Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie (Backups by Sarah Gordon, Clayton Cowles)
Colors by Matthew Wilson (Backups by Sarah Gordon, Kelly Fitzpatrick)
Published by Image Comics
Opening with stark blue fuzz that bring back memories to the days before digital cable when you could watch music videos late at night, during breakfast, and really any time, Phonogram #1 shows that it and its characters are rooted in the past even as they decry all things retro. For those who haven’t read the previous two volumes (published in 2007 and 2009), the basic premise of the comic is that the characters (called phonomancers) in Phonogram can use music to make magic. Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie delve into a variety of genres, including pop, alternative, hip hop, and punk to show how our taste in music defines us as humans and can evolve (or not) as we age and hopefully mature. Hence, the concept of “retromancers”, or phonomancers, who try to wring the last bit of magic from dying genres, like punk (Classic, not the mid-2000s pop stuff.) or Brit pop.
Speaking of retro, most of Phonogram #1 takes in the not so distant 2001 when indie American bands, like the White Stripes and The Strokes took a piss on nu metal and post grunge adding some blues to its rock roots. (Seriously, what the hell did I ever see in Linkin Park or Seether or Breaking Benjamin?) But The Myth, who leads a special phonomancer coven, which the protagonist Emily Aster becomes a member of, isn’t having any of this. Instead he plays the feminist electronica of peaches, and McKelvie gets to transcend the usual eight panel grid for a wide shot of coven member Lady Vox finding basically sexual pleasure through music. Colorist Matthew Wilson fills her body and the background with an almost translucent red to capture this, and her orgasmic connection to music even continues to the present where it’s replaced with dirty metaphors. Phonogram #1 is really a work of musical criticism wrapped in a stylized character study with a touch of urban fantasy to spice up the plot.
The meat of Phonogram #1 is its cast chatting about music in a way that goes from the sublime to an almost divine hipster level of absurd. But Gillen keeps things amusing with his wordplay, well-placed references for the initiated, (Not as obscure as the 90s BritPop stuff in Rue Britannia, thankfully.), and wicked, occasionally sexy sense of humor. Seth Bingo, who didn’t allow any songs with male vocalists to played at his club in Singles Club, gets the biggest laughs as the living embodiment of Pitchfork Magazine meets Gonzo journalism with his run on sentences that would (retroactively) make Baphomet smirk and the reader sigh or chuckle darkly. However, he has this energy and passion for music that makes the protagonist Emily Aster smile as Wilson’s palette switches from darkened club to boring office.
Gillen and McKelvie delve deeply into the character of Emily Aster (the titular Immaterial girl) through both visuals and the occasional caption. Back in the 1980s, she sold half her personality to a mysterious hand in a music video to lead the most powerful coven of phonomancers, and Phonogram: Immaterial Girl explores the consequences of her magicians. (Satan and Faustus are alluded to quite a bit in this comic and will make WicDiv fans wish Luci still had a dead.) In the flashback sequence, McKelvie pulls out all his fashion stops giving Emily a gorgeous black skirt and over the shoulder top that along with some subtle green eye paint and a cigarette gives her a kind of timeless elegance. It’s another shining example of how McKelvie and colorist Wilson use style to create substance and character as this is Emily at the top of her game as a phonomancer and wit.
In contrast, her outfit in the present is a Peter Pan collared blouse and hoop earrings (Which might be a thing again.) with a swoopy hairstyle to show her trying to recapture the music and look of her youth. (She is trying to bring the early-2000s dance genre “electroclash” back). McKelvie’s design work shows that Emily has sacrificed style for an attempt at professionalism. Instead of dancing at private parties and turning down David Kohl’s advances, she is burning phonomancer “interns’ ” halting attempts at spells, which are like those bad nostalgia pieces from Buzzfeed. Emily is also struggling with the possible return of the other part of her personality, and Gillen and McKelvie set this up as the main conflict of the series with the use of blue pencil art representing the thing she sold her soul to while watching music videos. The blackness of her hair and whiteness of her outfit are another style choice that reveal her internal tension. The plot increases in violence as McKelvie’s grid breaks again into what kind of resembles the video for “Take On Me” by the (unfairly called in the US/Canada) one hit wonder a-Ha. Where WicDiv #8 used storytelling tricks to translate a rave to comics, Phonogram #1 uses different tricks to bring a music video to life in the comics medium.
And after you thoroughly understand the power and cost of a music video, which can both bring a song to popularity or overshadow it, (Think Duran Duran and the aforementioned a-Ha.) there a couple backup strips with art from Sarah Gordon and WicDiv and Phonogram letterer Clayton Cowles. Gordon’s strip story is an extended meditation on a Taylor Swift cut from her latest album 1989 (Or the first one yours truly purchased.) as the phonomancer Logos uses “Wish You Would” to think about pain and loss. With a haunting black and white art style, this is perfect post breakup reading. Cowles’ story is a one pager with a last panel gag and perfectly lampoons music fans, who make fun of today’s stuff while continuing to frequent reunion tours. (Blur, in this case, because Gillen can’t leave Brit Pop out of Phonogram.)
With its witty (and wee bit pretentious) conversations about musical trends, smart design and color choices from Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson, and robust character work with Emily Aster, Phonogram #1 reads like if The Smiths weren’t utter drama queens and made another album after Strangeways, Here We Come. (The Smiths are my favorite band so this is a high compliment as far as music metaphors go.)