10.06.2008

Conversations With Kat

Welcome to a new recurring feature called “Conversations With Kat.” My coworker Kathlene has been reading comics for about a year now. In our casual conversations, I’ve been impressed with the unique perspective she brings to the medium, largely due to having a more formal art background. I thought it would be interesting to capture these conversations when we find a book that speaks to both of us. Local, with its hardcover collection released very recently from Oni Press, is a great example to start with. Enjoy!

JG: Kathlene, what are your overall impressions of Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s Local? Where does it rank against other books you’ve read?

KG: Would I be overstating if I said I loved it? I have all 12 of the single issues and each one was such a unique experience. Whether Brian Wood's writing or Ryan Kelly's art, I just couldn't wait to get to the next one. The writing is excellent; I think everyone can see themselves in Megan and her experiences. I personally identified with her character and by the final issue I wanted to know how she had figured it all out – don't we all want someone to tell us what the great mystery of getting through life is? And Ryan Kelly – that’s just some genius art. My favorite covers are #8 (Food As Substitute) and #10 (Bar Crawl). Kelly has a sketchy style that is very appealing to me. He captured Megan's moods and demeanor so well – you really feel what she’s going through. Local is by far one of the best books I’ve read, up there with Brian K. Vaughan’s The Escapists and everything I’ve read by Paul Pope.

JG: It’s not overstating, I love it too! It’s interesting that you mention “everyone can seem themselves in Megan.” In one of my reviews, I wrote something similar and essentially stated that “we are all Megan” at some point in our lives. You think she’s a sympathetic character then? Some fans hated her and even called her a bitch.

KG: I’d read that too and was surprised – I absolutely find her to be a sympathetic character. I wouldn't say she’s a bitch. She certainly didn't always make the right choices and sometimes did some less than honorable things… but seriously, who hasn't? That’s part of what I found so appealing, putting myself in her shoes and going yeah, I remember what that felt like.

JG: I never fully comprehended the bitch label either. Taking a step back, I think Brian Wood is one of the greatest writers of our generation and he understands that some of the greatest character arcs incorporate a moment of satori. For me, that was issue #6 (Megan and Gloria, Apartment 5A), which I think really captures the essence of the entire series. Megan’s actions swell up to this moment of crisis and sudden enlightenment where she recognizes a pattern in herself and wants to change. Sure, some of her actions are uncomfortable and downright ugly, but her quest to be different and grow is a noble one. To me, bitches are bitches if their actions are intentionally manipulative and malicious – and I don’t think that describes her accurately. You mentioned Ryan Kelly’s art; be more specific about the appeal. What do you look for from an artist?

KG: Kelly reminds me a bit of Paul Pope – a sketchy style and an incredible talent for capturing mood and place. As I mentioned, Bar Crawl was one of my favorite covers – I can just feel the charcoal pencil in Kelly's hand (my favorite medium to work in). It was a lot darker than the others – both in style and composition. The figure on the front is shrouded in shadow so you can't really make out his face (Megan's brother). You can pretty much tell that this isn't going to be a happy, go-lucky story. What do I look for in an artist? I guess I tend to be drawn more toward a realistic style than something overly cartoony. I love to see the artist's hand in their work, to feel their process. I remember reading in one of Kelly's essays that he had used all sorts of different things to get the look he was after, I think he even said he used a stick at one point. I love that notion of just being so wrapped up in your work that you throw everything into it – all of your heart, your spontaneity – you just end up with brilliance. Do you think that the original premise for Local, it being a story more about place than a particular character, really matters? For me, it got to be very inconsequential. I appreciated the hard work that went into researching specific cities and depicting them in such detail, but I never felt that Megan had a home, so she wasn't vested in any of those places. I didn't feel like they had shaped her character in a significant way. What's your take?

JG: Let me first just say that I agree with you on Ryan Kelly. I’ve always maintained that he was this brilliant mix of Paul Pope and an artist named Farel Dalrymple, who did a couple books I like quite a bit – Pop Gun War and Omega: The Unknown. To answer your question, I think it depends largely on what the authorial intent was. When Local began, I get the impression that the creative team may have originally intended for the cities to play more prominently, and Megan would actually be subtly in the background casually linking them together. Somewhere along the way, that may have shifted and those roles got reversed; Local became very much about Megan and the cities became contextual. I feel like that happened organically, the character started to beg for attention and “write herself” as the idiom goes. I think another important factor worth noting about the cities, which also seemed to happen organically, was that they became a mode of interaction between the creators and their audience. Local has one of the coolest letters pages in existence, with the short essays, musical inspiration, and pictures that readers would send in about their own “Locals” from all over the world. What did you make of that? The concept of Megan having a “home” is interesting. By the end she’s starting to settle emotionally, but my question is do you think home really exists, or what’s the definition of home to you? For me, I think home is more an emotional mental space based in nostalgia than an actual physical place capable of drawing out that emotion by your mere presence there.

KG: I really enjoyed reading other people's descriptions of their home towns. It made me think about my own and how I feel about it (Lemon Grove, CA). Local inspired the creation of a community, the collaboration between Wood and Kelly, the audience participation, the soundtrack(s) so to speak. I think everyone essentially has two homes: where you grew up and where you are now. A phrase that came to mind for me in reading #3 (Theories and Defenses) was that you can never go home – the home of your childhood doesn't exist anywhere but in your memory. That scene in Bridget's room, her youth frozen in time, where she’s trying to persuade Frank to get back together again, is a good example – you can't recapture the past. In revisiting some of the many places of my youth, I can definitely tell you which were homes to me and which weren't. My definition of home is a positive one, where you feel comfortable, loved, where your best memories come from. I think we spend a lot of our adult lives trying to recreate home or provide a sense of it for our families. Now that I’m bringing up Theories and Defenses, admittedly one of your favorites, tell me what you found so appealing. To me, this issue could have spun off a whole new storyline and been a series on its own since it was so far removed from any substantial interaction with Megan. The dialogue between Frank and the reporter intrigued me – the notion that you owe something to your hometown or that all you are comes from one place. How do you think your environment influences you?

