Reality is the New Fantasy

Spending hours essentially motionless, neck-deep in art supplies, trying to draw a believable rendition of Halifax, Nova Scotia, with an ear half-cocked to The Young and the Restless wafting in from the living room—this is when Ryan Kelly tends to get a moment of clarity. “You have to make yourself a little nutty to draw comics for a living,” he said recently, chatting over coffee at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Kelly’s not a superheroes-and-monsters type of guy, but rather one of the growing wave of comic creators who are wrestling the medium out of the spandex ghetto. His latest effort, produced with writer Brian Wood, is a twelve-issue monthly edition called Local. It’s getting a fair share of attention in the crowded indie-comics world: The five issues published so far by Oni Press have been tremendously well-received. The first sold out nationwide, and Minneapolis’ Big Brain Comics reported that they sold more copies of Local #2—which takes place in that city—than that month’s blockbuster crossover from DC Comics. This is akin to a Wes Anderson movie outdoing MI:3 at the box office.

Following twelve years in the restless life of a young woman, Megan, each issue is set in a different city, with a stand-alone story that chronicles her personal growth. Local, Kelly said, is intended to be completely accessible to any reader. “You don’t have to read the previous issues to get it. You can pick up any issue and the story starts on page one—it’s fulfilled; there’s closure at the end.”

Much of the praise for the comic centers on its artwork. “Kelly’s forte appears to be the ability to ground the shifting locales and rotating, aging characters in a consistent reality,” wrote Matthew Craig, a critic for the comics website Ninth Art. “His character designs are superb, from the Jagger-mouthed co-star of issue #2 to the freckles on the protagonist’s face.” Indeed, Kelly’s characters hit the sweet spot between realism and cartoony impressionism; the small exaggerations to their features serve to heighten emotional impact. Even more impressive are Kelly’s streetscapes and interiors. His linework in Local #2 makes the snow and sleet along Lyndale Avenue seem lyrical, and landmarks like Hum’s Liquors (above which Megan lives), the Wedge Co-op (where she shops), and Oarfolkjokeopus (her workplace, which is now Treehouse Records) are lushly rendered with evocative, flowing brushstrokes.

As the series was in development, Kelly lobbied Wood for a Twin Cities location, wanting “the excitement of seeing my home depicted in a comic.” Minneapolis won out over St. Paul because of suitability for the story and the strong comic-scene support there, but it was hardly a walkover: “St. Paul is much more visually appealing to the eye than Minneapolis,” Kelly said. “It’s been much better at preserving its architectural heritage and stately riverfront charm. I would have had more fun, as an artist, drawing St. Paul.” He would also love to do a comic set in the “banal and beautiful” Duluth, and even (although he wouldn’t want to live there) in “the cul-de-sacs of our sprawling suburbs.”

Despite the jokes about spending his days eating cereal and watching TV, Kelly’s penciling-and-inking life is hardly leisurely. The work piles up, he said, “and the only world you know is your little eight-foot-square studio space.” That’s when he starts likening his brain to a balky team of sled dogs who have to be goaded along to the finish line. When talk radio and the aforementioned Y&R fail to provide enough stimulation, he turns to the world outside: “My art gets worse if it’s just about what I read in the paper and what’s in my own weird imagination. It’s never reached its full potential until I go out to be around people and experience spaces or people or buildings.”

While studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Kelly had a goal to become “the next Michelangelo,” but comics has turned out to be a good niche for him. Even though some comics auteurs have made the jump to Hollywood—indie-comics titan Dan Clowes (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) and Frank Miller (Sin City) being two famous examples—collaborating with film-industry types doesn’t appeal to Kelly. “They only like stuff that’s tried and true and they know will make money. In comics,” he pointed out, “you can still take chances.”