Local: Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly Hit The Road


Written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Ryan Kelly
Oni Press

Local started out as a collection of twelve done-in-one short stories, each set in a different North American city, and featuring a young woman named Megan McKeenan. It was planned to come out once a month for a year, but wound up taking over two years to complete. In the course of the run it changed into interconnected stories (although most of them are still fairly self-contained, with the exception of the final story), some featuring Megan only indirectly. As a result it became a much deeper character study than the original plan would have allowed: we see Megan get another year older with each installment, literally growing up before our eyes.

Brian K. Vaughan called the series “the sharpest slices of life the medium has ever seen.” I completely agree, and in fact I’d call these stories some of the sharpest slices of life I’ve seen in any medium. “Slice of life” often implies a couple of things: autobiography, and “real life” as in normal, everyday life. Wood and Kelly frequently avoid both of those expectations. Autobiography is only present in an obvious way in a few of the location choices. And there are several situations Megan finds herself in which are (hopefully!) not normally part of everyday life. All of the characters are sharply drawn nevertheless, even the ones we only see for a short time.

In the back essays both creators talk about varying reader responses to the chapters while it was being published as individual issues. Readers sometimes loved or hated an issue, while others had the opposite response. In the first essay Brian Wood describes it as “a series of short stories about people and the places they live in.” But he also says “Poor Megan McKeenan. Look for her to pop up in every issue of Local, sometimes as the lead, sometimes just as a background character.” So by the time they got underway Megan and the locations were both part of the plan.

Chapter 1: “Ten Thousand Thoughts Per Second” Portland, Oregon

We meet young Megan (age 17, according to Brian Wood’s essay on this issue) in a bind. She’s sitting in her car in the rain while her boyfriend forges a prescription; her job is to go into the pharmacy, be convincing about the prescription, and pay for the drugs. At first it looks like she’s doing it, but it turns out that she’s rehearsing possible outcomes in her imagination. It’s a bit confusing at first, and an early sign that the storytelling may not always be straightforward. In the end she abandons her car and her loser boyfriend (Ryan Kelly’s comment: “Favorite part of Local #1: The fact that the boyfriend isn’t even worth having a name.”)

At this point we have no idea why Megan is on the road (or even whether Portland is her home town), although the back story does get filled in later in the series. I thought it was an intriguing start, and I liked Megan in it. She’s clearly young and finding her way, but she’s strong enough to make a hard decision the right way.

Megan gets a shock from her "Polaroid Boyfriend"

Megan gets a shock from her “Polaroid Boyfriend”

Chapter 2: “Polaroid Boyfriend” Minneapolis, Minnesota

Pretty long way from Portland, and no indication of why Megan wound up here. This is an odd interlude. Megan has struck up a kind of relationship with a young male stalker who breaks into her apartment and leaves Polaroid photos of himself; she responds by leaving a Polaroid of herself (the guy really reminds me of Paul Pope, visually, but that’s likely just an odd coincidence). A coworker convinces her she’s crazy for taking such a risk with a stranger, so she changes her locks and breaks off contact. In the end she invites the guy in and introduces herself.

So what’s the point? She’s lonely, and is trying to learn to trust, I guess. It doesn’t look much healthier than the relationship she ran away from in Portland, on the face of it, and it’s a bit of a non sequitur after the first chapter.

Issue 3 Cover Image

Issue 3 Cover Image

Chapter 3: “Theories And Defenses” Richmond, Virginia

Other side of the country, just about due east from Minneapolis. This is the first chapter where Megan is a bit player. The focus is on the members of a famous Richmond band named Theories And Defenses. They have just broken up, and have all returned home after living in Europe for several years. As a musician who has played in bands, I really enjoyed this story, and didn’t mind Megan’s small role in it. I’ve never been as successful as this band, but the band’s personality dynamics ring absolutely true.

Chapter 4: “Two Brothers” Missoula, Montana

Megan’s path takes her back West. This was a violent, shocking episode, as Megan finds herself in the middle of a bitter disagreement between two brothers. She is almost as much of a bit player as she was in the previous issue, but the emotional scars from it will be obvious in the next chapter.

This is another example of the sometimes overwrought emotionalism in the series (I would say the same of the first chapter). It’s very powerfully done: the characters and their conflict seem real, even though we’ve just met them. But it’s still an unlikely event (thankfully), and on the second reading I found myself feeling like it was just there to put Megan through another emotional wringer. A bit melodramatic for me.

Chapter 5: “The Last Lonely Days at the Oxford Theatre” Halifax, Nova Scotia

Way North and East of the previous chapter. Since there’s never any explanation of why Megan is living in the chapter’s city, I suppose the lack of obvious pattern just shows how wayward she is. After the events of the previous chapter, Megan is having trouble even occupying her own skin. She’s working in a movie theater, and she literally puts on a different name tag every day. She’s desperately lonely, but she keeps burning through identities as she tries to avoid any consequences to her actions. When someone she met confronts her about it, she leaves town. This time we see her farewell note.

I try to cut Megan some slack, but this is clearly emotionally disturbed behavior. She really needs post-traumatic stress disorder counseling at this point.

