I've been picking up a lot of great comics collections lately, so it's time for The Review of Obscure Books. Today's review is the first of three classics on my stack: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram.
Phonogram isn't a single graphic novel, it's a series of three, each one collecting a short series. These were written over the course of quite a number of years, and can be thought of collectively as a story about passing the generational torch, in music, and in magic.
It's an odd setting. Phonogram takes place in our world, save that it is a world where music is, subtly, magical. Not magical in the sense of, "people flying through the air and shooting lightning bolts" -- magical in the sense of transformational. The beauty of the series is that it's one of the few urban fantasies where you could actually *believe* that most people don't even know the magic is there. There's a lot of high weirdness going on here, but you can interpret nearly all of it as metaphorical and imaginary, and the story still makes perfectly good sense. This is magic of the heart and mind, more than the physical.
Kieron Gillen is, mind you, my pick for Best Comics Writer currently working, and is in contention for best ever if he keeps going the way he's doing. His major series to date include Loki and Young Avengers (the story that redefined one of Marvel's best villains); Uber (a darkly brilliant examination of superheroes as weapons of mass destruction); Mercury Heat (cyberpunk hard SF -- bloody, violent and kinda fun); and the major fan-favorite The Wicked and the Divine, which he has described as the flip side of Phonogram -- where Phonogram is about music fandom, WicDiv is about music creation. All of them are well worth reading, and the latter three are still in progress. (Uber and WicDiv are explicitly novels, but I'm not sure how long either is intended to run.)
Several of these were done in collaboration with McKelvie, who is the modern archetype of "clean line" art: beautiful, unpretentious, clear and expressive comics. I sort of think of McKelvie as accomplishing what John Byrne was always attempting.
But the first series of Phonogram, collected as "Rue Britannia", was the story that first introduced me to Gillen and McKelvie. It's in a fine greytoned black and white, and is the story of David Kohl (a presence throughout the series), who is investigating the creepy resurrection and mutation of Britannia, goddess of BritPop, the music god who made him who he is. Kohl is tasked with figuring out who is behind it and stopping them before their meddling redefines him into unrecognizability. Written about 15 years ago, it's a bit rough around the edges, and the metaphor is, if it's not obvious, laid on rather thick. But it's still a fascinating story, and a clear case of two rising talents finding their feet.
Which they did find in The Singles Club, back in 2010. I wrote a full review at the time -- suffice it to say, this was tied (with daytripper) as my pick for best comic of the year. The story is set in one evening, down at the nightclub, told from seven different viewpoints, and it's a masterpiece of character study. Each of its seven issues is wildly different, featuring a wildly different character, and the same evening looks very different to each of them. From the lovely but self-absorbed Penny to the hip but divided Emily Aster to the nearly wordless story of Kid-With-Knife (who is almost the opposite of what that nickname might imply to you -- he is the avatar of in-the-moment ferocity, and is in some ways the most joyful of the bunch), these tight little stories bring out each personality quickly and brilliantly -- rare in a world of comics that take forever to get anywhere. It's not *quite* Will Eisner level conciseness, but it's close.
The story concluded last year with The Immaterial Girl, which takes the story of Emily Aster -- hinted at in Rue Britannia and given a full issue in Singles Club -- and brings her front and center. Emily is the head of the coven: cool, powerful and utterly cutting. But she got there, when she was young, by selling half of her personality to The King Behind the Screen. That sacrificed half, Claire, has managed to take control again, and wants her revenge by destroying Emily's life utterly, in a story about how our prior choices do and don't control our lives. (And while Emily is dealing with the consequences of this (and running for her life through the music videos of her youth), Laura Black and Mr. Logos, introduced in The Singles Club, are beginning to come into their own, so the series gets a sense of generational closure.)
One side-benefit of the series is that it is an education in music -- Gillen is a *serious* music aficionado, and it shows. Each volume has a glossary of all the musical references in it, and it runs impressively long. And it says something that each volume's music is quite *different*, reflecting the characters and stories told therein. I'm slowly making my way through the glossaries with Spotify, figuring out which of these groups and albums I should be picking up. (The major discovery for me so far seems to be The Arctic Monkeys, who I'd never even heard before.)
Each of the volumes stands reasonably well on its own -- the earlier volumes drop hints that get followed up later, and the later ones refer to earlier events, but you could read any of them individually. If you read only one, it should be The Singles Club, which is on the all-time-greats list. But the series as a whole is a classic, and well worth picking up in collection: fun, thoughtful stories that benefit from an occasional re-read. Check it out...