June 26, 2012

LOCAL by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly -- Fair Trade Comics -- Review

This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

Fair Trade Comics is an ongoing series where Comics Bulletin looks at creator-owned comics that you can read without guilt or moral compromise. 

Keith Silva: Let's get sticky. We all crave stickiness, in fact, we have to have it. What "it" is … well, that depends. Stickiness is the "it factor" -- one's ability to select a particular sandwich, dish detergent or lover over every other. Malcom Gladwell has made a fortune explaining stickiness. If advertisers, marketers (and their shareholders) could bottle one thing, it would be stickiness.
Nothing is perhaps stickier than art, in this case, comics. There's that Seinfeld episode when an editor at the New Yorker tells Elaine Benes: ''cartoons are like gossamer and one doesn't dissect gossamer.'' Elaine replies: ''Well you don't have to dissect it. If you can just tell me why this is supposed to be funny.'' Stickiness isn't about dissection and it's not subjective; stickiness is the why. Local sticks. Here's why.
After years of not reading comics, I realize how insincere (and ignorant) I sound when I hear myself say, ''Local is the best comic book I've read in a long time (25 years to be exact).'' It's true and still … Local was suggested to me by my friend Justin Giampaoli on Twitter (@thirteenminutes) because I was enjoying Wood's work on Conan the BarbarianLocal and Conan are worlds apart, but they come from the same place. Both are stories about finding one's way in the world, the search for knowledge and the circuitous route one takes to gain experience.
At the same time I was reading Local I was starting to get these… feelings. I suppose it happens to every comic book reader, that, I dunno some sort of spider-like reflex, some sense that the capes aren't your crowd. I don't have an axe to grind against Marvel or DC or costumed heroes for that matter. As I read Local I began to realize that I was (sorry) home. I began reading comics during the black and white revolution of the mid-'80s. At the time I was more concerned with whatever young, mutant, martial art, anthropomorphic animal dribbled down the shelves of my local comic shop. A seminal experience to be sure; and even though many of those comics choke giveaway bins now, their otherness was a full-throated howl that comics could be different. So, I'm hard-wired for black and white art -- Ryan Kelly's Local work transcends the form, no, really -- and creator-owned work, I own that, that's not what makes Local stick, unless (maybe) you're me, in which case we should talk. Local tells a human story. It sticks because we are all locals and we are all in search of a place to call our own.

Local was first published by Oni Press in November of 2005 and was concluded in June of 2008. Writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly create a bildungsroman in a dozen acts in a dozen cities. The main player is Megan McKeenan, a young woman who serves as palimpsest and understudy for the reader. Megan's story is a series of false starts, do-overs and (re)inventions. Megan's story sticks because it is a human story; after all, that's why writers and artists keep coming up with coming-of-age stories, they are universal. As readers, we scrape away the name of the character and write our own names (our own lives) into their story. Local gives Wood a place to ask a very personal, emotional and above all human question: what does the word "home" mean? To go further, why does one call home this place and not that? Why does "home" stick?
In his notes to issue #1, Wood writes: ''Poor Megan McKeenan. Look for her to pop up in every issue of Local, sometimes as the lead, sometimes as just a background character.'' If this were a song, a piece of music, this twist (Wood's decision to make Megan step away from in her own story) turns Local from a three-chord kitsch into a masterwork of improvisation. Music plays an influential role in Local. Wood and Kelly include playlists at the end of each issue, soundtracks to the story and the creative process -- improvisations on a theme.
The first time that Megan steps back from her own story and allows a new character to take a solo occurs in Local #3, "Theories and Defenses." The story takes place in Richmond, Virginia where members of the band Theories and Defenses have returned after years of living abroad in Europe. The story begins with an ending, a newspaper clipping announcing the break-up of the band. Wood works within a very strict structure -- four interconnected "where are they now" stories about each band member  -- built around an interview with frontman Frank Locke to discuss creativity, commerce and conviction.
The idea of a palimpsest -- a manuscript that's been scraped away so it can be used again -- indicates a text that has been over-written and thus becomes layered. When Locke says the words "sound," "songs" or "record," it's not too much of a stretch to exchange "script," "art" and "comic book." Wood would be due fair share of criticism for being too on-the-nose, too self-referential, but art and creativity are universal like the search for one's place in the world. It's personal. Local #3 layers meaning on top of meaning; it's the flourless chocolate cake of comics, dense and intense.
Wood speaks through Locke when he tells the reporter: ''As artists, as any kind of creative person, you progress. You adapt. Your art grows up with you […] You have to want to develop your craft, right?'' An artist's work exists on a continuum. Each song, book or painting is a response to a previous call. It's a process, an on-going interview with oneself that the artist must answer as he continues to progress. Locke, unlike Megan, provides Wood with a voice that speaks from a place of experience. Locke has found his place. He has the confidence that Megan (like most twenty-somethings) lacks. Locke's presence in Local (in Megan's story) feels organic, he's a voice in the chorus that imparts advice without playing the role (so common in coming-of-age stories) of pedantic know-it-all smart-ass. Megan is without a sponsor, an advocate or a role model. Like Locke she's going to have to figure out for herself.

