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Phonogram: A fangirl’s tribute

Sunday, 13 September, 2009

Back matter

I haven't always been into comics. Or rather, I haven't always been into a certain type of comics. As a child, I enjoyed Snake, Asterix and the pullout in the Sunday paper, but it wasn't until I met the dynamic duo—Haoran and Guan—that I plunged headlong into this rabbithole.

However, I dare say Neil Gaiman played the role of the White Rabbit: I had read a whole bunch of his short stories while doing the background reading for my honours thesis, and then I picked up Coraline for $4 at the Salvos (the way that Mrs Whittaker found the Holy Grail in “Chivalry”, dare I say!). Coraline still remains my most favourite thing Neil Gaiman has written (with The Graveyard Book and Mirrormask running a close second). Then along came Haoran—or maybe it was Guan (I forget who it was)—who said to me, “Hey, did you know he writes comics too?” and then proceeded to lend me the entire Sandman series. (Strangely enough, my Current blog tells me the first one I read was The Dream Hunters.)

But that's not all; H and G, ever generous with their libraries, also placed all manner of interesting comics material into my hot little hands—Craig Thompson (Blankets), Alan Moore (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, V for Vendetta), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Pride of Baghdad, Ex Machina), Kurt Busiek (Astro City), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Frank Miller (300, Batman: Year One), Brian Wood (Demo), and so on. I owe them a lot.

(I should also credit Fish for introducing me to much of the superhero comics—Ultimates, Captain America, Galactus, and so on—but here I should stop; this post is starting to ramble too much!)

(However, I should mention at this point the slight oddity of being a girl and liking comics. Sure, the face of fandom is slowly changing to incorporate more female readers, but the fact of the matter is that most comics readers are guys.)

Yes, I love the comics medium. But it's only occurred to me recently why I love it so much (which is sort of odd, since I've been reading Scott McCloud for a while). It's because it is the perfect marriage of words and pictures—writing and visual art. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you already know how much I love books and writing, and if you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably gathered my attraction to the visual—not as a practitioner (aside from taking copious photographs), but as an observer. (I confess I studied Visual Arts in high school more for the history.)

Phono-what?

(All images reproduced with kind permission from Jamie McKelvie.)

Enter Phonogram. I keep mentioning it on Twitter, but of course most people have no idea what I'm talking about, and therefore couldn't care less. So please let this fangirl explain.

Phonogram is a comic by Kieron Gillen (writing => lyrics) and Jamie McKelvie (art => music). It is based on the premise that music is magic, and that certain people—phonomancers—can harness this magic to do certain things (like get their name on the list at the club, or persuade someone to come home with them). It's one of my most favourite things at the moment—and, again, it's only recently that I've worked out why.

I mentioned above that comics are the perfect marriage of words and pictures. What makes Phonogram special is that it combines three of my most favourite things—writing, visual art and music—into one. It's this alchemy that's doing strange things to my brain—causing the world to explode with light and colour and sound—and endless possibilities.

Fish is responsible for getting me onto it. He happened to pick up 1.3 in Kings Comics sometime in 2006:

(Oasis fans will recognise the reference to the album art of Definitely Maybe.) It's odd that in January 2007, I wrote that it “intrigued” and “repelled” me. Obviously intrigue won out, because I kept linking to it on this blog (and even quoted Kieron Gillen), and I eventually bought Volume 1: Rue Britannia for Fish for his birthday (and borrowed it off him soon after).

Then earlier this year, I discovered that Gillen and McKelvie were well into series 2, so I did something rather unheard of: I went down to Kings Comics and started buying single issues.