The job at the Oxford Theatre starts to get complicated

The job at the Oxford Theatre starts to get complicated

Chapter 6: “Megan and Gloria, Apartment 5A” Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York

Due South this time. Megan gets a roommate who has her own emotional issues: she’s really obsessive about just about everything in her life, and she rebuffs Megan’s attempts to make friends. Megan does seriously attempt contact, which is a big improvement over her state in the last chapter. But she can’t resist talking trash about Gloria’s habits, which finally completely sours the relationship. Megan moves on, but this time she leaves a sincere apology for Gloria and vows not to self-destruct again in the next town.

Chapter 7: “Hazardous Youth” Tempe, Arizona

A character study of Megan’s wayward cousin Nicky, a classic skate punk. She appears in the form of postcards and letters, the first sign we’ve seen that she maintains any family contact. The postcard he reads at the beginning is from Minneapolis, which places it during the Chapter 2 year. Then there’s one from Montana (Chapter 4). These are the only signs that time is passing at first, although looking at it again I see that Nicky does visibly age during the chapter. The final postcard in the last panel is from New York, taking us up to the previous chapter.

Nicky is “troubled,” as they say. Over the course of the chapter we see him engage in one risky behavior after another. He doesn’t seem to be learning much from his experiences. Maybe the implication is that Megan’s life would have been like that if she had stayed in one place?

Chapter 8: “Food As Substitute” Wicker Park, Chicago, Illinois

A bit West this time, to another big city. This one is mainly set in a restaurant, giving us a behind the scene look. The main focus is on Meagan’s attempt to have a real romantic relationship. She’s dating a cook where she works, and looks happy. Their living arrangements are pretty shoddy, though, and she is drawn to an older, apparently well to do man. In the end she follows her heart back to her boyfriend. The chapter ends in a connection rather than a departure. The first time it seems that Megan could be putting down roots.

Chapter 9: “Wish You Were Here” Norman, Oklahoma

Only a visit, not another new city. Megan hears that her mother has died. But instead of a trip to the funeral, she and her boyfriend (I think still the one from Chicago, although he looks a bit different) go to Norman. It was an important place to her parents: they first met there in college. Over the course of the story we finally get a look at Megan’s early family life, which explains her wandering ways. Kelly takes care to use a contrasting drawing technique for the flashbacks, so they’re always clear, even in black and white.

Megan's childhood memories

Megan’s childhood memories

Chapter 10: “Bar Crawl” Austin, Texas

This chapter is presumably taking place on the same day that Megan heard the news about her mother’s death, but it’s from her brother Matthew’s perspective. His response is to go on a drunken bender, which is interspersed with memories of growing up. His father is a charter member of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, clearly raising the boy in opposition to his wife’s wishes. Matthew feels that his father was the only one in his corner, and becomes especially antagonistic towards his mother and sister when his father dies. Matthew nevertheless tries to call Megan during the course of the day, but she no longer lives at the last Chicago address he knows. His day ends with him blind drunk, being comforted by a stranger.

Pretty dysfunctional picture of Megan’s family. It’s not hard to see why she would want to run away, even though that caused its own problems.

Chapters 9 & 10 certainly are bookends, showing very different reactions to their mother’s death. I was mainly struck by how much it reveals about the siblings. But it may be that Matthew has a more complete view of the family dynamics. Meagan spent so much time away that it makes sense for her to have more selective memories. And from Matthews’s perspective he was mistreated by both parents, which Meagan seemed to have completely missed, so wrapped up in her own drama.

Chapter 11: “The Younger Generation” Toronto, Ontario

As usual there is no indication of why Megan wound up back in Canada, but in another big city. She’s apparently living a happy, successful live working for a publisher. She’s got a cubicle with a name tag and everything. The main focus here is on a young receptionist named Nancy, who is some kind of kleptomaniac/hoarder. At first it’s hard to see how this will relate to Megan’s story. But when she invites Megan to her senior art show, Megan finds the entire collection of found objects on display are the trophies she has kept from her travels, which Nancy stole when attending a party at her place. When confronted Nancy apologizes, confessing that she had no idea what to do for her show, and was struck by the stories the objects must have told. Megan responds that they’re her life stories, but the trophies don’t matter anymore.

Megan finally looks like a mature person comfortable in her identity here. The party she threw shows that she has established social connections, and her response to Nancy shows that she’s let go of the past.

Local #12 Cover

Local #12 Cover

Chapter 12: “The House That Megan Built” Vermont, U.S.A.

We finally find out what the key she’s been wearing means, as she claims a house in Vermont, presumably inherited from her mother. Interesting that there’s no city given in the chapter title (the Realtor’s office she visits is in Burlington, Vermont, so it must be in that general vicinity). It’s a big house in the country which has fallen into disrepair during the years of abandonment. As Megan begins cleaning up the mess she confronts her ghosts, her family and all of the people she left behind in her travels. She sees them and talks to them, which was a bit confusing at first, until she starts seeing literal ghosts, like the two brothers from the diner (complete with fresh gunshot wounds).

It’s fitting that her mother is the last visitor. They talk about the freedom her mother gave her, and why. Having chosen to move around for years, Megan now chooses to settle down. Interesting that her ultimate home is in the country after all her restless motion from city to city.

Most of this material was originally written for a discussion I led at the Captain Comics website, which can still be read here.

About marksullivan5

Freelance Journalist & Musician; Senior Contributor, All About Jazz.com; writing on comics at mrvertigocomics.com & No Flying, No Tights.com
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