“I literally grew up on comic books,” Eoin McAuley says. “It’s how I learned to read.”
Now, at just 23, he is the owner of Dublin-based comic book publisher Lightning Strike Comics. The progression, he says, was never planned.
In the summer of 2011, McAuley, then a history student at Trinity College, was finding it impossible to get work. He came across a competition for a new enterprise grant. All that was needed was a business plan.
His idea was simple: a company that would publish, manufacture and produce comic books.
A few weeks later, he got a call from the enterprise body. There was interest in his idea. Would he like to brush up his business plan? He refined his plan and never heard any more about the grant.
Four years later, Lightning Strike has sent into the world eight anthologies of comic book stories, several single-issue comics, one of which was a Sherlock Holmes issue commissioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, a graphic novel, and several digital-to-print adaptations.
The stories range from all genres, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, drama, from the steampunk time-travelling epic A Clockwork Universe to the historical tales of Brain Boru to dirty realist stories such as Murphy’s Day where a stressed-out office work just has one of those days.
Almost 100 contributors – from writers to artists to illustrators to colourists – have chipped in with work for Lightning Strike. Some of them have gone on to draw for the two giants of the industry, Marvel and DC Comics.
Lightning Strike, McAuley says, is now on the brink of a major distribution deal that will see it expand into the UK and, potentially, the US.
Three weeks ago, the company moved into its new office in Pulse College on the corner of Halston Street and St Mary’s Lane.
“It feels like a real marking stone,” McAuley says, when I meet him there last Wednesday. “We can finally turn around and say, “yeah, we’ve got to this point.”
The office is a comfortable size for a small outfit. It has three dark-wood desks, pale green walls with decorative wood paneling and a money-green leather buttoned sofa, all of which give the room a strange, regal quality.
It’s not what you’d expect a comic book publisher’s office to look like. The only things which give it away are the issues of Lightning Strike which McAuley has fanned out across his desk, and the illustrations and drawings and posters pinned up on the wall.
But McAuley suits the room. His look is more tech mogul than the comic book publisher I had imagined.
I was expecting casual, longish hair, T-shirt and jeans. McAuley sports a grey-suit-jacket-and-black-top combination. His wavy brown hair is short and brushed back off his forehead, and his beard is neatly trimmed.
After a minute of talking to him, though, it’s clear he has an unconditional love of comics and an encyclopedic knowledge of them.
He believes – and it’s this ethos that underpins Lightning Strike – that there is a comic for everyone.
“The comic book industry is purely dominated by superheroes; me, I enjoy the genre, but I also like many others,” he says. “There are as many different varieties of genre in comic books as there are in literature.”
McAuley believes the lack of awareness about the variety of comic books is one of the reasons there’s still a stigma around comic books.
Some see comics as childish, a lesser art form, he says, particularly when it comes to funding them.
“There’s this snottiness that seems to run through the funding bodies,” he says. “They can hold certain art forms in low regard.”
He’s yet to be awarded a grant from the Arts Council, he says.
“When I say I produce comic books, I say here’s the quality of work that goes into it; here’s the group of five or six individuals that are required to produce one story, people from multiple disciplines,” he says. “I just find it very interesting that I’ve yet to see the Arts Council really stand up and accept this movement is happening or provide any encouragement for it.”
The Arts Council’s Title-by-Title funding programme, which awards up to €35,000 to “high quality literary journals and titles,” does include graphic novels as one of its eligible types of literature.
And the Arts Council funded a graphic novel workshop for the Galway-based youth arts organisation, Red Bird Youth Collective, which ran from last October to January.
Graphic novels and comic books might be two separate things, but the Arts Council’s willingness to support and encourage to former could be taken as a sign that its not to far off from doing the same with the latter.
Fortunately, McAuley hasn’t needed a grant to produce Lightning Strike and make it a success. Instead, he was bolstered by the community of writers and artists who hung out at comic book retailers Dublin City Comics on Bolton Street.
“I still very much consider Dublin City Comics home,” he says. “We began there in the basement, the Geek Easy.”
“Every Wednesday is new comic day, all the American labels will have new releases that day,” he says. “People would meet up at Dublin City Comics and that’s where I first met this group of like-minded individuals and creators and realised the potential to actually build something here.”
The Geek Easy in the basement of Dublin City Comics has couches, computers and a long table where people can come and read and discuss comics. It became the proto-office of Lightning Strike.
There was Robert Carey, who had the idea for the anthology, and Ciaran Marcantonio who stepped up as the editor, McAuley says. “And there were a lot of other talented artists and creators.”
For months, McAuley and the Lightning Strike crew thrashed out ideas and stories and critiqued each other’s works-in-progress down there, as they drew together the inaugural issue.
Dublin City Comics founders Jay Flood and David “Doc” Huysmans remember the team in those early days trying to produce that first issue.
“It was a bunch of lads who actually wanted to make a decent product,” Huysmans says. “A lot of other comics are zines, basically black-and-white sketches, very little production quality, whereas they approached it as a proper business model.”
“They made sure pages were finished and up to standard rather than throwing some tat together,” he says. “Proper colours, proper editing.”
Flood says McAuley was the great conductor of it all; as well as editing the stories, he was organising what each person was to work on. “He was the anchor,” Flood says.
Standards were meticulously high. Huysmans recalls a debate over the index page of the issue.
