Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we’re checking out one of the best comics of the 21st century! This post was originally published on 3 January 2012. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Phonogram by Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie (artist/letterer), Julia Scheele (art assistant, “The Singles Club” issues #4-7), and Matthew Wilson (colorist, “The Singles Club”). Back-up stories in “The Singles Club” (all written by Gillen): “She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment” by Laurenn McCubbin (issue #1), “The Power Of Love” by Marc Ellerby (issue #1), “Wuthering Heights” by Emma Vieceli (issue #2), “The Singer” by Daniel Heard (issue #2), “David Kohl: Phonomancer” by Leigh Gallagher (issue #3), “Control” by Lee O’Connor (issue #3), “Roses” by David LaFuente (artist) and Christina Strain (colorist) (issue #4), “Theory And Practice” by Charity Larrison (issue #4), “Ska Attack Squad” by Dan Boultwood (issue #5), “Your Song” by PJ Holden (artist) and Steven Denton (colorist) (issue #6), “Atlantis To Interzone” by Adam Cadwell (issue #6), “The Queen Is Dead” by Nikki Cook (issue #7), “Blood Mountain” by Becky Cloonan (issue #7), “30″ by Andy Bloor (issue #7), and “Once In A Lifetime” by Sean Azzopardi (issue #7).
Published by Image, 13 issues (“Rue Britannia” #1-6 and “The Singles Club” #1-7), cover dated August 2006 – May 2007 (“Rue Britannia”) and December 2008 – February 2010 (“The Singles Club”).
SPOILERS? Oh yes. Not as many as you might think, given that these aren’t really all that plot-driven, but some. Sorry!
As you read Phonogram, you wonder how these two gentlemen can pull this shit off. I mean, honestly: Phonogram is a comic about, essentially, how cool music is. That’s really it. Sure, Gillen wraps it up in fancy language and McKelvie makes it pretty, but when you get right down to it, that’s all there is. Don’t we all know music is cool? Do we need poncy Brits telling us this? I mean, isn’t it self-evident?
Well, sure. But sometimes we need reminding why music is cool, and how it’s cool. And how different music is cool to different people. When Phonogram brushes too closely to elitism, there’s someone – a character, usually, but occasionally Gillen himself – to remind us that just because David Kohl likes Kenickie, he also listens to Echobelly at times. If those bands don’t mean anything to you, don’t worry: Phonogram is far more than musical references. That’s why Kohl can bash Kula Shaker and readers (like me) who’ve never heard Kula Shaker can laugh along with him. It’s universal in its specifics. That’s what makes it brilliant.
I’ll repeat myself for the first time right now, although I can’t promise I won’t repeat myself at other times, as I’ve written before about Phonogram. In “Rue Britannia,” Gillen is writing about Britpop, therefore limiting himself to the mid-1990s in time and British bands in space. In “The Singles Club,” he expands a bit, but he’s still mainly writing about recent music, meaning 2006 or thereabouts. Gillen is a bit over four years younger than I am, plus he occupied a completely different milieu than I did when I was growing up, so our tastes don’t align all that much. He also wrote music journalism, so he was far more embedded in the 1990s scene than I ever was in any scene. But. There’s something about music and magic, which is the beating heart of Phonogram. Consider (and here’s where I repeat myself):
In 1992 I studied abroad in Melbourne for five months. I turned 21 on a rainy night in May and drank free beer at Naughton’s on Royal Parade, I fell in love (as you do when you’re 20), I toured as much of the country as I could. In March I visited Tasmania with three American ladies (it was strictly platonic, I assure you). After four frenetic days of touring (we sailed on the Abel Tasman ferry to Devonport, drove down to the MacQuarrie Harbour to see the prison, sailed up the Gordon River, then drove across the island to Port Arthur to see the other prison), we ended up in Hobart, a beautiful city further south than almost any city in the world. My three friends were bushed, so they crashed at the hotel, but I took the car and headed up to the top of Mt. Wellington, which overlooks the city. At the summit, I looked out over the city, spread out on the foothills, crammed between the mountain and the Derwent estuary as it reaches the sea. It was magnificent. As I drove down the mountain, past the red-roofed houses that crowd upwards from the water, I was listening to Gravity Dance, the 1991 album by the Horse Flies. It’s a peculiar album, full of offbeat folk tunes about, among other things, eating road kill and throwing shit at people. It’s also a haunting album – anything with accordions and violins tends to be – with eerie songs that tug at your sleeve and don’t let go like “Sally Ann” (“A woman of chances, no family or friends”), “Two Candles” (“I’m just trying to scratch my shadow from the mausoleum wall”), and “Your Eyes Are Elevators” (“I want to read your lips across the room, feel your naked eye”), but also several odd, even funny songs, like “Roadkill” (“There’s a dog on the table and he died by the wheel”), “I Need a Plastic Bag (To Keep My Brains In)” (“Like a monkey, who lives in a zoo, I have a bad day I throw my shit at you”), and “Needles on the Beach” (“Under the boardwalk you can get more than pregnant”). It lurches between these two poles, and it’s strangely mesmerizing. I was driving toward the city, with the afternoon sun at my back, painting everything golden, and it was one of those perfect moments that you experience every so often. I was young, in a foreign country, having an adventure, and that album has become part of it. Whenever I hear a song from it, I am transported back to that winding road snaking down the slope of Mt. Wellington, and I remember everything about that day (even the parts that don’t have accompaniment, like eating lunch in a plaza earlier in the afternoon before my friend went back to the hostel). It’s one of the ways music is magical.
