In response to this slice of post ironic pop-cheesecake she says to me she says, ‘Just because they’re not superheroes, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ashamed.’

phonogram_cov5

Phonogram 2:  The Singles Club #5 (of 7), by Keiron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. Image Comics.

I’m sure I must have said this before somewhere, new and original ideas being something I have fully decided to leave to those more naturally suited, but there is a basic problem lurking behind Phonogram, in both this current and its previous book Rue Britannia. It’s the Good AIDS/Bad AIDS argument, basically. It’s meant playfully of course – each issue of PG devotes pages and pages and pages of text to pouring concrete on the ongoing ontological fallout of having a notion as nebulous and partial as ‘the battle between the right way and the wrong way to listen to music’ as its basic dramatic conflict. Because, and I understand that people get paid money to fill magazines with yet more text pretending otherwise, and that pages have got to be filled and bills paid, and people love and maybe even need to be able to pretend that their love for their favourite music is more precious and special than their chosen enemy’s… But it’s all just rubbish really.

There’s just music, there’s just people. Phonomancers and Retromancers are just cool sounding sci-fi words. There’s no real difference between the young teenager using their favourite music as an aggregator for a set of tics and postures that they’ll use to build a post-child personality, and the ex-indie hipster deciding that here’s always been an electro element to their music taste, or the rapidly fattening Northern Soul DJ, hovering around ebay and the hinterlands of forty, desperate to get his hands on that original 7-inch pressing of I’m On My Way. They’re ust people who like listening to music, and they have their own reasons, and that’s no-one’s business but their own.

This latest issue of PG (not to harp on, but ‘latest’ is getting truer and truer – The Singles Club should have been the last great comic of the Noughties, but is now going to have to uncomfortably straddle being that and the maybe-forgottenist comic of the Nexties, staggering home all pissed up like, one foot in the gutter, getting home and can’t believe the sun’s coming up on it already.)

Where was it? Oh yeah, so this latest issue arguably takes a step backward into a goodie-baddie binary that perhaps wasn’t necessary in this second, more at ease with itself, Love and Rocketsy series. Star of the show Laura Heaven, who’s had a bit of a glow on her from the first issue, deliciously surprisingly, comes across as the putative villain of the piece. Who’d have thought’? She hates her ‘best mate’, is seconds from trying it on with her crush (fuck me, is anyone giving the shit about Marquis? No! Leave that boring fuck out of the rest of this comic), has two or three crap and malign superpowers, self harms in all sorts of ways, and is pathologically incapable of letting herself have a good time.But she was my favourite at the start! She still is.

What makes this issue roll, what lifts it and the story beyond the negligently simple us-and-them of the indie-Phonomancer battleline, is how ambivalent and ambiguously sympathetic the story is to Laura, its great and terrible lost loser. There is an excellent panel, just as she is summoning the maybe to make a play for Mister Personality Bypass, where she catches sight of herself in a mirror and the whole comic’s perspective shifts itself to right behind her eyes, showing us the world exactly as she sees it. Up until that point McKelvie has, as he does, made Laura look every bit as hot as all the other girls in the book. (The page with her and Penny and Emily in the lavs was the one that inspired the line that I opened this post with, as the real best indie-girl in the world remarked on the obvious indie-boy wank dream potential of the issue, those three girls forming some kind of triple-goddess personification of what boys dream every girl in the club could look like.)  But at this one crucial moment he gets the shot just right-just wrong: Laura’s bad side, literal and the other-al, the angles in her face foreshortened and distorted in the reflection. It almost sneaks past in its perfectly understated way, and after the obvious artboy fireworks of the previous issue, gives Mckelvie another chance to shine in a completely new light, putting his skills entirely at the service of the story, teasing out its depths and peculiarities. (This shot, it is worth capturing, is much more shocking than the opening panel of Laura’s self-inflicted, oh so Richey-sexy arms, which in hindsight are the cliche obscuring the more difficult truth the rest of the issue scratches away at. The nightclub mirror and what it shows Laura of herself is the disease itself, the scars on her wrists a superficial symptom.)

After that quietly pivotal point, the weird bad tricks Laura plays with her own feelings and those of the people around her can’t again appear like the acts of a mad and dangerous queen-bitch-in-training, just those of a fucked and frightened girl whose obsession with a nth-rate indie band is proving a poor glass to see the world through. Every villain is a victim. Her transcendent moment at the end of the episode is impossible to read as a victory of any sort, even though it finally lets her step out of her skin and into the world of phonomagic, as she finally writes herself into the wry indie-vignette, the Kate Jackson bad fantasy that she so pointlessly craves. This reversal, the clearest demonstration yet of the undercurrent sense that Phonomancy has its dark side, is the first point where PG has looked so long and hard at itself in that unflattering mirror, admitting the possibility that as well as being ‘a library, a church, a gateway…’ and all those other breathless NME-isms, Pop can also be a spiky prison pit, a very bad place indeed to get stuck.

