“Music is magic. You know this already. You’ve known this from the first time a record sent a divine shiver down your spine or a band changed the way you dressed forever. How does something that’s just noises arranged in sequence do that? No one knows. It’s just magic. Everyone knows that. It’s just that some realise that it’s also more than metaphor.”
Such is the pitch behind Phonogram, a wry, affectionate cult comic set in the world of indie music that has built up a devoted following since its launch in 2006. It’s not the first comic to trade on musical references: the pop culture-heavy Scott Pilgrim is being developed as a live-action film starring Michael Cera and directed by Edgar Wright, while Belle & Sebastian earnt themselves a comic-strip anthology/homage, Put the Book Back On the Shelf, but Phonogram is the first to examine the physical and emotional experience of listening to music. It is a love letter to what music does to us.
Phonogram’s first volume, Rue Britannia, followed phonomancer (someone who uses music to effect change just as a wizard casts spells) David Kohl as he searched modern-day England for the goddess Britannia, who was thought lost 10 years ago. It was a picaresque story of quest and discovery filtered through the warm nostalgia of Britpop. Each of art director Jamie McKelvie’s covers was a visual tribute to a classic album of the era, from Elastica’s debut to It’s Great When You’re Straight… Yeah.
Inside, though, the references were as much Kenickie and Luke Haines (who wrote the foreword to the six-issue compilation published last year) as Oasis and Blur. Phonogram earned the immediate admiration of fans including Tim Wheeler of Ash and Gareth of Los Campesinos!, who borrowed a line from the first issue for We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed’s opening track “Ways To Make It Through the Wall”. Phonogram’s second volume, The Singles Club, broadens the scope. Set in an indie disco in late 2006, each of the seven issues focuses on a different character in a series of interlinked stories.
Kieron Gillen, who writes for both PC games magazines and Plan B, co-founded Phonogram alongside McKelvie. It remains a two-person labour of love, with Gillen on words and McKelvie on imagery. TLOBF caught up with Gillen recently to find out what drives the Phonogram world.
Why is it that “music is magic”?
It’s just a really strong metaphor. There’s no scientific underpinning for why music affects us profoundly as it does. There are a few ideas about how it works, sure – but no “why”. Something like music, which does everything from changing your day to changing your life for no reason, may as well be magic. It’s certainly the closest thing in real life to it.
In the phonomantic sense, we make that observation real – any musical interaction in the world is a magical interaction. There are people who are aware of this and use their knowledge to jimmy with reality a little. The key thing is that we only make the magic work in ways that are vaguely analogous to what music can do. So we don’t have people throwing fireballs or any of that nonsense. It’s all about changing your sense of identity or altering other people’s states of mind: oracle-like self-knowledge or plain old hedonism. Phonogram is basically these urban-fantasy plots based around a magical system that is mainly a device for talking about what music does to people.
How would you precis The Singles Club?
The first series, Rue Britannia, was basically about a single character’s journey. It was probably the key story in his life – an epic thing; he’ll never do anything comparable again. The Singles Club steps away from that. It’s basically phonomancers in their… “down time” isn’t the right word, but it’s certainly the sort of thing they’d be getting up to on a Saturday night. They go out and try to have some fun. “Try” being the operative word. It’s seven stories, each following an individual phonomancer through their evening, all set in the same club. So they all interlink and feed back into one another in a fancy structural way.
The theme of the first series was how personal memory, history and nostalgia all fight one another. The theme of the second is something like “individual subjective experiences of a shared communal event”. The idea is that they’re all in this same tiny club but their nights are profoundly different.
What did you want to achieve with Phonogram?
I wanted to make a comic that dramatised my beliefs about pop music. What it’s for, what it’s not for and why it’s so incredibly compelling. I wanted to do that without falling into any of the usual “music in narrative culture” traps – avoiding that moment when you wince because a writer just doesn’t get it – while being primarily about music, so not cheating and making music do stuff that music simply doesn’t do. I wanted to write something that, if I was decapitated by a precariously balanced piece of vinyl after I’d finished it, I’d be fine with it being my sole testament to the world.
For TLOBF readers, their sole reference point in the cult comic universe might be something like Ghost World. How does Phonogram fit into that sphere?
Ghost World and similar creations are in the “art comics” wing. A common way of viewing the medium would be as two poles. On that side, you have the commercial action/romance/fantasy pulp, whose aim is to raise your pulse. On the other side, you have the equivalent of the art-house movie or non-genre novel, whose aim is to raise your IQ – or, at least, the chance of other people thinking you have a higher IQ. One way of describing Phonogram would be that it fits into a middle ground. It’s a comic that uses much of the pulp idiom but is trying to engage with more philosophical topics. File next to things like, say, The Sandman, The Invisibles or Transmetropolitan.