Unfortunately this has led to some interesting culture problems. Did I mention I'm a girl and I'm relatively new to comics? (Cue Tripod's “Hot girl in the comic shop” ... umm ... not because I think I'm hot; it's just a funny song.) Going into Kings Comics is a bit friendlier (and occasionally there is a girl behind the counter), but certainly Comic Kingdom creeps me out, featuring one entire wall bay devoted to Playboy. (That said, other guys have told me that the place creeps them out too.) But even when you are inside a comics store, it's not like being in a bookstore; you need to know publishers, otherwise you have little hope of finding anything on your own, and even then, you need to familiarise yourself with the positioning of single issues vs. trades vs. manga. Even armed with the knowledge that Image publishes Phonogram, in this country, you're still faced with the problem of limited quantities. I do sympathise; I realise comic shops don't want to be stuck with stock they can't sell. Nevertheless, it irks me that I could not obtain issues 2.1 and 2.4 from Kings, but instead had to order them from overseas (such a devoted fangirl I am). (And I keep wondering why I can't subscribe to a title the way I would to a magaazine. Perhaps Longbox will change all that ...)

Rue Britannia and The Singles Club

Sorry, rambling and getting off-topic again! Let us return to talking about Phonogram. I won't try to do a review; much smarter and more articulate people than me have done that already. But I will try to express what I love about it. Here follow some rather boring summaries ...

Rue Britannia (well, you could really just read the first issue online [but note it does contain swearing and sex]. But who has time to do that? Anyway)—Rue Britannia introduces David Kohl, phonomancer and class act jerk. He goes to a club with the aim of meeting a fellow Phonomancer (and to get laid), but instead, is lured into a trap by the goddess who is seeking vengeance for betraying her (details in the first issue! Go read!) But instead of punishing him outright, she sends him on a task: one of her aspects—Britannia, the goddess of Britpop—is being interfered with; Kohl has to find out what's wrong, otherwise he's forever cursed. The rest of the story follows Kohl on his quest—returning to dirty clubs, visiting an old flame and diving into a memory kingdom—and somewhere along the way, you find Gillen saying something rather profound about music, our relationship with music and the way it changes us. I shan't be more explicit; it will only ruin it for you.

(That said, I lent Rue Britannia to Elsie, who is not a comics reader but who is the biggest Britpop fan I've ever met [she got all the cover references—most upon first glance—not to mention the allusions to the Manic Street Preachers]. She read the whole thing, but at the end handed it back to me and said she didn't get it.)

(This appears on the back of every issue of series 2: The Singles Club. Click on the image to get a bigger view.)

The Singles Club is a different beast to Rue Britannia. (For one thing, it's printed in beautiful colour.) Set over the course of one night in a club, the series follows nine different characters (including some from Rue Britannia) and explores different facets of music as magic, and what sort of magic that is. (In my humble opinion, series 2 is a bit more overtly successful at it than series 1, but I do appreciate the nuances of series 1; to me, the conclusion was most satisfactory.)

Issue 2.1 derives its title from the song by The Pipettes (UK pop girl band with feminist lyrics and a pre-Beatles sound. Erin tells me that they wear polkadots and synchronise their movements when they perform. We missed them at The Factory in 2007 because it clashed with the Big Read, but apparently the gig was terrible. Ah well). “Pull shapes” is actually my favourite track on We are the Pipettes, and I think it pretty much sums up what the issue is about: Phonomancer Penny loves to dance and knew from fairly early on that music is magic, so when she and her friend Laura show up at the club, it doesn't take long before the dancefloor calls (“I just want to move, I don't care what this song's about ...”). She gets knocked around a bit during the course of the issue (“Dance with me pretty boy tonight ...”), but it doesn't get her down; by the end, she's back pulling shapes.

I love this issue because it's so joyous. It captures something about the magic of music—how certain songs make you want to dance, even if you don't know how to dance and probably wouldn't want to get up in front of other people to do so. (For me, that magic is there in Ladyhawke, Metric and, yes, The Pipettes.)

