You, Me, Dancing: The Impact Of Gillen, McKelvie And Wilson’s ‘Phonogram’ [Music Week]
Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson’s Phonogram is a very special comic where music is literally magic and the right song played at the right time can take you to new dimensions or ruin your life forever. There isn’t a single comic that has had as much of an effect on the shape and direction of my life as Phonogram, and as ComicsAlliance celebrates all things music and Phonogram heads into its tenth year, I wanted to talk a bit about how important this book has been over the last decade.
“Rue Britannia,” the first volume of Phonogram, stars a very veiled analogue of Gillen himself named David Kohl, who is tasked to prevent the resurrection of the Goddess Britannia, because his own identity is rooted in the Britpop boom of the ’90s. If Britannia is resurrected, then Kohl may start to change and worse still, Kula Shaker might reform.
A lot of “Rue Britannia” might seem incomprehensible to people without an attached glossary to understand names, dates and locations but the underlying theme of how important music is to our own identity and how we can become subsumed by that is universal. In the volume we see characters that have retreated into their obsession like Indie Dave and characters that revel in their abilities like Emily Aster, but each of them reflect different aspects of an obsessive musical fandom that takes itself a bit too seriously.
The first volume of Phonogram came out before I started reading comics regularly, but a couple of years later it ended up being one of the most formative pieces of literature of my entire life. Through Phonogram, I discovered bands like Kenickie and reappraised the dad-rock of Manic Street Preachers after religiously pouring over their seminal third album, The Holy Bible.
Coincidentally, I discovered what would soon be my favorite band in late-2008, Los Campesinos!, and learning that their second LP’s title We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed not only came from a Kieron Gillen review of the band, but “A room full of vacuum and a room full air look the same” is a paraphrased quote from Phonogram, solidified my love for both band and comic.
The second volume of Phonogram, “The Singles Club,” eschews the linear narrative and high stakes (well, high to Kohl) of “Rue Britannia” by casting seven leads for seven issues which all ostensibly take place at the same time on the same night out. The miniseries has heartbreak, disappointment, jubilation and great tunes, which is everything you expect from a Saturday night out in Bath, and manages to manipulate the meanings of songs within the context of how the characters consider them.
In the second volume, Gillen, McKelvie and Wilson introduce Lloyd, a young man trying oh-so-hard to be sincere and important, attending nights out in full suits and insisting every refers to him as Mr. Logos (no one does). When David Kohl takes Lloyd aside and recommends he might find something appealing in the music of a new band called Los Campesinos!, I felt as if Gillen were reaching out to me personally — just like when your favorite band writes a lyric that perfectly captures everything you’re feeling now.
After a long, long hiatus, the creative team announced “The Immaterial Girl” on my 22nd birthday, news that came through after a long night out that led to a long painful morning, but in between those two moments in time, the news of a new Phonogram stands out as the most vivid memory of that night. It would be another three years before the third and final volume would be released as everyone involved had rightly become superstars, but it was more than worth the wait.
“The Immaterial Girl” stars Emily Aster, haunted and replaced by a past version of herself, trapped in a kingdom comprised of iconic music videos of the eighties. While “Rue Britannia” is about the past and “The Singles Club” is about the present, ultimately “The Immaterial Girl” is about barreling headlong into the future, as a new generation of Phonomancers step up to carry on the work of their predecessors.
Again, this felt like Phonogram speaking to me in a sense and rather than previous messages which amounted to “I understand you” this one was more forceful and sounded more like “It’s your turn now”. Trends come in cycles, and yes, Kula Shaker did reform anyway and the world didn’t end, but there’s always a next generation to make something new that can speak to people. Sometimes it’s comics, sometimes is music, sometimes it’s the consumption and criticism of either and sometimes, like Phonogram, it’s all of the above.
While Phonogram is about the intimate connection between the song and the listener and how people can wield the power that provides them, ultimately, Phonogram’s true message is delivered by Kid-With-Knife, the only non-Phonomancer the series ever focuses on.
“That? That’s magic? Hell, everyone does that”