Review: Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1


In 1985, Swedish synth-pop band A-ha had a huge hit with their debut single "Take on Me". It reached #2 in the UK (kept off the top by Jennifer Rush's "The Power of Love", a song that is staggeringly inferior to its two mid-80s namesakes) and #1 in the US. This success was due in no small part (although not entirely - it is a fantastic record) to its music video, directed by future Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helmer Steve Barron. In case you've somehow never seen it, it portrays a young woman reading a comic in a cafe, who finds herself drawn into its pages by the handsome lead character (A-ha's singer Morten Harket, converted to pencil form by rotoscoped animation), before helping him escape from its confines.

It's filled with incredibly striking imagery - and although the soft pencil lines look like no actual comic ever published (I've often wondered if the woman was actually meant to be the artist herself, looking at a rough draft of her own work), it's sort of surprising that in the thirty years since it was made, there hasn't been a single comic that's gone "Hey, this is an iconic pop culture image that plays with our form, we should try and make use of it somehow!"

Fortunately, Phonogram is back.

When a series you've loved and lost makes a comeback with a belated sequel, what is it that you want to see from it again? A run-through all the familiar old tricks? Or something new and exciting that reminds you why you loved it in the first place? While the sensible head would surely claim the latter, it's hard to deny the heart's fondness for the former. Phonogram being Phonogram, it should be no surprise that it listens to, and indulges, both the head and the heart in equal measure.

David Kohl as a guest star. A flashback to how and when their coven was formed. Cameos from two beloved supporting characters. A third from someone often talked about but never before seen. A KWK namecheck. A backup strip with Lloyd in it. And all manner of Emily Aster snark. It's like Kieron Gillen wants us to know that he can do a populist sequel, even if it's to something that has never been, and has no hope of ever being, populist. In the wrong hands, it would be irritating. As it is, it's just so bloody good to have the series back that every familiar face or reference gives the seasoned reader a warm, fuzzy feeling. It's like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes.

While these scenes represent cosy familiarity for the existing fan (all five of us), however, they also serve as a strong introduction to the series' hook for the fifty million or so Wicked + Divine readers who could potentially pop in for a glance. If the first volume of The Singles Club struggled slightly to get the premise across in an engaging way, this one is much more open - quickly establishing who Emily is, what her (and the series') sense of "magic" is all about, and setting up the apparently Faustian nature of this volume's plot. As tremendous as the issue is as a reintroduction, it also feels like it could quite comfortably be the first ever issue of the series.

But this would all be for naught if Phonogram 3 didn't have something new to say, and I'd be lying if I said that wasn't the main concern going into it. As brief and fleeting as the glory of The Singles Club was, what is there left about the relationship between music and emotion that it didn't cover? Well, the general answer to that is "lots, probably". The specific answer put forward by this issue, though, is "Music videos, you dingbat, and how didn't you even see that coming?"

So, yeah. "Take on Me" isn't just a neat hook for the cover image of issue #2 (above). It's the last act of the issue - and, by extension, seemingly a pretty big part of the series as a whole. I don't even want to say exactly how and why it becomes relevant, because to do so would spoil the fun; but by gum, it's startling. In two breathtaking pages, Jamie McKelvie performs an absolutely note-perfect piece of homage that actually manages to break free of the printed (or digital) pages: you will feel these panels moving, and you'll immediately get the song lodged in your head. If the original video proved that comic books could live inside a music video, then the closing pages of this issue return the favour.

It's easy to fall into the trap of taking everything McKelvie does - whether here, on Wicked + Divine or Young Avengers - for granted, at least when he's not indulging in experiments with narrative convention (and the music video isn't the only unusual visual on display here: the TV white noise/Teletext sequences are a delight, too, though that might just be because they land perfectly in my own personal wheelhouse). It can feel repetitive to point out again just how good he is at pacing and expressive character work. But Phonogram, at least, gives the distinct opportunity for a direct comparison: not with other artists in the field, but with the McKelvie of six and eight years ago. And his work here, in tandem with the colouring of Matt Wilson, actually makes one reevaluate the extent to which the previous two volumes looked Any Good At All. Of course, they did... but they didn't look like this.

All of this, and B-sides, too. Oh, B-sides: how we've missed thee. The first, as mentioned, reintroduces Lloyd - which makes me very happy, because Lloyd - and is about Taylor Swift and curse songs. Which makes me sad, because Lloyd. Again, it takes an angle on the concept that The Singles Club didn't really cover, acting as a counterpoint to that volume's argument that curse songs are only ever a force for evil. Sarah Gordon is allowed to work the lettering into her negative-space artwork - an unusual choice, but one that enhances its haunting quality.

The other, meanwhile, is drawn by regular letterer Clayton Cowles. It's slight, and charming, and happily it's about exactly what I hoped it would be when I read the title on the contents page. It's also - by virtue of its dating - potentially an actually very significant capstone to the entire Phonogram series. Because that's how these things work, obviously.

And that's Phonogram all over. By rights, the only surprise that The Immaterial Girl should have had left to offer would have been that it even existed at all. Instead, it turns out that a new issue of Phonogram really can still be everything that a new issue of Phonogram used to be.

In the past, I've wondered if there could ever be another series that would have the same effect on me that this book, this "they'll never be big big, but they'll be big to some people" book, once did. Fortunately, Phonogram is back.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 is released on Wednesday 12th August