2.2 switches tack and is much more introspective. Gillen and McKelvie say that for those who don't get Phonogram, 2.2 is the one that explains it best. (Here's a five-page preview.) “Wine and bed and more and again” introduces us to Marc, the “pretty boy” of Penny's affection. (Reading 2.2 puts a different spin on some of the final pages of 2.1.) It also introduces us to the concept of “curse songs”—the kind of music that brings you to your knees because it was the soundtrack to your life from another era—an era you don't want to remember. For Marc, it's about a girl and a breakup. Really, that's all you need to know.

Of course, we all know what it feels like. We probably have our own back catalogue of curse songs. Gillen says that knowing your curse songs gives someone else power over you, but I think the power you'd gain from mine would be rather paltry. Mine involve being seriously depressed in late high school and my relationship with my ex, and that is why I can barely listen to Crowded House anymore.

2.3 draws its title from The Knife. (I only mention this because I've been listening to Fever Ray as I type this. [Fever Ray is one half of The Knife.] Yes, I am a sad little fangirl; I started compiling a playlist of Phonogram-related music. More about that later.) 2.3 is about Emily Aster, whom we meet in Rue Britannia. (I just realised the opening pages of this issue mirror the opening pages of Rue Britannia.) She's a bit pissed that David Kohl has dragged her to an indie night—an indie night where one of her exes (Seth Bingo) is spinning records. The night steadily gets worse as she is confronted with a version of Emily from her past, who she is continually trying to suppress. Here, the magic of music is a little more sinister: even though you've created the person you want to be from the ashes of the old person you thought you'd burned, music can bring it out of you again. It's not quite Beth of Rue Britannia (it's more about self-loathing), but it's brilliantly done.

2.4 is the most recent issue out at the moment. (I had to order it from America because Kings sold out within a week of its release *grumble* *grumble*.) Most of the issue focuses on Seth and Silent Girl in the DJ booth. (Silent Girl is my favourite character at the moment.) Most of the issue is laid out the same: six-panel 3 x 2 pages with the same perspective on the booth. Meanwhile, Seth rants and Silent Girl listens (mostly), while occasionally engaging in subversive DJ-ing against Seth's wishes. She's also the one that gives him a big reality check and reminds him what it's ultimately all about.

2.4 marks the halfway point of the series, and in a sense, it's not really fair to make comments now as we're only seeing part of the whole. But what I love about The Singles Club is the way the stories intersect and intertwine, and, as a result, they roll around your head for days afterwards, like the very best pop songs. You know the series is incomplete, but your brain keeps trying to fit the pieces together—even though there are pieces still missing (why Lloyd goes off at Penny; why Laura hides from Penny; what Emily says to Laura in the bathroom; why David Kohl hugs Silent Girl; who Kid-With-Knife goes home with). There's something about the narrative—the way the story is told—that is a lot like Pulp Fiction, and it keeps you circling—dipping in—coming back—trying to fit the pieces together again.

(An interesting aside: McKelvie cut up several issues and put them up on his wall to keep the chronology of the evening straight in his head as he works on the rest of the issues.)

I love this quote:

As Phonogram rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear (even when its cast aren't saying it explicitly) that when it talks of “magic”, it's a far more ethereal and symbolic concept than you'd expect from the Constantineisms that first brought us into the book's world. But more than that, the word “magical” doesn't just refer to the purported antics of Kohl and Aster and Lloyd and Indie and the rest—but the very series itself. It's an experience for the reader, triggering the same emotions and memories and experiences that the characters in its pages feel when they hear the Pipettes, or CSS, or Kenickie.

Are you getting it yet?

Liner notes

Now, the thing that everyone takes pains to note is that Phonogram is music reference-heavy. Certainly when Kohl and Aster, and even Seth Bingo, take centre stage, it can be hard to know what on earth they're talking about. To help the Philistines, Gillen and McKelvie include glossaries in the back—not only to explain what they're talking about and introduce you to music you haven't heard before (that is how I discovered the Afghan Whigs, which seems a bit dumb, considering how much I love The Twilight Singers), but also to crack jokes. (It surprises me that they've heard of things I wouldn't think anyone outside of Australia have heard of—for example, “Just a song about ping pong” by Operator Please.) However, you don't need to know what sort of music they're talking about to enjoy the comic; the music just gives the comic an extra dimension (see the alchemy I was talking about earlier).

