Phonogram: The Singles Club #3 shows the impossibility of Escaping Past Insecurities
“Oh, make me over! I’m all I want to be. A walking study in demonology.”- “Celebrity Skin” by Hole
Content warning: self-harm mentions
Asymmetrical haircut, perfect quip at the ready, timeless sense of fashion, and an air of superiority. Emily Aster is the epitome of “cool girl”, and she even makes inhaling carcinogens indoors look cool. She rules the roost in Phonogram: The Singles Club #3 where Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson show an indie night at a club in Bristol from her perspective. The story begins with her admiring her “reflection” in the mirror (We later learn that, like a vampire, she doesn’t have one.) and wraps up with her having mindless casual sex with Kid-with-Knife, who would much rather be dancing to Wu-Tang Clan than Elastica. Along the way, she imposes her ego on every person she comes into contact with at indie night from frenemy David Kohl to the DJs Seth Bingo and Silent Girl plus Laura Heaven in one panel, and most spectacularly, an old friend from high school, who knew her as a self-harming sad girl named Clair, who was more into The Smiths than taking over a dance floor.
Thematically, Gillen and McKelvie follow a similar throughline in Phonogram: The Singles Club #3 as the previous issue with Emily Aster, like Marc, being haunted by a specter of her past. However, Emily’s specter is herself. It’s not until page ten until we find out that she doesn’t have a reflection, but Gillen and McKelvie hint at the reveal through dialogue and art placement. Emily basically breaks the fourth wall and shows the audience’s perception of herself. She immediately switches to second person in her narrative captions, and McKelvie draws her from different angles and never straight on like looking in a mirror. Gillen’s writing exudes confidence until we get a close-up and a “Get out of my head, right now”, which is a recurring theme as Emily tries to run away from Claire as quickly as possible.
In her mind, Emily has no past just a present and future. This is why she scoffs at the whole concept of “indie night” and being into music from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s like David Kohl, and especially, Indie Dave, who really hasn’t moved beyond Joy Division and the Manchester sound of that time and appeared in the previous volume as well as The Singles Club‘s B-sides. Later, in the issue, Emily starts energetically dancing to an Elastica song with Matthew Wilson’s palette capturing the glow of nostalgia. But, in the very next panel, she sees the reflection of Claire, there’s a repetition of “get out of my head”, and she leaves to do the most un-Claire thing possible: have a one night stand with Kid-with-Knife. Even though Emily’s dialogue is full of punch and ego and her posture is self-assured, everything she does is to piss off her past self. She might think that she has put that behind her, but her near-photographic memory of events that happened when she was a teenager shows that it still matters to her.
And speaking of near-photographic memory, Emily’s most devastating and sadistic moment happens in the bathroom just before Penny B enters it to cry about Marc not dancing with her. Even though Emily denies knowing her, she runs into a high school classmate, who knew her as Claire the self-harmer. (In a bit of dark, deadpan humor, Jamie McKelvie draws Claire showing the scars on her arm.) Emily starts serious with metaphors for self-harm helping her transform into the woman she is today before reeling off an eight-panel monologue about the classmate’s car accident that took her brother’s life. McKelvie draws Claire casually re-applying lipstick and even includes a beat panel to show her pursing her lips to see if it looks good. However, Gillen’s dialogue is anything but casual and is utterly cruel as Emily forces this woman from her past to relive the saddest moment of her life in a club bathroom sandwiched between remarks about 1990s hip hop one-hit wonders. She really is a bad person with great taste in records, and this bathroom encounter with Claire/high school acquaintance ends up being the engine of the story that is Phonogram: Immaterial Girl where Emily totally loses control over her current self-identity.
In the end, Emily doesn’t have a good night at the club as her egotism (What she hypocritically accuses Seth Bingo of being.), casual cruelty, and fixation on past insecurities ruin the one song she wanted to dance to (And this issue’s song/cover): “We Share Our Mother’s Health” by The Knife. There is a fluidity to Emily’s movements when she’s having a good time with Kohl and Kid-with-Knife for exactly one panel, but McKelvie draws her a little more rigidly when The Knife track comes on and Wilson uses shadowy colors instead of the intense (or ethereal) ones he uses for most dancing scenes. This is because Emily is “… living proof that sometimes friends are mean” and is too busy being smug and showing how much she has changed since the indie nights of the past to have a good time. Of course, she blames Kohl for the night sucking and turns her back on him, but from her actions throughout the comic, we know it’s her fault.
As someone who has has played around with different identities, personas, and occasionally even looks, (See Emo Nite 2018) I can relate to Emily Aster (Uh oh!) and empathize with her even though she’s really a terrible person and crossed all the lines in her bathroom chat/monologue. I hate talking about and thinking about my past self and live in fear of running into someone I knew from high school now that I’ve moved back to that area thanks to a great career opportunity. So, I understand the deep insecurity that is connected to “coming home” (Even if “home” was never actually home), and by extension, Emily’s perspective in Phonogram: The Singles Club #3. I hate to say it, but I agree with Seth Bingo that she’s “the most evil woman in the world”.
However, he really doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Honestly, Kieron Gillen via Emily Aster put it best when he wrote “Everyone I know is a bad person with great taste in records”. This is an apt descriptor for basically the entire cast of Phonogram, who definitely introduced me to some great tunes (I owe my standom of Manic Street Preachers and Robyn to the series.), but is chockfull with some interpersonal toxicity as illustrated in my past, present, and future essays on Phonogram: The Singles Club.