LOCAL Hero: Ryan Kelly

Released this 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 published last week a brief essay by Brian Wood detailing the book's origins, themes, and effects on his more recent work. We continue now with this second in a series of special features spotlighing "Local," an in-depth piece by Ryan Kelly detailing his visual approach to the story and its numerous real-life locations, as well as the challenges of depicting the main character, Megan, as she ages over the course of a decade.

By Ryan Kelly

Looking at "Local" now, in its entirety, it is startling to see the path of growth and development on my end. I'd prefer to call it "change," since it took two-and-a-half years to complete and it's inevitable that I'm going to change in that passage of time. That's what artists do! If artists don't change, they die! Just kidding, only a few die, most go on to sell balloon animals on street corners.

Brian Wood called me up in 2005, looking for an artist for this project. I didn't know if I was the final stop on his route or one of many in a long list of candidates. I had a feeling he was pretty good at what he does because all of his books were sitting there on my bookshelf. I don't recall reading them all but I reckoned he was one of ten or so writers I would very much like to work with. At the time, I felt it was worth a shot, but I didn't feel any intense urgency to lick this job as I was drawing some comics already and was just going about my usual routine.

Brian pointed me to "Demo" in order to inform me what Local would be like. Looking at Becky Cloonan's work served as the primer for working on "Local." I had already gained most of my skills working with Peter Gross. I started in his studio as an intern before becoming a collaborator and used his projects to build a bank of knowledge and experience. Peter taught me how to pull the camera way back. Becky's work showed me how to zoom the camera way in.

I did some samples and sketches and they were terrible. I was obviously trying too hard. I needed to be coached a little bit. I was still doing finishes on "Lucifer" at the time and I had primarily been drawing fantasy books, so I wasn't totally conditioned for an Oni book by Brian Wood. Even as I secured the job, I didn't feel as though I was ready. But I was ready to erase those doubts on the first panel. I intended to use "Local" to break open a new playing field for myself and not be too stuffy and conservative. I remember locking up all my pens in the cabinet, grabbing a single Kolinsky brush, and taking a deep breath before slapping down ink on that first panel of Megan. Okay, It didn't come out all that great, but I got a lot of the Bad out of my system.

The topic I get asked about the most is drawing all the locations in "Local." People want to know how I went about depicting each city so accurately, and I never have an enlightening answer. I don't think I do anything special that every other artist isn't already doing. In fact, I think the way I draw backgrounds and environments is fairly common practice and mundane. My only true advantage is I get to depict real store fronts, parks and streets with proper names, so there is no way of dismissing them as "background art." People have stories invested in these places and spaces, and even if you don't, you know that they feel familiar and somehow full of life. It was a real challenge and it wouldn't give me any breaks. In a regular comic story, I could just draw a Chicago-esque Metro station that needed only to represent "Chicagoness" in an abstract sense so readers will understand that it's not, y'know, Prague or something. But I felt it was my professional responsibility to depict a factual Metro station in Chicago like Belmont. I felt like I was cheating someone if I didn't do it right.

At first, I was really nervous about drawing popular hot spots behind the characters. I was afraid it would appear cheesy, strictly showing off, and plugging in the greatest hits of each city's tourist attractions. If we did that, I suppose there would be many scenes of Megan walking by the giant Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture in Minneapolis or standing in the middle of Times Square in New York. Brian did a fantastic job constructing the settings around the story rather than the other way around. And I'm glad we picked record stores, train stations and cafes that, in time, change as a result of development and progress. It sits well with the theme of change that is a current running through the entire series.

I approached the art with the same spirit Brian used in staging the scenes in real-life places. It was really important to me to design the "camera" shots first and then look for a photograph that fit that shot. Often times, I couldn't find a photograph of a building that worked with the vantage point I needed so I just drew it from scratch. But like a lot of comic artists, I occasionally plugged photos into my layouts. After blue-lining them onto the comic boards, I would do some refining in pencil before going right to ink. I worked hard to ink it in a way that no resemblance to a photograph would remain.

I don't want to do that "Photo Impressionism" that some artists are already doing with high-contrasted or line-traced background architecture. I only dropped in photos two or three times for each issue, except for "Local" #11, the Toronto issue, which I had a hard time figuring out. Like the Minneapolis issue, I was in the driver's seat for picking environments and I literally pored through hundreds of photos online trying to figure Toronto out. That steals a lot of my drawing time! We were privileged to get lots of help with custom shots of buildings and stuff from locals and I was incredibly thankful to get these photos of the women's bathroom in the Drake Hotel. Yes, the bathroom actually looks like that! And no, I didn't have to travel to Toronto and sneak in the women's bathroom to make it happen.

The other major artistic challenge in "Local' was depicting the main character Megan McKeenan, specifically her growth and physical aging. The game plan was to have approximately one year pass between each issue of "Local." So, although the books fell off schedule a bit, it seemed okay because it felt like catching up with that old high school friend you only see once a year. I didn't really plan her physical transition well in the beginning.

In "Local" #1, I drew her really grungy and her face is pretty rough and odd-looking. It worked okay because it was 1994, during the grunge period, but if I drew her prettier I might have gotten more phone calls for work. I started figuring out her look by "Local" #4, but by "Local" #5 I felt I had jumped too far ahead and made her look old, beaten-down from life, chain-smoking with lines under her eyes. When I got to "Local" #8, I realized that she's in her mid-20s, the prime of her life, and courting male suitors, so I needed to make her more lovely and glowing. But by "Local" #11, it was time to draw her as a mature woman, so I drew her with a stronger physical stature, longer features and a more fleshed out face. The trick was to begin to make her look like her mother. Making her age quickly, on schedule, over two years, was the real obstacle. I was always inspired by how Jaime Hernandez aged his characters Maggie and Hopey in "Love And Rockets." But adding the extra pounds onto Megan just didn't appear right. After awhile, it seemed like Megan was writing and creating herself.

Just as we all have our preconceived notion of what we think a city is like, we also have our stereotypes of every kind of individual. Not everyone liked Megan. Maybe it was the way she was written, or the way she was drawn, or both. But I believe if you stuck around with us, you got a great story about people and the places they live in.

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