Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 shows the Beauty and Agony of Dancing on Your own
“I just wanna dance all night/And I’m all messed up, I’m so out of line, yeah.”- “Dancing on my Own” by Robyn
If there’s one Kieron Gillen and/or Jamie McKelvie trade paperback volume that I recommend to folks, it’s Phonogram: The Singles Club. Technically, it’s Phonogram’s second volume, but it’s much more accessible than Rue Britannia (Unless you’re a huge Brit Pop fan). Singles Club is structured around a single night (December 23, 2006) at an indie club in Bristol, England told from the perspective of eight different phonomancers in seven comic book issues with seven accompanying songs that you can find on this playlist. (In short, a phonomancer uses music to create magic.) It’s like hipster Rashomon without murder and is a real treat for fans of character-driven writing with McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson bringing out unique storytelling tricks and color stories for each POV character.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t reading comic books when Phonogram: Singles Club dropped in 2009-2010 and read both it and Rue Britannia in 2014 during an arc break for The Wicked + the Divine, a comic that I covered at length during its epic 5 year run. However, it’s one of my favorite books by my favorite creative team, and I’m excited to cover it, especially during a time where the closest I can get to indie night at the club is dancing in my living room to a Bluetooth speaker so Singles Club has been a real comfort for me.
Phonogram: The Singles Club #1 focuses on the phonomancer, Penny B. She’s 19 years old, loves to dance, and has a crush on the emotionally distant Marquis, who looks like if Justin Bieber went indie instead of misappropriating Black culture. The song she really wants to dance to is “Pull Shapes” by The Pipettes, a British all-female indie pop group that had a few hits in the 2000s and were at the height of their fame around the time of this book’s setting. Basically, they’re a 1960s close harmony, girl group transported to 2006 with an all-male pop rock backing band, and “Pull Shapes” is an ode to the dance floor with everything else fading into the background. McKelvie and Wilson nail this feeling with their visuals by dropping out the background art and dropping in flat colors and polka dots (Like the outfits the Pipettes wear) so it’s just Penny and the music.
And when it comes down to it, music and dancing is all that Penny cares about, which is why she ends up dancing on her own in this final pages on the issue. There’s a real dissonance between the dialogue Kieron Gillen writes for her, and the reactions that Jamie McKelvie draws for her “friends” and fellow clubgoers. Supposedly, Laura is Penny’s best friend, but she never really talks to her except when she wants something like a gin and tonic. For example, on the bus ride to the club, Penny speaks directly to the reader/audience while Laura rolls her eyes, looks pensive, and smokes in the background. No wonder Penny has to pay for the drinks. The only time they really make eye contact and get in a conversation is when Laura says that the DJ is playing Blondie. This causes her to flip her drink to Laura as soon as she’s got it and hit the dance floor in an energetic display of McKelvie’s skill with motion and body movement as she breaks one of the rules of the night, which is “No magic”. (You can tell because her eyes go black and polka dot.)
The throughline of ignoring people for music continues when she tries to chat up Marquis, but Gillen and McKelvie reveal no reason for there to be a connection between them except for his attractiveness. She starts to chat him up and put her hand on his arm, but then immediately she runs to the dance floor while remarking on his cuteness. Then, there’s pages of her arguing and honestly being gate-kept by the DJ (Who we later find out is named Seth Bingo) about the Pipettes. This is a sidebar from her trying to dance with Marquis, and she finally asks him and is completely and utterly rejected. Wilson uses a drab color palette while McKelvie draws Marquis from the back and doesn’t even have him make eye contact with her as he tells her, “Just not with you.” to the dance request. Penny is definitely self-centered and incredibly bad at listening, but you have to really feel for her it in this moment, mostly, because McKelvie gives her the saddest, forlorn puppy dog face ever.
Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson show Penny B spiraling into even more loneliness as Phonogram: Singles Club #1 progresses. She tries to find Laura in the restroom, but her “best friend” would rather hide behind a door than comfort her. Then, she runs into Marquis’ buddy Lloyd, who doesn’t have the social restraint of the other characters, and puts in words what they’ve all been thinking. Gillen writes cruelty really well, but he and McKelvie give Penny a way out as white musical notes fill the panels, and she realizes that Seth has relented and is playing “Pull Shapes”. It really captures the emotion of music as an escape as she doesn’t want to be in this conversation and just wants to dance to her favorite song.
So, at the end, we get the two pages that really cemented Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson as a superstar collaborative team. Gillen writes one hell of a monologue for Penny as she finally realizes that she can just enjoy truly dancing by herself and enjoying her songs for the sake of it instead of running after some boy, trying to salvage a friendship beyond saving, or arguing with some hipster DJ. McKelvie’s storytelling is sharp as he cuts between Penny dancing and the other characters of Singles Club observing her. She’s truly in her own little world for a moment. The background figures disappear and are replaced by pure white sound and musical notes from McKelvie and Wilson, whose colors are truly magical in the sequence. It captures the feeling of truly being enveloped in a song that it defines you for the next three or four minutes or maybe your whole life, and Gillen, McKelvie, and Wilson explore this theme in the final issue of Singles Club. (Come back in six weeks for that.)
Before wrapping up and putting some tunes on the ol’ faithful Bluetooth, I’d like to conclude by commenting on Penny’s last words and the final words of this issue, “I knew you’d understand” as she looks directly at the reader. Even though Penny is immature and quite annoying, anyone who loves music, pop or otherwise, can definitely relate to her need to get to the dance floor. Like this conversation is lovely, but the drop for “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem is about to happen, and I need to be in the action when it goes off. In some cases, this is definitely impolite or socially unacceptable, but in the words of an artist who I won’t name, “At the end of the day, music is all we got.” Penny should definitely be nicer to her friends though and get to know people she has crushes on.