“Middlebrow” would be the term some would use, but I’d reject that dichotomy as hard as I’d reject anything, and I consider people who view the world in that way as my active aesthetic opponents. I think of Phonogram as “anti-brow”. I hate the polar dichotomy in all art, and Phonogram’s merging of pulpy tropes and literary nonsense was my attempt to try to mirror pop music itself. Music is something that, if looked at objectively, is terribly hard to take seriously. But within that three-minute pop single, people try to cram the world, and by the sheer pressure of ideas and thought in the space it transmutes into something else. I wanted Phonogram to feel the same way, if you see what I mean.
Does that answer the question? I suspect not, but it does capture what the comics world is like. I don’t think people from the outside really need to know about what it’s like in our little corner of the world, except that it’s actually quite fun down here, as I discovered. I was a latecomer to the form. To people coming to Phonogram from the outside, they’re going to reach for comparisons from things outside of comics, and even if you come from inside, it’s not really that helpful. Phonogram is an awkwardly singular object. I won’t use the word “original”, but if you look at Singles Club, there are not many music journalism/soap opera/urban fantasy hybrids in existence.
Is there a deeper meaning behind the eras in which the stories are based?
There are deeper meanings to all the choices that go into Phonogram, because we’re well wanky. But the question is kind of back to front – your subtext is that I’m trying to say something about the eras. It’s more that the eras are just a particularly good example of what I’m trying to talk about. Rue Britannia’s story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it was set in a movement that was worth a damn. If there had been any kind of lasting ethos that created positive change in the world, our key point about the inherent worth of your own experiences of anything that made you wouldn’t have come across as firmly. For Singles Club, we wanted something that was the opposite of Rue Britannia, so as contemporary as we could get it, but still far enough in the past to be a period piece.
A big chunk of it is verisimilitude. Phonogram requires a knowledge of a period and situation as complete as possible to work in the slightest. Jamie [McKelvie] and I came through the Britpop wars and fell over in dodgy indie clubs in 2006. It’s something we’re comfortable with talking about convincingly.
Phonogram is a dark fantasy story but set in the real world. Is that significant?
This is a fantasy story, but it isn’t. This is a fantasy story set in the real world. It’s perfectly acceptable for people to think about themselves in their own terms. It turns our abstract philosophies practical.
What do you think it says about the nature of fandom and/or criticism?
How do you and Jamie intersect?
We have a load of overwrought metaphors about our working relationship. Our standard one was that we were the Pet Shop Boys of comics – terse McKelvie and me playing hyperverbally pretentious. And we’re the Smiths you can dance to, too.
Jamie and I coming together is one of those random flukes I can’t quite believe happened. At a comics thing – my first, selling photocopied comics I’d done, the equivalent of my atonal bedroom demos – he wanders up, says hi and shows me his pages. I ask him to do Phonogram. Look at us! We’ve formed a band. Very lucky.
Both series include plenty of back matter, with the last few pages featuring themed essays and, for Singles Club, two shorter “B-side” strips by other artists. What’s the thinking behind this?
Desperation. When I started doing Rue Britannia, I suddenly discovered that Image, our publisher, does things in 32 pages. So our 22-page story – standard for an episode – left us with 10 pages left over. Most people would lob in a few adverts or whatever, but when we were two unknowns from Blighty doing a comic about a 10-year-dead pop movement, we thought that would be obscene. Or at least taking the piss. So I started dumping my brains on the page to fill the space and justify the space.
Even though it was improvised, we were aware of it adding extra value to the singles. This stuff won’t be in the trade, so people following the singles would have something special, just for them. The model we were thinking of is singles and albums. Hardcore fans would buy the singles and get all this assorted minor stuff. More casual people would pick up the collected album and be fine with that. We’re pushing that metaphor even further with the second series, as each issue has a stand-alone couple of backup stories, with art supplied by peers and friends of ours. They won’t be in the trade either, but in true B-side manner, maybe a few years down the line we’ll do our Hatful of Hollow. It’s a chance to make each issue an artistic statement in itself, which we figure is the best way to sell enough to allow us to reach the end of the series. The problem with a narrative medium is that you need to do stuff like that. Pah!
And to finish, a TLOBF favourite – please make us a mixtape of five tracks with a theme of your choice.
God, I hate this High Fidelity nonsense. The thing is, mixtape-making is totally a phonomantic art. I haven’t written a character who does so as a magical act yet, but it can only be time. But the magic only really works with a mixtape if you’re aiming it at someone. It’s about getting under their skin. If you do it for a larger audience, well, that’s not really mixtaping at all. That’s doing something a little more like DJing.
I digress. And I’m tempted to do this in the voice of one of the characters. But I’ll just do one about my current mental state.
Of Montreal – “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”
Future of the Left – “The Hope That House Built”
Los Campesinos! – “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”
Amanda Palmer – “Runs in the Family”
Earth, Wind and Fire – “Boogie Wonderland”
It’s been one of those weeks, so it’s best to wallow into it and then have disco save your life.
“Pull Shapes”, the first issue in The Singles Club, is published by Imagine on December 11.