They say you can't go home again, but Megan McKeenan will get a dozen tries at it in writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly's compelling comic-book series Local, a 12-issue anthology following its fiercely independent heroine through an itinerant life across 12 years and 12 cities, mostly avoiding the megalopolises in favor of mid-size cities like Richmond, Virginia; Burlington, Vermont; and Austin, Texas. Wood is also writing two other comics, the post-apocalyptic New York tale DMZ and the forthcoming cyberpunk thriller Supermarket; Kelly draws Lucifer for DC/Vertigo and teaches illustration and comic art at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. The series' first issue is set in Portland, Oregon, home of Local's publisher, Oni Press. The second issue, which came out last month, is set in Minneapolis in 1995, and features such local landmarks as The Wedge, Hum's Liquor, and now-defunct record store Oar Folkjokeopus. The A.V. Club talked with Wood and Kelly about Local; a shorter version of this interview appeared in the January 26 Twin Cities print edition. (Wood and Kelly have also set up a Local blog.)
The A.V. Club: How did you get the idea for Local?
Brian Wood: I had done one very similar a couple of years ago called Demo—similar meaning, very indie, black-and-white. The most notable aspect of both of those series is the publishing format—they're like short stories, they're one issue long, and even though it comes out every month, the stories begin and end in each issue. So each month when you get Local #2, it's an entirely different story, which really isn't how comics are done normally.
AVC: Demo also seems more science-fiction oriented than Local.
BW: It's definitely interpreted that way. I wouldn't say it's science-fiction so much, because there are some fantastical, super-natural elements to it. They're all coming-of-age stories. Everybody in the Demo stories, whether they're in their teens or in their late 20s, it's all focused on some point in their lives where something happens and they're at this point where they have to make a choice that's going to affect their lives strongly either way. And some of them do have pretty overt supernatural, almost like Twilight Zone-type things, and some don't. Local is a lot more grounded in reality. It still deals with moments in somebody's life about change. It's something that's always interested me.
AVC: How did you team up with Ryan Kelly for Local?
BW: I was aware of his work, but I'd never met him. He did this book called Giant Robot Warriors. I really love it. I wish more people knew about it, because it was a lot more brilliant than you would think just by looking at the cover. It's such a different kind of story than Local, [so] I wasn't really sure if he was the right guy, if his art would match Local. Oni [Press] and I had been going through this seven- or eight-month-long artist hunt, and one day I opened my eyes and saw Ryan's book on the shelf. So I e-mailed him.
Ryan Kelly: I'm not really a big name in comics. I do a lot of painting and fine art, and a lot of illustration, some comics. But we had both done work for the publisher AiT/Planet Lar—I did my first graphic novel, Giant Robot Warriors, with them, and he'd been their flagship creator for a couple of years. You know, I'm sure they had thought of a couple of artists before me who weren't quite right, or sometimes people are busy doing other projects. But Brian genuinely likes Giant Robot Warriors, and I don't come across many people who genuinely love it. Then I started doing some sample art, trying to figure out what kind of work I would do for Local, because while I was glad he liked Giant Robot Warriors, it was a robot action drama; the artwork wasn't really going to fit with a series about people and their real lives and real places, so I had to think for a month about what I was going to do with the series. Earn my job. [Laughs.]
BW: The more I work with him, the more I get to know him and become friends. I don't really have to explain a whole lot in these scripts. We're of a similar age and similar background, so when I reference things, he gets it, which isn't a common thing. My artist on Demo was, like, 22. And that's like a full generation removed from me, so young compared to me. So when I would make cultural references, she either wouldn't get it or she'd give me the 22-year-old version of that, so sometimes it was tricky. But Ryan is becoming a really great guy to work with.
AVC: What was it about Local that made you want to do it, Ryan?
RK: I really want to work with other writers, other creators, other publishers, more than trying to get jobs that pay money. [Laughs.] I'm still young, and kind of in a situation in my life where I'd like to be adventurous and try new things. It sounded like a really good opportunity to tell different stories. I've worked with a lot of fantasy, and this is the first time I've able to work on stories where the whole story is, like, two people talking in a diner.
