Kieron Gillen Makes Beautiful Music In "Phonogram"The answer to life: music. The solution to all your problems: music. Image Comics' "Phonogram" explores the idea that music truly is magic. We spoke with writer Kieron Gillen to learn more about the series, which debuts in comic shops today.
If you look through the most popular comic books, the heroes get their powers from a lot of different sources. Some find that getting doused in radioactivity, from a spider to a gamma bomb, gives them extraordinary power. Some use their money to create the cool gadgets they need to wage their personal wars on crime. Some are just gods. If you're looking for something different, you 're in luck, because Image Comics' "Phonogram" (out today) has heroes who gain their power from good old fashioned kick ass music. Writer Kieron Gillen, an award winning journalist, has crafted a unique tale that he was happy to talk to CBR News about, even though he admitted to being fearful of talking of the book's origin.
"While most of the things I think of have an exact moment of conception I can pinpoint," Gillen told CBR News. "'Phonogram' just crept up on me. Philosophically you can see traces of the comic going all the way back to my first music writing, when I hammered out a mass of bad jokes and mini-reviews, printed it out, pritt-stuck them to an A4 sheet, photocopied the sticky mess at the local newsagent and handed them out in the local club. From conception to dissemination in less than two hours. So all those years where I was surrounded by people using music not just as a casual pleasure, but as everything from a surrogate personality to life by proxy made me realize that it was a transformative power in the world. And, if there was anything akin to magic, then it is music. After all - a series of notes: how does that have the power to change how you feel? There's no logical reason. Science hasn't got a real reason yet. It's like magic. It's a small leap from that simile to 'Phonogram.'
"Music is magic. 'Phonogram' is based around the people who realise that metaphor is actually the true foundation of the universe, and so actively manipulate it to achieve their desires," continued Gillen. "They're called, generally speaking, Phonomancers. Plots in 'Phonogram' generally come about when two sets of Phonomancers have conflicting desires. It's a street-level magical comic, in that you're not going to see DJs lobbing fireballs at each other or something like that. In terms of tone, the line I'm using is 'Hellblazer meets High Fidelity.'"
With "Phonogram" slated to run six issues, Gillen promises to deliver a self contained story but leave room for a sequel if fan attention warrants it. "While the 'Rue Britannia' story is completely self-contained, as a world there's a lot more things we're interested in investigating. We created 'Phonogram' as something we could return to whenever we had something pertinent to say about Pop Music and how it influences us."
Being a pop culture journalist since the age of 19, Gillen's written his share of stories on a variety of topics, and when it comes to writing "Phonogram," he says his experience, "Certainly altered how I deal with deep structural issues in the plot. When I'm writing most of my journalism, I'm trying to form an argument. Given this, this and this are true, then this is also true. 'Phonogram,' as well as being this rollicking fantasy story, is also an argument. We're trying to say very specific things about music and how it intersects with existence, so all those years of hammering together an argument from whatever's lying around proved useful.
"I think doing the criticism thing also influences what I'm trying to do in a story. I'm not happy to just write A Good Story. A Good Story is the absolute minimum we should demand from our fiction."
A big part of that good story is an interesting set of characters, and Gillen's put special care into crafting a cast of characters that will resonate with readers. "Our protagonist is David Kohl," explained Gillen. "He's a phonomancer of some repute and a little bit of a bastard. Ten years ago he was baptised by the Goddess of Britpop, Britannia. He'd already moved on before her death, and has spent the intervening years becoming more cynical and increasingly abusing his powers for petty means. Out plot starts when the Over-Goddess catches up with Kohl and has a few terse words. They're the sort of terse words which leave blood stains.
"His main associates are Kid-With-Knife and Emily Aster. They're his first port of call when he needs help or advice. Generally speaking, Kid-with-knife is better for the former, Emily better for the latter. While Emily and Kohl are peers, Kohl and Kwk are friends. Emily's a Phonomancer and direct superior in his coven. In Scooby Doo terms, 10 years back Aster was a self-mutilating Thelma. Now, through an act of will, she's become more like a gleefully nihilistic Daphne. Generally being smarter than Kohl, she spends a lot of time pointing out when he's being a dick. Since she's got even less morals than him, this isn't usually when /most/ people would call him a dick. Kid-with-knife is the opposite, one of Kohl's few connections with what would call normality. Kid-with-knife's a thuggish, gleefully shallow geezer who lives for adventure, clubbing and distractions. He knows that Kohl is involved in "Weird Stuff", but isn't particularly interested in the details. That's Kohl's business.
"They're the main three. Other people of import would include Indie Dave (Imagine Gollum at a Belle and Sebastian Gig), Beth (The mascara-stained ghost of a girl who's still alive) and Britannia herself."
Gillen is careful to stress that while the book contains a lot of passion for Britpop, it's more about memories of the music than his love for it. "Even the terrible stuff. Britpop, as a movement, was purely destructive in terms of its long term influence on the British music scene," he said. "It was totally poisonous. So what use are memories of something like that? What does it mean when your founding cultural moment was - to use Kohl's phrase from the second issue 'a cultural Chernobyl?' Kohl realising the truth is absolutely key to the plot. Essentially, it's about the war between history, nostalgia and personal memory."