We begin at the end. In issue #7 of “The Singles Club,” which is entitled “Wolf Like Me” (after the TV On The Radio song), Gillen and McKelvie give us these opening pages:
In this instance, Gillen sums up the 13 issues succinctly, even though, naturally, it’s more complex than his spirit guide, David Kohl, makes it sound like here. But we are concerned with Kid-With-Knife, the Holy Fool of Phonogram, who provides the necessary punctures of Kohl’s (and other’s) inflated egos. When we first meet him, in “Rue Britannia,” issue #2, he sings along to “That’s The Way (I Like It)” without irony. He just digs the song, man! In “Wolf Like Me,” he rides the tune on a romp through Bristol, invincible and suave, checking out ladies, defending some kids from some punks, picking up a gyro, and hitting the club where the series is set. Suddenly, in an absolutely gorgeous two-page spread, he sees Penny B, the teenaged phonomancer whose story was the focus of issue #1. He’s transfixed, and whatever high he’s on lets him approach her and dance with her and eventually have sex with her, because they’re both, in Kohl’s words, “riding it as long as they can.” There’s a primal energy to the scene, as McKelvie shows Penny as a sparkly, almost divine being, turning and turning, dancing alone, as she tells us in issue #1, because it’s something she has to do after the night she’s had. McKelvie spins her right into Kid-With-Knife’s hand, and they both recognize a kindred spirit. It’s a cliché to equate dancing with sex, but McKelvie does it wonderfully, placing the page of them dancing facing the page of them fucking, and in the brief glimpses of their sex we see the dance continue. Penny doesn’t know how to react:
There’s nothing too original about Gillen’s idea, as Kid-With-Knife rightfully points out. But throughout the series, we’ve seen how music is used to channel power, and Kid’s journey through Bristol to the club is simply the purest manifestation of that, and as it comes at the end, it’s also a culmination of those ideas. Kid isn’t concerned with saving his own personality, as Kohl is in “Rue Britannia.” He’s not interested in keeping a torch alight for a disappeared rock star, as Beth is in “Rue Britannia.” He’s not trying to seduce anyone, be anyone else, run from his past, or become post-modern, like the characters in “The Singles Club.” He’s on the prowl, not as a dangerous wolf, but as a jaunty one, ready to charm the ladies and mess with douchebags. Through Gillen’s script and his characterization of both Penny and Kid, we get the feeling he would not have gotten anywhere with her if he wasn’t possessed by some kind of magic. He might make the attempt, but she’d shoot him down. Shot through with the pulsing beat of music, however, he is exotic, edgy, and attractive. Penny is gorgeous on her own, but possessed by the Pipettes (all she wanted in issue #1 was to hear “Pull Shapes”), she becomes an irresistible figure. Neither of them can help themselves. It’s glorious and true, not unlike music itself. “Wolf Like Me” is the kind of song that can do this to people, too. “We’re howling forever,” indeed.
I’ve never had as much game as Kid-With-Knife, and I probably have a lot less than most of you, but there’s one incident tied directly to music that I’ve never forgotten. Once again, it took place in Australia. One night I went with a group of friends to see My Own Private Idaho, Gus van Sant’s brilliant distillation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V (it’s a movie which helped create my Keanu man-crush). Over the end credits, the Pogues’ “The Old Main Drag” plays, and as I love that song, I stopped to listen and sing along (quietly). My friends moved on without me, presumably because they had no musical taste. While I stood there, watching the credits and singing, I noticed a girl to my left doing the same thing. We both expressed wonder that the other knew and liked “The Old Main Drag,” a song from a fairly obscure Pogues album (1985′s Rum Sodomy and the Lash). For those few minutes, we shared a secret, and it made the atmosphere downright electric. Loser that I am, I did not instantly ask her out on a date, but politely said goodnight and caught up with my friends. It’s one of the rare regrets I have in my life – it was obvious we had a connection, even a minor one, and unlike Kid-With-Knife, I failed to reach out my hand and draw her in. I don’t even remember what she looked like – it was still relatively dark in the theater – but I know she had black hair and, of course, I believe she was quite cute. I would guess that we’ve all had moments like this – luckily I didn’t screw up another I had later in life – and this particular one is tied to that song, a depressing tune about prostitution and disease and dying that nevertheless created a tiny bit of magic between two strangers. Obviously, whenever I hear “The Old Main Drag,” I’m reminded of those few minutes on the landing of a movie theater in Melbourne, and the girl that I never pursued. Who knows what would have happened if I’d allowed the magic to sweep me away?