Elkin: I love to get sticky.
Local is, as you say Silva, ours. It is ours because, as it ''transcends the form'' it dwells fully into what makes us ''us'' -- and, by the way, if you be me for awhile, I'll be you. 
Quite a few years back, one of my best friends admonished my latest crop of poems by saying, ''When you start writing poetry about your inability to write poetry, you've not only entered into a weird self-loathing masturbatory state, but you also turn your reader off completely.'' Of course I was incensed by his uneducated inability to see through the work itself to the larger themes I felt so youthfully confident in exploring, but, as the years went by and I grew wiser, I saw that his criticism rang true for my poetry. The truth was that I was not a developed enough person to actually understand what I was undertaking, and I was certainly not a talented enough poet to convey the ''big idea about the self'' I thought I understood in my youthful turgidity.
With Local, Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly do not suffer from these handicaps.
I agree with you, Silva, that Local's 12 issues hang together as a particularly impressive exploration of the concept of home and how that concept helps define our ''I.'' I also agree that issue #3 stands out among all of them particularly as it focuses on the conception of ''I'' as a creative endeavor. It was virtually impossible for me to read issue #3 without seeing it as Brain Wood trying to understand the development of his ''I'', how it relates to place, how it relates to artistic expression, and how it relates to the larger social environment we all constantly find ourselves inhabiting.
But more to the point. Like you said, Wood chose the third issue of this series to step back from its main protagonist and present this ''voice of experience'' -- and it is no accident that this voice comes from someone named Locke with a background in ''Theories and Defenses.'' As you are by far the ''mind'' in our Cartesian Duality tag-team, Silva, I'd be interested to hear what you make of this particular bit of business.
Silva: Poetry, eh? Please, if you would, be so kind and knock up your next response in the form of a sonnet; Petrarchan if you please. You are correct; Locke is too metaphoric a name not to hold some sort of treasure and don't forget his first name, Frank. Oh yeah, the whole thing is loaded with symbolism, metaphor and enigmas. Before I try to pick Frank, Mr. Locke, apart; let me ask you about Megan. One of the components that makes Local so memorable (so sticky) is Megan's lack of likeability especially in the beginning. I find it curious that she has no real friends in this story, a couple of boyfriends, sure, and a colleague or two, otherwise, she is always untethered. Megan is in many ways singular -- a character design that is designed to grow, to change and a character, I would argue, that "grows on" the reader. Like an artist, she must adapt, must change and to her credit, she does. She sure can be a real shit (isn't that what one's twenties are for?). Wood sets out telling one story -- call it "teenage girl in trouble" -- and by issue #10 (certainly #11) he is writing for a different character altogether, haunted, yes, but more secure, more confident.
Megan is a risk taker. She makes poor choices. Her behavior in Chapter 5 ("The Last Lonely Days at the Oxford Theatre") and in Chapter 6 ("Megan and Gloria, Apartment 5A") are the actions of an arrogant, slightly privileged suburban white kid. Do these experiences speak to her universality as a character as well (are all suburban white kids like this?) or are her actions more a symptom of the age? I like that Wood does not make Megan an artist struggling with her craft. She works retail, she is in the service industry -- she's a kid who's allowed to be irresponsible and free, again untethered, responsible only for herself. Is this a good quality or only relatable?
So, how does that square with the artist, the enigmatic straight-shooter, Mr. Locke? Locke tells the interviewer he turned ''36 this past month.'' One can imagine the arrogance that Locke had in his 'hardcore' twenties when he and Theories and Defenses were at the height of their ''three chord 'crashing around' style.'' The piss and vinegar he (perhaps) was filled with has (it seems) sugared off to become assurance and confidence. Megan is still in the raw when Theories and Defenses return to Richmond. She's a fan, not immature, but unaware that she can write her own story should she choose to do so. I don't want to forget to mention Ryan Kelly. When Locke paints his masterpiece (little Dylan reference for you there) about how as creative people progress and so too should their art, Kelly silhouettes Locke's upper body from behind which provides a ubiquitous quality for all creative types (even comic book bloggers and critics?) that is sheer brilliance.
Locke is the Local spokesmen for having to grow up and put childish things aside, but where does that leave Kevin and Bridget? Do they represent two (other) paths that, in the long run, Megan can go down? In other words, is there still time to change the road she's on?
My favorite moment in Local #3 is Locke's final word. When asked about a reunion tour, Locke responds: ''Never.'' The look that Kelly achieves on Locke's face is poetic, a rare human emotion that combines swagger, pathos, irritation and credence. There is no bitterness there, only acceptance and understanding that the world moves on and one must move with it. Kelly delivers a devastating final image of Ross Gilman performing at Club Ipanema, a solo act, doing the only thing he can do: play on.
Okay, I think I'm noodling through the rhythm of this duet -- no long clapping on the one and the three. How does Locke's discussion about fan reaction fit into the overall maturity angle (as it pertains to the artist, I guess)? Are independent comics for a more mature audience? Do they offer readers a more "fair trade," to borrow a phrase, when it comes to (in this case) mature (get it?) subject matter? Play on.
