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Comic tale of Belfast ghetto a hit in US: Strip story based in war-torn city woos American publisher and public. Ian MacKinnon reports on the success of Holy Cross

A COMIC telling a story of the seamier side of life in a fictional nationalist ghetto of Belfast has proved an unlikely hit, with the first issue completely sold out within weeks of publication.

The 48-page black-and-white magazine, named Holy Cross after its mythical setting, went on sale in January and has since sold more than 20,000 copies at dollars 4.95 ( pounds 3.70 in Britain), the vast majority in the US.

Holy Cross, described on the cover as 'a political drama of war-torn Belfast', explores the themes of sexual attacks in the area with a backdrop of punishment shootings, confrontation with the Army at checkpoints and the ever-present undercurrent of poverty.

Perhaps surprisingly, the US readers of the magazine - said by the author, Malachy Coney, to be a cross between Twin Peaks and Coronation Street in tone - are not generally Americans with Irish Republican sympathies, but simply fans of adult comics.

'I just set out to tell a story and to entertain, a bit like someone sitting next to you in the pub and telling you a good yarn,' said Mr Coney, 30.

'I was born in Northern Ireland and wanted to write about Northern Ireland, but often people expect you to make points. I didn't want to hit people over the head with this or do anything shocking. It is about how ordinary people deal with extraordinary circumstances.'

Still, the idea of a comic telling the tale of how four elderly women are sexually attacked - with the effect that the whole, tiny community comes to feel under siege - was a theme that proved too challenging for all the British publishers approached by Mr Coney, manager of a specialist Belfast comic shop.

'They all thought it was very worthy,' he said. 'I've got the nicest collection of rejection letters, but they all said it was not their type of material. I think there was also the anxiety that people would not pick up something about Northern Ireland.'

The comic format was also a difficulty but Mr Coney, convinced that strong stories could be told in any format and that comics were not 'sub-literate', persevered and found a Seattle company, Fantagraphics, to publish it. Fantagraphics' faith in what the blurb calls his 'powerful black-humoured drama' of how the 'decency and humanity of a poor district of Belfast prevails over the brutalising effects of violent political acts', was rewarded in sales: 150 copies were sent to Mr Coney's shop, and they all sold in six days.

The second issue, due out in October (with a new illustrator), tells the story of an adolescent who wants to be a priest, but is struggling to come to terms with a life of celibacy at a time of sexual awakening. A third edition will recount a boy's retreat into fantasy as he tries to forget physical abuse by his father. Not what most expect of comics. But Mr Coney sees no contradiction. 'Ninety-five per cent of comics are the superhero type, a bit like the film, Die Hard, the other 5 per cent are like The Piano. I'd like to think mine fall into that category,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)