Róisín Dubh, Demons, and Bicycles: an interview with author Maura McHugh (Part One)
When we heard that author Maura McHugh‘s latest graphic novel Róisín Dubh – starring a young bicycle-riding suffragette who fights dark supernatural forces! – would soon be hitting stores at last, we were bubbling over with excitement. Once we’d regained the ability to type coherent sentences, our Jenni was dispatched to Interview Country faster than a speeding velocipede…
“Róisín Dubh is a three-issue comic book series that will also be collected and bound as a graphic novel. It’s set in Ireland in 1899 and follows the adventures of Róisín Sheridan, an eighteen-year-old woman who harbours ambitions to be an actress. Her life is altered forever when she and her parents are attacked on the road by a bloodthirsty man called Abhartach who has just risen from the earth. Róisín’s parents are killed and she is left for dead… until she is given a mission by ancient powers. She has to go against the conventions of the day, and her previous notions of what is possible, to try and put Abhartach back in the ground… but the person who raised Abhartach from his 1,400-year stasis has other plans.”
What might feminist readers enjoy about the comic? As if an Irish suffragette killing demons isn’t enough to get anyone interested…
“Well, I hope there’s plenty there for everyone, but the women’s suffrage movement was on my mind from the start. Róisín has had a liberal, educated upbringing, she was allowed a lot of leeway as a child, but as a woman she’s starting to discover that there are more limits on her than she imagined.
For instance, that simple thing her father says to her: of course women should have the right to vote… but a career on the stage? It’s disreputable. The struggle for equal rights is a slow erosion of the buts. People are always full of reasons why you can have some rights, but not all.
That’s why Róisín has a bike. People forget that the bicycle was a huge boon to women in the nineteenth century – it gave them a freedom of movement that they didn’t enjoy previously, and it also helped bring about a change in clothing.
Susan B. Anthony said in 1896 that she thought the bicycle ‘has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world, It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.'”
What sort of heroine is Róisín – who is she as a character? Which other comic book heroines have inspired you in the past and what do you like about them?
“Róisín is a young, idealist woman with great ambition who is prone to impulsive decisions. The events in the comic book means she’s forced to deal with tragedy while learning she has far less control over her life. These are the kinds of lessons we often learn in life, although in Róisín’s case they involve an undead creature, magicians and ancient Irish divinities!
I haven’t drawn upon any other comic book heroines consciously in relation to Róisín, but there were a number that had an impact upon me over the years. First was Judge Anderson in 2000 AD. I didn’t read many American comics when I was growing up in Ireland as there weren’t many available at the time. 2000 AD was the premiere title for young teens then, so I read it too. Her first appearance in the Judge Death storyline (written by John Wagner and drawn by Brian Bolland) ticked all the boxes for me: horror and a great female lead.
What I loved about Anderson was her humour. She was the only one who poked fun at Dredd, and I loved that the Psi-Division were given loads of leeway because of the job they did and the high risk of their brains being fried in the process. Plus, she saves the world through an extreme act of self-sacrifice (thankfully, she didn’t remain in stasis forever!).
A while ago I read a comment on a website by one of the early artists of Anderson, in which he said he thought that she wasn’t very complex and was created for a bit of titillation for the lads. That comment disappointed me greatly. I guess he didn’t realise that Anderson was one of the very few women in 2000 AD at the time, and for that reason alone she had a big impact on the girls/women who read the series. Having a representation of women in comics book series is really important, and Dredd himself is not exactly the most complex character! I don’t usually hanker after writing particular characters, but writing Anderson would be a dream project.
Another character that had a big impact was Tank Girl (Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin). She had a punk sensibility and a sense of humour, and liked sex, drugs and driving a tank – what was not to love?
Other characters I like are David Mack’s Scarab, Storm from the X-Men (woefully underused, I think), Alan Moore’s Halo Jones (another character I’d kill to write) and Promethea, Warren Ellis’s Jenny Sparks, and finally, the goddess herself, Wonder Woman.
I’ve only fallen in love with the Wonder Woman character in the past year, which is completely the result of Gail Simone‘s amazing writing. I’m also now a big fan of Simone’s Secret Six and Birds of Prey – so you can include all the (many) female characters in those series on my list now. Simone is one of the best comic book writers in the industry in my opinion, and she’s particularly adept at dialogue, especially for the female characters. Her comic books consistently pass the Bechdel Test, which so many titles still don’t do.”
Like Gail Simone and NK Jemisin, you’re a writer who sticks by her conscience, and you’re not afraid to call out industry figures when something’s Just Not Right. What have you learned from this so far, and has it ever worked against you?
“No change occurs if you remain silent. It’s that simple – but it’s not necessarily easy to speak up.
As a woman you know a likely response to raising an issue – such as the lack of women at an event – is that you will be dismissed or attacked (especially on the Internet).
So, I always strive to be fair and logical in how I present my case. Sometimes that’s difficult because I feel so passionately about women getting a fair shake – well, everyone getting a fair shake, no matter their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
A number of people have asked me if I think I’m damaging my career with some of the issues I’ve raised. So far I’ve never experienced it, but would it stop me? No.
Let’s be realistic. I’m speaking out on issues from a pretty safe environment. If I was a female union representative in Mexico – for example – I would have a genuine risk in speaking up. Or a mother trying to access education for her girls in Afghanistan. Those people inspire me – they are taking real risks with their lives and yet find the courage to stand up for what is right.
When I think of that it puts what I do in perspective! (And it makes me donate to aid organisations that help people in those risky situations.)”
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview. Warm thanks to Maura for talking to us.
- Maura McHugh is an Irish writer with films, comics and short stories to her name. She blogs at Splinister and you can read her recent guest post for BadRep, in which she recommended us some horror writers, here. Róisín Dubh is published by Atomic Diner and the first issue can be bought online here. Or pester your local comic store to order some copies!
category → Comics & Graphic Novels