Phonomancy (or: Why Phonogram Matters) Part 2: Trying to Find the Perfect Match Between Pretentious and Pop

Phonomancy (or: Why Phonogram Matters) Part 2: Trying to Find the Perfect Match Between Pretentious and Pop
Ahead of the publication of Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl in August, I'm taking an unnecessarily personal look back at the two previous volumes of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's breakout work. In part one, I covered the first volume, Rue Britannia. In this concluding chapter, unsurprisingly, I look at volume two: The Singles Club.
It's July 2006. And yes, those of you who are paying attention will notice this means that the first issue of Phonogram has yet to be published. But that's the kind of story this is.

So, it's July 2006. My girlfriend is, if not literally on the other side of the world, then as near to it as makes no odds. I'm in Oxford, living in the house we used to share with three friends from university, but which now it's just me that shares with them. In about a month's time, I'm going to move to London and try to find a home and a job. The people I live with are great people, and Oxford's a great town, but still: I feel lonely, and a bit adrift.

And then I hear a song called "Pull Shapes", by a new(ish) band called the Pipettes. And for all that that song, and its accompanying album, could be accused of being a cynical and overly twee exercise in nostalgia marketing, they are exactly the kind of thing I need to drop into my life at that point. In a weird kind of way - a way that I'm aware probably sounds a bit sad and pathetic - when I listen to We Are The Pipettes, it's like these three cute girls with nice voices in polka dot dresses are some kind of surrogate girlfriends. It's a feeling that's only strengthened on the August bank holiday weekend, when I see them perform at an outdoor music festival on Clapham Common.1

Fast forward to December 2008. For the second time, me and the same girlfriend are apart - but this time, it's rather more permanent. Having spent most of the preceding year-and-a-half living together in Brighton, our relationship has gradually disintegrated, and once I move back to London, it ends for good.

And while that's going on, there's finally a new issue of Phonogram out. It's the first chapter of volume two, The Singles Club. And while it's a somewhat slight opening instalment, one that I don't feel really gets across the fullest sense of what that second volume will become, I can't help but notice that it's called "Pull Shapes". Because it's about a girl who loves the Pipettes.

This isn't really something I give any great thought to at the time, but in retrospect, it's painfully apparent how this is just the first example of Phonogram 2 intertwining quite terrifyingly with my life.

But it's nothing compared to what the second issue has got in store for me.
So, for almost the entire period between Phonogram's first volume ending and its second beginning, I had been living in Brighton, commuting back to London every day. I didn't mind this commute, partly because there were so many upsides to living in Brighton (although they can basically all be boiled down to simply "It's Brighton"), and partly because although it meant getting up ludicrously early and getting home ludicrously late, I actually quite enjoyed the couple of hours to myself every day on the train with my laptop. I got a lot of writing done, read a lot of comics, watched a lot of TV shows... and listened to a lot of music.

As anyone knows, listening to a lot of music - especially a lot of the same music - in a concentrated burst can be hazardous to your health. Particularly when you heavily associate it with a particular time and place (and if that time and place is a very specific period in your life... say, when you're living in a different town for a set period of time). It leaves you open and vulnerable to painful associations, should anything happen that means you end up looking back on that time less fondly.

Such as, if that time includes the gradual disintegration of the most significant relationship you've been in up to that point. If that happens, you might find that some of the music you were listening to so intensely at that time becomes completely off-limits. If you're me, for example, you'll never be able to go back to the twee-indie soundtrack of a popular offbeat indie film released in the year 2007 ever again.

It's now April 2009. Four months after The Singles Club's first issue, and four months after The Breakup - which I'm still struggling to get over - the second finally lands. It reaches me while I'm at a particularly low ebb. I'm also still dealing with the fact that the latest volume of Scott Pilgrim (the fifth) managed to be the one about the painful breakup that didn't feel a million miles away from my own. To have one comic so acutely reflect your emotional state may be regarded as a misfortune. To have two... well, to have two results in what happens when issue #2 of The Singles Club drops.