Elkin: I guess it all depends on your definition of mature. Certainly there is more emotional and intellectual depth to Local than... say... anAvengers vs. X-Men comic. To appreciate Local to its full extent, the reader must use a different type of reading skills, a more active engagement with the text and the art. That's not to say that there is no value to something like AvX, it's just a different experience created with a different intention. Local lends itself to examinations of the self and our connection to place and how we develop through experience, much more than something like AvX.
Is this a more mature book then? Are independent comics designed for a mature reader? It becomes a question of semantics and what a particular reader is looking for in their entertainment. There are comics that are produced by mainstream corporate publishing houses that dwell on some rather large themes of individuality and human motivation, though those tend to be the exception rather than the rule. There are independent comics that are offer little more than a distraction from our day-to-day without being overly concerned with thematic resonance. It's all a question of intent. It does appear, though, that the opportunity for an artist to explore issues and ideas that are dear to them in a personal manner happens more frequently in the independent comic world, as opposed to the outputs of a corporate media conglomerate with its focus more on profit than artistic expression.
Along these lines and getting back to your question of how, in Local #3, Locke's discussion about fan reaction fits into the development of the artist -- in response to a question about the relationship between an audience and an artist, Wood has his character say ''Our obligation ends with the music. They can buy it or not. I've never asked for or expected anything more than that.'' I think that is a pretty clear theory and defense of how Wood understands that relationship. And with this there is enormous creative freedom and opportunity to grow, to mature, to change.
But it can't be done in a vacuum. Local would not be what it is were it not for the collaboration between Wood and Kelly. The fictional band Theories and Defenses would not have grown artistically had Bridget the bass player not started contributing songs and the whole band stayed together. Megan would not end up the person she becomes by the end of the series had it not been for all the experiences that she goes through in the previous eleven issues (which is really the point of Nancy's art exhibit in issue 11, ''The Younger Generation''). And it is in this thought that Local froths over onto the stove (metaphorically).
Silva: As we begin to bring our conversation home (ahem) we need to talk, indeed, about that particular beast itself. "Home" doesn't unpack well. It's a messy word charged with energy, emotion and memory. "Home" is pre-verbal, an abstraction and a sensation. Not to get all Freudian (talk about your stickiness) or ancient Greek (again sticky) up in here, but once Sigmund and Homer could "drop a pin" on a location (conceptual or real) what followed was a non-stop go of arrivals and departures. Home is defined (often) by what it is not. As Megan finds out, home is very much a spiritual place and maybe that's where Local is most at home -- not a location per se, rather, an idea.
By my count, Megan makes a home in ten places (Portland, OR; Minneapolis, MN; Richmond, VA; Missoula, MN; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Brooklyn, NY; Chicago, IL; Norman, OK; Toronto, Ontario and Burlington, VT). That's a lot of comings and goings. The clearest explanation for Megan's many changes of address is provided in Local #9 when Megan returns to her hometown, Norman, OK. Megan seems to have had the 'traveling bone' from a young age, always running away even if it was to the oak tree in her front yard. Her mother gives her a car when she's sixteen. While visiting Norman, OK, she tells her boyfriend ''… here I am twelve years later.'' When Local begins, Megan in 17, so she's either 28 or 29 (depending on her birthday) when she returns to Oklahoma. Wood never provides a clear explanation for Megan's restlessness. She tells her boyfriend that her mother didn't push her as much as empower her: ''She was removing obstacles that might be in my way. She wanted me to feel free. She trusted me.'' According to Megan, her mother was stuck in the endless loop of routine that many suburbanites call home. Megan goes on to say her mother was ''smart, educated, liberal, political …'' So, what happened? Is family and routine as soul crushing as all that? Wood and Kelly draw clear indications that Mr. McKeenan is an alcoholic, but much of Megan's parent's marriage is left outside the margins. Whatever happened to Megan's parents -- whatever routines ground them down -- Mrs. McKeenan was going to provide her daughter with another set of options, a freedom she claims to have lost. Mrs. And Mr. McKeenan are maybe the weakest part of this story. Wood provides explanations and still something is missing, something has been left unexplained on purpose. Perhaps, it is left unsaid because it is beyond Megan's knowledge; maybe she never sticks around long enough to find out?
This is (perhaps) the weakest of limbs to go out on, so here goes nothing: is there something about Megan's freedom (the choice to choose) that connects back to artistic and creative freedom (that Locke mentions) as it pertains to creator-owned work? I agree with you that (in general) independent comics require a reader to use a different set of muscles than most mainstream titles can claim (he says as he narrows his gaze towards the cape and cowl crowd). Semantics aside, is Megan's freedom a sort of clarion call on Wood's part to say: as creators we have options. No judgment only a reminder.
Quick anecdote: a couple of weeks ago I'm at my local comic shop and I overhear this conversation:

