By Peter McDermott
Sometimes you need to be away from home to get a good idea.
Take Aidan Courtney. He was working in Canada when he came across some French-language comic books that impressed him.
"I thought: 'Why can't we do that at home?'" he said.
That epiphany led to RíRá, a 36-page anthology edited by the Ruan, Co. Clare, native that is aimed primarily at 8- to 14-year-olds who are studying Irish.
It wasn't some abstract idea. Courtney had been doing comic strips since he was 16. Three years later, he began as a student at the Limerick College of Art. "That was a great experience," he remembered of his education.
His publishing career was launched with a strip in Cork's Evening Echo. Soon, his vocation was keeping him very busy. "I was writing five comic strips a week and I was still calling myself part time," he said.
And he has generally remained so, officially at least. In Toronto, when he applied to a firm to work as an illustrator, he got a job instead as a writer and researcher. Nowadays, he works at a bookstore in Ennis.
From his Clare base, Courtney could call upon a network of nine people in Ireland and internationally -- Bob Byrne and Declan Shalvey being the most prominent among them -- to help with illustrating the prototype and the two issues so far of RíRá. "We mix in the same circles," he said of the group.
Indeed, he said there are a half-dozen people originally from Ennis, between 25 and 32 years of age, who are involved in various countries in animation or comic books or illustrating children's books.
Courtney and his colleagues approached Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish-language agency, which agreed to provide assistance. They also had poet Gabriel Rosenstock, one of the country's best-known literary figures, help with the language.
The founders of Coimicí Gael, which publishes RíRá, have pointed out in a statement that 31,000 students are enrolled at gaelscoilleanna in Northern Ireland and the Republic and also that Irish instruction is obligatory in all schools in the latter. They are interested, too, in making the magazine available for children and all Irish-language enthusiasts in Britain, Europe, North America and Australia.
Courtney spoke in an interview of the educational value of comics. He remembered from his own childhood that he was an avid fan of the Beano, the Dandy, Whizzard, Chips, Victor and others. "They were 10 pence each," he recalled. And then when he was finished with those each week he would move on to his sisters' comics.
"That's how I learnt to read," he said.
Comicí Gael eventually would like to market more directly to an adult market with translations of international classics.
For now, Courtney and his colleagues are concentrating on RíRá.
"We'd like to get it out quarterly, but that's tough." Courtney said. "We're delighted just to bring it out."
A thumb's up
Joe Hayden, a comic-book fan who worked in the Irish Echo art department until recently, was impressed.
"Most comic books will show their influences, but the better ones will not be totally derivative, and RíRá is definitely in that category," he said.
"It's aimed towards today's audiences," he said. There's a storyline of parents sending their son to bed and when he gets up to get a glass of water, they're playing his video games. "Ten or 15 years ago, parents wouldn't have being playing video games," he said.
Hayden liked the mix of styles and the occasional shift from color to black and white. If he had a criticism, it's that young readers may not know when one story ends and another begins because the headings at the top are non-existent in certain instances.
"But, it's a really nice anthology and well thought out," he said. "It's not being written down to children," he said. And he can see how older readers would like the magazine.
The Long Islander Hayden, who knows no Irish, said: "It's an educational tool definitely. The glossary at the back helps."
For copies of issues 1 and 2, go to www.coimicigael.ie or contact Aidan Courtney at firstname.lastname@example.org