Phonomancy (or: Why Phonogram Matters) Part 1: Is It Something I Do To Myself

Phonomancy (or: Why Phonogram Matters) Part 1: Is It Something I Do To Myself
"I believe that the best way to show how music affects the world is to take evidence directly from life to show how music has changed me and people around me. Not that it's a particularly truthful form of biography. There's a key line in the second issue: 'Sometimes the truth just gets in the way of what really happens.' That's absolutely key. The phrase I'm using is Automythology." - Kieron Gillen

It doesn't look like much, but the above panel is one of the most important in my comics-reading life.

It's August 2006. I've got this friend called James. I haven't known him that long, somewhere in the region of a year or so, having been introduced by my then-girlfriend, a friend of his, under the pretext of her giving each of us somebody else to talk about in person about comics. The first seeds of our eventual long-term collaboration have begun, however, with my getting him to write comics reviews for the recently-launched Noise to Signal (RIP). And in his latest weekly column, he's mentioned a comic that he also in person won't stop going on about. You can probably guess where this is going, but it's called Phonogram.

He hasn't literally thrust the first issue into my hands, so much as repeatedly insisted that I buy it myself when I'm next in Forbidden Planet; but for the sake of the myth, he has, essentially, thrust the first issue into my hands. One point he keeps mentioning is that there's an anecdote on the first page about buying a t-shirt at a festival for no reason other than to keep warm, and how it's the first time he can ever remember a comic so acutely reflecting his own personal experiences.

So I buy the comic, and I read it, and I get to that moment (which doesn't take long, because, y'know, it's the fourth panel of the entire series). And I recall that a little over year earlier I'd found myself in need of a new t-shirt at the 2005 Glastonbury Festival - not because I was cold, admittedly, but because flooding and mud had done for most of my other belongings. But the bootleg t-shirt that I'd had to queue for over an hour for a cash machine in order to pay a hugely extortionate eighteen quid for?

Well, it was a Superman t-shirt, obviously.

Look of disgruntlement: model's own.
The first volume of Phonogram - initially published as six issues before being collected as the trade Rue Britannia - tells the story of David Kohl, a "phonomancer" (translation: person who performs magical rituals via the power of music) who reluctantly undertakes a mission to prevent the resurrection of the Britpop movement (and its physical embodiment, the goddess Britannia) and in the process the rewriting of the collective memory of everything it meant and stood for. Along the way, the book offers, among several themes, an extensive rumination on nostalgia and memory. A particularly notable piece of discourse on this occurs partway through the second issue:

If you have any sort of memory of Britpop as something that was important (or, indeed, unimportant) to your life, then are an extensive range of possible reactions to Kohl's assertion here. It's possible, of course, that you'll agree with him. But it's more likely that you'll say "No, it wasn't like that at all!" and then immediately start talking about your own memories.

If you're me, for example, you'll talk about the feeling of subversion that came with gathering together the four or five other people who liked Blur into the school's music room to play the taped-off-the-radio first airing of a new single. About having crushes on girls based entirely on your first conversations with them being about the band, and wishing you were a bit more like Graham Coxon so that they'd look at you the way they look at him. And about only just being talked out of blu-tacking the lyrics of "Mis-Shapes" on the wall of the common room as a defiant manifesto because, as was rightly pointed out, it wasn't quite worth the hassle.*

That was my Britpop: discovering for the first time that the radio could bring something new and exciting into your small and unimportant teenage world, but remaining utterly untouched by anything that was actually going on in its tangible circles (no gigs, no club nights, no contact with the outside world at all), instead feeling like there were only a handful of other people around you who really understood it (even when "Country House" was getting to number one). Like many others who were just slightly too young to really get involved, we were fervent observers rather than participants.

Kohl may not realise that There Are Other Britpops Too at this point in the book, and it's tempting to take the apparent authority of his statement as confirmation that the author sides with him, too. Indeed, I've seen that levelled directly at Phonogram as a criticism. But in fact, as later issues make clear, Kohl's inability to see beyond his own version of this particular nostalgia is one of his biggest problems. And his own realisation of that is a defining theme of the second half of the story.

Our nostalgia, the book concludes, is nobody else's but our own.
Kohl's journey through the wretched, terrifying "Memory Kingdom" of Britpop - a storybook vision of Camden here, a totemistic mound of bodies symbolising the Oasis myth's moment of transcendence at Knebworth there - sparks his understanding that his own version of Britpop is no more, nor any less, valid than anybody else's. And indeed, that even that globulous, hazy shared memory, as nightmarish as it is, is a truth of sorts. As is the perspective of the kid in the Babyshambles t-shirt who thinks the Libertines were "the most important band since punk":

(Somewhere in a parallel universe, incidentally, Phonogram happened ten years later and is all about this guy instead.)

Everyone's memories are truth, in their own way. But they also have to stay as memories. The danger that this volume of Phonogram ultimately cautions against isn't having the wrong memories at all: it's allowing those memories to take over the present.

And so a series that arguably only attracted much of its initial audience through nostalgia - whether drawn in by shared experiences like the t-shirt story, by the rumour that there really was a comic being published about loving Kenickie records, or even just by those cool album-pastiche covers - ultimately ends up looking forwards, instead.

Pop quiz - is this page:

a) Deeply resonant to anyone who's ever drifted away from a band or artist but never truly fallen out of love with them;
b) The moment where Kieron Gillen revealed he had a heart;
c) Some of the earliest evidence of Jamie McKelvie becoming one of the best moment-to-moment character expression artists in comics;
d) All of the above (apart from the one about Kieron having a heart)?
It's May 2007. James and I are at the Bristol Comic Expo, where we've arranged to meet and interview Kieron and Jamie about Phonogram - which has recently finished publishing its single issues, with a collected edition on the way.

Having briefly chatted to the pair at their stand during the day, we eventually catch up with them at the bar later in the evening - just after an Eagle Awards ceremony at which both Phonogram and Casanova have, quite ludicrously, lost out in their category to The Walking Dead - and retire to the (relative) quiet of outdoors to record our interview. We were hoping to maybe get ten minutes with them - instead, fuelled by wine and hubris, it lasts for nearly an hour.

Reading the interview back now, I'm a little embarrassed by some of it, professionally - our questions are mostly surface and a little naive, and our inexperience also shows in the decision to publish an almost entirely unexpurgated transcript rather than editing it properly.** But even though it's a good piece in spite of us, rather than because of us, it's still a pretty important moment. For the first time since we started writing about these things, we feel actually connected to the world of comics. We feel like we're part of something. As well as being fervent observers, at this moment we're also participants.

Phonogram will never be Britpop, of course. But eventually, it will have a Memory Kingdom of its own. Here, in the city where the comic itself is set, is where my corner of it starts.

To be continued...

* Actually, the "Mis-Shapes" incident happened in Sixth Form, by which point Britpop was basically dead and I was mostly listening to Weezer. But as Tony Wilson said, if it's a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.

** As I recall, the only thing we really cut out was a discussion of badly-punned knockoff chicken outlet names. "Kent's Tuck-In Fried Chicken" remains the greatest one I've ever heard.