Lurky McLurklurk (ionlylurkhere) wrote,
Lurky McLurklurk
ionlylurkhere

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Phonogram

I swear, I only went into Forbidden Planet to feed my Who-sticker addiction. But what did I see there but OMGSqueePhonogramisoutintradenewthisweek. So I had to buy it. Had to.

A bit of context: months ago, someone off in the wilds of the comics blogosphere (I think it was Chris Sims at The Invincible Super-Blog but I can't find it in his archives now) posted a link to the available-for-free-online-as-a-taster first ten pages of the first issue of Phonogram, which is a comic from Image about Britpop, basically. Only it's more than that.

I'll admit, I started off being a bit repulsed by the super-aggressive maleness of the protagonist, but it quickly won me over with the fact that it spent four pages discussing why some Kenickie songs were better than others (and getting it right). On my next visit to a comic shop I discovered I'd missed #2 and so I decided to wait for the trade. Which was delayed. And delayed again. (Amazon still claims it was released back in March. [erm don't buy it from that link though it's a Marketplace bloke trying to scalp people for £84 for it.])

But now it is out and squeeeeeeeee I have it and I have read it and yay I loved it. There are fairly significant spoilers below the cut but I've tried not to ruin the whole thing and the themes are more important than the plot anyway. Mind you, the "review" is as much about me and the two years I Really Honestly Deeply Cared About Music and What I Think Now as the comic, to be honest, so you may just wish to skip it entirely.


This comic is absolutely fantastic. It's written and drawn by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie respectively, both of whom, as I understand it, were involved in glittery music-fanzine-fandom at the time and the deep knowledge of and love for it shine through (albeit tempered with experience and cynicism, of which more later). The basic premise is that you can do magic with music. The protagonist, David Kohl, is a "phonomancer" who came into his powers during the Britpop era and was involved (in the romantic sense) with the goddess Britannia in her "cool" aspect, before she died. Now "retromancers" (the bad sort of phonomancer, who feed off nostalgia) are trying to do bad things to her corpse and another aspect of the goddess recruits him to sort it out.

Phonogram is one of those lovely stories where cultural concepts are tangible entities, the sort of thing you get from Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and (because I can't avoid making Who references) Lawrence Miles. And the effects of the interference with Britannia in the world are suitably trippy -- because Kohl's power is rooted in Britpop, his memories start to change: he starts liking bands he knows he hated. His and his friend's memories start to get mixed. The ghost of a girl who isn't dead, but did give up on the music, appears. The whole of Phonogram #4 is a brilliant sequence where he's led through the "memory kingdom" of Britpop by Luke Haines from The Auteurs/Black Box Recorder/etc. and sees the whole story of the movement played out as a weird fairytale, with Damon from Blur and Justine from Elastica (I think) the King and Queen and Noel Gallagher an evil necromancer (resurrecting the Beatles etc.) with Liam as his golem (again, I think; I don't know for sure that I'm getting the interpretations right).

Now the thing is, David Kohl is a really horrible git. Those first few pages aren't out of character or anything. He treats women very badly and he uses the people around him shamelessly. But over the course of the story you find yourself rooting for him because the threats he faces are the very real threats we all face of having our identity dissolved in conforming with the wishes of others. In the course of his quest, he (and/or Gillen, it's hard to know where to draw the line) deconstructs the Britpop phenomenon. He rips it to shreds to expose the hollow emptiness at its heart, and then rebuilds it around the knowledge that that's all there is, deep down, out of love for it and for what it made him into. (It feels like what Lawrence Miles does to Doctor Who in his books, just to bring him up again.) Ultimately, Phonogram is a story about people accepting themselves for who they are, even if who they are isn't very nice. After his victory, he tells his immediate superior in his phonomancer coven "Show some respect. You're speaking to the saviour of reality." to which she retorts "Perhaps. But only your reality, David." And he says: "It counts."