The other lovely thing about the single issues (and the reason why I have been buying them instead of just waiting for the trade to come out) is the B-sides—the short comics of two or three pages that appear at the end of each issue. They are illustrated by other artists, and they capture other aspects of music best suited to a shorter format. (I do enjoy them, though it particularly annoyed me that reading “Roses” let to me waking up with OutKast lodged firmly in my head [you have to read the comic to understand why that is funny].)

And then there are Kieron's essays (which are always fascinating) and the articles/interviews displaying the best of music journalism—about music related to the comic.

But that's not all.

There is the lovely T-shirt that McKelvie designed for this year's San Diego Comic-Con. I bought Ben one. I would have bought myself one, but I can't really wear those sorts of T-shirts (it's a Trinny and Susannah thing). Anyway, the best thing about buying the T-shirt for Ben is that I can look at it when he wears it.

Gillen and McKelvie were calling for T-shirt photos not long ago, so the day I brought it home for Ben, I made him change and set up a little Phonogram photo shoot. Here are the highlights: Guitar Hero:

DSC08413

Audiophile:

DSC08416

Pulling shapes:

DSC08424

I hope Gillen and McKelvie were amused.

Then there is Phonogram vs. the Fans—the Phonogram fanzine, curated by Matt Sheret. (Elsie was quick to grasp that the cover is another Manic Street Preachers reference.) There was a call for open submissions back in April and I regret not writing something then (but life was crazy ... no time ... blah blah). Contributers had to answer the question, “When did you know music was magic?”, and their responses could take the form of anything that could be reproduced in black and white.

The fanzine was sold at Comic-Con, but fortunately there were some copies left afterwards that were sold on Etsy. I recklessly ordered three—one for me, one for Guan (who, in a lovely reversal, is borrowing the single issues off me) and one for Fish (who, most unfortunately, cannot obtain Phonogram because Brisbane is truly hicksville). I finished reading it the other night, and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I especially loved the piece from the guy wanting to feel something of what Penny encapsulates in 2.1:

Alcohol was a factor, but it was mostly about The Song and me wanting to maybe feel a bit like how Pull Shapes suggests dancing can make you feel but mostly I think it's about The Song, about sacrificing myself to it because if ever a song deserved blood, flesh and my dignity, it's this one. (Miles Bradley, ‘Bringouttherealfunturnontherealdrums’)

The fanzine also includes a short interview with Gillen and a Phonogram script that was never used. (I'm starting to like reading scripts—finding out how comic writers convey their vision in just text. You can find a whole bunch of them at The Comic Book Script Archive.)

Now, I've been talking so much about the writing and Gillen, I feel at this point, I should mention something about how much I love McKelvie's art. Comics being the perfect marriage of writing and art means that the art plays a huge factor in whether or not I like the comic (duh). I love Sandman, but there are places where the artwork isn't particularly nice to look at (which is the point at places, but anyway ...) McKelvie's art is always lovely to look at. (I won't go on about his linework because I don't know what I'm talking about, but I do like that his work has a very “clean” feel). He makes everyone look—if not attractive, certainly appealing. He's terribly good at capturing both facial expressions and body language. (He wins my admiration in being able to convey the joy of dance purely through images in 2.1.) Series 2 seems like quite a step up from series 1, and not just because of the colour; sometimes the characters in series 1 seemed a little wooden, but in series 2, there's something more fluid and organic about them—you can imagine them moving as though they were alive.

Because of Phonogram, on impulse one time in Kings, I picked up Suburban Glamour (written and drawn by McKelvie). (You can see some pages from it in McKelvie's photostream. You can also read the entire first issue at Image.) I was pleasantly surprised by it because it didn't go where I expected it to go. Instead, it reminded me of The Labyrinth, the very best fairy tales, growing up and coming to terms with yourself. I highly recommend it.

