Unless you’re a big fan of 1990s British pop punk and riot grrl music, the name Kenickie is just a character of Grease to you. (Only one of their songs is available to stream on Spotify, but some of their live performances and music videos are on YouTube.) However, the band plays a major role in the first issue of Phonogram: Rue Britannia as writer Kieron Gillen (making his comics debut) and artist/letterer Jamie McKelvie use them as a feminine alternative to the masculine power of the Brit Pop music that dominated the 90s and will play a major role in the series going forward. The first issue is about David Kohl, the series’ protagonist as he goes to Ladyfest in Bristol, England to leach off the magical energies of these “pop-feminist” artists, meet with a phonomancer named Lady Vox, and most importantly to him, pick up women. He is a toxic agent in a space meant to empower, and McKelvie dresses in him in all black with a dark grey Superman sigil or “pop icon” that Kohl wears for the masculine power of the superhero with none of his morality or hopefulness.
The basic concept of Phonogram is that music is magic, and certain people, who are in tune with different genres and artists, can channel them into pure power. These people are called phonomancers, and David Kohl is the first one readers run into this issue. Kohl uses his power to get into Ladyfest without getting on the guest list and then to charm a women to have a one night stand with him as he goes into an extended monologue about how important Kenickie is on a critical level while making valid points about pop music and art in general, such as “seriousness is not the same as intelligence”. However, when the woman he sleeps with talks about how powerful Marie du Santiago’s (lead guitarist of Kenickie) vocals make her feel, Kohl brushes it off and instead applies the Kenickie song “Nightlife” to the fact that she is just there to scratch his metaphorical sexual itch. David Kohl is truly a prick, and McKelvie captures this through the format of his art as she sits in the background while his dialogue and caption boxes take up most of the panel.
In Phonogram #1, Gillen and McKelvie use David Kohl as the personification of almost ironic toxic masculinity because at the end of the comic, readers find out that he is a devoted servant to the Goddess’ Britannia, who he must help in some way. Even if he treats women as disposable in this issue, he is indebted to one for his powers as a phonomancer. Kohl is self-aware that the way he thinks of women isn’t right, and Gillen uses cutting writing to show this with the caption “I’m a white man in clitoris palace. I’m such a cock.” Gillen’s gift for puns and multiple meanings shines in this line as cock can mean everything from penis to rooster or British slang for a fool. And Kohl is all three as a girl he is flirting with turns out to be an incarnation of the goddess because he was thinking about sex too much to keep an eye on his surroundings, he thinks he is the alpha male at Ladyfest because the other men there are “gender traitors”, and he makes bad choices in life. McKelvie helps with Kohl’s characterization by giving him a smirking look as he struts into the club with the casual flip of a beer bottle.
While also acting as a critique of Kohl’s unsavory attitude (He’s still the protagonist though.), Phonogram #1 looks at the relationship between fans, critics, and creators through his character. This relationship plays out in a scene where Kohl feels moved by Scout Niblett, one of the artists playing at Ladyfest and an actual singer songwriter from Stafford, UK. This is after he has spent the entire evening rolling his eyes, drinking, and making snarky jokes about the performers and the other men at the club. In Kohl’s mind, he is “Henry Fucking Rollins” compared to him as he is confident in his slick style and confident in his phonomancer abilities. This all changes when Scout starts to sing, and McKelvie uses a lot more shadow and draws her behind her drum set in great detail with cursive lettering evoking powerful, sweet music. Gillen gets slightly poetic with Kohl’s narrative captions as he falls under Scout’s spell and sums up the power of a good pop song with the line “For three minutes, we’re hers.” However, Kohl is still his overcritical self, and McKelvie throws in an inset panel of him smoking and saying, “Sure, she’s okay.” As he’s gotten older, Kohl is afraid of enjoying some types of music unironically and hides behind a veneer of critique.
The first issue of Phonogram Rue Britannia introduces comics readers to Gillen’s biting, yet insightful dialogue, which is peppered with obscure musical reference. However, the general theme of a supposed alpha male phonomancer going into den of female empowerment and being confronted by his own cruelty and the importance of women (The goddess, Emily Aster) in his own life is definitely accessible. Also, David Kohl could be seen as a more British version of the hipsters, who were definitely more prevalent in the mid-2000s as he focuses on enjoying his interests the right way instead of just falling in love with the music like his one night stand did.
Jamie McKelvie’s figures were beautiful even back in 2006 although the women, who have speaking roles and aren’t Emily Aster, look very similar. This could probably be chalked up to the first volume Phonogram being completely in black and white, but McKelvie plays around white, grey, and dark space on the pace even using screentone during a particularly nostalgic scene for Kohl when he’d rather listen to Kenickie than sleep with his girlfriend at the time. Phonogram Rue Britannia #1 is the birth of a fruitful grid based partnership filled with beautiful, problematic young people for writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie as they craft their misogynistic, misanthropic, yet passionate protagonist David Kohl in a world that’s part urban fantasy and part Pitchfork Magazine.