But really I love this comic because it's pretty much a comic about my life. Or at least the lives I didn't have but could have done if I'd been a little less cripplingly shy, and which I glimpsed through the doors music opened up onto the parallel universes where I did. The very first album I ever bought was Pulp's Different Class. I was 15, or maybe 14 (I was quite late getting into music, really). Different Class is an album about "misshapes, mistakes, misfits, raised on a diet of broken biscuits" and it spoke to me in a way that nothing else had before -- not about the particulars of my life, but that sense of isolation and difference (you know, the one that all wanky teens have) bled out from Jarvis's lyrics straight into my ears. That sense of despair that turns to frustration that turns to anger that turns into something a bit like acceptance. The life of quiet desperation that Different Class is basically all about wasn't my life, and hasn't been, but it was a life I could imagine having. At the other end of the spectrum, Kenickie's At The Club a while later showed me the life I could have had if I'd been, y'know, vaguely sociable, the life of clubbing and drinking and going out and having a laugh even though just beneath the surface is the poisonous knowledge that it's all a sham.

For a couple of years there, I Really Cared About Music. I read the NME and the Melody Maker and I thought it was Important that bands not be crappy and derivative but new and exciting even though I was quite happily gobbling up all my opinions about what constituted those categories from the hacks on those rags. But that era's music really did help me to make sense of my life (the final entry in my personal Top Three of Really Meaningful Music is probably Casanova by the Divine Comedy, which captures the fine line between that idealised romantic unrequited unattainable love you kid yourself about when the object of your affection doesn't even know you exist and desperate, desperate horniness perfectly). It's probably just that those albums came along and suited my mood at the times I heard them, when I was a mass of hormones and new experiences and frustration and angst and, well, teenageriness, but it doesn't matter. They're a part of my identity. I relate to them (and probably about another dozen or so albums) in ways I don't to any other music or any other cultural phenomena at all, really. Even though now I don't make much of an effort to seek out music beyond background noise from The Hits and TMF and new albums from the bands that I had my love of cemented back then, over a decade ago. Even though I boggle at the idea that I thought music mattered. I don't know if I think anything matters any more; the whole world is disappearing into a haze of immediate-gratification consumerism that frankly I'm obviously quite willing to adopt (hell, I just spent £10 on a graphic novel on impulse, didn't I?) and leaving behind ideologies and principles and the hope -- no, the knowledge -- that there's something better out there, a better way to live, a better way to be, if only we could just somehow work out how to do society right. I don't think this is just me, I think it's a collective failure of imagination to come up with alternatives to our comfortable capitalist lives, even though we know deep down that they're built on a pyramid of injustice and inequality, but I can't escape the fact that I'm part of that. All I'm left with are the things that shaped me as I grew up, from (yes) Doctor Who to Different Class, and a smug veneer of superiority that I'm sufficiently self-aware now not to care as much, not to think that they're any sort of signposts to a better world, or at least a better me -- not to believe that they're anything more than entertainment for me to consume.

But anyway: the other thing about Phonogram is that huge, huge chunks of it are about the lovely old Manics, and what Richey's disappearance means, if it means anything. To my shame, I missed out on getting into the Manics until the time of Everything Must Go, but I did the wanky thing I always do when I get into something new and went back to the beginning and Generation Terrorists blew me away (though I always connected to the Manics on the political level more than the personal, I think; their lyrics [particularly, inevitably, Richey's ones on Holy Bible] evoke all sorts of harrowing emotional landscapes but those are windows for me on other people's lives, not doors to the lives I could have had) -- to this day, I consider myself a new old Manics fan.

Apart from all that, McKelvie's art is superb. Simple, monochrome, but expressive and brilliant at portraying the shifting weirdness of Kohl's reality without losing clarity. The only disappointment is that for obvious economic reasons the cover images of the individual issues aren't coloured where they appear on the inside, which is a pity as they're these absolutely wonderful pastiches of famous Britpop album covers.

There's also a glossary that explains all the references (though it rightly claims this isn't needed to understand the story, everything is pick-up-able from context) which is funny in and of itself.

And finally: the last page made me cry. In Starbucks where I was reading it, middle-class-McDonalds goer that I am. I'm not going to spoil what the last page is, but it made me cry. I don't cry at non-RL stuff, ever, really. But that simple little six-panel scene was so real to me, so close to certain elements of my life and the way I relate to music these days, that I cried at the beauty of it. I'm tearing up again now just typing this -- how daft is that?

If you were ever into anything vaguely approximating Britpop, you need to buy this comic. If you weren't, you need to buy this comic and at least ten of the albums it references.

It won't change your life. Unless you want it to.

I wish I wanted it to.
Tags: comics
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