LOCAL Hero: Brian Wood

Released next week is the deluxe hardcover collection of "Local," the widely acclaimed Oni Press series by writer Brian Wood ("DMZ," "Demo") and illustrator Ryan Kelly ("Lucifer," "The New York Four"). Rigorously researched, "Local" is composed of twelve inter-connected stories that follow its star Megan as she travels from one North American city to the other, exploring each location's denizens and idiosyncracies with the same focus on human relationships and emotions as readers have come to expect from this creative team.

"Local" counts among its fans Warren Ellis and "Y: The Last Man" writer Brian K. Vaughan, who said the book depicts "the sharpest slices of life the medium has ever seen." Wood & Kelly's work has also earned praise from Variety and G4TV.

In anticipation of the "Local" hardcover's imminent release, CBR presents this first of a series of special features spotlighting the project, a brief essay by Brian Wood detailing the book's origins, themes, and "Local's" effects on his more recent work.

By Brian Wood

In late 2004, a few months after I wrapped up my series of done-in-one "superpower" stories collectively titled "Demo," I found myself considering what I swore to myself I wouldn't: another twelve-issue series. "Demo" was more than a little grueling, creatively and financially... essentially "starting over" each issue with a new cast of characters, a new setting, and an entirely new story and concept to get across. The book had yet to make my collaborator (Becky Cloonan) and I any money, and so the idea of doing it all over again seemed insane. But there I was.

Most of my work is about, in some way or another, personal identity. But the kernel of an idea that came to me with this new book was, what about identity as it pertains to where you are, not so much who you are? Does your location define you? "Does your hometown care?", the Superchunk lyric that kept repeating in my head, asked. Can a location carry a single-issue comics story? Can it carry twelve of them? The title of this series was a given: "Local."

I was living in San Francisco at the time, about as far removed from everything I knew from growing up in New England and New York. Truth be told -- and this is no secret -- I was incredibly homesick and thoroughly miserable. I was also developing my "DMZ" series at the same time, a book with more than a little connection to my adopted city and what it means to me. I felt like I owed Oni Press another book for a while now, and pitched them "Local." It was mostly just a collection of thoughts and ideas, no characters at all, and an extensive marketing strategy (just like I had done with "Demo"). To their considerable credit, they bought it immediately.

I needed an artist. To my embarrassment, Ryan Kelly did not occur to me at the time. In fact, it took me close to six months of searching before my eyes finally focused on the copy of "Giant Robot Warriors" that was sitting on my shelf, and connect that same guy to the Vertigo book "Lucifer," and find his email address (which was not easy, by the way, Ryan). To his considerable credit, Ryan bought into the concept, did a bunch of free samples, and signed on to this series that, at the time, had nothing but a very loose concept. He would, in very short order, produce work at such an incredibly high level of detail and polish that I would be looking to him for clues and cues as where to take the series.

I had found while writing "Demo" how crucial and rewarding it is to find a way, or ideally multiple ways, to connect a reader to the story. Personally. To give them emotional handholds to grab on to as they go. I stumbled across this by accident. I was writing "Demo" for myself and for Becky, and when those first few issues hit the shelves, I was stunned at not only how many readers were talking about it, relating to it, but also in the varied ways they were interpreting it. To further this experience, I broke from the "Demo" mold and wrote Megan McKeenan as a single character we would trace through the life of the series. Up to that point, she was a nameless tour guide of a character, a proxy for the reader. I found some appeal, personally, in making this character an elusive mystery, the girl on the other side of the coffee shop you would never know. But that was not the best use of Ryan's skills, and I was worried it was too sexist. I decided I wanted a character that was more than just a fantasy.

The other way to tie "Local" to the reader was the locations. I picked twelve cities and towns for the stories, both for aesthetic reasons and commercial (I wanted cities that has strong indie comic shops, so that the book would actually be found there). But as lovingly as Ryan and I depicted a coffee shop in Halifax, NS, what would it mean to the vast majority of people who have never been to that city, much less that coffee shop? The key was specificity and universality, both at once and neither getting in the way of the other. Ryan deserves most of the credit for this, although I think I did well in identifying what is appealing, in general, about certain locations, and finding specific ways to communicate that. So your coffee shop that could be half a world away... how you feel about that haunt of yours, that intangible feeling of familiarity, that has to be there in the story. Or it comes off flat.

In "Local" #1, set mostly in a pharmacy, is a good example. I don't think it's there anymore, but it was known to Portland locals (and also used in the film "Drugstore Cowboy," by the way). Everyone knows what a pharmacy is like. That hospital smell, waiting in line, trying not to make eye contact the other people, handing over your personal information to a stranger, the discomfort of it all, and the anxiety. That's a specific emotional response that people have in that situation, one that is shared by all of us, and by setting a story in such a location, it becomes a resource that we had to make Megan's ordeal mean something.

"Local" #2 was set in Ryan's home city of Minneapolis, and I wrote the script vague and featureless, letting him pick the neighborhoods, the businesses. "Local" #6 was set in my home neighborhood, and I was able to do the same, to write an extremely specific script that meant something to me personally. "Local" #3, set in Richmond, is full of emotional flashpoints -- Plan 9 records, our symbol for every record shop everywhere with the hipster clerks and the attitude; that cafe at the end, the same sort of cramped place where you saw your favorite band play; the bedroom your parents keep just as it was for you, and how it feels to see it as an adult... everyone can relate, and that story was one of the most location-specific stories in the series, and one of the best sellers and most commented on.

"Local" is for me the best book I've ever written and my personal favorite. It's also the book that's gotten me the most emails and letters from readers. I also received, and still do receive, letters from women who see themselves in the main character. This is the most flattering of all, and the most interesting to me as a writer. Why is that, why do all these "Megans" exist? Her character did originate from a few people I used to know when I was young, those people who drift around, sleeping on couches, always moving here or coming back from somewhere else, never finding what they need. It could be there are just a huge number of people like that, or it could be that this book, an exercise (originally) in exploring location and identity really did what Ryan and I hoped it would, and connect with readers in a profound way.

And yeah, I'm doing it again, again. A six-issue run of "Demo" is due from Vertigo soon, single-issue, stand-alone stories. I'm clearly addicted to the format, and to the challenge.

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