"Gotham's" Cory Michael Smith Savors the Arrival of the Riddler
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jamie McKelvie, and the issue is Suburban Glamour #4, which was published by Image and is cover dated April 2008. Enjoy!
After finishing the first Phonogram mini-series, McKelvie decided to write his own damned comic and show that Kieron Gillen a thing or two. So we got Suburban Glamour, which was about … well, fairies. Don’t worry about it! This was the first McKelvie comic where he did a bit of action, so I want to take a look at some of it, and also where he started working with Matthew Wilson, whose colors have graced a great deal of McKelvie’s work since. Here we go!
On the first page of the issue, Astrid (the young woman in Panel 1) meets her parents, who are fairies. This is, of course, not a tremendously exciting page, but McKelvie, as you might know, is one of the best artists right now in depicting facial expressions and body language, and so I wanted to start with that. In Panel 1, Astrid bites her lip nervously as she sees her parents for the first time (well, that she can remember). McKelvie does some nice things with her. Her lip isn’t as crumpled as it would be if she were really biting it, but just the fact that McKelvie shifts it a little is more than most artists would do. Even if we hadn’t read the first three issues of the comic, we could learn a lot from Astrid just by her lip – she’s a bit of a rebel, with the piercing and all, and she’s not quite sure of what to make of the whole thing. McKelvie also gives her nice cat’s-eyes – this is somewhat of a default for his female characters, but in Astrid’s case, it’s to link her to the fairies without being too obvious about it. McKelvie tends to think about make-up more than a lot of artists, so Astrid’s mascara rims her eyes, but it’s not heavy. The slash of blonde hair in the middle of all that black also speaks to her rebellious and dichotomous nature. It also helps her cuteness factor, too, which I have to believe McKelvie was thinking about when he designed her. In Panel 2, we see all the fairies, and once again, McKelvie’s design sense is very nice. Titania and Oberon are dressed nattily, but their clothes are still quite functional (well, Oberon’s skinny belts seem ostentatious, but still). McKelvie does a nice job even with the way they stand – Oberon looks somewhat casual and relaxed, but he’s still deferential to Titania, while she is welcoming but not exactly warm – her stylish clothing does not scream “maternal,” and McKelvie does not give her a smile. It’s a nice way to send mixed messages – Titania wants her daughter, but she’s still a queen. I don’t know how deliberate this is on McKelvie’s part, but the fact that Astrid’s hair is a bit wilder than Titania’s speaks to the different ways they have lived life. It’s neat.
Titania’s sister, Morgana, shows up, and she wants Astrid for herself. Astrid flees into her house, and that creature comes after her. Astrid hides in the closet, which is where we find her. I love the sequence with her in the dark. McKelvie drenches the entire thing in thick blacks, with the crack in the door providing the sliver of light, which allows Wilson to add the few swaths of color in Panel 2 – they’re ill-defined clothes, but it works very well. McKelvie, with only Astrid’s face to work with, runs her through a nice gamut here. In Panel 2, she’s afraid that the creature will find her – her eyes are wide, her mouth is slightly open, and she’s obviously trying to make no sound. In Panel 3, her eyes and mouth open wider, and she looks up slightly. She doesn’t look scared, still, but it does look like she’s thought of something. In Panel 4, she closes her eyes, tilts her head down, and concentrates. Again, her closed eyes don’t appear to be based on fear – McKelvie doesn’t use a lot of hatching around her eyes to show that they’re closed tightly with fear, so it must be something else. On the next page we learn that she realized she could do magic and her concentration was so she could create an illusion of herself, which the creature falls for. We don’t know that on this page, but we do know that McKelvie is showing something other than terror. When I took a look at Phonogram yesterday, McKelvie used a lot of shading. Now that he’s working in color, his lines are much stronger and confident, and the borders between the light and the dark are clear. Even though he uses blocks to show Astrid’s sweater, for instance, Wilson’s colors starkly separate it from the shadows. McKelvie is getting better, but it’s also helpful that his work is in color.