AVC: Do you find that working on realistic stories is hard to come by in the comics field?
RK: I would say so, only because it's kind of a specialized, marginalized genre. I think comic-book readers want a lot of stuff for their money. They pay $3 and they want a lot of bang for the buck—you want stuff to happen in 24 pages. So it's tricky, because we're doing stuff about everyday life, but it's really character-driven, dialogue-driven, driven by mood and atmosphere and space and locale. There are action scenes, but it's not driven on action scenes. But I think I've been kind of trained well; you just have to have the patience for it, you have to sit down and draw 20 pages or so of, maybe, two characters having an argument in a restaurant or something like that. Those things could happen in Local; I mean, anything could happen.
AVC: Even though each issue of Local is a new story in a new town, there's still a connecting element in the presence of Megan, who we meet at age 17 in the first issue.
BW: That's the thing I did differently from Demo. Demo didn't have any characters that ever appeared more than once. In Local, I wanted to maintain that single-issue story format, but take it a step further. I decided I'm going to have this character that appears, whether she's a primary character or whether she's literally walking by in the background, in every one. So by the time we get to Local #8, if #8 is the first Local you're reading, it's not going to matter that Megan has been in seven others previously. You're still going to get a complete story, and you're not going to feel like you're missing anything. And it's good because comic-book readers are kind of trained to have stories that go from issue to issue to issue, so having this recurring character is almost like a bonus prize for the people that read all the issues in order. They're going to have this secondary storyline of this girl's life, of Megan's life, as she lives during the duration of these 12 stories.
AVC: She could change quite a bit over the 12 issues, given that you're also setting each story one year after the previous issue.
BW: I wanted to show her age. She starts off fairly young, she's like 17. And I really didn't want this series to be about teens or young people. I'm 34, so the older I get, the less qualified I feel to write young people. [Laughs.] So I'm like, okay, we'll have her age significantly, a year in each issue. That's a nice even way to do it. By the time it ends, she'll be 32, which is more or less my age. So it was probably more for me than for anybody else, actually. Ryan really, really thinks that that's cool. He apparently has all these secret plans of how he's going to physically age her. And I haven't seen any of that yet, so I'm curious about it too. I'm beginning to see it, because he has to do the covers of the books so far in advance of the actual stories. I can see her aging on the covers. It's going to be pretty cool.
RK: There was such an emphasis on location and place that at first I didn't really think about time. When we started, Brian didn't even talk about it that much, he just stated that we're going to have one character thread through the entire series and we needed to show that a lot of time has passed, to get an honest feel about how people change through time. I think it makes for a more interesting story to watch somebody change like that. And I think it doesn't feel like a big barrier for readers to jump onto the series because it's a stated, solid 12 issues—we know there's an end, so we don't have to feel like this goes on and on forever. I think our readers will appreciate seeing how time wears away at a character, because they don't get to see that with the iconic characters in most comics, like Superman, unless they create special projects or alternate universes where you can age Superman, beat him up, make him lose his powers, lose his girlfriend. In Local, the main character, Megan McKeenan, there's going to be some good things that happen to her during her life, and some really bad things. She's going to get older, and she's going to make mistakes and she's going to learn, and I think those things only happen when you have a long time and don't have to squish the stories in one year.
BW: Because this story takes place over 12 years, I didn't want it to run into the future, so we actually began in '95, so that when the series ends it will be current. And Ryan really loves that. I thought of it as an afterthought—we'll make sure the cars are appropriate, and stuff like that. I didn't put a lot of thought into it, but he's going nuts. I guess he got busted in Local #2 because he put records in the store windows that weren't out in 1996. [Low's The Great Destroyer, released in 2005, is featured in the shop window where Megan works.] But he's really making an effort to set it in the right year. That's why the record store has its old name [Oar Folkjokeopus], not Treehouse.
RK: The thing is, I knew [about the anachronism], but when you're trying to get the book done on time… You think maybe no one will really care or notice too much. I had to draw something there, you know. [Laughs.] I like that people did notice. It shows that people are really paying attention.
