I don’t think it’s a crazy statement to say that music is magic. It can transport us to a different time and place, stir emotions we didn’t expect, and bring people together in the way that only great art can.
But what if it really was magic?
This was the conceit of Phonogram, a group of three miniseries that helped elevate the stars of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie with a look at how, through music, people can do the impossible. Running close to ten years, Phonogram not only was a compelling and unique narrative, but also a showcase for how a creative team can evolve over time. With the release of The Complete Phonogram, it seemed like an appropriate time to talk about why you should dive headfirst into this book.
The series has a sprawling cast that each take different views on how magic should be used – none of them particularly beneficial to anyone but themselves. Focusing on the rise and fall of one particular coven of phonomancers after a battle with “The Adversary” (who may or may not be a stand-in for American music), the characters grapple with more than just casting spells by listening to music. If there’s any one “focal” character it’s David Kohl, a stand-in for Gillen who wrestles with who he is as a person and whether he should change or not the further the series progresses.
Before anyone starts getting excited at the prospect of seeing a wild, multicolored spell-fest akin to other stories about magic (here’s looking at you, Potter), the magic here is much more subtle. There’s very little in the way of actually using spells against other people. Instead, the characters often use these powers for their own benefit. It rarely works out for them.
From the idea of memory kingdoms and “retromancers” to “recentreing” around different music movements and the mythic “King Behind the Screen,” the magic on display is believable and adds to the “real world” and semi-autobiographical nature of this story. Look beyond the fantasy and some interesting themes become apparent. Here, “magic” might as well represent ideas like identity, addiction, and growing old.
While the themes remain the same throughout, Gillen and McKelvie vary the narratives for each series, making the entire work feel like a collective discography of a hit band. “Rue Britannia,” the first arc, is a more straightforward narrative dealing with Kohl having to “save” an aspect of “The Goddess” (a.k.a., British music) from being repurposed for nefarious means. “The Singles Club” takes a more experimental approach, with each issue focusing on a different character; the whole acting as a prism of one night in the lives of these characters. Finally, “The Immaterial Girl” takes Emily Aster, a character who had been featured as one of Kohl’s few “friends” throughout the series, and details her backstory as the members of the coven each reach their own crossroads moment.
Each of these works also looks at a different aspect of the music industry. “Britannia” is a study on music movements, “Singles” looks at the British club scene, and “Immaterial” digs into music videos. Music practically thrums off each page, but this is a subtler look at it and helps to connect the many long passages on bands’ power to the themes running beneath the stories.
The entirety of Phonogram also is an excellent showcase for the evolution of an artist. While Gillen can be featured here, moving from long text boxes in “Britannia” to more streamlined pieces in “Immaterial,” it is really McKelvie that should be the center of attention here. The three miniseries were published over the course of ten years – 2006, 2008, and 2015 – and each acts as a stepping stone in McKelvie’s development. “Britannia” saw a more basic artistic style from him, sketching out the basics and offering a smattering of detail to the panels, but also with plenty of bare backgrounds and little in the way of making their Britain a fully realized world. “Singles” saw more detail added (along with color for the first time, thanks to Matt Wilson), and “Immaterial” being the culmination of working so long. Details like the texture of characters’ hair, wrinkles and sunken features on their faces, and (most especially) clothing design pop off the page and help to make it all feel real. This is an aspect of comics most people don’t immediately think of, but Phonogram is a great example of seeing an artist evolve their style over time.
The heavy reliance on music knowledge in the series is both a gift and a curse to the narrative. If you’re like me and don’t know a whole lot about “Britpop,” then this’ll be like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Gillen and McKelvie don’t offer any kind of layman’s guide for readers to understand their music references (even the glossaries in the back of the trades are snarky and vague), so if you don’t know what they’re talking about you’re out of luck. However, this is good in that it’ll hopefully get more people into Kenicke. Or The Long Blondes. Or The Pipettes.
Image Comics just released The Complete Phonogram, a hardcover tome that compiles all three books into one collection. It’s a hefty price (a whopping fifty dollars), but really is the best way to dive into the series. Not only does it offer up a colored version of “Rue Britannia” by Wilson, never before released, it also collects all of the “B-Sides” that were created exclusively for the single issues. These were experimental shorts that brought in guest artists to flesh out the world of Phonogram outside of whatever the main narrative was at the time. Getting your hands on these are worth the cover price alone.
The only downside to this collection is that it lacks some of the other bonus features the previous collections offered. The first collection of “The Singles Club” had sketches by McKelvie for the new characters introduced, as well as photo references for some of the locations in the story. Due to the size of The Complete Phonogram, these had to be dropped in order to include the B-Sides. To me, it’s a fair trade-off, but is disheartening to see these lost in a “complete” collection.
I think we’ve all felt a strong connection to a particular song or album, especially at a formative (or transformative) time in our lives. There really isn’t any way to describe how that music means so much to you, or why it’ll always hold a special place in your heart. Phonogram gets as close as possible to putting those thoughts into words. It’s personal and impactful and should be required reading for anyone feeling time slipping by. Plus, it’s got a killer soundtrack.
The Complete Phonogram is available now in comic book shops and digital retailers. Collections of the individual arcs – “Rue Britannia,” “The Singles Club,” and “The Immaterial Girl” – are also available.