One thing that makes Phonogram resonate so well is the characterization. Gillen and McKelvie create characters who are real, articulate, and often messy. Occasionally they act extremely, but because we relate to them so well (even if we don’t actually like them all), their extreme behavior doesn’t seem out of proportion. We’ll get to David Kohl, the protagonist of “Rue Britannia,” but consider the many other characters that appear in Phonogram. They may do shitty things, they may act selfishly or foolishly or even malevolently, but they come from a place we all recognize and therefore understand. Emily Aster, for instance. In issue #3 of “Rue Britannia,” Kohl talks about her while she’s discussing the Manic Street Preachers. She says that she traded in her devotion to the “Manics” for a personality of her own, and Kohl narrates that she “snipped away the bits she didn’t like and traded them for power.” “Anyone,” he narrates, “could be her, if they chose. It’s their fault they didn’t.” Emily isn’t very nice, but she’s become someone different through sheer force of will. She’s caustic and witty, but because she’s clever, she gets away with it. In issue #3 of “The Singles Club,” Gillen reveals some of her past – she was once called Claire, and she was a cutter. In the ladies’ room mirror, she sees her past self, mocking her. When a girl who used to know her appears and insists that she’s Claire, Emily casually destroys her, simply because she once knew the weak child Emily once was. She decides to “have sex with the least appropriate person” in the club just to get Claire out of her head, but the final image of the issue, a brilliantly designed split page with Emily kissing a wannabe white boy gangster while giving the finger to Claire, who stands behind the wall, shows both Emily’s contempt for her past and the fact that, despite the re-invention, she will never totally escape it.
The other main female character in “Rue Britannia,” Beth, is another marvelous Gillen creation. Kid-With-Knife sees what he calls the ghost of Beth standing on a bridge, “waiting for Richey Edwards,” the lyricist for Manic Street Preachers. Edwards disappeared in 1995, and Beth, who loved the Manics (and who, to be fair, isn’t actually dead), left a part of herself on the bridge, waiting for his return. Kohl visits the “real” Beth, who has moved on from that life, doesn’t listen to music, and is living a dull existence in a row house, and while Kohl makes that sound like a tragedy, it’s mainly because he can’t move on (which is, after all, part of the point of “Rue Britannia”). We think Beth is just a girl who’s dazzled by rock stardom, which we can all understand, but we learn in issue #4 that Kohl treated her poorly (which is not surprising for him), and the psychologically damaged girl he left behind is the one still standing on the bridge, hoping for some kind of redemption. That aspect of Beth gets some measure of closure in issue #6, as Kohl explains to her why Edwards isn’t coming back and what she can do about it. Beth becomes more than a simple caricature of a girl obsessed with a rock star because Gillen shows us the real Beth, someone who is able to move on, and contrasts her to that part of people who need to worship something. Beth is trapped in an existential tragedy (let’s hope Gillen had Vladimir and Gogo in the back of his mind when he was writing these sections), but the way out of an existential tragedy is to transcend, and that’s what Beth is able to do.
With “The Singles Club,” Gillen and McKelvie expanded their universe and created several new characters, each with their own flaws and traits that make them uniquely human. Penny is a gorgeous 19-year-old who moves through life, seemingly untouched by anything, treating people not exactly cruelly but with a measure of detached disdain. She’s not a horrible person, just a bit vapid. Even she has hidden depths, though. Even she can be hurt. Gillen shows us that her charms, while substantial, have no effect on Mark, the boy she fancies, and it has nothing to do with her. They also have no effect on Seth Bingo, the night’s DJ, but he’s a different kettle of fish altogether.
