August 26th, 2009
Phonogram Book 2: The Singles Club #4, by Keiron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson
Not, by the way, going to allow this review to be coloured by how annoying those Pipettes at the next table in the cafe on Saturday were. Didn’t really notice myself, to be honest, I was wrapped up thoroughly in my weekly dose of Wednesday wonder (it’s the comic it’s OK to read in public! Best Aquaman ever!), but when I looked up my betrothed had her homicide face on, filled me in on the details later. One Pipette telling off another Pipette for not being Pipettey enough. Read: first rule of Pipette club – do not be a better singer than lead Pipette. Another line-up change on the horizon? How 2006.
So there was this bit ages ago on a BBC show about guitars and guitarists, and Malcolm McLaren, aka the best Sex Pistol (Double Dutch beats This Is Not A Love Song for ever, butterman), is talking about the Pistols live shows. He’s just getting his digs in, again, thirty years later and still acting like schoolkids, but he makes the point that young Master Rotten, the hair and clothes and spitting spasming movements, was all just desperate moves to win back the on-stage attention from Steve Jones’ guitar. The guitarist, he went on to posit, is the natural focus of the rock stage dynamic, blasting the crowd with their solar-phallic magic wand. The singer’s traditional spot centre-stage is by way of compensation, a traditional dispensation to protect their precious ego from the fact that the audience doesn’t really want to see them, is in fact completely under the spell of the noisy inarticulate brute wrestling with the big loud cock-thing over there, stage left.
With Phonogram number 4, a standout, fucking excellent issue of the best comic of the year, this one you can kind of see the same thing happening. Jamie McKelvie, it has to be said, on lead guitar, turning in lick after solo and the whole damn crowd eating out of his hand. Gillen, front and centre, providing the vocals and backing vocals and the concept and the context and just about everything else, somehow still being overshadowed by his partner.
Gillen’s problem is, he’s over-generous, then, later, over ambitious. The main strip (one of two ongoing tales that you get for your measly £/$/€ , plus another and a glossary that’s sharper with each issue and an essay that… well, still can’t believe I’m paying for the two pages of essay, but whatever) breaks each of the main 16 pages down, the whole thing, into six-panel, three by two grids. The scene is the same in each case: the view of a DJ booth, populated by the two same characters. This, one assumes, would be a nightmare for most pencillers, keeping the visual continuity steady, and not having anything particularly exciting to draw, could get old real fast. But it’s a perfect gift to McKelvie, a real chance to show off. His knack with drawing people and clothes and hair and how they move and what they mean is one of the things that gives the series such a strong and unique identity, and giving him a tough storytelling challenge like this is a real opportunity to demonstrate just how good he is. The pacing never drags, the whole effect of this neat little scene, again and again, is spellbinding..
Apart from the enammelled, lickably clean style and visual consistency of the art, the various features of Gillen’s script are similarly spot-on. The dialogue and jokes are as sharp as ever, and the way the plot nearly-not-quite ties in with the other issues starts to look smoother and more intentional than previously, the subjective impressions of the night in question being, wisely, the very thing of the book itself, with considerations of objectivity and a singular, oppressive narrative checked at the door with the December coats. Of the two characters who happily hog the chapter, it’s no surprise that Silent Girl (she’s not always silent!!) comes off all cool, but much more amazingly Seth Bingo appears as some kind of sensitive, hard-working saint, a true believer in the power of the sonic sublime to redeem, who’s only slightly prickified by his silly name and DJ-smug attitude to playing records.
If Gillen’s nuts-and-bolts – the dialogue and character work – are just right, and his keenness to experiment formally, to think of each issue, page and panel as successive gestalts of untapped potential, makes him one to watch, it’s as inevitable as it is undeserved that he trips himself up sometimes.
Something about the tyrannical structure of the tight, strict grid has apparently led the authors to conclude that the story required a transcendent moment, a phase in the action where the scheme is broken and stepped outside of, a point of rockin’ good lose-control-again. This is completely understandable – there is a tension in the unusual layout, from which a sense of restriction could be inferred, and it occurs almost exactly mid-way through the issue, and the series itself… Dramatically, and in alignment with the build-up/break out cycle of clubbable danceability, the moment – a double page spread of musico-magical n-space, with the DJ booth as a central fulcrum anchoring the experiences of the assembled phonomancers and clubbers – seems necessary. Somehow though, it just doesn’t come off, but feels clumsy, clunky and unearned. It’s an unwelcome reminder of Penny’s whiteout-samadhi at the end of the first issue, an undeserved moment of transcendence that the issue awards itself too soon, believing its own hype.
Seth and SG’s moment of victory is meant to be joyous and ecstatic, but it’s not as much fun as the preceding pages, and the story would have been more enjoyable if we’d just stayed with our hosts for another twelve panels of bitchy knockabout. The fact that all the narrative cues, all the standard conventions, were pointing towards its necessity should have been taken as a sign not to do it, to break the no-rules rule and stick with the structure to the bitter end leave the tension hanging there in the air. If that perverse transgressive note was really necessary, if the structure was such a stricture that it absolutely had to be kicked against, then perhaps it could have been achieved by incorporating it more thoroughly into the fabric of the issue itself, by having a non-linear time progression or something… as it is, there’s the unshakeable feeling that someone somewhere bottled it.
