The Niall Breen Interview

Niall Breen is an Irish cartoonist, living in the small town of Sligo. He has been part of Comics Workbook for a while now. Starting off as a student of Frank Santoro’s correspondence course and semi-regular contributor to the Tumblr of yore, to a now regular contributor to Comics Workbook’s post-tumblr evolution here on the site.

If you’ve been keeping up with the comics that we’ve been publishing on instagram à la tumblr, you’ll no doubt recognize Breen’s slapstick and positivity. Breen’s comics swirl the mundane, darkness, and absurdity with kind words, sillyness and warmth in a way that never gets old or predictable. Good on you, Niall. His simple life affirming doodles pull from an age old tradition of icon oriented cartooning that the likes of Ben Jones, John Porcellino, and Ernie Bushmiller are part of. It’s good to see it alive and well on the Internet.

Juan Fernandez chatted with Niall over email, asking him a couple of questions so you can learn a little bit more about the guy behind the dog.

Juan Fernandez: Besides your daily comics, what are you working on these days??

Niall Breen: I have lots going on. I’m re-lettering these daily comics in Spanish for an upcoming collection. I’m working on a limited run release of the Simpsons comics I did late last year. A couple of new projects as well. Outside of the already established stuff I have going on, I want to focus on small, cheap zines that I’d like to make as quickly and as consistently as possible. That’s what excites me right now.

I’ve heard you are running a good comics club over there in Sligo, Ireland. How is that going?

It’s really wonderful. Since the New Year it’s become a closed group, rather than being open to the public. The people currently involved have had the time to get to know one another and we all gel really nicely. I’m looking forward to collecting our output in a zine some time this year. In the few months that it’s run we’ve created hundreds of strips. Pretty wild, silly stuff.

Let’s talk money. How are you currently paying the bills? Are you comfortable?

I work in an art gallery. I do 20 hours a week as part of a government welfare scheme. That brings in enough for me and my wife to pay rent, eat well and live our lives. The rest of the time I put into drawing and printing. My wife is in the arts also. I think we’re in one of the better places in the world for two artists to be. We can’t afford much extravagance in our lives but we can draw and make stuff all the time without too much distraction. I think that’s a fair trade.

I would agree. How would describe the experience doing over 100 Dog Strips? They look great and have a nice weekly rhythm.

Thank you! It’s been a really great experience. It’s sometimes fairly challenging keeping up the pace, especially during the holidays and in those times when life gets in the way but it’s quite rewarding to keep the plates spinning. Having made as many as I have now, the uninterrupted run has become a strong motivating factor to keep going. The positive reactions I get from people are really helpful also. It feels great to be putting ideas out into the world and having people react in the right way.

I can imagine. Especially with how things are going in the world these days… What is it like seeing how people react to this pseudo avatar as you produce the work?

It’s really strange. The first 20 strips I made for Comics Workbook were made in a single 2 hour session late one night. The dog was, at the time sort of just an empty shell. There was no obvious character there yet and the gags at the time were too surreal to illicit any relatable feelings in people. It was goofy and distant in it’s intentions. But as time went on, people started pointing out how positive the strip was and how nice the dog was and that was a big surprise to me. It seems to have become this beacon of positivity which I couldn’t be happier about. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable starting out if I had been purposefully trying to do that.

Big question: What do you think about memes? 

I love memes! I think they’re so super important. They open us up to a stream of diverse human experience which is illuminating and can only help us grow more compassionate as a society.

Small question: What about billboards?

Billboards, I’m not really sure if I have any opinion on. Do you mean like, out on the street? We don’t have many here but I can see a KFC billboard from my apartment window. It doesn’t tempt me.

Do you collect any old newspapers, new comics, or zines?

Not really, I have a nice collection of comics I’ve built up over the years though. We live a fairly balanced life at the moment so I don’t often feel I have the ability to buy stuff that isn’t necessary. I do love getting a new comic and poring over it obsessively. I got a few over Christmas which I’m taking my time with. I’m considering reviewing them as I read them.

As someone who has a good handle of gag beats, what makes a good gag writer? I mean, if you look at 10-12 strips that somebody’s done and say, “This person’s a good gag writer,” how can you tell that?

I think it’s important to realize that the humour of a strip can come from lots of different places. We talk about this in our comics class a lot. When we make something funny we’ll look at it together and say “why is it funny” and a lot of times it comes down to something very specific. It could be a specific wording or maybe even a miss-spelling that makes it funny. Or a facial expression or an overly defined bicep. I think people who are consistently good at writing gags are aware of the fact that there are all these different elements swirling around the page and sharing space together and that the great laughs come from the unexpected places of collision between these elements. I don’t think it’s impossible to create a great gag through careful planning but I think a more natural way is to keep yourself open to the whole experience of creation.

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