Legends and superheroes

From the IAR Autumn 2014 Edition:

Clár Ní Dhuibheannaigh charts how a boyhood dream became a reality for Will Sliney whose Cú Chulainn illustrations are based on the Táin Bó Cúailgne

In the winter of 2012, Cork-based graphic artist Will Sliney realized one of his life ambitions when he was recruited by Marvel to work on a twelve-issue run of The Fearless Defenders, which was published the following year. The thirty-one year old, Ballycotton native subsequently progressed to illustrating the comic book giant’s most iconic character, Spider-Man, a commission which helped launch his international career. Modest and self-effacing, Sliney does not think that drawing is ‘a talent that you are given’ but instead attributes his artistic success to simple hard work. And indeed, since graduating from the Cork Institute of Technology with a degree in multi-media studies in 2005, Sliney has worked at a feverish pace. His pre-Marvel work includes comic books such as Farscape, Star Wars, and MacGyver, while in the spring of 2013, O’Brien Press published his graphic novel, Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn, when he was artist-in-residence at Carrigaline Community School, Cork. In between comic book work, he has drawn celebrities he loves, such as his boyhood football team Everton, a muscle-ripped and lyrca-clad Ryan Tubridy in superhero guise; and Michael Collins, Jack Lynch, Cillian Murphy and Graham Norton all feature on a new ‘Cork Legends’ mural on the city’s Grand Parade, the execution of which coincided with Sliney being awarded ‘Cork Person of the Month’ in July 2014.

Over the past decade, Sliney has made rapid progress as a graphic artist. Each year his drawings are visibly more ‘alive’, technically polished and anatomically exact. He documents his step-by-step creation technique in an online blog http://sliney.blogspot.ie, and credits software such as Manga Studio, and the Cintiq tablet, with enhancing and speeding up his illustration process – vital factors when contending with looming Marvel deadlines. He is also very aware of the powerful role new smartphone technology and social media have played in making his work available to a wider audience. However, the approach adopted by Sliney when seeking Marvel’s recognition was more traditional. Having started drawing Spider-Man at age five, by eighteen Sliney’s childhood hero no longer adorned the kitchen fridge, but instead took the form of a large mural on his bedroom wall. By twenty, he had stopped copying the work of other comic-book artists and was instead submitting original creations to Marvel. Despite initial rejection, he persisted, attending international comic book conventions such as Comic-Con in San Diego. Ironically, it was at the first Dublin International Comic Expo, held at Dundrum Town Centre in September 2012, that Marvel talent scout, CB Cebulski spotted Sliney’s work. Marvel are clearly pleased with their new artist, their website tracks Sliney’s journey from copying amateur to a professional artist who creates his own original vision of an ever-evolving Spider-Man.

Sliney distinguishes himself not just as an illustrator, but as a storyteller, adding his own twists and earthy sense of humour to this great Irish tale

As an artist, Sliney is flexible, adapting his style to capture the essence of each new story; while fully immersed in his Marvel drawings, his Cú Chulainn illustrations seem to be imbued with a more personal inspiration and so stand apart. Based on the ancient Irish text, the Táin Bó Cúailgne, which has been illustrated by John Campbell, Austin Molloy, Louis le Brocquy, and more recently, in comic book format, by Barry Reynolds from the Cartoon Saloon, but Sliney’s approach is original. His depictions of dappled forests, rugged cliffs and thundering waves have a distinctly Irish flavour; enhanced by his incorporation of Oghamic inscriptions, and spiral carvings on standing stones. Sliney is clearly at home depicting the earthen mound at New Grange, silhouetted against the rising sun and the basalt stepping stones, which form the ‘Giant’s Causeway’ that legend claims was crafted by Cú Chulainn’s southern counterpart, Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fig 5). While the coloured pages are harmonious and polished; it is the drawings in black line, set against a simple sepia background and denoting the back story, that reveal Sliney’s fluidity of line and skilled draughtsmanship. In his Cú Chulainn book, Sliney distinguishes himself not just as an illustrator, but as a storyteller, adding his own twists and earthy sense of humour to this great Irish tale. While the impetuous Queen Maeve is transformed into a recognizable comic book she-villain with chiselled cheeks and supernatural white eyes, the spirit of Cú Chulainn with his battle-frenzied face and bulging veins is faithfully captured. Like Barry Reynolds, Sliney modelled his dying Cú Chulainn on Oliver Sheppard’s early 20th-century bronze sculpture in the General Post Office in Dublin (Fig 4). He concluded his story with depictions of Connolly, Pearse and Collins, captioned ‘Ordinary men will stand up against empires.’ Sliney’s art is infused with passion and nationalist sentiment, particularly when he has artistic control over text and graphic content.

While Marvel undoubtedly offers a lucrative field for Sliney’s graphic work, illustrating Irish heroes, has considerable potential, albeit on a smaller scale. Currently, some Marvel characters such as Thor are undergoing radical sex changes, in order to attract a wider audience. However, Irish legends are already populated with strong, fiery women with supernatural powers, such as the Táin’s Queen Maeve. A future for Marvel may well lie in the long-lived appeal of heroes such as Maeve and Cú Chulainn, and Sliney’s future may lie in the area of animated films, and his wish to see the story of Cú Chulainn translated onto the big screen, rivalling Marvel’s superheroes, may become a reality.

Clár Ní Dhuibheannaigh has a Degree in European Studies and a Masters in Media Studies.

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