Because issue #2 of The Singles Club is about a guy who can't hear a certain song (specifically, as far as the story goes, in a nightclub) without being struck by intensely painful memories of an ex-girlfriend. As the song plays, she appears as a haunting vision - rendered in washed out, ghostly tones, while a subtle shadow appears around each panel border - conversing with him casually and subjecting him to a barrage of flashbacks. It's simultaneously both a literal "curse" that he feels has been placed upon him (and thus in keeping with the use of "magic" that previous issues of Phonogram have hinted at), and a great big massive metaphor for how music makes us feel (suggesting that actually, there's no "literal" magic at all, and the whole thing is a metaphor).

In the issue's back matter, Kieron Gillen comes up with a phrase for this kind of thing, and it's so apposite I still don't actually believe it hadn't been coined sooner: "curse songs".


I understand exactly what a curse song is. And now, I understand exactly what Phonogram is. And this is the point where I become a little bit obsessed.

This is where Phonogram's true power lies: the ability to express some pretty bloody universal feelings and emotions in a way that the reader had previously been unable. If the first volume felt like a niche proposition in terms of its subject matter (I still don't really understand how anyone could enjoy it if they weren't a fan of Britpop), and the second had started out feeling even moreso (trendy teenagers on a night out in Bristol?), then issue #2 is where it began to speak for all of us. Even if we didn't recognise the precise circumstances going on in the story, we could surely recognise the emotions, and see our own slightly different experiences reflected.

It's the same kind of thing that makes issue #3 - "the Emily Aster one" - so good; even though it's not a situation I can personally empathise with, I know for a fact that there are people who hold that issue up the way I do with #2, as the moment where the series felt like it was talking specifically about them and nobody else.

And even if #3 doesn't do this for me, I'm pretty sure #2 won't end up being the only one that does, either.
Sure enough, it's July 2009, and Phonogram: The Singles Club #4 is due to come out. But between the second and fourth issues, something strange has happened. Someone's decided to make a Phonogram fanzine. For all kinds of reasons, this is just about the most Phonogram thing that could possibly happen2 - and obviously, I'm one of several people who immediately decide to have a go at submitting something. I sketch out an idea for a one-page strip about DJing, and enlist my friend Kat to draw it.

My line of thinking is that it's an area of music consumption that, the odd reference to "Retromancers" here and there, hasn't really been explored by the series yet. Specifically, the feeling you can get from DJing - and even more specifically, the kind of feeling I'd get playing our old crappy indie night at university, where the room would only have about ten people in it, but if you stuck on the right record (usually "Girl from Mars") you could fill the place with a tremendous, tangible sense of exuberance - and it was suddenly as if you were spinning records to a thousand people.

I think it's a pretty neat hook, and the curator of the fanzine agrees (either that or he doesn't have enough submissions to be choosy). It's not the greatest thing I've ever done, but I'm pleased with it - and pleased that something I wrote is being sold at San Diego Comic Con beneath a Jamie McKelvie cover (because the second most Phonogram thing that could possibly happen is for there to be a Phonogram fanzine where one of the Phonogram creators draws the cover). And I'm pleased that I've found an angle that the main series hasn't really done yet.

And then issue #4 comes out. And it's about DJing. And it's the best issue of the series yet: tremendously funny, artfully constructed and paced (every page but two is made up of the same six-panel grid) and with a climactic double-page spread that's absolutely to die for (and really should have been a poster). And it has a moment where, with the room flagging and lethargic, the DJs break out a special, exalted record that's guaranteed to get everybody moving.

And it's like... well, why do any of the rest of us need to bother?
Over the second half of 2009, I've met someone new. And while my curse songs are still curse songs, I'm generally feeling a lot better than I had been while the first half of the series was coming out. I've even discovered some new (to me) music that I now positively associate with this new relationship and my new frame of mind. I've been listening to Let's Get Out of This Country, the third album by Scottish indie-pop combo Camera Obscura (funnily enough, it's an album that originally came out around a month before that Pipettes record), and in particular its opening track, "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken".

A few months into our dating, my new girlfriend3 and I even see the band play at a summer outdoor music festival on Clapham Common. It's funny how these things go.

As if detecting this mood of mine, Phonogram decides that it's time for its redemption issue. And so, in December 2009, comes #6.