AVC: How solidly do you have planned what's going to happen to Megan? Do you think about it just on an issue-by-issue basis, or is there an overall plot you have worked out?
BW: I have these really broad strokes planned out. I sat down and said "Okay, so during the series she's going to age like 12 years—what's going to happen to her?" The first issue basically has her running away from home—leaving her home town, and you get the idea that she's not necessarily getting along very well with her parents, that they're out of the picture in some way. She gets this independence and for a couple of issues lives recklessly with it, and then something really, really bad happens and then she withdraws. And then the rest of the series is sort of her dealing with that and reconnecting with her parents and her family. That's her story arc in very broad strokes. The stories themselves pick up on her every year. I have this notebook that's full of ideas that I've accumulated over the years, and literally, what I do every time it's time to write a script or come up with the idea for the story, I just thumb through this notebook and assemble a story. It's a bit like flying by the seat of my pants. And I like to work that way on this book, because so much interesting stuff happens when I'm piecing stories together. I like to be able to change things on the fly. I keep everything very, very loose up until the last minute.
AVC: Since it's on a smaller press, you must have more freedom to do that with Local than some of your other projects like DMZ, which is for one of the majors, DC.
BW: A good way to compare it to DMZ is that at DC Vertigo, they plan everything so carefully, so far in advance. Just before Christmas, they were asking me, "what is going to happen in this book in August?" [Laughs.] You know, it's Christmas time! I'm like, what if I want to change my mind? But they really lock it in, because they write all this ad copy in advance. It's like a counter-balance. It's really nice knowing I have this freedom to change things at the last minute.
AVC: How did you choose the 12 cities?
BW: Kind of stereotyping. [Laughs.] I sat down and said, "Okay, I always write about New York because I live there and it's cool and it's interesting. So I'm going to make these smaller places that I wouldn't ever think to write about." But at the same time I wanted to make sure they were places I already had readers, and there were comic shops that stocked my books. I wanted to make sure there were locals reading Local. Basically, we're talking about college towns. So I said "Okay, there's Portland, Oregon." That's where Oni Press is. It's a huge comic-book town, there's so many comic-book writers and artists living there, there's like five stores that I know carry my books, so that's easy. And then Minneapolis is where Ryan lives, so that was easy as well. Also, these are all places where I have friends or have visited at least once. One of the random-seeming places, Missoula, Montana—I've been there and I like it, but there's a truly excellent comic-book store there called Muse, and I'm friends with them, so I'd like have to set one there. There will be Madison; Austin, Texas; Burlington, Vermont—which is where I'm from—possibly someplace outside of Boston. I'm actually breaking my own no-big-cities rule and setting one in Brooklyn, because that's where I live now. And then there's a list of, like, 12 other places I haven't locked down yet for the last part of the series. I'm doing at least one in Canada in Halifax, and I might do one in Toronto. … It's possibly rather implausible that any human being would travel and live in 12 cities in 12 years, but I knew people that did stuff like that. They're just very aimless, and just were always moving somewhere. So hopefully it's not too implausible.
AVC: It's an interesting irony that since Megan will be moving around in each issue, she's constantly going to be a visitor in each town—she'll never actually be a local.
BW: I do have some plans toward the end—I know how it's going to end, and there is something involving her parents and a house that will sort of lock her in to a place she has a lot more identity with. But you're right, for the most part she's kind of a tourist for the entire series.
AVC: What have you two done to pick up on the local flavor of the towns?
BW: It's been a lot more work than I thought. What I was doing during Demo, I got lots of e-mails from readers,and I keep them all. And when I began Local, I sent a mass e-mail out to everyone, like "Hey, I'm doing this project. Write me back and tell me where you live and if you'd be willing to help." So I have people in all these towns that take photos and mail me copies of the free weekly newspapers in their town, so I can get a general sense. But the other thing I'm being very careful about—I don't want to write a story that's so specific to any given town that it's not going to make sense to somebody who doesn't live there. I could write a story set in Brooklyn that anybody who didn't live in Brooklyn would hate. So I had to make these very universal stories. But also make sure I had enough in there for the locals that read it: "Oh cool, it's that place and that place, that drawing looks just like that street." I generally have the idea of the story first and then I figure out ways to connect it to the town, whether it's through a landmark record store or café. We make sure we get the architecture right and the foliage right. And some of [the stories] are more closely linked to the town than others. Like the Richmond, Virginia, issue is very, very Richmond. I think there's five scenes in the book and they all take place in these establishments Ryan labored to replicate. We had hundreds of reference photos for that. But then the Missoula, Montana, one just takes place in a diner, which could really be a diner anywhere. I'm kind of cheating Montana a bit there, by not giving them a lot of references.