There’s an even more pointed and apparent threat to PG’s ongoing and laudable new position of fruitful auto-critique, dangling from a thread and pointed at its elegant throat.

sword1

S.W.O.R.D #1 (ongoing) by Keiron Gillen, Steve  Sanders and Jamie McKelvie (Marvel Comics)

It’s a shame, because there’s no rule, no magical curse-song that says ‘you cannot juggle an indie book with the demands of bullpenning for the Big Two’, it’s just, it hardly ever seems to happen, does it (cue, and fuck off with, the chorus of Ellis/Brubaker examples cheers)? I mean, I hear Matt Fractions’ recent Marvel work, especially his Iron Man, is pretty bloody good. It’s just, I don’t give a shit. I gave a shit about Iron Man, for about two hours, at the cinema, a couple of years ago, but who with any soul wouldn’t happily burn every copy of all Fraction’s work-for-hire in return for just one new issue of Casanova?

Keep your fingers crossed that Phonogram’s already-erratic schedule isn’t cut in twain by Suh.Wuh.OR.Duh, because on the strength of this first issue it won’t be a satisfying replacement. It’s the second debut issue I’ve bought from Marvel in the past eighteen months or so (Captain Britain was the other), and the second that’s had it’s big opening shot muddled by a load of old bollocks about Marvel’s latest ongoing company crossover event. Why can’t they just keep that shit to the Avengers and Spider-Man books where anyone with any sense can safely ignore it? So the first three pages or so, the most crucial three pages of this book’s entire run, is a crashing bore, some old shit about a decades old X-men villain, a terrifyingly forgettable nonentity, my how evil those bureaucrats are,  and it basically lost me there and then. The rest of the issue, which even drags Death’s Head back into ‘continuity’ (*puttup*), his second appearance in a year after being Marvel’s best kept secret for the past fifteen, couldn’t engage me. There are other things working against this book:  a cast of refugees from Whedon’s X-Men run – a cast of cast off cast offs;  some terrible character design, with the neo-classic feline Beast of Cassaday’s cover replaced on the inside with some horrid ungainly dog-horse-what?-thing; Gillen’s familiar cute patter obscuring any sense of mighty Marvel style thrillpower; a lurking big-bad nicked wholesale from Alan Moore’s old WildCATS run; and a satellite set so boring and repetitive it makes Star Trek Next Gen’s anodyne interiors look like Versailles.

The Star Trek analogy is good actually – Sword, fuck a acronym, could have should have been the 21st century’s response to Steranko’s future-defining SHIELD run, but much as we love Picard, the vivid imagination and oversexed popism of the sixties is once more making the real-life future it dared imagine look drab and uninspiring, anywhere-but-here. There are glimmers of life, here and there, in this book: some pleasingly absurd design work on the sentry uniforms, Gillen’s ear for a musical line of dialogue, the hint of a promise that some brain-buggering alien madness might be in store (aliens that seem alien! Why are aliens so bloody normal these days?)

Gillen also drags some of his Phonogram tricks over into the mainstream, with some success. It ultimately loses itself in the less-than riveting overarching plot of the main story in its last couple of pages, but there is a back up strip that until then applies some nice hard sci-fi nonsense to one of Whedon’s dangling plots thread, then taking some fannish guilty pleasure in weaving some strong sequences  and promising hints from it. If this is how Gillen managed to service the editorial interference of the Osborn takeover crossover plot, while also getting a few of his science-and-magic ideas into the mix, then he’s not done a bad job of it. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to put all his efforts into similar gymnastics in the coming months, because the world does not need another mid-range book like S.W.O.R.D, and can ill afford to lose one as interesting as Phonogram.

23 Responses to “Caught in a trap, can’t walk out.”

  1. Kieron Gillen Says:

    USEFUL FACT DOWNLOAD

    1) Don’t worry about my Marvel stuff delaying The Singles Club. It was all written in July 2008, with each script getting a polish before Jamie starts on them.

    2) Issue 6 comes out next week, apparently. It looks like that Issue 7 is going to be in the first two weeks of 2010, which does grate. I suspect we’ll cheat and just put a 2009 copyright on it. It’s a 00s comic. It’ll be finished in the 00s, certainly.

    3) Lost In Music was one of the two other titles I considered for Phonogram, when I was trying to work out whether “Phonogram” worked or not.

    KG

  2. bobsy Says:

    It’s not The Singles Club I’m worried about – it’s the much anticipated (by me anyway) book 3!