One final thing: I wonder perhaps if I wouldn't be so into Phonogram if I weren't also following both Gillen and McKelvie on Twitter. (How did that happen? I can't remember.) As a result, they and Phonogram-related miscellania pop up on my radar every day. (Also, they make me laugh.) Then (hopefully not in a creepy cyberstalky sort of way!) I found them both on Last FM, which informed me that my musical compatibility with them was “VERY HIGH”. (That little piece of information also gives me delusions that I have good taste, but I'm sure Guan will squash those pretentions in five seconds flat with reminders about Lindsay Lohan ... [I like her cover of Fleetwood Mac's “Edge of Seventeen” ...]) I find that our music tastes, while they do not exactly overlap, sometimes dovetail with mine. (In each issue, Gillen prints a list of what he was listening to as he wrote.) Hence the Phonogram-related playlist: it's not that I have all the songs that are played on the night of The Singles Club, but it's more (in the way that music draws in associations) certain music now reminds me of Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie in a way I can't quite explain. It's not only The Pipettes and Fever Ray; it's also Metric, School of Seven Bells and Ladytron (not that I listen to Ladytron much at all ...) I hope I don't exaggerate when I say that, at the moment, this comic has become something of the soundtrack to my life ...

Composition

One final thing before I run out of steam (and, yes, I realise that this blog post is absurdly long, but then, my dear long-time readers, isn't that the way it goes? I don't blog for a month, but when I do, I give you pretty much the equivalent of a month's worth of blog posts?) I should mention two more things that reading Phonogram has taught me.

Firstly, it's made more explicit something I'd absorbed more implicitly from things like Nick Hornby's 31 Songs and High Fidelity (movie more than the book)—that it's possible to capture something of what music does—the “magic”, if you will—and translate it into another medium (words ... pictures ...) I love music—I play music (on my laptop, on the iPod)—I sing and even make music on the piano (keeping all my insecurities at bay). But I've almost always regarded music and writing as two separate endeavours that only meet in songwriting. Now I see that there are other ways of thinking and writing about music. Comics taught me about the marriage of words and pictures; Phonogram teaches me about the marriage of words and music.

Subpoint: returning to 2.1 and Penny, the desire for participation—for entering into the physicality of music—fascinates me. Sometimes, like Shall we dansu?, I long to be able to move my body in such a way that it incarnates the emotion and the music I feel. But dance is a language I cannot speak. (An aside: great quote from Ken Robinson's TED talk:

Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. At the top, are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts. And in pretty much every system too, there's a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not?

Listen to the rest of it; it's brilliant.) The release of The Beatles: Rock Band this week brought that notion of participation/physicality to the fore:

Not only was the game serving to reintroduce this music, but by leading the players through a schematic version of actually creating the songs, it was also doing so in a much more engaging way than merely listening to a recording. It is an imperfect analogy, but listening to a finished song is perhaps like being served a finished recipe: you know it tastes great even if you have no sense of how it was created. By contrast, playing a music game like Rock Band is a bit closer to following a recipe yourself or watching a cooking show on television. Sure, the result won't be of professional caliber (after all, you didn't go to cooking school, the equivalent of music lessons), but you may have a greater appreciation for the genius who created the dish than the restaurantgoer, because you have attempted it yourself. (Source)

Then, of course, there's karaoke, and the idea of how singing the song yourself—entering your vocals into the instrumentals—is an “earnest expression of music fandom”:

It's the best form of music appreciation. I hear a song on the radio that I like, and I cannot wait to sing it in karaoke. I will go through every other ritual of a song—I'll sing it in the shower, in the car. It is not until I go to a karaoke bar and sing it myself that I really feel like I own it. When I was in my 20s, I used to go to four or five concerts a night. Now I go, and so often I think, eh, I'd rather be singing these songs.