“Most comic books don’t have an index page or anything like it,” he says. “But they actually had a lengthy discussion about this index page.”
Finally, Issue 1 of Lightning Strike, an anthology of comic book stories, was ready to launch for the 2012 Kapow! Comic Convention in London.
With a humble budget of €500, McAuley spent €400 on printing 100 units and €100 on a stall at Kapow.
“We launched there because there were no major shows in Dublin at the time,” McAuley says. “We then sold our first 100 units at a €5; so, we made €500 back.”
“That then allowed us to go back and print additional units. But this time we didn’t have the additional cost of €100. So then when we sold those units; that made €500, so then we had €600.”
It was good, old straightforward capitalism, but there was one problem. The money left over, split between the 20 or so contributors who’d worked on the issue, wasn’t going to amount to much.
A decision was made: the profits would be put back into Lightning Strike and the comic book would be used as a platform for the artists and writers involved to get work further afield.
And McAuley says Lightning Strike has proven to be a good showcase. Previous contributors such as Ruth Redmond, colourist, and Luca Pizzari, artist, have gone on to work for Marvel.
“Luca’s illustrated Spiderman books,” McAuley says. “And one of his first stories published was in Lightning Strike Issue 3.”
“If you’ve produced at least two or three issues for Lightning Strike, you’ve definitely found work,” McAuley says.
Illustrator Cormac Hughes has been with Lightning Strike since Issue 1 and has worked on stories such as A Clockwork Universe, Red Lotus and a couple of Brian Boru stories.
The exposure of Lightning Strike has definitely helped him get work, Hughes says.
“Especially online, there’s great opportunities. Because of the digital nature of it, you can get jobs anywhere in the world.”
“You’d get commissioned to draw a certain number of pages of a comic. These people would be pitching comics.”
Whether the comics get picked up or not, Hughes gets paid. “It’s great,” he says.
Lightning Strike itself has also picked up side jobs, McAuley says.
“We worked with the video game industry, producing adaptations which are used for promotional purposes; we’ve produced books for the Irish Haemophilia Society; we’ve produced a book for an Irish language video game company,” he says.
Personally, McAuley has done well out of the venture. In 2013, he picked up the Trinity Entrepreneurial Society (TES) Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and he now gives lectures in entrepreneurship a couple of times a week in Pulse, the same building he works in.
None of it seems to have gone to his head, though.
When he came in to Dublin City Comics about five years ago, he was quiet, according to Flood and Huysmans. The only change since then is that he’s now come out of his shell a bit, grown more confident.
“But he’s a really level-headed person,” Flood says. “We call him Old Man McAuley.”
This name has as much to do with his character as with his style. “He dresses like everyone’s granddad,” Huysmans says. “It’s freaking us out; he’s like Benjamin Button.”
Maybe he’s going for the mogul look?
“He is probably cultivating that,” Huysmans says. “But it’s more of a professor look, not a nutty professor, but a maniacal professor.”
It’s the wise quality of McAuley’s nature that makes him the perfect person to run a comic book publishing company, according to Huysmans and Flood.
“He’s got a really good head on his shoulders and good business acumen. He knows exactly where he wants the company to go and how he wants it to go,” Huysmans says.
“He’s not getting caught up in the emotion of going, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ He’s always reserved, always looking, planning and plotting,” he says.
Flood says McAuley is also shrewd enough to know a bad deal when he sees one.
“He’s had people approach him and say, ‘We’ll sponsor you,’ or, ‘We’ll do this,’ but on the condition Lightning Strike must become their product; so he just turns them down. He’s keeping control of it,” he says.
How far can Lightning Strike go?
Cormac Hughes, the illustrator, says he honestly doesn’t know, but that it’s gone on much longer than he anticipated.
“Every issue near the start we were like, ‘Oh well, we did that, we had a good run.’ But the thing just keeps going,” he says.
McAuley says they’ve already decided there will be at least two more anthologies, which will bring Lightning Strike to Issue 10. “Then we’ll decide what type of issue we’ll do next,” he says.
“Often I think to myself, people might see us as just a publisher who publishes anthologies, so I’m always very keen to take a break and do something else,” he says.
There are several single-issue comics in the pipeline, which will fall under the Lightning Strike publishing banner.
McAuley is also working on his own project, in which he will be the writer as opposed to the publisher. It’s a graphic novel about a much-forgotten historical figure with a great story. That’s as much detail as he’ll reveal for now.
As to where he’d like Lightning Strike to go?
“I’d like for the anthology to become a kind of institution,” he says. “A platform to launch creators’ careers that funds itself and that’s recognised by arts councils, recognised by educational institutes and recognised worldwide.
“I’d love for the day where we can come in and get that sponsorship deal, or that ad deal, so that we have the coffers behind us to make it a wage-paying job,” he says.
“I’d like to be able to walk into Eason one day and pick up a Lightning Strike book,” he says.
For now, though, McAuley has his sights on more short-term goals.
By 2016, he plans to introduce either a page rate or a fee for contributors.
“I feel we’ve reached a level of professionalism and a level of recognition where the very least we can do is offer some monetary investment in the people who are contributing,” he says.
“I’m still figuring out the technicalities for that,” he says. “We have a very modest budget. Until that magic funding from all these bodies we approach ever comes through, we’re very much getting by issue by issue.”