  3. Kieron Gillen Says:

    Unless there’s a sudden pools windfall, PG3 won’t be happening. Jamie can’t try to live for a year on no money again. Hell, I wouldn’t want him to. The Direct Market Has Spoken. If they liked it, they should have stuck a ring on it, etc.

    (Oddly, becoming a total genuine Millar-scale superstar is one of the few ways PG3 could abstractly happen. If I had money, I could pay him.)

    Yeah, we’ve plans and thoughts and schemes and all that… but they’re tentative and far from certain.

    KG

  4. Zom Says:

    Well, it looks like Marvel are getting behind you to some extent, so that’s good!

  5. Gary Lactus Says:

    Jamie’s work on the latter part of SWORD looked great. Particularly the second panel where Agent Brand has her foot on the reader’s throat.

    Thought The Robot was creepy too.

  6. Kieron Gillen Says:

    I’ve been joking that Issue 7 is Jamie’s Daredevil audition piece. Except I’m not joking.

    KG

  7. Duncan Says:

    This is a bit of a conundrum you’ve spotted, Bob. I mean: I am one of the comics-killers, I kill comics, because I never read a single issue of Fear Agent, or The Nightly News (I could blame the store, but it – well, I probably could, but it only goes so far. Missed #2 of PG1 and that was that too) and yet happily purchase Frankencastle or Fantastic Four, head flapping in delight. Fraction recently expressed his frustrations, a little, with the Direct Market, not least of which is the discovery that if you give away a really, really shitty odious plastic ring with yr comic, you can fully expect to rip the charts apart. Have you fucking seen these things? It is perhaps the single largest blow to Rich Johnston’s status as a commentator on comics how much he’s promoted this shite.

    It’s an impasse; I personally really like Marvel Comics, but there’s still a barrier of neural fuzz, a feeling that this is not totally satisfactory or unmediated work (Scalped will always > Wolverine, or Ghost Rider, or the Punisher, as a natural law) and that possibly several youngish creators may suffer deleterious effect to their growth, chattel in the machine. I understand the need to make a living, of course I do.

    I’m also not wholly convinced – sorry Kieron – that the company is getting behind you to the same extent they are Remender, Hickman, Fraction, etc. purely because Beta Ray Bill, Ares and SWORD aren’t marquee characters. Thor is, I guess, but that’s a 4-ish fill-in, innit? Obviously there’s a lot I’m not privy to there, and I read Hickman saying your pitch beat his pitch for SWORD, so… I do like the idea of pitch-fights.

  8. Kieron Gillen Says:

    Well, Fraction, Hickman and Remender have all been at Marvel doing work for far longer than I have. I hadn’t done any Marvel U work before start of 2009, so I’m enormously complimented that they’ve got me to do the stuff I have, y’know? To start a year with no work and and the year with a 6-issue run on Thor is more than a little mental.

    Re: SWORD. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Hickman’s SHIELD was originally a SWORD pitch… but it morphed into something else. They then came to me and asked to do another SWORD pitch, because Hickman’s pitch was no longer SWORD. I’m very much looking forward to SHIELD actually – it strikes me as absolutely What Hickman Is Best At. It reminds me of Pax Romana in a lot of ways.

    Worth noting I’m doing a couple of books at Avatar for 2010, so even if there’s no PG, they’ll be stuff from me outside the remit of the Marvel Universe. Just not involving fringes as much.

    KG

  9. bobsy Says:

    No PG3? Sad.

    Kid-with-Knife gone parkour? I shall withhold judgement.

    Still, extra retro points for saying ‘pools win’, an expression not heard since the early 1990s, so well done there.

  10. Duncan Says:

    Quibblicious: Remender has written Marvel Comics approx. 1.5 years (I didn’t realise he’d inked Dwyer’s stint on Avengers a while back, and was a more known quantity therefore) and Hickman, aside from half an issue devoted to N’Kantu, the Living Mummy in ’07, only began this year. I think you should feel badder than you do(!!)

  11. Zom Says:

    I love the fact that you would self finance your own work, KG. That’s dedication right there.

  12. Kieron Gillen Says:

    Bobsy: I sat there thinking “This is the most retro sentence I’ve ever written. And I wrote Rue Britania”, but decided that I liked the cut of its jib.

    Duncan: I’m close to writing a very sad emoticon. :(

    Zom: Well, it’s easy to say it when I’ve got no money to do it, y’know? I’m sure if the cash-truck ever backed up to my house, I’d tell Jamie to sling his hook.

    KG

  13. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Dec. 2, 2009: Really great right now Says:

    [...] Mindless Ones on Phonogram: The Singles Club #5 [...]