Customer: What do you mean independent?
Clerk: Not Marvel and not DC.
Customer: [pause] There are comics that are not made by Marvel or DC?
Clerk: Yep.
Customer: Is Wolverine in any of them?

Okay, I may have added that last line. My point should be clear. Independent comic book publishers don't have the same marketing or corporate clout as Marvel and DC. So what. Independent comics have Daniel Elkin and Keith Silva and the rest of the staff at Comics Bulletin and an infinite number of websites, blogs, podcasts, etc. All we need to do is to get the word out to remind people that they have options and freedoms that (maybe) their parents didn't have because they were stuck in an endless loop of corporate comic routines. Thoughts, Elkin?              
Elkin: I have so many thoughts, Silva, so, so, so many thoughts. But I will narrow and focus because I can. And I should. And, as my father used to remind me, "I didn't raise no coffee table."
Is Megan's freedom a clarion call by Wood to remind creators that they have options? Yes, but I think that is only a small slice of the larger cake he is serving here. I think Megan's freedom is also a reminder that we all have the option to become a better person, a different person, a person more engaged in the process of their own living. I think he is saying that we have the opportunity to try on different skins, different personalities, different points of view, and parade them in front of the public to gauge their effectiveness. 
But most importantly, I think he is saying that this whole process can ultimately only occur with the help of others, that we come home when we are comfortable with who we are and enjoy the company of our neighbors. We finish the process of maturation when we become a local, in the sense of characterized by place, in the sense of formed by our community.
I don't think that Marvel or DC would have allowed Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly to publish this sort of thing under their corporate logo. Unfortunately, these are not the sort of ideas they are geared to mass market because they don't trust that there is a large enough market for something like this.
And they are right. 
There isn't. 
Which is a commentary in and of itself. 
Who is really to blame for the fact that the major publishers of comic books in this country have no interest in publishing something as beautiful and poignant and meaningful as Local? Who is really to blame for the fact that independent comic book creators have to struggle and beg and plead to have their work seen by a large audience? Who is really to blame for the fact that we label a work of art like Local"independent" or "alternative"?
I guess it's us.
So where does that leave the creator? As Locke says about creating in Issue 3 of Local, ''This has been my life and I've no interest in doing anything else. But for most of that time, it's been about producing albums and bringing in money. Music for music's sake is something that interests me terribly right now.'' In the end, we create ourselves, we create our art, we create our community for the sake of creating something good. If that is all you expect, then you are ahead of the game. If you see the only purpose of creation is to be acceptable to the greatest number of people so you can maximize your earning potential, then you have failed. You are condemned to be a perpetual outsider and never a local.