Issue #6, aside from featuring some pretty fantastic and unconventional visual storytelling from McKelvie - about half of it is basically a fanzine dropped into the middle of a comic - tells the story of Lloyd, a desperately serious young man first encountered in issue #1, who has (what he thinks is) a great idea for a pop group, and wants everyone to call him Mr. Logos. He's also hopelessly in love, we learn here for the first time, with one of the other characters. While that story ends up playing out pretty much as you'd expect it to for him (that is... not very well), there's a glimmer of hope for poor Lloyd thanks to a conversation he has with one David Kohl.

Kohl, of course, was the lead character in Rue Britannia, and despite all protestations to the contrary, Is Basically Kieron Gillen. During The Singles Club, he takes on this strange, almost elder-statesman kind of status - primarily in the eyes of Lloyd, who in issue #1 spots him arrive at the club and immediately declares that he has to try and talk to him. Because Kohl has been there and done it all before, and his exploits with Britannia in the first volume have passed into phonomancer legend.

In other words, he is to the younger phonomancers somewhat like what Kieron is like to an array of younger writers and wannabe-writers. Especially the ones who get invited to Phonogram drinks parties.

In #6, Lloyd gets to have his conversation with Kohl, and it's a conversation that can't help but feel is reminiscent of conversations I've had with Kieron myself. And that, I'm sure, Kieron has had with lots of other people. To be clear, I don't think Lloyd is in any way based on me and my interactions with Gillen (there are, however, at least one or two people whom it's rather clearer that he's based on), just that it's an entirely familiar dynamic.

At the end of their chat, Lloyd is told by Kohl to go and listen to a new, up-and-coming band called Los Campesinos!, who Kohl describes as "They're going to be bi... actually, scratch that. They're never going to be big big. But they're going to be big to some people." This moment is, of course, Kieron speaking directly - he's a noted fan, and friend, of the band - and it's easy to take his recommendation at face value even if, unlike Lloyd, you're not in the situation of having listened to nothing but Dexy's Midnight Runners for the last year.

Thing is, I already liked LC! quite a lot; but I also had a bit of a problem with them. Because I'd been listening to their album Hold On Now, Youngster... quite solidly on those Brighton-to-London train journeys, while the follow-up We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed coincided nicely with the December 2008 breakup. I wouldn't have called them quite as curse-songey as the twee indie-film soundtrack - I could still, at least, actually listen to them - but they had felt somewhat tainted by being, for me at least, of that time.

Kohl's instruction to go and listen to them, and the reaction that Lloyd has when he eventually does (after going through something of an angry emotional breakdown spurred by the events of later that night), actually persuaded me to do the same - specifically, I went and listened to the same early tracks that were around at the time The Singles Club is set, which I'd never really dug into before.

And just like Lloyd, "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives" does something for me. In my case, it lifts the Los Campesinos! curse. I've never looked back.

Incidentally, the title of issue #6? "Ready to be Heartbroken".

It's June 2015. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are no longer "the creators of Phonogram". They're now "the creators of The Wicked + The Divine", one of the biggest creator-owned comics success stories since Saga (going by the most recent available sales figures, it's only a few thousand short of Mark Millar's two current series, for example). This means that the solicitation of the much-delayed third Phonogram volume - the one that actually, we'd all pretty much resigned ourselves to never seeing - also includes getting a cover slot on Previews. This is uncharted territory for this little book.

I catch myself wondering if, after all this time, new Phonogram will ever really feel the same. It surely won't have the same effect on me that the previous volume did. I half wonder what the creators have to gain from putting it out, given the success they've had with things that aren't it; and whether they're only really doing so out of a nostalgic sense of obligation (worse, have they actually become retromancers of Phonogram itself?) Is it going to be the PG3 that we wanted so badly five years ago, or has time dulled both that need, and the ability to fulfill it?

If it has, it shouldn't matter: Phonogram has already changed my life in more than enough ways. But it'd be nice to imagine that it still carries the same magic.

It's June 2015, and as I look at the first preview pages released for Phonogram 3, I find myself mentally applauding the use of a Ceefax-esque font for the narrative captions that accompany a flashback to the 1980s.

So yeah, maybe it does. We'll see.

1 The fact that I later learn through second-hand anecdote that at least one of them isn't really a very nice person doesn't really matter. By the end of the following year, that version of the band has disappeared entirely into myth anyway.
2Or, if you want to put it another way, "horrendously pretentious".
3Now my wife, as it happens.