Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide
You can’t talk about Phonogram (or The Wicked + The Divine) without talking about David Bowie. He died the day the final issue of Phonogram shipped with a cover eerily similar to a scene from his final music video*. In death Bowie gave us a final gift— his remarkable new album Blackstar. And with it an affirmation that you can be relevant to the end. A fantastic final statement. It would have given Emily Aster some hope about changing as she gets older. It also makes for one hell of a boss battle in issue 6.
Bowie has always been the best at moving through to new selves. His former selves don’t haunt him. They certainly don’t make him slit his arms with a mirror. He’s not Emily Aster. But like Bowie she comes into the series, sheds a self, builds a new one, grows through it and emerges to seek out what’s next.
The final issues of Phonogram ever are both about people moving on or growing. Example 1: David Kohl learns a thing or two about friendship. No seriously, that’s his story arc. Immediately preceding her attempted suicide Emily’s old self, Claire had isolated herself by breaking up the coven. She destroyed their music scene and when Kohl tries to get its former members together to do a ritual to save her (and use up the last of his power) they’ve all moved on. To conventional adulthood. Or they’ve been burned.
By talking with his mentor Lady Vox (who’s about to “shit out a kid like it’s a cannonball” speaking of growing and changing) he realizes this is Emily’s life crisis and he can’t fight it. She needs to figure out how to move forward in her life.
Kohl then performs an act of generosity that makes up for some of his past assholic behavior. Kohl gives his wheel-man/wing-man Kid With Knife a gift he deserves and needs: he phonomances him off to Times Square . He may even have used his last bit of magic to do so. It’s a mature and loving thing. Maybe it makes up for all the times he’s made KWK drive his ass across town. Like Kohl, I don’t drive and I get by a lot on my ability to persuade. So I appreciate him taking ownership of his behavior. It’s also a literal demonstration of magical power in a story where much of it can be read as strictly metaphor. The final B side makes it clear: Kohl really sent KWK to NYC.
One of the great things about the back-up story in issue 4 was how Gillen says that at one time he was his friend Johnny Panic’s Kid With Knife, a.k.a. his sidekick. For most of the series Kohl has been a protagonist with KWK his dull sidekick. Sometimes you’re the protagonist and sometimes it’s not your story. Gillen gives Kohl a wonderful complete story arc here because in The Immaterial Girl the star is really Emily.
Sure, David Kohl may have killed a god in volume 1: Rue Britannia. But in volume 3 Emily Aster kills the King of Pop. Or his death set her free. One way or another.
When Emily was a girl the King Beyond the Screen, a Michael Jackson made of TV static beckoned her and offered her the deal. She signs over her depressive self in exchange for the power of image.
Jackson, like Bowie was always changing— physically even. Both were masters of image. Emily’s image has been killing her literally.
This chapter is named “See Emily Play” (a Pink Floyd song that Bowie covered). Syd Barret’s lyrics go “Emily tries but misunderstands. She often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow.” Emily has been trying to play by the rules of the magic video world she’s trapped in but she misunderstands. Inspired by the Lady Gaga within, Emily reveals the King to simply be an aspect of herself wearing Michael Jackson’s Bad garb. The King/Queen of Pop insists that Emily needs her or else she’ll be entirely empty. In a visual technicolor crescendo of blood splatter that artist Jamie McKelvie and colorist Matt Wilson completely ace, she takes a wrench to the effigy powerfully stating “you can fill empty things.”
In another striking set of panels she dissolves her old depressive self and penetrates the retina of her eye, “the ultimate screen” emerging back into her body on the other side. Throughout the whole arc artist McKelvie has done amazing things using mirrors as portals and playing with screens and windows and faces reflected in windows with raindrops. It’s all very metaphysical. The scene also reminds me of Ann Margaret pushing Roger Daltrey through the mirror in Tommy, Ken Russell’s movie version of The Who’s musical.
She wakes up in a bath of her own blood and to a text message from Kohl saying Michael Jackson has died. That Gillen got the calendars to work for this is very impressive! The sequence counts off the various ways Michael Jackson’s death impacts people, from Black Laura’s relief that it wasn’t her idol Kate Jackson (from the Long Blonds), to the great Poly Styrene’s last song “Ghoulish”, the video for which consisted of Michael Jackson impersonators and called out the media’s description of the late MJ as “ghoulish” (again, a statement on aging). The next panel is a random guy playing Dirty Diana on an acoustic guitar thinking he’s cheeky and a phonomancer “too old to feel so angry, wishes him immolated” (yeah me too). Gillen even writes himself, his actual self, not Kohl, spotting an MJ impersonator on the tube and being wildly disconcerted by it. But it’s mostly everyone dancing “as close to forever as any of us will ever get.”
Kohl has been offered a job by “The Adversary” and states that whether he takes it or not it’s proof that he’s irrelevant. Because that means he’s mainstream enough to be marketable. Marketable at what we don’t know– is it music writing? Or is it maybe writing comics (since this comic has frequently been a magical realist auto-biography). Her final conversation with Kohl really got to me. It reminds me of all the people I used to know in the scenes I’ve been in and whom I’ve lost track of. The whole issue has me in a sad nostalgic puddle.
