Saturday, 5 May 2012

Five By Five - Comics, week 3: Phonogram

Last weekend, because I am both rock and roll and hardcore, I went to a nightclub with the express intention of losing myself in the music. (Eminem references: I’m still totally down with the kids).

I know what you’re thinking: Me and several hundred thousand other people right? Pubbing and clubbing on a Saturday night is pretty much a great British pass time; so much so that it has its own associated mini-rituals (even if they do primarily involve a donner kebab and a friend willing to hold your hair back for you as you weep into the gutter about the sheer existentialist absurdity of your own right shoe. Or is that just me?)

The truth is, fast food, projectile vomiting and girls who think that layers of fake tan are an acceptable alternative to clothes too often define nights out. We all want that transcendental moment when the DJ really does save your life, but it’s rare, and dependent on a magical alignment of people and place and beat.

It’s possible though, which is why we return to these sticky floored churches week after week in the hope that God will eventually show up.

The idea of it is endlessly compelling, and this week’s graphic novel series Phonogram takes it even further, as an entire pantheon shimmer and echo around the festivals, nightclubs and other music venues of the UK.
Phonogram takes place in a universe very much like our own; except that music really is magic here, and it chooses its own acolytes, sometimes without a great deal of discrimination. It might seem like an odd thing to say, but barely pages into ‘Rue Britannia’, the first offering in the series, I was as sure that I loved the story as I was that I hated the protagonist; pretentious, chain smoking David Kohl.

Of course, hate can be a complex emotion, and Kohl is a character with self-knowledge if nothing else, combined with an acute awareness of the powerful and ambivalent responses he can elicit. In possession of a strange mix of angst-ridden self-loathing and a misogynist’s swagger he declares himself a ‘white man in clitoris palace’ at the start of the story...

Before a well-timed and satisfying ass-kicking from a goddess.

Deities abound here and the metaphors are thick, fast and not always subtle. They don’t feel clumsy or forced though, because so many of the ideas they give form to have a ring of truth about them. From the fallen goddess of Brit Pop (once great, now best left buried), to the ‘memory palaces’ built from our collective impressions of a time, a place, a musical zeitgeist, Phonogram works because music is so close to metaphor anyway. A bunch of carefully arranged vibrations shouldn’t be able to make us laugh or cry or want to get laid. But they totally do. It’s only a hop, skip and a jump from here to giving these vibrations form and personality. And of course, we’re all slaves to the music sometimes. It’s just that here, there are phonomancers, touched by this sound magic, to make the influence explicit.

Phonogram's other obsession - very much in evidence in the collection of short stories in its second offering ‘The Singles Club’ (see what they did there?) - is identity, and the ways in which music allows us to belong, to rebel or to reinvent ourselves. It’s a whistle stop tour through one random indie night during which a host of phonomancers swirl past each other, each living out their own personal dramas. The interesting thing about it is the extent to which this is ‘inside out’ writing. In every single scene we’re allotted a protagonist  guide who invites us inside their head (and in one rather splendid case tells us to get the hell out again). There’s nowhere for them (or us) to hide from the insecurities, the jealousy or the spite that abound in every human heart and yet there’s something undeniably attractive about it all. We’re invited into the conversation and inevitably we wind up colluding with it.

It’s a dichotomy expressed perfectly in the recurrent character of Emily, a phonomancer of considerably greater power than David, who glides through the pages like some pierced medusa. You know you shouldn’t look but you do anyway. She’s undeniably a bitch, but she’s clever and insightful and just, well, *cool* as well. And as readers we’re granted a strange intimacy; the chance to see the old self she has abandoned to reinvent herself through sheer force of will.

For those interested in that sort of thing, it’s also worth noting that it all looks pretty damn sexy too. Where ‘Rue Britannia’ is noirey and printed entirely in black and white, ‘The Singles Club’ embraces a new palate; reds and oranges for that point in the evening when the air itself seems to sweat; moody blues and greys for more contemplative moments.  Jamie McKelvie draws human faces with a great deal of attention and even love, but the background detail is pared right down - it’s the *characters* that matter here. And the look of it isn’t the only additional dimension breathing life into Phonogram; there’s a sort of silent soundtrack that accompanies each scene, and for music lovers it offers dual opportunities for geeking out. (Kieron Gillen really knows his stuff and there are extensive notes on the music behind it all at the end of each book).

Perhaps the heart of it is that Phonogram celebrates the sheer, breathless, hedonistic, nihilistic thrill of sex and music and youth; of dark corners and wild parties and the exhilaration of existing in a perpetual state of not giving a fuck. It makes for a strangely unsettling read, but also an appropriately spell-binding one.
Because if magic exists anywhere, this is where it would be...

This week Kate is experiencing her annual bout of spring restlessness.

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