|“Phonogram: Rue Britannia” on sale now|
Once upon a time, in a comic shop in London, somebody yelled, “What’s this? Why have they got this on the cover?”
“Oh, it’s this new comic,” the clerk answered, holding up some promotional postcards for Image Comics’ then-new miniseries “Phonogram.”
“These are arcane symbols!” declared the other person, referring to the magiky-looking glyphs depicted on the cover of “Phonogram” #1. They cried out, “They are messing with forces they don’t understand!” before storming out of the comic store, never to be seen again.
“Phonogram: Rue Britannia” is a dark urban fantasy by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie about music, magic, memory, love, sex, life, death and the importance of having friends who can drive. It was created to mean something to people, and while “Phonogram” meant something very offensive or terrifying (or both) to at least one Londoner, to an overwhelming majority of critics, comics professionals and fans, the book has meant a great deal more. The Eagle-nominated Gillen and McKelvie have received high marks in virtually every comics review source of note, not to mention positive write-ups on Spin.com and in England’s influential Plan B magazine. Celebrated comics author Mike Carey described “Phonogram” as “a comic that kisses you passionately on the frontal lobe, then gets you drunk and rolls you for your stash.”
The debut six-issue miniseries “Rue Britannia” is collected this month in trade paperback by Image Comics, and CBR News spoke with Gillen and McKelvie about the book that Warren Ellis praised as “one of the few truly essential comics of 2006.”
|Enter David Kohl: phonomancer, bastard|
“Phonogram” takes the romantic idea that music is magic and makes it real. Quite literally, in the world of “Phonogram,” a song can save your life – or end it. Practitioners of this dark art are known to each other as phonomancers, and they live their lives right alongside the rest of us, on the street, in the subway, in the café, in the club or in the queue. They tend to dress well.
We all know David Kohl. Some of us might actually be David Kohl. Certainly, we all know someone who looks like him. Slim of build, dressed in black and wearing thick-framed specs, David Kohl swaggers around the city with an iPod in one hand and a cigarette in the other, using his ample charms and incisive wit to slide through life almost effortlessly while others struggle to dodge and weave around reality’s many obstacles, both actual and spiritual.
David Kohl is a phonomancer, and he has a plan. As one might expect from a pop-obsessed, early 30s magician with a bootlegged Superman t-shirt standing in the middle of a feminist music festival, that plan is to get laid. Unfortunately for David, it’s a trap. The Goddess herself lured him in with the temptation of impressionable girls and appallingly bad acoustic singer-songwriter fare – a formula for success on any other night– and she’s got a bone to pick with the self-confessed “phallocrat.”
“There’s many different ways you could use music to do magic. It’s a wide school,” writer Kieron Gillen told CBR News. “The way people use music to create magical effects in the world [of ‘Phonogram’] basically explains my philosophy about music.”
|Kohl works his game|
David invokes scene-specific lyrics and wields other musical insights to various magical ends, and is also known to don a range of accoutrements (such as a bootlegged Superman t-shirt) to modify his image in pursuit of a magical goal. “It reminds me of a guy I knew,” Gillen explained, “a completely normal guy, dressed completely normally. He went to university. Literally the day he went to university he became full on goth and ended up being this enormous scene monster. He sold half his personality to pop music and became someone different, someone he wanted to be. It’s a weird Faustian kick, but that’s an example of one sort of phonomantic ritual.
“I deliberately haven’t defined exactly what people can and can’t do [in ‘Phonogram’], because magic’s a bit fuzzy anyway. It’s not fucking D&D. Level one, magic missile, hit points and whatever.”
Just by mentioning certain records, David can actually knock somebody out. “Getting a song stuck in someone’s head is an aggressive phonomantic ritual,” Gillen explained. “Slowly bore a hole in your fucking mind! What are their superpowers? It’s a system. It’s a flexible system. It also allows that [the phonomancers] are not experts at everything,” so Kohl can go to other phonomancers for help in their areas of expertise.
|The Goddess of music is a harsh mistress|
Having gifted David with such keen insight into music and its many magical possibilities, the Goddess is furious with her disciple’s relentless squandering of that power, wasting his talents on little more than scoring girls. When David violates the sanctity of Ladyfest – one of the Goddess’ owntemples- it’s the last straw for the very pissed off Goddess.