Penny’s best friend, Laura, feels an odd mixture of revulsion and desire when she sees Penny – her first words in her existence are “Oh, it hurts to see you dance so well.” She’s Penny’s “plus one” at the club because neither of them is on the list – Penny uses her phonomantic powers to get them entrance. When Gillen focuses on Laura in issue #5, we learn that she too is a cutter (like Emily) and she likes to think and speak in musical quotes (those first words up there are a quote). She’s a fascinating character – Gillen and McKelvie do a marvelous job showing all the emotions that roil beneath her cooler-than-thou surface – Laura is dazzled by Penny, she lusts after the barmaid at the club (“I want her and I want to be her, and don’t know where one starts and the other ends”), she desires Mark but knows that if he’s not interested in Penny, there’s no way he would be interested in her. She learns a few things from Emily in the ladies’ bathroom, and uses those to her advantage when she shares a cab with Lloyd. Laura might be the most interesting character in “The Singles Club” – certainly she’s in the running – because she changes the most. Plus, the reader can relate to her – her musical quotes (who hasn’t done that, perhaps not the extent Laura does, but to a degree?), her craving for attention, her lack of self, her decision to make her mark in any way possible, even in a negative way (which, as it turns out, isn’t all that negative anyway). Laura’s story resonates throughout the entire series, because she is the catalyst for so much of it.
Meanwhile, the two males in the main quartet of “The Singles Club” get their spotlights, too. Mark is still pining for a lost love, and while his story is well written, it feels the most lightweight of the series. Lloyd’s story, in issue #6, is another excellent look at a character, because he’s so socially inept. He has a wonderful idea for a band, but as Laura points out in issue #5, it’s a blatant attempt to turn Penny into his puppet. He calls Laura in issue #1 to make sure Penny will be at the club (McKelvie nails Laura’s look of disappointment that Lloyd doesn’t care if she, Laura, shows up or not, as seen above) and he tries to introduce his idea to Penny in the most awkward way possible. Gillen does this very well throughout the series – he shows us an event from one perspective, then loops around and shows it from the opposite perspective, changing our reaction to it. When Lloyd speaks to Penny in issue #1, we think he’s destroying her because she’s a silly little girl (a “precious, self-serving, egotistical bitch,” to be precise). In issue #6, we find out he tore into her because he was setting up his next statement: “You have to understand that makes you perfect,” but she never heard him. Seth Bingo played “Pull Shapes,” and Penny disappeared onto the dance floor. Lloyd is not a bad guy, but he can’t find the right words when he wants to talk to pretty girls. Then, Laura wrecks his idea further. It’s David Kohl, resident bastard, who puts it all in perspective (as Lloyd relates in his fanzine later that night): “‘I mean, what story have you written yourself here? You’ve talked to me. Instead you could be …’ he points, ‘Like that.’ He points at Penny. She’s dancing.” Kohl understands Lloyd, better than Lloyd does. But Lloyd, unlike Mark, takes the lesson to heart. Maybe there’s hope for him.
I don’t often dance. When I was younger, I thought it was dumb. I was too cool for it. Now that I’m older, I never get the chance. Plus, I’m not terribly good at it, whatever “good at it” means. I love ballroom dancing, though, and wish I could do more of that. One magical dancing moment I recall took place in my girlfriend’s apartment in the spring of 1993, and it also involves the Pogues. My girlfriend (later my wife) lived off-campus with a girl named Jo and a boy named Steve. One day Steve was listening to If I Should Fall From Grace With God and the song “Fiesta” came on. For some reason, we all decided to dance to it. I danced with Jo while Krys danced with Steve. When the song was quieter, we danced in a parodic, uneven polka style. When Shane MacGowan sings “We must say Adios! until we see Almeria once again,” the music pauses for a nanosecond, then kicks into a rousing instrumental riff, at which point we would break apart and whirl around the room. Why that song? Why that moment? I don’t know. I don’t even know if the other participants remember it (I doubt it; my wife doesn’t remember this incident, because all magic works differently on different people). All I know is that those few minutes were a strange brew of magic and music, when time was briefly suspended and nothing mattered except the dance. I was never good friends with Steve, and Jo was far too self-absorbed to ever be anything but a casual acquaintance, but for those few minutes, we were as close as four people can be with their clothes on. It’s a weird memory, but a good one. When Penny dances and draws the eyes of Laura, of Lloyd, of Kid-With-Knife, we know what’s going on even if we don’t ever go to night clubs. We know because we understand the power that rhythm and melody exerts within us. None of us can escape!
“Britpop,” Gillen writes many, many times in the glossary/back matter of “Rue Britannia,” is a “British mid-nineties revivalist guitar-pop movement.” He continues: “Most histories of the period take it as kicking against the anti-glamour, anti-fun, pro-anti Grunge of Nirvana, et al, which dominated the cultural landscape, with bands making a self-conscious attempt to create music in the lineage of quintessentially ‘English’ groups.” And again: “With more than a few splashes of nationalism thrown into the mix.” And the bands: Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Elastica, ad infinitum. It’s all about the music, so Phonogram can’t possibly work without intimate knowledge of these bands, can it?
