Everyone who loves music needs to buy Phonogram. Even if the music you love isn’t Brit Pop. Even if it’s not pop. Even if everyone hates the music you love.
Remember being a little kid and your first time falling in love with music that was truly your own, rather than just listening to whatever your parents were playing? It is a formative moment in shaping your identity. You probably wrote in your journal something like “music is magic!” and maybe you drew ornate hearts and stars around it.
No? I doubt that Kid Elana was the only one, especially when the title page of this very comic, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie also says “Music is magic.”
That’s the central conceit of Phonogram: that music actually IS magic. Phonomancers use music to do powerful magic that shapes their lives and sometimes shapes reality beyond them. They certainly use phonomancy to shape the cultural consensus around music.
Gillen and McKelvie are masters at building fantastical metaphors for growing up and developing your sense of self. Their metaphors feel more real than any more “realistic” or literal narrative could ever be.
The new (and sadly final) story arc in this episodic series focuses on Emily Aster and how the too cool to be kind, all angles and snark, queen bee of the London coven got that way. Earlier in the series we’d seen that Emily used to be Claire –vulnerable, depressive and listening to The Smiths. Who ever went through a phase like that? (Cough, a lot of us, cough). Claire used magic to excise away the soft, sad, part of her personality emerging as Emily Aster a self-described “obsidian swan with wings of flame”. In issue 1 of The Immaterial Girl we learn that she did this by making a deal with “The King Behind the Screen”, a deity made of TV static and a Michael Jackson glove. With this deal she exiled her depressed teenage psyche to the netherverse beyond the mirror/monitor.
The self-invented Emily Aster that emerged from the deal didn’t just listening to pop music (gasp!) but rigorously espouses the doctrine of poptimism while (ironically enough) mercilessly mocking people who don’t get with her program. Meanwhile, Claire, her old goth self is coming back to haunt her. By making a “full faustian” deal with the devil Emily/Claire made herself her own worst enemy.
Issue 1 ended with Claire, her sad old self, dragging Emily through the screen of her TV into a-ha’s “Take On Me” video . Mirrors or screens are used to signify the division between this plane and the other-worldly going back to Lewis Carroll and to Surrealists like Jean Cocteau. Phonogram packs layers upon layers and references galore, but if you don’t catch some each issue ends with a thoughtful glossary. You can look up any band in the series on Spotify if you choose. Not required. But it’s really part of the fun.
In issue #2 Claire is finally out in the real world and trying to destroy the life Emily invented for herself. Meanwhile Emily is still trapped in the dark world behind the video screen. She’s chased by the iconic a-ha video’s animated pencil sketched thugs. She eludes them only to be slowly consumed by the tuxedoed dance corps[e] of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” some wearing the faces of her friends. Interestingly both Claire and Emily like Madonna. 80’s Madonna is one of music’s great unifiers. She’s a baseline consensus of quality music even if you (like me) don’t care for the lesser pop she inspired.
McKelvie’s art directly references the 80’s music videos that Claire/Emily fell in love with before she made herself who she is today. The cover of issue 1 is an homage to the work of 80’s pop artist Nagel. Nagel is famous for his art deco inspired, utterly flat graphic art of beautiful black-haired women often with cold or distant expressions. Expressions like Emily’s. You probably recognize Nagel’s art from the cover of Duran Duran’s album Rio.
McKelvie’s art, especially his clean line work and graphic faces already bares strong similarity to Nagel’s style so this explicit homage means something more. There’s an overall flatness to both Nagel and McKelvie’s style that acts symbolically here. Emily is a mask. Becoming a two-dimensional person was a choice she made to reduce the pain of being imperfect and misunderstood. But you know what else would help ease that pain? The togetherness of a shared musical experience. Fandom. That’s why we are teen goths together, not teen goths alone.
Gillen has said that Phonogram IS music criticism. As such it’s hard for comics critics like me, to write about Phonogram without talking about their own personal relationship and history with music.
Whenever I write a review in which I include my personal stories I get self-conscious about whether or not readers are actually going read them or just bail on me before reading the full review.
But I realize now that it is impossible to write about Phonogram without talking about one’s personal relationship to music.
Phonogram is about our personal relationship to music. You really can’t talk about Phonogram without talking about yourself.
And I think that is one of the strengths of the book. I think it’s why we love it so much. That and the beautiful art.
In fact, Phonogram may be causing some actual magic in real life. Honest to god this happened:
I was walking down the street explaining the series to my Husband. I suddenly heard a bell tolling a few times. I figured it was the church near by. But then a familiar, crunchy guitar riff began “dunuh dunuh duuuuh” and I asked “is someone playing For Whom the Bell Tolls?” Ask not For Whom the Bell Tolls, because it tolls from my iPhone. It had spontaneously started playing the 3rd track off Metallica’s 2nd best album, Ride the Lighting. It was as if the song was conjured by the “God of Thunder” and rock and rolllll to remind me that what I listen to is as much a part of the story as what is contained in the pages of Phonogram.
Characters within the text debating what music is good, what music is relevant, and where music should be going is a constant in the series. Even though David Kohl, ends Rue Britannia telling the next generation it’s ok to like what they like, even if they like The Libertines. The conversation never ends with that.
“Being an indie kid is a little like Catholicism. You never quite get over it” said David Kohl. It’s true. Even if the first music you fell in love with never called itself indie.
Claire probably scoffs at mainstream taste. Emily scoffs at indie. I’m not sure if Claire/Emily’s Rockist vs Poptimist debate is a legitimate intellectual argument these days but perhaps the future holds a reconciliation of both instincts. Throughout the series characters reconcile the stories they tell themselves about the music they enjoy with the reality of the music they do enjoy — which doesn’t always match their professed philosophy or what they want to be seen as loving. I’m a leftist but most of my musical taste is pale, male, belligerent and before my time. I’m all off-message. So I understand their struggle.
It is so hard to break from the “us vs them” attitude of pop cultural affiliations, but it’s an important part of growing up (which is something else this series is about). In The Immaterial Girl #1 we go back in time to see The Myth, their coven leader (a character I really enjoy) lead their very first coven meeting. He preaches being accepting of other people’s taste and accepting that it’s ok to love the music that speaks to you whether it is mainstream, hip or obscure. He says he tried to hate The White Stripes but he couldn’t. If it makes you feel magic it’s good.
Dear DJ Seth Bingo: after reading issue #1 I tried listening to the Sugababes. I found them dull even for Top 40’s, but then I’m not the audience. Don’t try to punch me like I’m Indie Dave. I’m not Indie Dave. I just listened to Black Sabbath. They wrote some of the catchiest, heaviest hooks of all time and so if music is magic I’m pretty sure I can take you out with my right hook (in a drop C# tuning).
PS: The backup stories in each issue featuring other artists make Phonogram feel like a fanzine in all the best ways. The story about Mr. Logos in the back of issue 1 just kills me. I’ll never understand why he gets stuck on a Taylor Swift song but I understand the concept of getting caught in a “curse song”. I’ve been there.
PPS: I totally respect that we can’t listen to Sabbath at your weekly dance party. The “only songs with girl singers allowed” rule you enforce is pretty radical. I’ll try it. I will. It’s how to stay young.
Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Jamie McKelvie
Story: 10 Art: 10 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Buy it. Buy the whole damn series.
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review