JG: Theories and Defenses is definitely my favorite issue, but #11 (The Younger Generation) is a close second. Even though it doesn’t really focus on Megan at all, it hit me hard. First, it has a lived-in quality that really showcases the level of detail Brian Wood can put into a script. Though it’s obviously a fictitious band, it feels very realistic to me. It’s like I’ve heard their music. It’s like I’ve actually seen the VH1 Behind The Music special. There’s an air of authenticity to what’s laid bare on the page. I love the way that each of the band members deals with the psychological fallout of the break up differently. Frank wants to take a break, accountable to nobody but himself. Bridget wants to recapture the feeling of a time and place, but the tighter she tries to grip it, the quicker it runs through her fingers. The drummer, in it for a quick buck, comes off more manipulative and directionless. The bass player quietly goes back to playing small clubs for sheer love of the craft. The mere name, “Theories and Defenses” sounds incredibly cool to me! Second, when Frank is on the phone with the reporter, there’s a lot of subtext in that conversation. I feel like that’s actually Brian Wood talking to the audience. The message is that Frank is only accountable to himself. His only obligation is to create, to make music, or comics, or whatever – to keep putting it out there. It’s the idea that you should never create based on what you think the audience expects or wants, because the expected will never be innovative. If the work is genuine and part of an organic evolution, regardless of whether it deviates from a previous sound or style, then the audience will respond to your vision. If they like it, that’s great. If not, it shouldn’t change your need for self expression or the manner in which you choose to do it. I felt like this was Brian Wood’s “Creator Bill of Rights,” for lack of a better descriptor, and he was boldly proclaiming it, albeit through the cipher of Frank. The extent to which environmental influences play touches on the nature vs. nurture debate. Are you the person you are because of your DNA or because of your Local? I think it’s both. I think everyone has certain inborn qualities that are genetic, that form the basis of who you are. Your initial environment then plays a large role in shaping your personality, your temperament, the lense through which you view the world. Psychologists say that your basic personality traits are hardwired into your brain by age 13 or 14. But then you actually start living your life; you begin to accumulate experiences that shape what’s already been established. It’s very easy for me to look back and see how the places I’ve lived, or even visited with any regularity, have made me into the person I am, whether it’s San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, North Carolina… all the way back to the place I was born in Northern California. If you convert this to a numerical formula, it’d be like the DNA comprises 50% of you, that initial setting and upbringing make another 30%, and the remaining 20% is slowly modified from your various travels, constantly evolving as you place yourself in new cities or jobs or circles of friends. The process becomes slower and more subtle over time because each new influence represents a smaller portion of the whole. I’m digressing here… In addition to art, music is a huge part of your life (you’ve even done a guest DJ gig on a local radio station!), so what did you think of Theories and Defenses, and to a larger extent, the inclusion of so much music in the Local essays?

KG: I think there’s significant tangible energy in Theories and Defenses that make it one of the strongest individual stories in the series. Wood captures each of the band members' personalities in those brief glimpses of their lives – you get a sense of how they interacted with each other and maybe even why they broke up. Frank has a definite need to move on and tell his own story, burned out and wanting to get back to the real reason why he became a musician; Bridget is lost without the group and has nowhere else to go (Frank alludes to "another man" in Bridget's life – is that the cause of the band's split?); Kevin is trying to hold on to the fame and fortune, still clinging to some elusive notion that he’s somebody important; and Ross, who’s probably the only one that will make it through the break up okay. It's obvious that his passion is music – the venue doesn't matter, the size of the audience doesn't matter, if no one recognizes him he’d probably consider that for the better. Kelly did a masterful job in bringing these characters to life; you feel Bridget's vulnerability, the determined look on Ross' face as he marches past the crowd on the sidewalk, or the portrayal of the grizzled drummer who looks like he just woke up from a weekend binge. I think Wood could turn this segment into an international Local – how the band started, who their musical influences were, how touring Europe affected them and what they were listening to on the road. It just seems like too much good material to pass up (Brian, I hope you’re reading this!). I don't think you can get through life without a soundtrack – at least that's how I get through it. Music is a refuge, it captures your mood, it identifies you in time and place. It’s the same way that a particular smell can spark a memory. Good or bad, music can immediately transport you back in time or free you from the cares of the day. I think the musical references help define Megan on her journey – it takes us wherever she is and defines her frame of mind. Being the music fan that I am, I want to go back to each issue and find those songs and add some of my own. Then I could go back and re-read each issue with the soundtrack in my head. It’s like a huge collective playlist – you listen to Megan's, which is being channeled by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, then add your own, and then even hear some contributions from others. Again, I think it created a sense of community, that we are all collaborators in some small fashion in this story.

JG: I love that idea of an interactive virtual community between creators and their audience; that seems like a good note to end on. That said, I’d now encourage everyone to become a part of that collaborative community by running out to pick up the new Local HC. It’s easily one of my favorite books, and in these tough economic times, it’s a steal for an oversized hardcover containing 384 pages, including all of the essays and color covers, for only $29.99. We’ll see you next time!

Kathlene Gusel earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Art History & Criticism from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and has been on the staff of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) for 11 years. When she isn't managing a network crisis, she’s chasing around her two young children and trying to catch up on a good read.

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