That's not how I think of karaoke (or Rock Band or Guitar Hero), but I appreciate the viewpoint.

I also quite like this quote by Neil Finn: (I'm only including it because I read it today.)

“Live music, I doubt it's ever been away ... I think people have been focused in on new technologies and digital mediums and the internet and, you know, they do offer quite an amazing way of reaching people.

“But live music, the experience of sitting in a room and hearing somebody play, is always going to be valuable—and it doesn't matter what technology there is—because it's part of the human condition, there's a need for it. It's a strong, deep experience for people. And it's the way it should be, isn't it really? ... I think if you're a musician—a real musician—and you can actually carry a song with minimal instruments and without a big production, that's a very real and wholesome thing to have. People will always respond to it.” (Source)

Secondly, although I'm on Twitter and I'm following a number of people who work in the comics industry (including C.B. Cebulski, Ron Perazza, Stephen Christy, and so on) who occasionally tweet about making comics, it was really Gillen who showed me the door:

I did all my future-shock stuff in writing 5 page comics for people to draw. I did a load of them, because 5 pages was about as much as I could talk an artist into doing (Or rather, finishing). No matter how rubbish each was - and a lot were pretty rubbish—it was me seeing what worked and what didn't. That sort of experience is vital.

Yes, I am thick; despite having collaborated with Fish in the past—despite being urged by Dean to submit things for Pulp Crucifiction—despite having a number of friends and acquaintances who like to draw (including Kathleen, Bron, Jess, Matt and Paul—it still takes the equivalent of Thor's hammer to smash an idea through my thick skull: GO FORTH AND MAKE COMICS.

Do some comics for the sake of doing comics first. The point is doing comics.

Yes indeed it is.

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Other comments

You’re right. I don’t really understand. But I do so love reading your writing. It’s like you’re speaking inside my head and excitedly telling me something.

I certainly don’t understand enough about pop music to really get that comic series, but I’m glad you’ve shared how you came to appreciate comics.

I’d say go and make some short comics. Seems like it will make the longer stuff easier to put together.

I didn’t know Gillen wrote comics until I saw the last phongram reference you made on here. It’s odd as I only knew of him as a videogame jounalist (which he is also really good at).

I read the sample issue of phonogram they have up at the Image comics (I think) site.

It looked pretty interesting - I like the subtlety involved in telling the story - the references aren’t all forciby thrust into your brain by the writer.

Do you know if the art is done by tracing photos or just dtawn?

Whoops, I stuffed up that link, sorry.
It was to Rock Paper Shotgun where he writes (he also has a standalone blog as well.

Hey @RodeoClown! Yes, I neglected to mention Gillen writes about gaming. Guan said once he had the ideal job: writing, comics and games.

As far as I know, McKelvie doesn’t trace photos; he just draws (so talented ...)

You should give Phonogram a try. Be warned, though: series 1 is a little different to series 2—still clever but there are some things that are a bit strange in it if you’re not used to the fantastic.

Thanks Karen. At the very least, this post gives some context to your myriad of phonogram tweets. At best, it has reinvigorated my stagnated appreciation of comics.

Seriously, though 4,549 words. Is that the best you can do? I say, longer!

Coincidentily, I stumbled upon the above Phonogram vs. the Fans cover when digging around for ID concepts for Salt. A disturbingly brilliant image.

You’ve made me want to read it - though I may need an interpreter at times!



Writing

Kinds of Blue: Cover art

Twitter

Blinks:

A way of funding writing in the future: pitch and idea and get people to support it.

Place where you can hire play equipment for parties, etc.

How to recalibrate the home button on your iPhone.

Unsolicited manuscripts accepted by Pan Macmillan with certain conditions.

Thought Balloon is a group blog in which the writers tackle a new theme every week? month? with one-page scripts. This URL is for their Phonogram ones.

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