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“Tina just came into my head one morning,” says Sorcha Kelly.
About 10 years back, she was lying on the couch in her flat on Sheriff Street, she says. The window was open. Two women began to argue, ferociously, outside.
“One of them said, ‘Well, me ma said …’ and then the other one said, ‘Well, you can tell me ma,’” says Kelly. “You know it’s this Dublin thing that we might have the same mother, but it’s ‘my ma’.”
In the smoking area of the Irish Film Institute, Kelly’s Americano has gone cold. She fidgets with an opened brown sugar paper, twisting it and twirling it as she speaks.
They were obviously sisters. That tickled Kelly – and as she replayed the conversation in her mind, it became the story of Tina, the inner-city woman at the heart of her comic book.
After trying to find a publisher, unsuccessfully, Kelly was egged on by her friends to self-publish Tina. It came out in March of last year.
When she started on Tina, it had been 20 years since she’d drawn, says Kelly.
As a young child she drew ferociously. She had a strong interest in art. She studied sculpture in college.
When Tina arrived into her head, almost fully formed that morning, she took up her pens again.
Comic books were hard to come by in her house, says Kelly. Her mother was a bohemian intellectual-type and her father was a working-class man.
“We were never really allowed to have comics. We had books instead,” says Kelly.
It was surprising then that as she brought Tina to life, she came out in a comic strip. “I’d never done a comic book before,” says Kelly.
The first strip was of the row she overheard between the sisters outside her apartment. Others soon followed.
“I had this character in my head and every time I tuned into her it was like eavesdropping on one of the other characters,” says Kelly.
Eventually, she had 34 tales – and they became the chapters of a book. The format of Tina is simple: 34 chapters, each page drawn by hand and divided into six square tiles.
Each chapter is a short scene or story that opens onto an episode with a parade of characters in Tina’s life: her mother Doreen, her brother Anto, her father Frank, her superhero nanny, and her nanny’s sidekick on the stalls, Mrs Meeney.
Kelly takes a copy of Tina out her tote bag – it bears a doodle of a grandmother labelled “aul one” – and turns to chapter 6, “Bonzo Gets Nicked”.
It’s her favourite strip, she says. She laughed the whole way, as she wrote.
It’s easy to see why. It tells the story of Bonzo, who spots an advertisement for a couch for sale.
The couch sparks a series of fantasies – wild dreams of what it could do for his love life. His conclusion? The couch is definitely worth robbing a bank for.
Tina hails from Liffey View flats, a fictionalised apartment complex in the inner-city.
It’s not based on her family life, Kelly says – making that clear.
It’s based on observations on life in the inner-city communities that she grew up with. Kelly is originally from Dorset Street, but now lives in Leitrim.
She’s especially keen on capturing the dialect from Dublin 1 in the comic book, giving colour to the city’s language through the speech bubbles of the characters within its pages.
“It has that hardcore inner-city interaction between people,” says Kelly. “But they love each other. Whereas posher people might say, ‘Oh, will you stop.’ They’d say, ‘Will you fuck off.’ It sounds quite aggressive and that but it’s not.”
Is the comic trying to show the complexities of family life in often neglected inner-city communities, places that are often too easily stigmatised by outsiders?
Kelly fidgets with the brown sugar packet some more. She flicks through the comic book.
“I’m not sure I’m that type of artist,” she says, then pauses.
“You know people get damaged in childhood and then it’s very hard,” she says. “You grow up and it’s very hard not to damage them and that cycle keeps going on and on and on. I think an important message of the book is that childhood damage.”
The comic book confronts dysfunctional families, institutional abuse and police violence – all themes that any inner-city person would be able to speak to, says Kelly.
“The violence is coming from the outside,” she says.
Tina is available to buy in Books Upstairs, Dublin City Comics, Bang Bang Cafe and Big Bang Comics in Dundrum.