John Farrelly might just be one of the finest cartoonists you’ve never heard of. Recently, he’s been working as a caricaturist, providing bespoke artwork for clients and on the spot drawings for events and weddings. His artwork has been seen on CD covers, adverts and in games. John is a hugely talented working artist who can turn his considerable skills to almost anything.
But his first love is storytelling and every time he’s turned his hand to that, with Deadly! Irish History – The Vikings, he’s produced something spectacular.
His “Captain Wonder” newspaper-style strip is a beautifully drawn and very funny story of the adventures of a Comic Shop Superhero and has appeared in two, self-published, magazines. He supplied a clever ‘funny animal’ strip to my own Splank! magazine, starring a dynamic duo of a snail and a tortoise and his stories for 2000AD fanzines have always been among the highlights of the issues they appeared in. His dinosaurs, in particular, are pretty special.
John also happens to be one of the good guys, he is good company and, as we say, here in the North of Ireland, ‘Great Craic’. In his latest venture, that really comes across. The Vikings is the first volume in a series of history books for kids while will appear under the overall title of Deadly! Irish History, published by Dublin’s O’Brien Press – and has John’s personality stamped all over it.
Mixing his words and his pictures, it tells the story of the invaders from the north in general and their influence on Ireland in particular. It’s well organised in short, pithy chapters, and uses artwork to add to the text, rather than just Illustrate it. John’s sense of humour shines through. The tone and language are conversational and convincing and very funny, while carrying a huge amount of information.
This is how a favourite teacher, one well versed and interested in their subject, would talk to their class about his subject. There is no artificial chumminess, and no talking down to what is intended to be a kids’ audience is. This is John’s voice and more refreshing for that.
There are many good history books for kids’ these days and to stand out there must be something different, a ‘unique selling point’ as the management consultants would say just before they flew out of John’s upstairs office/studio. One USP is the Irishness; there is a real market for all sorts of books about Ireland, both at home and to tourists, but it is John’s skill and experience as a cartoonist that really sets this book aside.
Factual books for kids often use, or perhaps misuse, illustrations. They are important parts of the appeal of the books. But often the art fails to add much to the story the books are telling. Everything the author wants to say is in the text, leaving little room for the illustrator to add anything of real substance.
John’s experience as a cartoonist means that the words and pictures are more seamlessly blended than in other similar titles. He understands that they need to work together, rather than just side by side. And the storytelling techniques he uses in comics are put to great effect here.
He uses fake newspaper reports, single panel gag strips and even a comic-strip episode of a Viking soap opera to keep things moving. The art adding extra meaning and information to the text.
Kids are going to love this, and they are going to remember it for years. Whether it is the ‘Healing Tips’ of One-Eyed Helga or the lie detector test the reader is asked to carry out on Loki, God of Mischief, all the images are memorable.
If the home-grown comics industry was any bigger John would have found a home as a leading artist, but it isn’t, and he’s gone down this route instead. But in doing so he might just have found his niche. ‘Deadly Irish History, The Vikings’, is the sort of book that I’d have adored as a kid, that I’d probably still remember to this day. But for those of us who know John’s it’s something else. It’s a book that reflects his personality, that demonstrates his talent and is a real ‘bit of craic’.
• Deadly Irish History: The Vikings by John Farrelly is available from all good bookshops – buy it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)