A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: McKelvie's "Suburban Glamour"

As Astrid would probably tell you, life can be painfully boring in the tiny, rural English town of Lanbern. There's just not much for a 16-going-on-17-year old girl to do besides go to school, listen to music, play in her band, hang out with her friend Dave, dream about what she wants to do with her life and generally find ways to pass/waste the time until she can escape - more often than not by getting into trouble.

But in "Suburban Glamour," the new full color, four-issue Image Comics miniseries by "Phonogram" co-creator Jamie McKelvie, Astrid's about to get into way more trouble than she's looking for when, after one house party, her vivid, frightening dreams come to life and she's visited by walking, talking imaginary friends from her childhood. Things get rapidly out of control from that point, and CBR News spoke with writer-artist Jamie McKelvie about just how weird things are going to get for indie comics' newest teen heroine.

"I've been describing it as Chynna Clugston's 'Blue Monday' meets Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth,'" Jamie McKelvie told CBR News. "Which is to say it's about a group of teenagers doing what teenagers do in a small suburban town, until another world starts encroaching on theirs."

"Suburban Glamour" takes place in the week leading up to Astrid's 17 th birthday, and there's nothing that compounds the threat of supernatural infiltration more than the threat of adulthood. "Astrid has dreams about what she wants to do with her life, mainly play in a band, but all the adults around her tell her she should be more realistic," McKelvie explained. "The thought of spending her life working in an office fills her with dread, and so she is both desperate for school to be over so she can get out of town, and terrified of school ending because she doesn't know what comes next."

Making things worse for poor Astrid is the fact that nobody else seems to see the things she does, not even her best friend and bandmate Dave -- although that may be because he's just too busy playing video games. "Dave is 17, and Astrid's best friend," McKelvie said. "The two of them spend most of their time together, and Dave plays drums in Astrid's band. He has similar feelings towards their hometown, but he's much better at putting on the joker mask and acting like everything is fine."

Astrid's guitarist, Chris, isn't much help, either, as he's usually chasing girls instead of going to band practice. Fortunately, things look up for Astrid when the mysterious, 30-something Aubrey Herrera moves to town from New York City and opens up a new shop, selling clothes, music and assorted youthful whatevers. "To the kids, this is the most exciting thing ever to happen in Lanbern," remarked McKelvie. "Aubrey claims to have moved to small town England for a change of pace. She's into rockabilly, dressing in vintage and retro '50s clothes, with half-sleeve tattoos and cats-eye glasses."

Indeed, fashion, music and accessories all play a role in the world of "Suburban Glamour." Like McKelvie's previous works, the indie hit "Phonogram" (with Kieron Gillen) and graphic novel "Long Hot Summer" (with Eric Stephenson), "Suburban Glamour" spotlights characters with whom readers are in a very real away already acquainted. Usually based on real people, McKelvie's illustrations are modern, stylish, and evoke in fans a sense of time, place and even memory, serving to endear his characters instantly to readers. "Basically," Jamie McKelvie said, in a discussion with CBR News about "Phonogram" last month, "while on one level I know I draw idealized versions of people (which comic artist doesn't?), I do feel that I draw people you could easily see in your everyday life. If you hang out with cool people."

Inevitably, comparisons will be made to McKelvie's and Gillen's successful urban fantasy "Phonogram," given the magic element of "Suburban Glamour" as well as its distinctly contemporary characters and graphic design-heavy sensibilities. However, McKelvie is prepared to defend his newest project as something markedly different from that previous success.

"For one, I think 'Suburban Glamour' is a lighter story," McKelvie explained. "'Phonogram' is rich with reference and philosophy, which is great but for some people it didn't make it an easy read. Which isn't to say I'd want 'Phonogram' to be an easier read, it needs to be what it is. 'SG' on the other hand contains a lot of metaphor for the troubles of teenage life, but you can take it on a much more straightforward level.

"Also, there are fewer caption boxes."

There are indeed fewer caption boxes in "Suburban Glamour" than in "Phonogram," and that's just one of the decisions McKelvie has made in his first excursion into the often treacherous world of comics scripting, which, he found, presents the Writer-Artist role with unique sets of challenges and advantages. "I've really enjoyed it, actually," McKelvie said. "Well, the initial creation of it - I find the typing up of panel breakdowns and all that quite tedious, but I have to do it so I can send it along to friends to have a read through and make comments. Otherwise it would make no sense to anyone but me.

