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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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