  14. Pedro Tejeda Says:

    Bobsy,

    I had similar issues with SWORD that I chalked up to being Gillen’s first ongoing at Marvel. I greatly enjoyed his work on Beta Ray Bill earlier this year and his Ares mini has shaped up to being solid superhero work.

    Of course this is coming from someone who only knows Gillen through his Marvel work, since Phonogram seems outside of my musical tastes. I’ll probably just end up bumming it off someone else eventually though if his Thor stuff is good enough.

  15. Zom Says:

    Yeah, I forgot about Beta Ray Bill. I liked that too.

    Space horse Thor is difficult not to like, though. It’s a bit like cheating

  16. David Says:

    Duncan, have I ever told you that I love you? Actually, I’ve probably said it far too often!

    I love the Phonogram too, and I’m gutted to hear that volume 3 won’t be happening. You (Kieron!), Fraction and my wee pal Big Gerry Way have all been getting scary good scary fast, and yet… much as I appreciate the skill involved, and the need to pay the bills, I can’t pretend that I’m too excited by The Ungurnible Irn Man or BIG HAIRY ARES.

    Which is fine, different stroke and that, but still — I am the sadness. Because, you know, comics are a bit of a prick sometimes, aren’t they?

    Still, that Frankencastle thing did look pretty funny. Which… hey, the pools! My parents still regularly pay “the pools man”, more out of a sense of duty than out of any desire to win the damned thing, since I think the lottery has long since became the focus of that particular desire. Unless… unless it’s actually protection money they pay that guy. Always wondered about the scuffed knuckles and the blood on his shoes. Interesting….

    Anyway: STUPID FUCKING POWER RINGS!

    I came back from my last trip to the local comics hut with a bag full of the useless, garish things. Fuck knows how they got in there — magic, probably. I’ve been using a blue one to pick my nose this week. Seems about right.

    Anyway, where was I? And where was my dignity? Ah, yeah, I left it at the comics hut. It scares the lurkers, you see. Quite tragic.

    Anyway: the Phonogram!! I’m still head-over-heels for the same “nth-rate indie band” who dominate this issue, so I cringed my way through it, feeling that I’m still maybe a bit too reliant on these kinds of cheap props. Which would’ve been the case even if I hated the Long Blondes, so… yeah.

    But then I thought of Alec – The King Canute Crowd: “yeah, all these books were written about you!” That Eddie Campbell’s a clever bastard, you know – I don’t think there’s a better laid trap in all of comics than that page.

    I like the Phonogram – it shows me something I like to recognise, namely, me!

    I hate the Phonogram – it shows me how stupid that bit of me really is.

    Which is why it’s good, and why I love it, and why this review gets to the core of The Singles Club better than any other (though Nina’s review was also very good, if far harsher). I’ll be happy to see more issues, and sorry to see it end.

    Still, it’s a bit of a prick at times, the Phonogram.

    Sometimes, I don’t think it likes me as much as I like it…

    How does the song go? Oh yeah: “I taught myself the only way to vaguely get along in love/ Is to like the other slightly less than you get in return/ I keep feeling like I’m being undercut…

  17. David Says:

    Also: quite intrigued by this proposed Gillen/Avatar combo — looking forward to it.

    Also also: yeah, space horse Thor was pretty ace, actually. That needs to be recognised.

  18. Zom Says:

    It is does

  19. Christian Brimo Says:

    You should combine Phonomancer with your Rock Paper Shotgun stuff. Game obsession as music obsession
    I gotta say i understand completely the sentiment behind Phonomancer, even if i’m not a Britpop guy. the ‘good music vs bad music’ thing plays itself out way too often in my life
    dunno how much you dig American rock, but there are a few bands now exploring that sort of thing – ‘these singalong songs will be our scriptures’ (hold steady)

    yeah, i know

  20. Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » Thor 604 Out Says:

    [...] One reviewed Phonogram 2.5 (And SWORD). He’s always the last person to review an issue, but he’s always worth waiting for. And – whisper it – issue 6 actually comes out next week. I’m going to be at ATP this [...]

  21. James Says:

    I am despondent at the thought of no PG3.

  22. Alex Says:

    No PG3??? Say it ain’t so!
    Just when I’m beginning to get used to it coming out fairly regularly too (even finally put a standing order on it)…
    To stop me becoming one of those weeping 90s Take That wives, I’m going to presume that the next issue will sell millions.

  23. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Short and to the Pointless #1: The Like Trap! Says:

    [...] mirrors and vanity, so what better way to start than by quoting something I said in the comments to this Phonogram review?  Cast your mind all the way back… to December 2009! I like The Phonogram – it shows me [...]

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