AVC: Ryan, since you live in Minneapolis, what was it like working on Local #2, which is set there?
RK: It was a little bit more personal. It was really the first time I've been able to do an illustrated story about a place I've lived my entire 29 years. Brian didn't recruit anyone to send me visual research; I just said "I'll take care of everything."
BW: That was great, because I didn't have to do anything. I just wrote this very generic script and he filled in the gaps. I'm "Megan goes to work," and I just let Ryan figure out what her job was and where. That was like a vacation. [Laughs.]
AVC: Everything takes place within about a two-block radius on Lyndale Avenue.
BW: Yeah, which actually I didn't really plan. I think in my script I had her getting on a bus to go to work or something, but he just chose to have her live right down the street.
AVC: It's exactly the neighborhood that someone like her would have lived in back in '95.
BW: That's the stereotyping in action. [Laughs.]
RK: I took the script—and that script is pretty loose, it's not like a Marvel or DC script where all the caption descriptions and the panel descriptions are labeled very literally. Brian would have a general page description, such as "Megan walks out of a grocery store or maybe a café or a record store, or whatever you wanna do, and she turns left to a bus stop. If there's no bus stop there, put something there." He wasn't familiar with Minneapolis at all, so I had the control of that part of the story. And I decided to have it take place on Lyndale Avenue because it had a scenic position in Minneapolis, visually and aesthetically. You can see the church and downtown, there were businesses that she could pass by, record stores that she could work at, she could live above a liquor store with an interesting-looking sign, the grocery store across the street. What I was really looking for was something convenient and right in the city. Brian wants that too. He will give me a loose description of what he's looking for, and I usually just follow his lead. This was the first issue where I took more control—this is the only issue where I'm going to be in that much control! [Laughs.] Usually, Brian will have it set up for me, but I lived near that area, in the Stevens Square area, for a long time. I wanted it to feel like we were walking up and down the street.
BW: Demo was a real hit, I think, because the reader was able to make an emotional connection to the story, and I think that's true of Local. Setting it in a real place means that anybody reading it, even if they've never been to Minneapolis, knows that that record store is a real store, it's not a generic store. I think that helps a reader immerse himself into the story. I don't think a lot of comics actually strive to create that kind of bond with the reader. Certainly not all of my comics do.
AVC: In the first issue you write, "Life operates very differently when you get outside the major population centers." Could you expand on that?
BW:I grew up in a really small, small town in Vermont, and I go back there all the time. My sister, who lives there, is a couple of years older than me and has never lived more than a mile beyond the house she was born in. So it's always strange when I come back and see her. Obviously I know her really, really well, but her life is completely different from mine in almost every way. I was living in San Francisco for a while, and she had no sense of what that was like.
AVC: Do you see something of yourself in the character of Megan?
BW: In certain ways. I never lived the way she did. I think where I put myself in her is going to be in her overall story of taking off and being on her own and then feeling that pull to reconnect with family and location, which I'll eventually get to in the story. That's kind of where I'm at. If you asked me even six years ago, I'd be like, "I'm never, ever going to leave New York, it's the coolest place in the world, everything else sucks!" But you get a little older, and you know—I've actually been seriously thinking about moving back to Vermont. As you're kind of growing up, what you want out of life kind of changes. In many cases, in mine and friends of mine, it tends to be a reversion back to where they came from. So that's where I think I'm going to have the most in common with Megan. Right now, in the early part [of the series], she's definitely living a life I didn't live, running all over the country and everything.