"The big advantage is that drawing my own book serves as another draft of the script - if I can see better ways to do it as I'm drawing, I can make the changes without having to consult anyone else.

"Maybe one day, I'll write for someone else, but I think I'm an artist first and foremost, so I don't ever want to stop that."

"Suburban Glamour" marks another first for McKelvie. For the first interior, full-length time, McKelvie's high-style, high-contrast images will be enhanced by color, courtesy of artist Guy Major, whose coloring credits include "Blue Monday," "Action Comics," "Green Arrow" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"I'm really excited about [having Guy Major on the book]," McKelvie said. "He's a fantastic colorist who can change styles at the drop of a hat. He colored a short story I did a while back for an South By Southwest [Music Festival] comic, and at my birthday party this year he said he wanted to color 'SG,' so I couldn't be more thrilled about that."

Continuing in the "Phonogram" and "Long Hot Summer" tradition of producing genuinely entertaining indie comics that reflect the lives, attitudes and ideas of their authors and readers, Astrid's story in "Suburban Glamour" was created by Jamie McKelvie as a syntheses of his numerous literary fascinations as well as his own life.

"I think the core of the story comes from my own life as a teenager," McKelvie confessed. "I grew up in a tiny town where there was nothing to do except hang out and drink in the park. I really could not wait to leave, but at the same time I wanted to put off real life as long as possible. I had a career advisor tell me I should be a policeman or a social worker, and teachers tried to force me down certain routes in my education, and I felt totally trapped by the system I didn't feel held anything for me.

"As for the fantasy elements, well - three main elements influenced the creation of that side, when I first came up with the idea a few years ago. From comics, there was 'Skeleton Key' by Andi Watson and 'The Sandman' by Neil Gaiman. In television, there was 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' I loved the idea of a group of (relatively) normal teenagers (at least in the early seasons), trying to deal with their own lives as well as the fantastical. I wanted to do something similar, but ground it in the British teenage life.

"Later on, coming back to the 'Suburban Glamour' story after 'Phonogram,' something that made me shift my attitude to it a little was the [British teen drama] 'Skins.' It made me realize I was being too soft with the characters, making them too goody-goody in an effort to make them likable. I rewrote with an eye to making it much more true to how we actually were."

Anyone who's read Jamie McKelvie's comics knows that music is of singular importance in the writer-artist's work, perhaps even more so than any other comic books or fiction. "Suburban Glamour" is no different. "Right now I'm into a lot of the more electronic stuff, from Ladytron to MSTRKRFT to theSTART, although I've got back into the Murder City Devils, and am still listening to Gogol Bordello and Tiger Army a lot," McKelvie said.  "Also, still into the Canadian stuff like Metric, Broken Social Scene and Feist.

"I think the 'Suburban Glamour' covers are hugely influenced by the design aesthetic related to a lot of these bands. And of course, the clothing of the characters reflects the scene they are into." Additionally, the "Surburban Glamour" logo is inspired by the sleeve design of mash-up artist Mylo's dance album, "Destroy Rock & Roll."

As previously announced in CBR's extensive interview with McKelvie and writer Kieron Gillen, the artist-turned-writer will be returning to the music-is-magic world of "Phonogram" in the near feature, but McKelvie has also expressed an interest in experimenting in other genres, be they horror, superhero, crime, science fiction or even cute-talking-animal. "I'll try anything, really," McKelvie remarked. "If the story interests me enough I'll tackle any genre."

Besides "Phonogram 2," McKelvie has additional projects in various stages of progress. "I also have another series I am slowly working on developing, with a working title taken from a Ladytron song," McKelvie teased.   Hint: it's on the "Witching Hour" album. "There's also a graphic novel I've been asked to do with a writer-artist who's getting more and more of a name these days, but yeah, can't talk about it yet. Sorry!"

As for the future of "Suburban Glamour," the miniseries is designed to exist as a stand-alone graphic novel, although McKelvie isn't against expanding the surreal world of Astrid and Dave into its own little indie empire. "I guess this mini is kind of the 'origin story,' McKelvie said. "It stands well enough on its own but I have a lot of ideas for further stories, and I hope that I get the chance to do them."

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