Perhaps. This reader has only a passing knowledge with the bands referenced in Phonogram, more specifically “Rue Britannia,” which is built around this time period. But both series work, because Gillen is smart enough (usually) to seek the deeper meaning behind the music, not simply riff on whatever is popular at the time. This makes Phonogram timeless, because whatever generation you belong to, there is something you recognize in it. Early on in issue #1 of “Rue Britannia,” Gillen and McKelvie come up with this scene:
It doesn’t matter that it’s Kenickie. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard Kenickie. In fact, it might work better if you haven’t heard Kenickie. What if you don’t have the same visceral reaction to the song Kohl is listening to? (“Come Out 2nite,” is a fine song, but we react differently to music than others, after all.) It’s far better if you substitute a song of your own choosing, because then you can understand Kohl’s reaction to it – he doesn’t even want to have sex with his girlfriend because he wants to listen to the song repeatedly. “Because in a contest between how much I loved the girl and how much I loved the record … there was no contest.” There’s nothing that ties that to a specific genre of music or a specific song, and Gillen gets that.
Of course, “Rue Britannia” careens along toward issues #4 and some of #5, which are steeped in Britpop references. “Rue Britannia” is one the first comics Gillen and McKelvie worked on, and Gillen falls a bit into the trap of trying too hard, and when Kohl enters his memories of Britpop, the series veers wildly into pretension, from which it recovers nicely halfway through issue #5. “Murder Park” and “Kissing With Dry Lips,” issues #4 and 5, suffer because they are much more dependent on knowing the players than any other issues in the series. You don’t really need to know who Richey Edwards is to understand what Beth is going through. But it does help to know who Luke Haines and Damon Albarn are in these issues. Gillen writes about this in the back matter to “Murder Park,” and it helps, but Kohl’s vision quest is less effective if you don’t know who these gentlemen are. The two issues are full of allusions to other musicians and bands, and if you weren’t caught up in the zeitgeist of the mid-1990s, Kohl’s conversation with Haines can be oblique at best and maddening at worst. Plus, this is when McKelvie’s art is, unfortunately, the most contrived – Kohl is moving through a fantasy world, and McKelvie draws much of the backgrounds without holding lines, and it stands out poorly in contrast to the crisp lines he usually uses. Some artists can work without holding lines – David Lloyd on V for Vendetta springs to mind – but McKelvie’s not one of them. McKelvie’s art isn’t the most suited for black and white anyway (something that becomes clear when Matthew Wilson colors “The Singles Club”), but Kohl’s journey through his memories aren’t as impressive not only because of Gillen’s writing but because of McKelvie’s art. “Murder Park” is redeemed a bit because Kohl encounters Beth in the middle of it, and as we already have some experience with her, their conversation hits harder, plus McKelvie does a nice job with it. “Kissing With Dry Lips” is redeemed because Kohl’s spiritual journey ends seven pages in.
Does “Rue Britannia” work without knowing all (or even very many) of the musical references? It does, because of what Gillen is really doing with the story. The point is not that the music is “Britpop,” it’s that Kohl has founded his personality in it. He tells us this outright in issue #3, when he and Kid-With-Knife have dinner with Emily. “She gave me my identity,” he says. “I’ve moved on, but my origin … well, it’s still with her.” As they’re leaving, Emily asks him:
He tells her he likes being David Kohl, which doesn’t fool her for a second:
This all comes to a head in the final issue, where Kohl finally figures it out. Britpop was a brief and brilliant movement, but it can’t keep coming back. The same thing applies to Richey Edwards – as Kohl tells the Beth spirit, his “defining aspect now is that he’s gone.” He narrates later that “he didn’t owe us anything – and vice versa. That’s how pop works. Pop is for you.” Once again, this has nothing to do with the Manic Street Preachers. Kohl might be more extreme than most, but many people have grounded themselves and defined themselves by music. I’ve had three phases of musical influence in my life, none as severe as Kohl’s, but powerful nevertheless: circa 1983-1986 was my early progressive stage, when I bought up all the Genesis albums and Yes albums (even Tales from Topographic Oceans) and Jethro Tull albums I could find (I owned both Thick as a Brick and Passion Play at one time in my life); 1986-1989 were my hair metal years; and when I went off to college in 1989 I slowly began to expand beyond AOR/Classic Rock, which led to the grunge years of circa 1990-1994 (say, Mother Love Bone’s Apple to Cobain’s suicide). Naturally, I have carried those phases along with me, but those were the main influences during those years. I never latched my personality onto any one form of music, but I can certainly understand what Kohl is talking about, even if he’s talking about phonomancy and goddesses and other mystical things. Gillen fools us into reading a coming-of-age story, but that’s, in many ways, what “Rue Britannia” is. Luckily, we don’t realize that until the final issue, when we can only shake our fists at the cheeky British bastard and admit we’ve been had.
Just when I was starting to move out of my hair metal phase (although I still bought hair metal albums, it wasn’t the most dominant musical genre in my life anymore), I watched Saturday Night Live one night. I rarely watched SNL, but for some reason I was one night in 1989 (probably). On that particular program I saw the Godfathers perform “I’m Lost And Then I’m Found,” and for some reason (magic?), it got its hooks into me. I had been listening to either progressive rock or hair metal, neither of them all that stripped-down, and Peter Coyne’s growling vocals and the straightforward rock struck a chord in me. The band dressed and looked well, too, which I now know wasn’t unusual for British bands but felt somehow revelatory to me, after years of dudes with hair-sprayed ‘dos and ripped jeans and muscle shirts and all the weird shit that comes along with hair metal. It was the first time in a long time that I had discovered a band completely on my own, without hearing about it from a friend or at school or because MTV told me to like them, and it awoke something in me. Over the next few years, I started branching out into new bands that you would never hear on the radio or television, bands I had never heard but simply picked up a music stores on a whim. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a good time for me as a music fan, mainly because I was in my late teens/early twenties and so had a little bit of cash and a lot of time to scour record stores. I got stuff like Christmas, Thin White Rope, Shelter, Smashing Pumpkins, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana (I got Nevermind before I actually heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Catherine Wheel, Think Tree, and Janet Speaks French without ever hearing the bands or even knowing anything about some of them beforehand. Not all of them were great, of course, but I found some of my favorite albums that way. (I continued doing this, naturally – this spring I bought albums by People In Planes and Art Brut, the latter solely because McKelvie did the cover art, but this was when it first started, from about 1989-1994.) This idea that music can stir something inside you is not unique to Phonogram, of course, but if we stop and look at the way Gillen writes it and the way McKelvie draws it, we can see that spark in the characters as they navigate the two series. It’s yet another reason why, on a primal level, Phonogram speaks to everyone. We just have to listen.
(While researching this post, I discovered that the Godfathers did not, in fact, ever play on SNL. So where did I see them? I don’t think it was on MTV late at night, although of course it’s possible. I don’t recognize the video, but it has been over 20 years [ulp, now 30!]. I thought it was a live performance, and maybe it was, just not on SNL. This is the way memory fucks with you. All I know is that I saw the Godfathers sing “I’m Lost And Then I’m Found” on television not long after More Songs About Love And Hate was released, and it changed something in me. Oh, and “I’m Lost And Then I’m Found” is a fucking awesome tune.)
Issue #4 of “The Singles Club” is the anchor of the mini-series, the fulcrum around which the entire series revolves, and it’s a masterpiece of writing and drawing, of challenging what can be done with the comics form. “Konichiwa Bitches” takes place entirely in the DJ booth, which is the focal point of a night at the club like this issue is the focal point of a series about a night at the club. Its two main characters are Seth Bingo and Silent Girl, the DJs for the night. On page 6, Seth leaves to have his conversation with David Kohl and Emily Aster (as seen in issue #3, although it appears that it’s a slightly different conversation in each instance); on page 9 he rejects Penny’s request for the Pipettes (as seen in issue #1); on page 16 we find out that Kid-Wife-Knife got lucky (although we don’t know who with yet). For the most part, however, this is Seth and Silent Girl spinning records and creating a mood, with Gillen as Seth and McKelvie as Silent Girl spinning the comic out for us. Listen to the rhythms of Seth’s ranting as he rips people for requesting music he claims to hate and tells Silent Girl that no one understands his genius. More importantly, look at McKelvie’s art. “Konichiwa Bitches” is 16 pages long, and on 14 of them, we get a six-panel grid (two across, three down), and in almost every panel, the same two characters appear in the exact same places – Seth on the left, Silent Girl on the right. There’s no way this comic should work, yet it does. Part of it, of course, is Gillen’s razor-sharp script, but McKelvie must make it work, and he pulls it off beautifully. Early on, when no one is dancing, Seth tells Silent Girl to “play the Blondie.” Because this book is about magic, Silent Girl puts on gloves and safety goggles and takes out a record that glows with the power of groovy. She holds it above her head like a communion wafer, and then puts it on the turntable. As “Atomic” plays, McKelvie shows wonderfully how it takes over Seth and Silent Girl, until they leap and shout the chorus (somewhat ironically, as that’s the one part of the song where Debbie sounds awfully blasé).
This continues throughout the issue. Look at the two when Silent Girl plays “You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve.” Seth is livid because she’s playing it even though Kohl likes it, and their reactions as it plays are excellent. When Seth says, “I will trust you,” Silent Girl looks at the ceiling, bemused that he thinks that will mollify her. When he rants that “it starts with the Be My Baby drum beat!” she smiles sideways at him. As he realizes Lolly Hayes is about to sing “Yeah yeah,” Silent Girl turns her head and smiles through it as he screams. When he confronts her, she shrugs and says “I like it.” It’s only five panels, but it’s an amazing journey through emotions that we recognize easily from McKelvie’s drawings. Later, Seth yells at her for playing “Pull Shapes,” and she gives him a look with a cocked eyebrow that needs no words, even though Gillen’s dialogue, “You’re not my vinyl Moses,” is perfect for the occasion. Finally, when we reach the climax of the issue, McKelvie draws a double-page spread that, despite Seth and Silent Girl claiming the night is about “no magic, just music,” is everything that the series tries to accomplish with its blending of music and magic. I won’t give it away, because out of context it might sound a bit silly and I don’t want to scan it, but within the context of the entire series, it’s the climax – a gorgeous drawing bringing together all of Gillen’s ideas into one scene that almost transcends the series entirely. Suddenly, all of Gillen’s theorizing in both series makes perfect sense. It’s an impressive achievement.
Live music can, of course, be a force for magic, but usually it’s an individualized feeling. It doesn’t have to be, of course – Woodstock is a famous example of a collective force, and in issue #4 of “Rue Britannia,” Gillen references the Knebworth concerts of 10-11 August 1996, the “apex of Oasis’ power in the UK,” and the scene implies that Noel Gallagher needed some kind of collective magic to transcend … something. My own personal brush with this kind of magic came around the same time, either in 1996 or 1997 (I can’t remember the exact year). James was touring in support of Whiplash, and my lovely wife and I went to see them in a small theater on Portland’s east side. James is a good live band, and Tim Booth was in fine form, telling the teen punks in the front to stop moshing (yes, they were moshing to James, which makes no sense at all). At this point in my life I just wanted to sit and listen to music, and luckily, at the back of the floor, there was a section for over-21 people where you could drink (the theater was, in case you haven’t figured it out, all-ages). James played many of their best songs, but if you’ve ever been to a James show, you know the highlight of the evening is when they play “Sit Down.” It’s a wonderful song on its own, anthemic and powerful, but live, it transforms into a primal chant that unites everyone listening to it. At the end of the song, the band tends to leave the stage while the audience continues singing the chorus. This happens every so often with bands, but what’s fascinating about James is that the audience keeps singing, often for several minutes. This interlude is usually followed by an encore, of course, but while it’s happening, the audience is one, singing a chorus of inclusion that is so often missing from society: “Oh, sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me.” Booth sings earlier in the song, “Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me; those who find they’re touched by madness, sit down next to me; those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me – In love, in fear, in hate, in tears; in love, in fear, in hate, in tears; in love, in fear, in hate, in tears; in love, in fear, in hate …” It’s a marvelous section, and when the audience sings while the band wanders off, they’re taking that message to heart. I’ve been to better overall shows, but I’ve never had that kind of singular experience at a concert, when music helps us transcend our pettiness and acknowledge that, yes, we are all the same, and why don’t we share ourselves instead of walling ourselves off?
