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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis