For Jamie McKelvie the artist, Jamie McKelvie the author has proven to be something of a pain. “You’d think I’d write stuff that’s easier to draw, but I seem to make it more complicated than ever,” he comments, on his latest role as sole creator of comic book Suburban Glamour. “You know, it’s stuff like, ‘She sits on the hill with the whole city spread out before her!’”
Jamie could have wound up being neither author nor artist. His career to date has been much less rigidly planned than most. He always drew as a child, but stopped around the age of 15 thanks to lacklustre art classes at school that gave him little creative freedom.
His choice to study sociology at university didn’t seem too promising for a potential career as an artist. However, at 21, he discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books and was immediately hooked. Specifically it was Marc Hempel’s artwork for book nine of the series that really grabbed him. “I didn’t realise comics could be like that,” he says. “Before then I was only really aware of superhero stuff, big muscle guys – that wasn’t the sort of art I was really into.”
For a time he haunted various online message boards while learning how to draw, and after a trip to a show in New York, his work found its way to Eric Stephenson at Image Comics. “He asked me if I wanted to work on his book, Long Hot Summer…I said yes, of course!”
In effect, it was his big break, and made his name in the comics industry almost immediately – a fact for which he’s immensely thankful. “I had no plan whatsoever,” he admits. “I was very, very lucky… a lot of people say they take eight to ten years to break into the industry and I did it within two or three.”
Jamie longed for a larger, meatier project. His chance came when he met Kieron Gillen at the Bristol Comics Festival. He was planning a comic book called Phonogram: Rue Britannia, a realistic look at the lives of indie kids during the height of Britpop, and realised that Jamie would be perfectly suited to the subject matter.
“I draw the way I do because it’s the only way I know how,” Jamie explains. “Kieron said he wanted to work with me because I know how to draw contemporary fashion and styles and things related to music. It’s one of my bugbears in the industry that a lot of artists don’t know how to draw young people – they stick to the styles they knew when they were young. I think Kieron recognised that I knew what it meant when someone dresses a certain way and so on.”
So while also collaborating on their regular strip, Save Point, for the Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, the pair embarked on Phonogram – a process that turned out to be more difficult than either had imagined. “I did everything on it – drawing, lettering, colouring, everything,” says Jamie. “It’s a lot more work that most people appreciate. Once you have timelines you have to stick to, it does become a real job, and not just a hobby.
“But that’s one of the good things about comics – you can do them any way you like. Scripts are always written differently by different people, people do artwork in different ways… there’s no single way of doing it. It’s one of the last popular culture things where you don’t get many other people telling you how to do it – it’s your own vision.”
The duo’s efforts paid off when Phonogram was met with critical acclaim, and encouraged Jamie to begin his long-planned solo project, Suburban Glamour. It stars Astrid, a typically tormented teen who just happens to be visited by imaginary childhood friends, and sports the same sort of naturalistic, contemporary artwork that made Jamie’s name.
“It’s a completely different experience, I guess it’s more organic,” he says of being both author and artist. “While you’re writing, the pictures are in your head and you know what you’ll be drawing.”
The first four-issue mini-series of SG has just been completed and Jamie is pleased with the positive reception it has garnered. “I was quite nervous because Phonogram was such a big cult hit, I suppose you’d say, and I was worried that people would expect Phonogram part 2. It’s been good to see what you might call non-stereotypical comic readers getting into it. It’s getting a lot of girls reading it, for instance, which is great because that doesn’t normally happen with comics.”
Not that he has finished with the SG universe, by a long shot – he intends to create many more mini-series to continue the story, which is “vaguely planned out.” Meanwhile, Kieron is writing the scripts for Phonogram 2, which if all goes well should be out for the end of the year.
At the risk of alienating Phonogram’s established fanbase, Jamie is adamant this won’t be just more
of the same. “People aren’t going to get what they expect,” he warns. “It’s not the further adventures of David Kohl. It’s a whole new set of characters and a different format, and in colour.”
And then there’s the eight-page story he has been commissioned to draw for X-Men, which gives him a chance to flex his superhero muscles. It may not be his usual style, but, he says: “I wasn’t about to turn down drawing the X-Men! It’s a very different experience. Every stage has to be approved by the editor. Usually it’s because they want to make the bad guy more muscly, because I drew a skinny indie kid.”