Local

[10 December 2008]

By shathley Q

PopMatters Comics Editor

Not that you’d notice, but there is a subtle shift in Local. It appears right between the fourth and fifth chapters. Local comes elegantly undone, for exactly the same reason we all do.

Life-admin.

The everyday demands attention, the ordinary inevitably announces itself. The task of digitizing your 90s music as a single iTunes playlist, must simply be done.

And it is in the wake of daily ritual that Megan McKeenan, the book’s vagabond lead, appears and in this wake that the story downshifts. Somewhere in the aftermath of Montana, Local becomes Megan’s story. How did she survive the events of Missoula? How could she?

Local, however, makes no demands. Local simply deserves to be read.

Not only because of Local earning writer Brian Wood an Eisner Nomination for Best Writer of 2008.

Not only because of the lush, 375-page hardcover that collects the original 12-issue limited series. Although it is worth noting that the Oni Press edition is a handsome volume, replete with creator essays by both Wood and artist Ryan Kelly, a sketchbook of character studies, and a gallery featuring the work of 17 commissioned artists.

Local deserves to be read for the meticulousness of its creation.

Perhaps more so than other books this year, Kelly’s artwork demands ‘reading’. Detailed linework, hatching and cross-hatching, almost infinite variation in line weighting. Kelly’s black-and-whites mean the book arrives fully formed. A system of well-defined visual arguments.

The artwork is a text as complex as Wood’s story.  We don’t need a John Berger to remind us that the greater the detail, the more time passes in each image; since the reader’s eye lingers for longer.

But just as the beauty of Kelly’s artwork lies in a complexity that transcends its individuated elements (lines become shapes, shapes images, images panels), so too does Wood’s story transcend its proliferation of generic elements.

We know this story well, each of us. A young woman alive during the postmortem of her teenage years. She struggles for identity. The stability of her family having dissolved, she finds a radical new use for her childhood attempts at indolence and rebelliousness. For Megan McKeenan, running away from home is now a lifestyle.

The genre of the road-trip has haunted popular culture for decades. Through The Incredible Hulk TV show with Bill Bixby in the 70s, through Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” in the 80s, through DC’s Kid Flash (Wally West) adopting the mantle of his mentor in the 90s, and on. It is a genre that has become panacea for a world that frustrates teenage ambition.

Pivotal to the experience of the book is the frustration of attempts at self-definition that is popularly connected with teenage angst. Local is what Not Yet feels like.

But Wood revitalizes this well-worn literary trope by subtraction rather than renovation. He offers a simple yet powerful inversion of the literary staple—what if Megan herself, would simply fade away?

What if she were nothing more than, in the words of Wood’s own series proposal, “a nameless tour guide [for] a series of unconnected stories”? For Wood then, hometowns are his book’s true protagonist. He hopes for an intimate portrait of each town. For each chapter to capture the unique flavors and establish the town as a “local”, Megan, the persistent traveler, should have nothing more than guest-starring role.

But, it is exactly at this point that the rupture occurs.

Almost imperceptibly, the fifth chapter thrusts Megan directly into the spotlight.  Or have we been misled entirely? Has Megan been there, all along?

What elevates Local then, is not the struggles of Megan in her everyday worlds. Although, it is with great accomplishment that Wood effects his character’s insertion into the everyday, and only in the penultimate chapter do the episodes of her life become unified as bildungsroman.

Instead, the defining procedure of the book is necessarily its perpetual interplay between character and location. Both being vibrant and alive, the contest between Megan and her “locals” offers a finely crafted story. One that is in every sense as rich as comics’ own interplay between text and image.

But there is another sense in which Local deserves to be read. A sense which speaks directly to the necessity of reading itself. One addressed by Jonathan Franzen in his essay “The Reader in Exile”.

For Franzen, the secession of literature from a position of “cultural authority”, is not the death knell of reading. Far from it, the self-selecting elitism of literary reading is necessary for developing what Franzen terms the ‘oppositional reader’.

The oppositional reader is essential to interrogating the nexus of culture, capital and technology. It is the oppositional reader who answers what Franzen identifies as the central dilemma of the age—how to be alone. In other words, how to preserve individuality in the face of mass consumer culture.

But if Franzen explores individuality in the question of how to be alone, Local responds to an even more basic question of personal liberty. For Wood, individuality and mass culture are both responses to an all-too-human need to make meaning of the world. And both require work to be defined and redefined in the face of the day-to-day.

Wood’s view is no less engaging than Franzen’s, and perhaps even more forgiving of popular culture. Rather than ‘self’ and ‘culture’ locked in perpetual opposition, Local suggests both self and culture as tools for existentialist definition.

What is the price paid for indecision? Or the price for ennui?

From the opening chapter where Megan makes powerful decision to jettison her boyfriend’s codependency to the final chapter where Megan confronts the memory of her mother in their family home, Local demonstrates the need for a greater ‘oppositional’. Not between self and popular culture, but between experience, and mere existence.

For Wood then, the question is not how, but why to be alone.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66519-local/