Phonogram Volume 1: Rue Britannia,
Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie,
Since the dawn of humanity, magicians, shamans, the Clever Man, the Wise Woman, whatever you want to call them, have been aware that words carry power and that music and rhythm can induce altered states, altering, changing, expanding perspective. Little wonder then, that popular music, marrying both those rhythms and melodies with the words of the lyrics can exercise such power on so many of us. Not just to induce mental states of delirious happiness or moping despair as we listen to a particular album, but the way those songs, usually the product of their times, the zeitgeist, the happening cultural trends that rise and fall like waves in the ocean and that we all try to surf for at least a while, especially when young (go on, admit it, we all did, and why the hell not, it’s what we’re meant to do, especially in that everything-seems-new flush of youthful energy and experimentation). And that brings us to revisiting this modern classic by a team – Gillen and McKelvie – who have gone on to become major names in the international comics community. This was one of their signature calling cards, just a few years ago, and despite the river of work they’ve done, both together and separately, since then, it still holds a fascination, just like a much-loved pop song. You still want to take it out the sleeve and put the needle in the groove again and just go with it…
Pop music is one of the defining socio-cultural experiences of the modern era, it can be light, frothy fun, it can be the howling agit-prop anger of early Manics, and all shades in-between, and like the comics it’s a medium that is seemingly transient, ephemeral, trends and characters come and they go, and sometimes they come around again, and even if they don’t though, they somehow remain lodged inside us, tied not just to memories of when we first loved that single or album, but everything going on around us at the time. In the same way they say a smell can evoke rich memories, so to the music we love, and the music we loved when first discovering music, oh boy does that have power over us, singly and in groups (how many of us bonded with others, friends and total strangers, over that shared musical experience at a certain place and time in our lives?). And while all pop draws from – or sometimes powers – the zeitgeist, the phenomena we now call Brit Pop really seems to capture that 90s “Cool Britannia” period in the way the Beatles capture the Swinging Sixties.
Or does it? That’s part of the question in here, as we meet David Kohl – how much of that Brit Pop era are we collectively remembering correctly, how much is ‘remembering’ all the labels applied posthumously to it by commentators and others after it had been and gone? It’s an important question for Kohl – not only is he a phonomancer, a magician who draws on music for his tricks, his own identity is bound up in that era and it’s music. The goddess Britannia who shone for those few years is gone, but her influence on what makes Kohl himself is still there, and he can feel things changing, and if they change then so will he – he may even no longer be a phonomancer or even remember what he was before he changes, perhaps being altered into just another guy with a mortgage, settling down (yes, not hard to detect that slightly older twinge here, how different from other generations we would be when we were older, as we danced, powered up on that music, and then years later realising we grew up much the same). And after an encounter with the main aspect of the goddess of music Kohl is compelled to look into Britannia – another aspect of that goddess – and her life and her death.
I find it quite brave that Gillen and McKelvie decided to give us such an unlikeable, self-obsessed, self-serving central character – that could easily backfire, but they take this arrogant bastard and still make us give a damn (there are even hints of hopes for redemption hidden in his acts). There’s more than a hint of the John Constantine about Kohl – the constant smoking, the cool pose, the hidden knowledge, the casual use of that knowledge and others for his own selfish ends, and a feeling of a much larger, darker, mysterious world around him. Maybe if Constantine had come of age in the 90s this could have been him. McKelvie’s artwork is beautifully clear black and white work here, some panels looking like they could have been stills from a 90s Japanese animation, and he captures some of the characters superbly – Kohl, trying to get back into a mindset of the music of his formative years, depicted wearing the make-up his younger self used to sport, beautifully done in crisp B&W, and instantly bringing forth memories of trying different looks in the mind of the reader (again, go on, admit it, we all tried, and even those who got it down so stylishly right look back now and think oh, what was I thinking? But it was cool at the time…).
Or the way showing a beautiful young female musician-singer in one panel, and then almost exactly the same image in the next panel, but now with jet-black eyes, works as a brilliant “jump” moment (also reminds me of the oh-so-eerie all-black eyes on Joanna Lumley in an old Sapphire and Steel episode. Creepy and disturbing), as she reveals herself to him as not just a singer-songwriter, but a major aspect of the goddess herself…
Ultimately, for me anyway, Phonogram is as much about memory and identity as it is magic and music. It’s about how we defined ourselves, and often how we continue to define ourselves, by musical tastes, gigs we were at, the people we sang along with at a certain time and place, and how that process creates part of our selves, part of our own self-image, how we see ourselves. And how that process is dynamic, rarely static, because even years after that period, even after Britannia herself has been and gone, both individually and collectively, we rewrite part of that period, and with it how we see ourselves again. And the odious Kohl, who has great taste in music in place of a moral centre, that’s part of his problem – he wasn’t just defined by the music of that era and scene, he still is. Other phonomancers have moved on, the somewhat sad retromancers cling to the old music in revival sessions to tap some magical energy, but he’s still trying to be just what he was then, and it just doesn’t work that way, not for an individual, not for popular culture, it’s a constant state of change and even the past can be redefined.
It’s a gorgeous piece of work – not just a compelling story and good hook (music is magic, magic is music, we make and experience both), but it also comes freighted with that bittersweet nostalgia and memory that makes you both laugh in shared recognition but also wince in embarrassment (did I really like that back then??) or even sigh over old regrets (we danced all that night to that music, why did I ever let you slip away…). Phonogram manages all this while looking oh-so-cool and stylish while conjuring all these competing, contrasting emotions in the reader – and a strong urge to listen to some old favourites…