Year of the Artist, Day 84: Jamie McKelvie, Part 1 – Phonogram #4, plus an added bonus!

by  in Comic News Comment

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jamie McKelvie, and the issue is Phonogram #4, which was published by Image and is cover dated January 2007. Plus, I decided to show a couple of scans from The Li’l Depressed Boy volume 0, which was also published by Image and came out in December 2011. Enjoy!

I first became aware of Jamie McKelvie on Phonogram, which is a superb comic. But he drew a few things before that, and in The Li’l Depressed Boy volume 0, S. Steven Struble gave us some McKelvie art from 2002. It’s only a two-page vignette, so I didn’t want to spend an entire day on it, but I figured it would be a good place to start so we can see how far McKelvie has come!

As far as I can tell, McKelvie was 21/22 when he drew this, and while it’s rough, you can see some of the things that he would greatly improve upon in later years. He uses strong, crisp lines, doesn’t over-hatch, and we can already see how good he is at facial expressions. LDB himself is not terribly expressive, but the girl he likes is nicely done. In the first panel, she has a coy smile as she talks to the boy, obviously flirting with him. McKelvie arches her eyebrows slightly in the second panel, which, combined with her smirk, makes it clear she and her friend are enjoying themselves. In the final panel, McKelvie captures the boredom of class quite well, as the kids all look rather grumpy to be there. These are just small indications of the way McKelvie would develop, but they’re pretty cool.

I own McKelvie’s graphic novel Long Hot Summer from 2005, but I’m going to skip ahead to Phonogram, because he does some more interesting things in that issue than in Long Hot Summer, which has a lot of talking in it. So in issue #4 of the mini-series, we see some very nice work by McKelvie, but also some things that didn’t work and, thankfully, he hasn’t really returned to. One thing he really liked to do throughout the book is get rid of holding lines:

I’ve edited this to exclude Kieron Gillen’s writing, because it’s deliberately turgid prose and it’s really hard to read (it’s in a fairly baroque font). But these posts are about art, so that’s all that’s necessary to show! McKelvie is showing a flashback of sorts, but that’s not really important. The reason he ditches the holding lines is because this doesn’t quite take place in the “present,” and that’s all you need to know. So in Panel 1, we get Britannia lying on a slab, with a trident next to her and a shield on top of her. The lack of holding lines makes her look almost a part of the rock itself, and McKelvie’s use of blacks make everthing more three-dimensional. In Panel 2, “the Queen” lounges on the throne, and she looks almost insubstantial. In the right foreground, the shadowy figure has a glint in his eye and the hint of fangs, which is probably the point given the fourth panel. McKelvie’s lack of holding lines in Panel 3 makes the shadows stand out even more, making the Tower even more eerie. Finally, Panel 4 once again shows a figure almost blending into the background, which help the black in the figure stand out even more. Given that it’s a “ghoul” feeding on the “open guts of man,” that’s deliberate. Note the character’s arched eyebrows and almost manic eye. It’s not the best example of McKelvie’s excellent work with faces, but it’s not bad.

Here’s an example of one thing McKelvie does so well, and that’s show people talking. As much as I’ve written about artists not doing action very well, a lot of artists don’t do human interaction well, or at least not as well as McKelvie, and this is a good early example of it. David and Beth are talking, and while Gillen’s dialogue works very well (Gillen is really good at dialogue), McKelvie’s body language is just as good. In Panel 1 of the first page, David is trying to explain things to Beth (and being condescending about it, as he often is), and McKelvie gives him a small furrow in between his eyebrows and that nice arched eyebrow. Beth turns away from him in Panel 2, folding her arms in contempt. I love Panel 4, in which Beth looks at David and dares him to say something cruel about her “waiting for Richey” (that would be Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preaches, who disappeared in 1995 and whom Beth wants to return), while David’s expression from Panel 3 to 4 changes very slightly – in Panel 3, he’s genuinely interested in what Beth is doing, so his mouth is open (yes, he’s speaking, but characters in comics often “speak” with their mouths closed) and his eyebrows are a bit above his eyes. In Panel 4, his mouth is smaller and harder set, while his eyebrows come down a bit in disapproval. This is a tremendous panel, and it shows how good McKelvie was even early in his career. Panels 5 and 6 are mirror images of each other, of course, as the two characters face off, and then Beth reaches for David, which leads us onto the second page. Again, I love how David looks slightly worried in Panel 8, even though he just told Beth she couldn’t do anything to him. Maybe he’s wrong? We see on the second page that he is indeed wrong, as Beth rips his skin away. Panel 3 is another great one, as McKelvie doesn’t change the mascara running down her face (I’ll get to that), but the slightly downturned mouth and the downward sloping eyebrows are enough to match up wonderfully with Gillen’s pithy dialogue. David’s terrified look is wonderful, too. In Panel 4, McKelvie does a nice job once again showing her contempt for David, as she doesn’t even look when she drops his skin.

Notice a few things about the way McKelvie shows these two. David has entered his memories, which is why the background is so hazy and ill-defined (I’ll get to that, too). That’s why Beth looks the way she does – she’s a memory, and so she’s trapped in a moment of waiting for Richey, hence the tear streaks of mascara. McKelvie does a marvelous job showing how the wind ruffles her hair and scarf – it’s not too obvious, but it’s indicative of the fact that she’s standing on an exposed platform. McKelvie uses grays and whites really well with regard to David – he’s wearing black, but McKelvie’s use of the gray and white gives his jacket a slick sheen that contrasts with the way David used to dress, back in the 1990s when he knew Beth. So Beth is still trapped in the past, while David believes that he’s moved on, and McKelvie hints at this by the way the two dress (the real Beth has truly moved on, standing in very stark contrast to David). It’s a good touch.

Here’s a good example of McKelvie doing something that doesn’t quite work as well. David, as I noted, is moving through a semi-mythic landscape, being led by Luke Haines of the Auteurs (and no, I didn’t know that when I read this, but Gillen helpfully provides notes in the back of the issue). So the landscape tends to be somewhat hazy, but it doesn’t have the effect that I think McKelvie was going for because the lack of holding lines make it a bit too ill-defined, and the impact is lost a bit. The shadows stand out quite well, but the smoke rising from – I guess – London is too light, so the blasted landscape doesn’t look as terrible as it probably should. I get that McKelvie was doing this to contrast between Haines and David in the foreground, but it doesn’t work. (I should point out that this panel looks better on the computer than the printed page – the shades are a bit starker, so some things stand out more.) This points out a couple of axioms about McKelvie’s art – he should keep the crisp lines, because it’s a better idea almost every time, and his art is better in color. Once he started working with colorists (often but not exclusively Matthew Wilson), his work really started to blossom. It’s not that the art on Phonogram: Rue Britannia is bad, it’s just that McKelvie’s thin, crisp style really works well in color, and in a panel like this, where the colorist could do some heavy lifting in the background to “make up” for McKelvie’s lack of holding lines, it probably would have been much better. But that’s just speculation! Luckily, McKelvie has been doing color work ever since this comic, so we can see those examples in the next few days!

So that’s some early McKelvie. Next: Well, that’s a good question. McKelvie in color, certainly. But will it still be wide-eyed Indie McKelvie, or will it be hard-edged Marvel McKelvie? Be here to find out! And be sure to stop by the archives while you’re thinking of things to do!