McKelvie gies us a bit of an action scene, and it’s not bad. Like so many other artists, McKelvie was not the greatest at action when he started, but he’s gotten better over the years, as we’ll see. In this scene, he doesn’t need to do too much, because we don’t see Astrid until she’s into her follow-through and the creature has already been bopped, so McKelvie can go with a static image. Panels 1 and 2 aren’t bad, as one of Astrid’s stuffed animals attacks the creature (don’t ask), but because it’s so quick, there’s not a lot of blocking needed. McKelvie doesn’t use motion lines on this page, so he’s relying on the characters’ poses in Panel 4 to sell the action. He gets Astrid’s face quite well – her mouth is open, and she’s gritting her teeth with effort – and we see that the creature was wearing a mask and is actually faceless, which is pretty weird. McKelvie has gotten more and more interesting at laying out his pages, and Panel 4 is a good early example of it. He uses the starburst well – it implies the force of the blow, as it obliterates part of the page itself, and it also places Astrid and the creature temporarily outside of the room, outside even of the confines of the panels, because Astrid hits him so hard. I don’t know if McKelvie wanted it to remind us of a British flag, but it makes me think of it.
This is the next page, and it’s a quasi-action scene. It’s not as good as McKelvie would later get, because the figures look a bit too posed. In Panel 2, that works well as they’ve all frozen when Astrid commands them, but it doesn’t work as well in Panel 1. The devil thing in the lower left is, apparently, about to bite that armored figure, or perhaps just rip its head off, but neither of them seem to be straining all that much. Titania is lunging at Morgana with a sword, but again, it seems like she’s just holding the sword out in front of her and not exactly reaching with it. Oberon has completed a slash with his weapon, but again, he’s posed like a statue. Panel 2 isn’t bad, as everyone looks toward Astrid and the thing that Oberon slashed falls over, but it looks better because everyone is supposed to be frozen. Luckily, McKelvie got better at this kind of action.
So Astrid meets up with Dave, whom she’s treated somewhat shabbily, and they get it out of their systems. McKelvie shows how good he is at human interactions on this page, which is why I’m showing it. Dave sticks his head around the corner in Panel 1, and McKelvie gives him slightly wider eyes and a more open face, as he’s trying to get back into Astrid’s good graces. In Panel 4, they both look away from each other just the tiniest bit, as Astrid apologizes and Dave admits he was scared. In this case, her hair serves as a buffer – it hides her just enough so that she isn’t as exposed. She’s still looking at him, but her face is angled down a bit, showing her sheepishness. He raises his eyebrows, which also shows some vulnerability, and wrinkles his mouth, which also shows his foolishness. In Panel 5, she looks up at him when she realizes they were acting silly, and McKelvie gives her a wry smile. Her push is an intimate gesture, one of those “we’re just friends” touch that means a lot more, but nothing comes out it in this series (Dave gives her a similar gesture later in the book, so they’re both on the same page). When Dave tells her he called her, McKelvie gives her perplexed eyes and just enough of an uptick in her eyebrows so it’s clear she’s puzzled. All of this is very nicely done.
Notice the thick inking lines McKelvie uses. Both Astrid and Dave are bordered with thick lines, which makes their more lightly-inked features a bit more highlighted. McKelvie doesn’t always use thick lines, but it’s interesting to contrast this with his work on Phonogram: Rue Britannia, in which he also used some heavy lines but also relied on a lack of holding lines a bit too much. With this comic, he went the other way, giving his work a solidity that gives it its realism, which is one reason why McKelvie is suited for stories where regular characters talk to each other. As I noted, he’s gotten better at superhero stuff – if you’re going to work for Marvel, you have to – but the grounded nature of his figure drawing has remained excellent.
McKelvie began working for Marvel around this time (he’s done some work for DC, too), and so we’ll check out his superhero work as he started getting better at action. Does this mean I’m going to skip Phonogram: The Singles Club? Well, yes. Sorry. I’m sure you’ll be able to get over it! Comfort yourself by checking out the archives!
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