across succinctly and competently. When you master the basics of writing, everything starts to fall into place. Few people grasp this, yet it's the most basic concept of putting words down on paper. After you've mastered the basics, you probably need a decent imagination too. Unfortunately, far too many people have good imaginations, but can't spell or construct a sentence that makes sense.

Richard: What will you be working on next?

Martin: I'm working on a five-part sci-fi project for Markosia called 'Historika'. I couldn't be more excited about it. It was originally developed with Mike Perkins in the early 1990s, but I've completely re-worked it and we've signed up an Irish artist called Stephen Daly - who has a style very like Mike Mignola. The story is set across five different points in history, linked by a single female character who is awakened at key points in history to influence the course of history.

Richard: What is the best experience you have had in comics?

Martin: Working with Caliber Comics on titles like Negative Burn and Raven Chronicles was great - Joe Pruett and Gary Reed are both great guys, with a great eye for good stories - and they have enough faith in new creators to keep working with them and developing ideas. However, my recent experiences with Insomnia and Markosia have been very positive - Nic Wilkinson, Crawford Coutts and Harry Markos are positive-thinking, smart people and I'm really happy to be working with them.

Richard: How can someone contact you?

Martin: For Insomnia projects, you can get me on martin@insomniapublications.com .

Richard: Any final words of wisdom?

Martin: If you want to be a writer, you need to write. Stop talking about your 'big idea', and write the damn thing - but master the basic fundamentals first; spelling, punctuation, grammar, lexical categories, composition and form. There's nothing worse than having to read a proposal with two typos and a spelling mistake in the first paragraph. And, never start your pitch with the line 'This is Pulp Fiction meets Sense and Sensibility'.


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