In the back matter of “Rue Britannia” issue #5, Gillen writes about the “Rule of Three” when it comes to Britpop: “for all the key Britpop bands, the relevant albums come in threes. They correspond to their rise, maturity, and fall.” Blur, Oasis, and Pulp – the three key Britpop bands, according to Gillen – follow this rule, but he lists several smaller bands as well. And then, of course, he immediately discovers that his Rule of Three doesn’t really apply and amends it to a “guideline.” Still, Gillen’s rule applies, oddly enough, to Phonogram itself. “Rue Britannia” is definitely “the rise” – it’s two creators coming up with a brilliant idea and then, perhaps, going a bit too far into pretension before righting themselves. It’s a writer not trusting his strengths quite yet and thinking he needs a larger plot to make his point, when in fact he probably didn’t need Britannia to get to the heart of David Kohl’s struggle with his memory of Britpop or Beth’s desire to see Richey again. It’s an artist figuring things out on the fly, and some of those not succeeding. But it’s also the series where we can get beautiful panels of Emily talking to herself or Gillen’s evocative description of Scout Niblett’s music and how it affects Kohl. Of course it’s pretentious, but that’s kind of the point. “The Singles Club” is the mature work, less concerned with the über-plot and more concerned with showing the connections between the characters and allowing the plot to slowly come out. It’s the comic where Gillen trusts himself more and trusts McKelvie more, and it pays off magnificently. The vagaries of the comic book market (and McKelvie’s desire to, you know, eat) meant that we never got a third series, but would it have been “the fall”? Would it, to use Gillen’s words when he described Be Here Now, have been a “drowning-in-cocaine” comic? It’s doubtful, but there’s no doubt that the two series of Phonogram follow Gillen’s pattern: If we regress a decade and you allow me to use a band near and dear to my heart, “Rue Britannia” and “The Singles Club” are Fugazi and Misplaced Childhood – the first full of promise yet weighed down with ponderous metaphors that almost – but not quite – overshadow the biting lyrics, while the second keeps the metaphors yet manages to subvert them to moving lyrics and powerful yet less overwrought music. Both “Rue Britannia” and “The Singles Club” are wonderful comics, and it’s fascinating to watch the growth the creators as the series unfolds.
So we end, not at the beginning, but in the moments, one from each issue.
“Rue Britannia” #1: “In the same way a room full of a vacuum and a room full of air look the same, but one is impossible to live without and the other will make you implode. For three minutes, we’re hers. As if I’d admit it.”
“Rue Britannia” #2:
“Rue Britannia” #3: “Fuck the Manics, David, and anyone stupid enough to get sufficiently hung up to become a spectre for them.”
“Rue Britannia” #4: “Imagine it … swapping around. I could be you. And you … you’d by the one staring at my house lights at 1 am. Your nails biting into your palms as you watch me dance. You writing letters that never get sent. You crying. You drinking. You crying some more. Maybe you’ll be the nothing. I hope not. That was my nothing. I don’ want to let it go.”
“Rue Britannia” #5:
“Rue Britannia” #6: “You’re immortal to anyone who cared anyway. Who else matters?”
“The Singles Club” #1:
“The Singles Club” #2: “Look at me when you’re dancing. Dancing is sex. You … touching own cock. Stop it!”
“The Singles Club” #3: “Everyone I know is a bad person with great taste in records. I can afford to hold some of them in contempt.”
“The Singles Club” #4: “‘You know what I like about Sleater Kinney?’ ‘They’ve split up.’ ‘Yes. Exactly that.’”
“The Singles Club” #5:
“The Singles Club” #6:
Kohl, of course, gets the final word:
Phonogram has been collected into two trades, but tracking down the single issues really is worth it. In both series, Gillen’s back matter is quite interesting, while in “The Singles Club,” the back-up stories are almost uniformly excellent (“David Kohl: Phonomancer,” a parody of Hellblazer and a brilliant summation of “Rue Britannia” from Kid-With-Knife’s point of view, might be my favorite, but that’s by a nose). I don’t know how easy the single issues are to find, but they’re worth a look. Or you can just get the trades! Phonogram is one of the best comics of this young century, and if you’ve been enjoying Gillen’s and McKelvie’s work at Marvel, you owe it to yourself to read this series. They’ve both done very good work for Marvel, but Phonogram, frankly, blows that stuff out of the water. We may never see a new series, but we got thirteen wonderful issues. Sometimes, that’s good enough.
Hey! you can check out the archives if you so wish. Lots of good stuff there!
[Since I wrote this, of course, Gillen and McKelvie did do a third volume, which is also excellent and which I will write about in the future, but not now. I try to write about series after they’re done, and when I wrote this, I honestly thought there would be no new Phonogram comics, and I doubt if Gillen and McKelvie thought there would be, either. But they did, and of course I always hope for more!
This remains one of my favorite pieces of writing on comics – I think I did a pretty good job with the writing and art on Phonogram, while expressing why it’s so good and why it doesn’t matter if you know the music referenced in the comic. I could be wrong, I guess – you may hate this – but I still dig it. It doesn’t hurt that Phonogram is one of my favorite comics ever, of course, or that both Gillen and McKelvie are extremely nice fellows who are very fun to talk to, so it makes it easy to write about their work. And I make reference to the other times I wrote about Phonogram, but I can’t be bothered to find those links. So this might be brand new to you!
There is a massive Phonogram collection, but it appears out of print and it’s expensive, so it’s probably better to get the trades. I’ve linked to the second one below, because if you’re going in cold, it might be better than the first one, which is a bit more music-reference-heavy and a little less successful (although it’s still amazing). This is really a magnificent comic. Would I lie to you?]