The scribe cites the ten year nostalgia cycle that has brought Britpop back en vogue, something that was bound to happen, and says there's not a lot of current Britpop-esque music that he's enjoying. "For example, people like the Kaiser Chiefs make me furious," explained Gillen "I honestly can't believe someone looked at Blur's history and thought 'You know - all those moments where the entire country wanted to punch Damon Albarn on the nose? That's what we'll base our entire band around.'
"Which isn't to say that there's not contemporary British music I love. From the last couple of years, I possessed crazy sex thoughts for people like Go Team!, the Pipettes and Johnny Boy. And there's always more stuff happening. I caught Future of the Left last week at their second gig (Falco from mclusky's new band), and they're phenomenal. Nothing to do with Britpop musically, but totally devastating. And on an actual Britpop-tip, the little I've heard of Jarvis Cocker's solo album is incredible. Well - what I've heard is just the single, 'The Cunts Are Still Running The World' (Or 'Running The World,' if you're being coquettish)."
Joining Gillen on "Phonogram" is artist Jamie McKelvie, whose involvement Gillen credits to "incredible luck." "He wandered up to my small table at Bristol con a few years ago, and showed me his portfolio and we just hit it off," explained Gillen. "Apparently the first thing I said to him was 'You'd be perfect for a comic I want to write.' And - y'know - I wasn't wrong. He's a beyond perfect fit. Firstly, he loves music as much as I do. Secondly, he's entirely comfortable with the cultural allusions. I don't need to stop and explain why Kula Shaker are evil to him. Thirdly, in terms of our approach to comics we're scarily close. Fourthly, he has complete understanding of youth culture and fashion. There's so many comic artists who simply don't know how people - especially young people - dress. When McKelvie draws someone, it's someone you could see if you walk into any club in the world. When I describe a character, he knows the semiotics of each item of clothing, and is perfectly able of adding things which he knows fit. Fifthly, he draws awesome hot punk girls."
Gillen's always loved comic books since his youth, when he was first exposed to comic books such as "2000AD," and then later came back to comic books, which he blames on popular writer Warren Ellis. Ellis' work on "Transmetropolitan," "Authority," and "Planetary" were especially influential, which makes Ellis' promotion of "Phonogram" even more meaningful. "That some people seem to get it is enormously gratifying," Gillen said of the positive reviews from Ellis and other. "I know it's not a book that's ever going to be fighting 'Civil War' for the top of the charts, but it's openly aimed at trying to mean a lot to the people who do get it. I've got enough of the self-depreciating Englishman in me to be embarrassed by the best of the reviews, but they're exactly what we wanted to hear.
"On the other hand, that people do seem to believe in it makes me worried I'm going to fuck up and let them down, especially when it's someone of the critical standing as Ellis. We screw up in the later issues and it makes us look as if their judgement was flawed in some way. If someone has had some faith in us, it'd be just rude to let 'em down."
With "Phonogram" being Gillen's dream project, he'd be happy to never work on another comic again, but then laughed and added, "Of course, I'd rather do some more. Please buy my comic. In terms of superheroes, I think 'Phonogram's' music-centred focus makes me the obvious man to revamp Dazzler into some modern post-human revisionist Disco-Epic about how awesome Chic basslines are. More seriously. I try not to spend much of my time daydreaming about the mainstream superheroes. As much as I love them, spending my creative energies thinking about them. I have a limited amount of time on this earth, and using it to dream up plots that I probably won't ever be able to write is, well, a waste of time.
"I suspect if you ever see me do an openly superhero book, it'll be something towards the edge of a universe or a completely new character (I mean, seriously: Neither Marvel or DC have made a new character of any note in the last half decade.). Also, I don't think I'm a safe man to let anywhere near any of the big-boys. Having Batman become a fan of the Buzzcocks is probably going to raise hackles."
Even with "Phonogram" completely written, Gillen admits it still looms large in his mind, and so he's not worrying about other projects, though he's willing to share some details on what he might like to do. "Depending on sales, I've got plans for future Phonogram arcs. One's called 'Singles Club' and the other 'The Word Girl,' both which I'd kill to write. I've got a couple of graphic novels that I'd like to do, which are both worlds away from 'Phonogram' (one crime story set in London in the fifties, the other a day-after-tomorrow romance, in the same way that 'Audition' is a romance). Something called 'Cong,' which I promised to write for Lee O'Connor. Some small press stuff, as I've still got love for the streets. There are a few pitches out in the world which I have fingers crossed for, and I'd appreciate if you did likewise. I probably should write some more. Oh - and I'm considering doing a 'Phonogram club night, which strikes me as highly entertaining. You've read the comic. Now dance to it.
"In short, have some fun. Comics are awesome. It makes me as happy as Martha Reeve's and the Vandellas Heatwave that I'm writing them."