Lotto cash for Bobby Sands comic book helps Sinn Fein rewrite history
Bobby Sands famously said everyone, republican or otherwise, had his or her own part to play in the struggle for what he called "the freedom of the Irish people".
He surely didn't expect that one day to include the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, but the organisation, which distributes more than £10m a year in funding to artists and cultural bodies, has chosen to dig into the kitty to back a comic book eulogising the IRA hunger striker's life and death.
The book, published by The O'Brien Press in Dublin, is the work of Gerry Hunt, a former architect-turned-political cartoonist whose previous works include a pictorial retelling of the Easter Rising. His new book makes no bones about its political leanings. It's called Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter. Subtlety doesn't appear to be Hunt's strong point as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday.
The Arts Council isn't the only official body sponsoring this new book, either. It's also getting help from the National Lottery. Who'd have guessed when buying a scratchcard that the proportion set aside for "good causes" would end up being spent on crude propaganda that lionises IRA volunteers as if they were modern-day saints and depicts their enemies as little more than one-dimensional brutes?
Does it matter? It's only a comic book after all. Yes, it does. Since the end of the republican movement's campaign Sinn Fein has sought to rewrite history so that those who engaged in terrorist violence are retrospectively cast as heroes who had no choice except to take up arms.
This effort has ratcheted up considerably in this centenary year of the Easter Rising as Sinn Fein seeks to piggyback off the commemorations in the South to portray the actions of the Provisional IRA as part of some unbroken line of noble resistance to British rule. This book plays into that same poisoned narrative.
The O'Brien Press even has the cheek to publicise Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter under the heading 'History', adding on its website: "His (Sands') death was followed by a new surge of Provisional IRA recruitment and activity". "Activity" is certainly a nice way of putting it.
If publishers wish to spend their own money in this way, that should be their right. Using public money to do so is, however, another matter. It certainly shouldn't be used to produce work which is so crude and clumsy and lacking genuine creative merit.
Comic books have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, but Bobby Sands: Freedom Fighter isn't one of them.
It's crudely drawn; before going on hunger strike Sands is made to look like the Incredible Hulk bursting out of his prison clothing, all muscle and manly machismo. The colours are eye-wateringly primitive. The dialogue is clunky and heavy-handed.
No one talks like this is real life. They don't even talk like this in bad novels. There is nothing here either for comic book fans or historians; it's akin to the crudest pamphlet available for sale in the Sinn Fein shop.
For a reputable publisher to puts its name to this amateurish, obsolescent bilge is bad enough. For the Arts Council and National Lottery to use public money to do it as well beggars all belief.
The one consolation is that the book is so ludicrous it may end up having the opposite effect to the one intended. It's an irony of literature that when one is earnestly serious to the point of humourlessness, that in itself becomes unintentionally funny.
The line between parody and praise is easily blurred. Rather than heightening Bobby Sands' fate as tragic, this book ends up making it appear almost farcical, reducing it, literally, to a comic caricature stripped of all dignity.
The O'Brien Press may inadvertently have given the game away in that respect, declaring: "This graphic novel brings Bobby Sands' story to life in a whole new way."
The usual definition of a novel is a "fictitious prose narrative". Well, they said it.