It seem so unfair to harp on, this issue is delicious as it is and nobody wants me to be bobsy Mckee, least of all myself, but… well, imagine the perfect 150-second pop song. It’s a total glory, no. 1 all over, everyone loves it, but someone, whether it’s the singer, the guitarist, the producer, the Svengali or just some stupid fanboy, decides to put a minute-long slap bass solo slap bang in the middle of it. With strings. And vocoders. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
(Or would it maybe make it even more brilliant? Ah well, find out next issue.)
Hidden track: The Wurzels get a mention in this issue! Let me blow any right I have to write any of this critical nonsense by confessing: I have seen The Wurzels play live more than any other band. I have seen them at cider festivals, barn dances, and at my own school fete. The lyrics of ‘Where be that Blackbird to?’ are in my bones like some weird racial memory, an unexaggerated fact that regularly delights and embarrasses my more civilised friends and loved-ones to this day. Ask me to sing you them someday, you will be amazed and disappointed in equal measure.
More Extra Bonus Track: Must mention the back up strips. The ongoing Indie Dave storyline (Charity Larrisson on pencils) is the best yet, and it gives the fuzzy feeling to see this throwaway joke character from the first book becoming the most fleshed-out and likable character that the comic has. You can’t help but root from him as he forces himself through a painful process of self-discovery, and an appointment with some hair clippers and accompanying rebirth as some pervy King Mob fetish lovegod is surely only a few issues away. The other back-up, Roses (David Lafuente, yes that one) is also very good, a nice simple idea fully realised, and a situation that happened to me identically a year or so back, right down to the exact part of the same song. It’s very annoying how close Phonogram gets to real life some times. ‘Annoying’ meaning ‘good’.
Hellblazer #258, by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini
It continues. What’s becoming more and more remarkable about Milligan’s run is the way the horror beats are being woven in underneath a fairly standard, which is to say, not standard at all, Milliganesque story about the cuts, thrusts, highways and bi-ways of modern relationships in the interpersonal metropolis. The big chill in this one isn’t ‘meeting the girlfriend’s family’, even when they are a squad of resurrected zombies, or even ‘this other girl who fancies you’s dad is a scarier magician than you’ (because surely no-one’s a scarier magician that JC – if he was, why hasn’t he got his own comic?) Like with the eerie setting of the Olympic plague pit in an earlier arc, Milligan is picking his scares perfectly, intuiting the macroscopic monsters gnawing at the outside of today’s collective unconscious with an exceptionally acute eye for the uncanny.
The real shock comes all casual, a scene that’s part cliche, part aside, part plot mechanics, pure terror. A gaggle (I’m having trouble with these collective nouns – should it be a ‘bully’?) of the Met’s finest bursting through a front door, hot on John’s trail, holding bright yellow police issue models of Timothy A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. Lethally armed bobbies on the beat, you couldn’t make it up.
Harker #6 by Roger Gibson and Vince Danks
The final chapter of the first book of everyone’s favourite cop comic that thinks it’s a regional detective telly programme. Harker’s basically a talky book, and through this run has made much of the fact that comics can hold conversation time and turn sets and backgrounds a lot quicker and more elegantly than the TV, stylishly freezing, shifting and elasticising narrative space as circumstances demand. Final chapter means Action! Chase! Drama! though, with the titular character, who’s really not developed a strong enough voice of his own to carry the action, on a murky and repetitive chase-through-the-sewers scene with the giggling Satanist maniac killer on his tail.
It all goes a little flat, and although the denouement in the British Museum (home of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and just over the road from stalwart London funnybook peddlers Gosh – Ground Zero for British comics) is well staged and seems to grope its way via a strategic arrangement of visual signifiers towards a summation of themes (some slightly unclear notions of resurrection; the Victorian craze for Egyptology and the Edwardian esoteric revival; ritualised violence as social control – the From Hell handbook, essentially), there’s an uneasy sense that Harker just doesn’t quite click yet. Having the main man, who’s currently a bit less prepossessing than his slick, sarcastic sidekick, run and stumble and huff and puff for the whole issue, down increasingly samey tunnels, isn’t the best way to maintain the narrative urgency, even if it does get baddie and goodie from A to B effectively enough. The dialogue and interaction between the two leads has been the strength of the series, and the way their exchanges have been timed and placed amid the elegant bustle of a Bloomsbury-gone-bad, and I can’t help but suspect we might have had more fun with the leering, overwritten villain if we had been able to trap him in a box and interrogate his grand manias in the harsh light of the interview room.
Still, heretofore Harker has been real and solid Comics, using the form in a new and interesting way to suit the conventions of a pretty traditional police story, with a clear agenda to detourn the preoccupation of place and deep topography that has marked out the crime genre in recent years through the unique visual possibilities presented by the medium. The fictive landscape of central London – all pubs, professional apartment-boltholes, meaningful old churches and museums – is subtly different for having had Harker and co nose around a bit, and it could be that this is the direction that the book will eventually grow into. The next story is set in Whitby, vampire country (or goth land), promising a lot of possibilities for digging-over some bleakly reforgotten territories – blood, storms and creepy creaking graveyards guaranteed. Any comic this unafraid to look closely at the ground beneath its feet and turn the humdrum environments of little old England into exotic set=dressing would be a fresh and welcome addition to the racks, and long may Gibson and Danks’ original, brave and, amazingly, profitable venture continue.