The British are coming (again)

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: James Hunt on Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

For aspiring writers and artists in Britain, the idea that they could get their hands on comicdom's biggest and most thoroughly American icons might seem implausible – and yet, over the last decade, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie have managed to do just that, forging a creative partnership that resulted in mainstream comic book success beyond Britain's borders.

It's not the first time Brits have conquered US comics, of course. In the late 1980s, the American mainstream saw a raft of UK-based writers and artists making their mark in an industry which had, until then, been almost exclusively the preserve of domestic talent. Within a few years, the creators of the so-called British Invasion would produce some of the medium's definitive works – the likes of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

Although the UK's own comic book tradition is well-regarded, the larger and more lucrative US market would be foolish to avoid. The majority of British writers and artists follow the path laid down by the creators of the 1980s, honing their craft on Britain's long-running sci-fi anthology 2000 AD before moving to more profitable assignments at Marvel and DC.

But in recent years, certain British creators have proven that it's possible to conquer the US scene without needing to use domestic publications as a stepping stone.

Specifically, Kieron and McKelvie followed an atypical route to mainstream success, one that's arguably more accessible than the heavily structured and compartmented entry point represented by 2000AD. Gillen, a games journalist of some notoriety, and McKelvie, whose first published work as an artist was written by Buffy alumnus Amber Benson, grabbed the attention of the US comics industry with their six-issue creator-owned series Phonogram, which was published through Image in 2006.

Part-music journalism, part-occult fantasy – or, if you prefer, High Fidelity meets HellblazerPhonogram Vol. 1 (retroactively subtitled Rue Britannia) was championed by Image's current Executive Director and noted Anglophile, Eric Stephenson, who had previously collaborated with McKelvie on the graphic novel Long Hot Summer after the pair met at SDCC. Phonogram was a critical hit, and although sales on the series were modest, its specialised subject matter earned the pair a dedicated cult following.

Following the conclusion of Phonogram Vol. 1, McKelvie moved ahead with his own four-issue fantasy miniseries, Suburban Glamour, which he both wrote and drew. Meanwhile, Gillen's gaming credentials saw him drafted to write comics based on properties like Warhammer and Starcraft, even as he was also hard at work co-founding the PC gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun. In 2008, a personal recommendation from Warren Ellis helped earn Gillen his first work at Marvel: a low-key spin-off of an alternate universe series entitled Newuniversal: 1959.

By the end of 2008, Gillen and McKelvie had reunited to work on a second volume of Phonogram, subtitled The Singles Club. Published in full colour for the first time, the series comprised seven one-shot issues which explored the relationship between music and the individual. A technical and philosophical tour de force, Gillen and McKelvie's collaboration was the embodiment of comic book magic: a creative partnership in perfect synchronicity, an opus unique to the form.

But as with any medium, quality is no guarantee of success. The second volume of Phonogram sold as well as the first – but not substantially better. The extra cost of colour printing, combined with the back-end payment deal common on creator-owned comics forced McKelvie to seek work elsewhere – with a more time-consuming, labour-intensive task to complete, it is artists who typically bear the brunt of any financial shortfalls on creator-owned comics. Conceived as a monthly, Phonogram Vol. 2's irregular schedule saw it released across 14 months. In February 2010, the release of the final issue was accompanied by a mock wake, held in a Euston pub and attended by the creators and fans, wherein the series was officially laid to rest. A victim of its own financial unviability.

By that same year, however, Gillen's fledgling relationship with Marvel had been honed into something more substantial. In 2009, he had been unexpectedly propelled into the limelight, writing Thor after J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) had abruptly departed mid-storyline. Things went well, and by the end of 2010, Gillen had retired from games journalism and was co-writing Marvel's flagship X-Men title, Uncanny X-Men, with indie comics wunderkind Matt Fraction. By March 2011, he would have sole authorship over the title.

During this period, McKelvie had also settled at Marvel, drawing short stories, backup strips and fill-in issues featuring the likes of the X-Men, Iron Man and Spider-Man. In June 2010, he re-teamed with Gillen on the pair's first Marvel collaboration, Siege: Loki, starring Thor's treacherous brother, and again in 2011 on two issues of Gillen's X-Men spin-off, Generation Hope.

By 2012, Uncanny X-Men as written by Gillen frequently placed as Marvel's best-selling title. McKelvie, meanwhile, was assigned as the artist on the hotly-anticipated X-Men: Season One, part of Marvel's first line of original graphic novels in almost 25 years. In February 2012, the pair announced that they would return to Image and the hit that launched their careers with Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl – and although it would be delayed into late 2013, the pair remain collaborators on the forthcoming Young Avengers, a Marvel series due in January 2013 which features teenaged superheroes learning the ropes as a team of Avengers.

While not quite rags-to-riches, Gillen and McKelvie's rise has been a steady and formidable one – a virtual textbook example of how to break into the US comics industry. Their ongoing creative partnership is also typical of a comicbook phenomenon which sees pairs of writers and artists – particularly British ones - maintaining an association across multiple titles and companies.

Previous all-British teams include Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (who worked together on Flex Mentallo in 1996, New X-Men in 2001, We3 in 2004 and All Star Superman from 2005-2008), Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Violent Cases in 1987, Signal to Noise in 1992, Mr. Punch in 1994, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish in 1998 and Wolves in the Walls in 2003) and Andy Diggle and Jock (2000 AD from 2000-2003, The Losers from 2003-2006 and Green Arrow: Year One in 2007).

Such creator-pairing is not unique to British collaborations, but British-borne relationships have typically proven more enduring than those formed inside the US. Proximity certainly plays its part, but perhaps the important part of the equation is the dynamic of the UK's comics scene. Perhaps when partnerships form before commercial success they're more likely endure beyond it. Or maybe it's just that in the UK, the partnerships are formed in pubs and hotel bars, rather than offices.

Still, Gillen and McKelvie, who partnered on the nascent Phonogram after meeting at a comic convention in Bristol, are living proof of the tradition however it's incited, and their rise from indie obscurity to mainstream dominance can stand as an inspiration to any British comic creators who have a pen, a dream, and the audacity to think that a kid from the suburbs of nowheresville, UK, might one day write and draw the likes of Iron Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine.

A promo for Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl. Image: Jamie McKelvie

James Hunt is a freelance journalist, and writes about comics at Alternate Cover.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism