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Thursday
Feb112010

Au revoir, Phonogram...

While I haven't yet read the final issue of Phonogram: The Singles Club (on sale now!), that it's meant to be the final issue of the entire Phonogram series has compelled me to talk a little about my experience with the book.

I honestly can't remember how I became friends with creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, but I knew going in that Phonogram was going to be a special book for me because we all came from a similar place, spiritually speaking. The first series, Rue Britannia, was inspired by British music and, in particular, the psychic fallout of a certain kind of British music. If you know me, you know I am very into that sort of stuff, both the music itself and the idea of music's influence on or reflection of our lives. 

In my former capacity as an editor and writer for CBR, I tried to present Phonogram to the mainstream comics audience as directly but as comprehensibly as possible. I have to say, it wasn't easy and I'll tell you why: 

Writing the first massive article (there was a second), I kept thinking back to a long conversation I had with Gillen. He was in town on a video game junket (back when he did that sort of thing) and was housed at a ridiculous Sunset Strip hotel. We drank cocktails by the pool and talked about Phonogram while gorgeous, bikini-clad tattoo girls passed by every few seconds. It seemed strange to have such an uncommonly substantive conversation about such an uncommonly substantive black-and-white indie comic book against the backdrop of cliché Hollywood meaninglessness. But then again, we were surrounded by the sort of beautiful people so expertly drawn by McKelvie. 

We talked that day about the codified language of the book and how it would mean something important to some people and mean absolutely nothing to others. While I'm sure Gillen was referring to the musical and cultural references that became Phonogram's calling card, I think the kind of uncomfortable tonal juxtaposition we were experiencing around us is something that's in music, and so it is also in Phonogram. Practically every scene in the whole series has one thing happening while something else is happening, whether in terms of narrative or dialogue or art or the music references or whatever. It's the layering, that's the real codified language of the book -- that it's really like music, maybe even more than it is like a comic book, and that's something rather hard to explain to a lot of readers. 

Indeed, Phonogram had a tough go of it in the Direct Market. But I don't know how much better it would have done financially even it were properly ordered. Phonogram is a difficult book. It demands your full attention and it demands that you bring more to it than you may have at your immediate disposal. What for most comic books is subtext, Phonogram makes text. All the emotions, all the themes, those are right out in front.

But as I told Kieron there by the pool -- and this was really easy for me to say since I got paid whether or not Jamie and Kieron ever did -- I think it's worth alienating even the majority of readers if it means profoundly affecting the minority. Yes, that codified language will probably mean nothing to a lot of people,  but for other people, as Matt Fraction's passionate eulogy for Phonogram demonstrates, that codified language will mean everything

Like the music of The Smiths and New Order and Jarvis Cocker, Phonogram's tunes are pretty, shiny and catchy in the form of McKelvie's lovely artwork, but the lyrics are often sad, dark or confusing -- but sometimes very funny as well. That's how I think of Phonogram, as a musical project. Rue Britannia is the debut album. It's raw, it's brash, it's possibly too ambitious for its own good, but what it lacks in polish it makes up for in authenticity and attitude. It was a new taste, something you could actually relate to, and it left you hungry for more. The Singles Club is the expensively produced follow-up. It's bigger, more colorful, more sophisticated, and features more guest musicians (or DJs, as the case may be) and more layering of new influences. It sees the band focus more tightly on the direction they want to pursue.

The third album? Gillen & McKelvie say it will never be, but I am not so sure. Phonogram is in Kieron's blood. Whatever else he does in his increasingly impressive career, Phonogram will always be there because Phonogram is how he thinks. Trust me, I've read some scripts, that book is his brain on paper. Unless Kieron gets a new brain or just stops listening to music altogether, I don't see how he could not write more Phonogram. And Jamie will continue to be awesome and become even more awesome, so awesome that he'll one day be rich enough to eat shit for a year and draw another series of Phonogram. I am a betting man but I suck at it so I'm not going to put money on this, but I will be surprised if we don't see more Phonogram one day. Reunion tours are inevitable.

As for me, what I've taken most from Phonogram, besides some great characters and artwork, is a kind of spiritual vocabulary; a new way to talk about the music I love: phonomancing. When I remember Dorm Parent Andrew Leeson coming in to make sure I was studying and instead talking to me about David Bowie every week for year, affecting the way I'd think about music and art forever, that was phonomancing. When I see a girl dancing at the Ruby club in Hollywood, going into some kind of frenzy in the climactic chorus of her favorite song, I know it's phonomancing. When I find myself driving around the country for alone for months with nothing but an iPod and all the music and lyrics synchronize with every piece of existence I encounter and guide me where to go next, I can call that phonomancing. 

I'm also very pleased to have been a sort of "friend of the band" during this whole process; to have myself photographed and drawn into the book; to have read some of the scripts; to have seen the color tests; to have been asked what I think about a trade paperback cover; and to have put Seth Bingo on the front page of CBR, pointing right at the readers, if only for a couple of hours.

Finally, I just want to say it's incredibly admirable and inspiring that Kieron and Jamie launched their comics careers with something so personal, done their way. Well done, guys. 

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Long live Phonogram!

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Wilson

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