Silva: Poignant and elegant, Elkin.
When Keith Richards was once asked where his ideas come from, he replied (I'm paraphrasing here) that they were all around and you only need to tune in on the right frequency to pick one up. I've been tuned to the Local frequency for some time now, especially in the last few days and when I watched the latest episode of Girls ("Leave Me Alone") last night, something was said that made my antennae spike.
Quick detour. Here's the scene synopsis from the HBO website for Girls: ''Jessa gets a surprise visit from Jeff's wife Katherine, who asks her to return to her babysitting job and confirm that she did, in fact, cut it off before anything happened with her husband.'' What killed me was what Katherine tells Jessa, ''I bet you get into these dramas all the time like with Jeff and me where you cause all this trouble and you have no idea why. In my opinion, you’re doing it to distract yourself from becoming the person you’re meant to be.'' Jessa asks, ''Which is who?'' Katherine answers, ''You tell me.''
Jessa is not alone. We all distract ourselves from who we are meant to be. Distraction makes for good drama, for a good story -- what is the Odyssey besides one long distraction? -- and yet at some point you find yourself at an empty table in an empty farmhouse in Vermont and you have to make a decision. The problem is is that this is only one decision of many and as for distractions, well, distractions are legion too. Wait until you get married Megan, or, begin to raise children. 
As I reread Local for this article I wrote down these three words: craft, authentic and present. The detail that Ryan Kelly brings to Localputs me into a state of wonder and innocence. I mean look at that image on the cover of Megan walking alongside the fence. Look at the detail in that fence and in the buildings in the background and the leaves. It's only one image … I mean, my God. The effort and the time that that required to reach such a degree of meticulousness says more about the importance of this story and the weight that it carries that well … it's the epitome of how a picture says a thousand words; and don't even get me started about the page of Polaroid pictures or the fact that all the faces (ALL the faces) in all the crowds look different and then there are the bricks … Ryan Kelly should be an honorary mason given all the bricks he draws over the course of this 12-issue series.
As a writer, Brian Wood understands human complexity on a quantum level … all of the characters in Local hold such contrary feelings within themselves and each wrestles with what to do and how long a final decision can be put off; sometimes indefinitely. The kind of emotional melee that Wood writes about in Local is tough to convey, tougher still is how to keep the narrative momentum on track and not allow it to derail into self-absorbed entropy. Local has plenty of starts and stops and it allows for a fair amount of navel-gazing, but it is also, violent, humorous, uncomfortable and unusual… a lot like life.       
To be present in a moment is to recognize a location, a place, a time -- a "you are here" moment. It's also an action that for all its stillness still presupposes a direction, a forward or backward momentum. When Megan stops and begins to understand her place, her locale, the first thing she does is to affix memory to that place. Memory locates place. Megan's memories allow her to understand her place, to erase distractions and truly understand the person she is meant to be. Memory is what makes Megan stick.
A local is someone who has been around, someone who's familiar to a place, a preposition, an ''of.'' In the end it is presence, Megan's and by extension ours that makes us locate, fasten, stick to a place (Vermont) or a profession (teacher) or ideal (creator-owned)  -- a thing that is larger than the self -- a destination where you only know you've arrived once you're there. That's the idea, Local is the place. 

Daniel Elkin's Playlist
Keith Silva's Playlist

For more Fair Trade Comics, check out our other features in this series:

Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words.  He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.  
Follow Keith on Twitter at @keithpmsilva or (for the more adventurous soul) read his blogInterested in Sophisticated Fun?

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