Sunday, 7 March 2010

Comic review: Phonogram/Suburban Glamour

                On with my journey to experiment with reviews of non-music mediums. It may not be more fun for you, but it is for me, so it's going to keep happening. Enjoy!

                Okay, so something I've been getting back into these days is comics. I was never really out of the comic-buying habit, what with my warped and depraved love of Hellblazer and the fact that I re-read Watchmen every few months, but this wave of comic-love has brought my enjoyment of the medium up to an all-time high. I'm reading Batman from 1986 back up to present day, because if there's one thing I know about current writer Grant Morrison, it's that if I don't know every twist and turn the narrative has taken since the Crisis on Infinite Earths he'll bend my comprehension of the plot over a rail and show me just how welcome I am in his continuity porn kingdom. I've also gotten kind of into independent comics, which all started with the Scott Pilgrim series, the standard for indie comics. Long story short, it's utterly brilliant and it's led me up an avenue of non-traditional comics. And this had me end up with Phonogram.

                Now, I run a blog in which I discuss videogames and horror movies and complain about music, so it's safe to say that I am inescapably awesome. However, this was not always the case. In my first few years of secondary school, my friends and I would hang out in the library, chatting, relaxing, and reading Official Playstation 2 Magazine, which - for some reason - the library had a subscription to. Pretty much the only thing that stuck with me of this magazine was the cartoons in the back, Save Point, which where brilliant. It was wonderfully written, illustrated in a style I always admired, and always containing at least one hot punk girl, which probably explains my long-running kink for alt-chicks. Fast-forward four or five years, and I've long since stopped buying OP2M, and though my friends and I still hang out in the library a lot, we're all infinitely prettier. My absolute writing hero is a man called Kieron Gillen, long time contributor to PC Gamer, creator of superb PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun and, it just so happens, sometimes crazy-talented comic book writer. As I got more into comics, I had a look at his.

                One series stood out amongst his contributions to Marvel Comics which, as an avowed DC, I was never going to read. It was called Phonogram, published by Image Comics with an illustrator called Jamie McKelvie, based around the idea of music and magic being analogous - you can see why it would appeal to me. The first issue of the first volume is available online, and, curious, I had a read. It was sublime: wonderfully written, illustrated in a warmly familiar style and containing just the right amount of hot punk girls. I'd like to say that realisation slowly dawned upon me, but being kind of a slow fuck at times, I only realised having poked around Gillen's website and explicitly being told; this duo was the exact same one who made Save Point, the comic strip I remembered after all these years. I'd grown up with Phonogram. I just hadn't realised it.

                An aside - Image Comics, for those of you not in the know (I'm assuming all of you) was formed in the early 90s by, amongst others, an illustrator called Todd MacFarlane. With its flagship title, Spawn, it spearheaded the grim 'n' gritty revolution of that decade, where the industry as a whole tried as hard as possible to appeal to teen boys. Everything was EXTREME and EDGY and TOTALLY RADICAL without even pretence to emotional or thematic depth. Fuck, DC even made a whole new imprint, Vertigo, just so people like Brian Azzarello, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman didn't get any intelligence in the SUPER AWESOME image the main imprint was working so hard to cultivate. This decade is the reason no-one buys comics anymore. Good stuff WAS made in this era - the Knightfall saga of the Batman mythos got me into comics, and of course most of The Sandman was made here, but for the most part, this was a hyping up and dumbing down of a medium which still hasn't commercially recovered, even though artistically it's pretty much back on par. Image Comics have been an in-joke amongst comic fans entirely for this era, synonymous with vacuous insubstantiality. So you see why it's weird to have such a smart, culturally aware series on here.

               The first volume of Phonogram, Rue Britannia, introduces us to our first Phonomancer, David Kohl. A charismatic, commanding vagabond, he makes music his power, using it for whatever he wants. He's a phonomancer - a magician who draws power from songs. Put on a mission from the Feminine Principle, he discovers that events of the past are changing, altering the future, and it all revolves around the long-dead Britannia, the spirit of Britpop. The actual text itself is a sprawling, Hellblazer-esque journey through Britain's musical landscape, constantly writhing with allusion and metaphor, with Kohl trying to stop what is happening to Britannia before his musical identity, rooted in the life and death of Britpop, disappears completely, taking with it his phonomancy.

