Alan Nolan’s ‘Big Break’ Into Graphic Novels

Alan Nolan is an exciting new children’s author from The O’Brien Press, who has created several comedy graphic novels for children. With three titles currently in print and more on the way, you will be seeing a lot more from Nolan in the coming year. But who is he and why do you know the name? Well, chances are if you are an Irish Times reader you are already aware of Nolan’s work.

Back in December 2009, Nolan debuted in The Irish Times with an illustrated poster insert commemorating 125 years of GAA at the Croke Park GAA Museum. He made a striking first impression and was invited back the following year for more sporting illustrations. So when the newspaper wanted to do a series of cartoon strips for their monthly science supplement BANG aimed at teens, Nolan was their go-to-guy. Nolan explains: ‘They wanted illustrated experiments that are exciting but easy to do at home, and I thought it would be fun to create some characters to act out the experiments and really bring them to life.’ His natural storytelling flair kicked in and he created Prof Butterknut and his robot assistant Kronk, now regular fixtures in the supplement.

Little did Nolan realise that these sporting illustrations would get him noticed by The O’Brien Press, who were on the lookout to recruit an artist to create graphic novels for children, as part of their drive to increase literacy in young boys and engage reluctant readers. By chance, Nolan had decided to submit images of his recently self-published luxury hardback copy of Demons of Dublin (a collection of comic strips featuring Sancho) to O’Brien to whet their interest, only to find they were already en route to contacting him.

I first met Nolan some ten years ago at a comic convention in London. It was the first that I had ever exhibited at and he and writing partner Ian Whelan were promoting the first issues of their comic Sancho, (a comedy horror comic ‒ think a Mexican Father Ted meets John Constantine) and they were my immediate neighbouring table. After Nolan accidentally kicked my butt (and I do mean literally), we struck up a firm friendship. The Sancho team’s sense of humour made the long day of self-promotion fly, and there have been few conventions since that I have done without sharing a space with Nolan.

Nolan produced Sancho for the love of comics in his own time, while working full time as a designer. However, in 2010, Nolan was working as a creative director with a small Dublin-based design and marketing company that became a victim of the recession and, as a result, Nolan took the leap into freelance work. This freed him up to take on more illustration projects, like those for The Irish Times, and left him in an ideal position to pitch book ideas when The O’Brien Press came a-knocking. Sancho as a comic for mature readers was not really an option for the publisher who primarily produces children’s books and non-fiction, but Nolan wanted to show them what he could do. They were impressed enough to ask for submission ideas, something Mr Nolan is never short of. Of the many pitches Nolan made, two have already been green lit, The Big Break Detectives Casebook and the Murder Can Be Fatal comedy/mystery series, of which two titles have been published with more on the way. In no small way a success story of the recession, as Nolan states: ‘Going freelance has given me the opportunity to write the books I’ve always wanted to.’


Nolan’s first book with The O’Brien Press, The Big Break Detectives Casebook, is a stand-alone full-colour book for ages 6‒11 years. Nolan adapted and expanded on his work previously featured in the independently published Irish-language comic RíRá. Now for the first time you can read about the gang’s adventures in English. The book is charmingly presented as main character Little Tom’s Casebook, and dispersed between the four short cartoon mysteries (each case has to be solved in 30 minutes during the school break), you will find scrapbook-like pages of Little Tom’s journal introducing and wrapping up each case. These are a hidden gem and include blueprints, jokes, sketches and an insight into Little Tom’s obsession with disguises and his favourite (fictional) detective cop show ‘Hamm & Pickle’. Nolan’s inspiration for the character of Little Tom is his own son Matthew, an energetic kid who’s always got a secret stash of sweets.

Nolan studied art education at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, majoring in graphic design and illustration and has 18 years’ experience of working as a designer. As an independent comic creator, Nolan honed his skills in all aspects of creating a comic book, from the script and illustrations, inking, colouring and lettering to designing covers and page layout. He is one man with the skills of five, and his editors recognise this by allowing Nolan huge creative freedom. ‘For a control freak like me, Big Break is exactly how I would want it to be,’ he confides.

The Murder Can be Fatal series is aimed at slightly older children of 12 and upwards, and features black and white line art. The books are around 40 pages long and each features new characters and stories. That’s no mean feat for any author or illustrator, but for Nolan it’s a blast: ‘That’s what I love doing, coming up with different characters. It’s my absolute favourite thing! And then coming up with the plotlines and stories for them.’ Nolan’s aim is to create ‘humorous whodunits for kids, which pastiche several well-known crime/murder genres, from literary sources to pop culture.’ Littered with puns and jokes, and a generous sprinkling of funny names, kids will get a big kick out of these. At live-book readings and workshop events for children, Nolan says the response so far has been tremendous: ‘Kids just love the gross-out humour and gruesome murders!’ Parents will have fun when reading these to their younger kids too. Ultimately, Nolan recognises it is the adults who will be buying for their children so there’s plenty there for grown-ups to enjoy in all the cultural references.

Death by Chocolatefollows in the footsteps of Agatha Christie with a Poirot-style investigator ‘Marcel Petit-Pois’ and his chimp assistant Tesla, as they embark on a Tintin-esque travelogue adventure to catch the evil ‘Chocolatier’. Six Million Ways to Die couldn’t be more different: it features a daredevil bionic stuntman travelling through time to the Titanic where he must solve the murder while ensuring the ship sinks! ‘It’s The Six Million Dollar Man meets Back to the Future!’ Nolan laughs. I enjoyed its science-fiction feel and references, and Nolan’s love of classic British comic 2000 AD is evident. The next book in the series Destination Homicide is well underway and scheduled for print later in 2012. In this book, Nolan will be offering his comedy take on the buddy cop show genre. Think Starsky & Hutch or Lethal Weapon but with zombie cheerleaders and giant sewer alligators.

Nolan has always wanted to make books for children and it shows. He is passionate about what he is creating and talks animatedly about his ideas and inspirations. He seems to understand what makes kids tick and, as a father of three boys, it is clear that he is creating entertaining stories with them in mind. Nolan has a good-natured presence, lots of performance experience (he just recently completed a pantomime run in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire) and has a genuine rapport with kids giving him a real edge over other authors and illustrators when it comes to presenting his work in person. Nolan’s workshops and readings are a real joy, and he is enjoying a busy schedule of appearances all over Ireland during the coming months. It could be just what you need to turn your reluctant reader into an avid bookworm. What I admire most about Nolan is his love of comics, and his desire to create more children’s titles in this medium. He is an inspiration to other self-published creators, proving that you can indeed turn your comic passion into your career.