Emily walks away in the rain, alone. For pages. Kohl can go back to his girlfriend-soon-to-be wife. Emily could be on her way to a healthier place but for now she is on her own. She is utterly at sea and is even soaking wet to prove it. Her hair is kinking up in the rain like MJ’s. Her red shirt is a mundane echo of the red Michael Jackson jacket she wore as Queen Behind the Screen. But her shirt is so conventional she could wear it to a job interview <shudder>.
She tosses her cigarette into a puddle and in the next panel we see Black Laura, lighting up her own. A tiny torch has been passed (albeit toxic). We get a final moment with Lloyd and Laura (god I love them!) and Shambles (sure, he can come too) as they prepare to launch their own DJ night and start their own coven. Shambles even calls Lloyd “Logos” (a small victory for his nom du magic). They quote a contemporary song. Good for them. They talk about the important Work they have to do. Kohl may be moving on to a job job but the next generation of phonomancer leadership is just coming into itself and this is their important work– “the sooner we start the sooner we save the world”.
Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ends with Ziggy’s Rock and Roll Suicide. The rock Jesus from space tells us he’s washed up and feeling old and so, Bowie the artist offs his current avatar in a grand finale chanson.
But as the song ends the singer (I’d argue Bowie at that point and not his character Ziggy) implores the listeners:
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone (wonderful)
Emily Aster has smashed her old selves. Claire has had the rock and roll suicide she always wanted but a new Emily lives on. “I’m still Emily Aster. I’m just not Emily Aster… I’ve tried everything else. I may as well try changing.”
For us readers and listeners that story is over. The creators told the story of their youth the way they wanted to and so it offed itself so we can grow and change and move to the next thing which is the creative team’s new series, The Wicked + The Divine. May Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have 100 years until their Blackstar. I love this comic so so much.
Thoughts on the Final B-Sides:
Shiney Black Taxi Cab (pencils Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt on layouts/inks/letters) features particularly phonogram-y art. Kohl gets a cab to take him on a drive while the radio pulls up whatever random dreck the radio pulls up. He’s using it as a divination tool. It seems a bit like a mediated version of what the Situationists call Dérive: “unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.”
It’s also like writer/speaker/activist Deanna Zandt’s annual Magic 8 Ball Music Ritual where you open up your music player, hit shuffle and draw conclusions. Try it. Mine just said Dance Apocalyptic which fits because Janelle Monae’s voice sounds like young Michael Jackson’s on this track.
Modern Love (art by Tom Humberstone)
The last bit of Phonogram EVAR and it’s a Bowie song of course. It’s also another ultra autobio story and it’s so good it could literally stand alone as a comic. Kieron and Kid With Guns are out for Kieron’s stag night and realize they’re the first people in the club because that’s what happens when you’re old. When the music takes over it’s a shared moment. Kieron shows us the story of his life in clubs. Of finding the place that had the music that he needed and “It was like discovering Narnia with hotter people and better music.” This was my life too.
Kieron literally grows up across the 4 panels from a long haired kid, to somewhat shorter haired teen spotting Britannia, his goddess (read volume 1), up to the present where he is remembering what it’s like to be clubbing again. There is one last piece of magic: he asks the record to always remind him and “it obliges”. Because that what music does.
*The totally arresting cover image of issue 6 is actually a reference to Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush video Don’t Give Up (don’t feel bad, I didn’t know that one either). The reassuring title should make us feel better. Personally I’ll always associate the cover with Blackstar even though it was drawn months before the album was released. Synchronicity.
Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Jamie McKelvie
Story: 10 Art: 10 Overall: This goes to 11. Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review, but I buy it anyway so I can evangelize to the masses
Okay, it’s driving me insane: what album is the cover referencing?
And I missed the last footnote before posting…never mind…
I know how that is. I didn’t catch the reference either. I started watching the Ashes to Ashes video thinking Bowie had maybe referenced himself in Blackstar. Eventually I just asked Kieron. I had never actually seen that video before. But I’m not a big Peter Gabriel person– even in Genesis which is the sort of thing I should listen to more since I’ve grown very fond of prog.
“Kohl has been offered a job by “The Adversary” and states that whether he takes it or not it’s proof that he’s irrelevant. Because that means he’s mainstream enough to be marketable. Marketable at what we don’t know– is it music writing? Or is it maybe writing comics (since this comic has frequently been a magical realist auto-biography).”
Not that it really matters either way (it’s Phonogram, after all) but – and I’m ashamed for only having worked it out so far into this run – it’s the NME, music magazine once of note. “Adversary” = “enemy” = “NME”.
But I think it’s equally as valid, obviously, as a parallel of Kieron’s move into comics writing – or, rather, his move from being a critic to being a creator – without needing to know the specific reference.
Damn, that must be it! How did I miss that! And to that I say https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNnWRmqlLfk
To join to two strands of metaphor together — working in comics, working for The Man — 2009 was the year Gillen started doing a lot of work for Marvel.