                Of course, the more interesting element is the subtext - the function of every part of this magical side is analogous to the way music affects people. A "phantom" of a past era can be revisited by getting suited and booted in the style, turning on era-music, and tuning out, slipping into memories of the time. Musical revivals become literal revivals of dead genre deities, attempting to rewrite history to give old music new legs, allowing nostalgia to make people young again. This is music and magic as metaphysics, with the effects of music on the mind changing the world around it. Gillen writes in a manner that intertwines these two layers inextricably, creating a narrative which requires full comprehension of both. No other comic, no matter how sophisticated, has managed this synthesis quite this well. The constant referencing of real-life bands (to the point where a glossary is needed, and supplied with biting commentary from the creators themselves) creates a silent soundtrack for the comic, weaving constant strands of allusion through lyrical themes, contextual cues and recurring references. The idea of music-as-magic is explored on the magic side perfectly.

                The second volume, The Singles Club, changes this tack entirely. Set over a single night at an indie club, we're introduced to a near-entirely new cast (David Kohl, his femme fatale friend, and his Chas Chandler copy, Kid-With-Knife, return) and the events of the evening examine them as characters, again, using music as an interface for strange goings on. The "magic" is more casual here - not even explicitly magical, even - but the point here is on the relationships between people and the music they love. Each issue tells the night's story from a different perspective, and this is utilised wonderfully. The best use of this? A single line, brutally cruel in the first issue, heartbreaking in the next. You’ll see what I mean.

                The artwork is astonishing. The first volume is black and white, but the stunning art of Jamie McKelvie brings it to life nonetheless. It hangs out on the iconic corner of the Scott McCloud realistic-artistic-iconic triangle, and this suits it perfectly. The lack of painstaking detail allows the crisp, stripped-down art style to express astonishing emotion – Kieron Gillen may be the writer, but Jamie McKelvie can tell stories without a single word. The characters are so expressive and so alive with feeling and action that even in the second volume, where a character may only feature in two or three issues, they have such astonishingly deep characterisation that it's all the time they need. The character design is brilliant too, making each character unique while still making them seem like real people. The events of the night give insight into the workings of their minds which display a rich understanding of why people love music, and every element of the comics production, be it the writing, the art or the superlative colouring (only The Singles Club is in colour) converges on this point. Phonogram is a truly brilliant comic.

Once I had read this (I have still yet to read the final chapter of The Singles Club) I found that McKelvie had written and drawn his own comic, Suburban Glamour. Naturally, I had to give it a read. The verdict? Less brilliant. The story revolves around a seventeen year-old rock chick called Astrid, who's quickly outgrowing her midlands hometown. As her discontent with her hometown grows, her childhood friends reappear. They bring with them a supernatural world, and a conflict to which Astrid is connected. If anything, this comic is a stunningly well done insight into the teenage mind, which makes it slightly irrelevant to me, who, being a teenager, can do that by hanging out with my friends for a half hour, but it's brilliantly portrayed. Every character is relatable, every element of the "normal" situations is familiar, and the spirit of both modern teens and adolescence in general is captured perfectly.

Unfortunately, the supernatural side of it, and the "main" story this brings, is much less well-developed, vastly less intelligent than the rest of the story warrants, and a total injustice to the world it sets up. It fits the idea of the story, sure, but the when the subtext and the text aren't just interwoven, but are the same thing, something's gone wrong. The plot ends up ending without any real climax, but merely trundling along like a filler strip in a longer-running comic before simply stopping without actually having gone anywhere (only having 4 issues is no excuse considering that The Dark Knight Returns had the same amount of space and helped revolutionise comics). This may be intentional, given the subject matter, but the comic feels too small, like the seeds of something much bigger have been planted, but haven't grown, and end without any real revelation or point gotten across. The art and design of the comic is as gorgeous as ever, but it lacks the tight direction that Gillen's scripts gave Phonogram, and as such lacks much of the weight it carried before. All this said, it was okay purely for the bits in-between the main story arc, which will be both relatable to teens and insightful to adults. Also, Astrid is added to my list of alt-chick comic book crushes along with Death from The Sandman and Nico Minoru of Runaways. Go her.

Phonogram's intelligent, rich narrative and superlative presentation makes it possibly my favourite comic in recent years, and makes both volumes an essential read to any comic fans. Suburban Glamour was equally sharp in its appearance, but lacks both the substance and the simple fun to match up to it. Still, McKelvie can be forgiven seeing how awesome he is as an artist, and Gillen remains on the pedestal I've put him on over the years.

No comments:

Post a Comment