December 2nd, 2009
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 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.
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.