Before cursing David with a nauseating case of PMS cramps (that’s right), the Goddess charges her wayward son with a sacred quest: Britannia, the Goddess’ long dead aspect responsible for the cultural phenomenon known as Britpop, is under some kind of magical attack, and it’s up to David to get to the bottom of it. Cramps aside, Kohl has a vested interest in this mission, as it was Britannia and her music that made him who he is.
As defined in “Phonogram,” Britpop was a 1990s musical movement based on explicit rejection of bombastic American rock, specifically grunge and much of its plodding alt-rock progeny, embracing instead the guitar pop of UK bands such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede and Elastica, all of whom emerged from local indie music scenes. It was during this electrifying period that a young(er) David Kohl encountered the Goddess Britannia and changed his life forever.
“Specifically, Kohl isn’t actually Britpop anymore,” Gillen explained. “In his day-to-day there’s nothing there, but he’s still rooted in Britpop, as opposed to other phonomancers who’ve completely changed their personalities. It’s still a core element to make him him. It’s his anchor. It doesn’t define who he is, but it’s where he came from.”
|Britannia, the Goddess’ aspect of Britpop, in her prime|
As such, even though he’d barely mourned her passing, David remains critically linked to Britannia. If her legacy is molested, so too are David’s very identity and soul. Britpop memories and perceptions are being rewritten all around David, both internally and within the collective consciousness of pop culture. Friends’ memories seem as real as his own; David has trouble understanding why he seems to like songs he swears he can remember disliking; and he lives in constant fear of reality warping to such a degree that he’ll find even a shred of value in that which he loathes most passionately, the second wave Britpop outfit Kula Shaker.
And thus begins David Kohl’s adventure into the undead heart of Britpop. It’s a journey that explores the themes of not just a specific musical moment in history, but pop culture itself and the genuinely magical role its movements play in our lives.
“‘High Fidelity’ meets ‘Constantine,'” Gillen laughed. Indeed, its creators and critics have had difficulty summing up “Phonogram” to non-readers. “‘My terrible ego unleashed.’ I just wave my hands around and they kind of get it.”
|“Phonogram” #1 cover based on Elastica’s “Elastica”|
Gillen is known in the video games industry for his progressive views on gaming journalism, a profession in which he has worked for more than ten years. But for even longer than that, Gillen has been a music lover and, perhaps more importantly, a lover of music journalism. “I covered the Reading festival once for NME.com, and after that I was asked, ‘do you want to do some more work for the magazine?’ And I said, ‘great.’ It was a defining moment in my life. ‘Yes, you were good enough to write for NME. All that amount of time you put into this; great, absolutely justified.’
“I walked away, saw the Flaming Lips, woke up in the morning and said, “I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to write for the NME! The NME’s shit!
“I always wanted to write for [the now defunct but once popular UK music magazine] Melody Maker,” Gillen continued. “Since my magazine was torn from me, that part of my personality – which is, you know, a big part – kind of just bubbled. I would lance this boil occasionally, doing music journalism whenever I had the time. It’s really a big tumor thing in my head that got fat and became generally quite disgusting, and that’s essentially what ‘Phonogram’ is: Me not becoming a music journalist. It’s the way I sort of see the world, those analytic thoughts turned into something. It’s so much beyond what normal music journalism would be.”
|“Phonogram” #2 cover based on Black Grape’s “It’s Great To Be Straight…Yeah”|
Illustrating “Phonogram” is Jamie McKelvie, who previously provided artwork for the Image graphic novel “Long Hot Summer” by Eric Stephenson, but in Gillen’s words, “‘Phonogram’ is the first real Jamie the world’s ever seen.” McKelvie’s art has been a hit in its own right, independently from the story of “Phonogram.” With an impeccably clean and graphic design-heavy style that makes one wonder what Dave Gibbons’ work would have looked like if he were born in the ’80s, McKelvie brings to the pages of “Phonogram” a perfect balance of the pedestrian and the fantastic. Whether wandering haunting dreamscapes or packed onto dance floors, McKelvie’s characters wear the skins, expressions and fashions of people we recognize, yet never do they become so realistic as to no longer be cartoons.
“Basically,” Jamie McKelvie told CBR News, “while on one level I know I draw idealized versions of people (which comic artist doesn’t?), I do feel that I draw people you could easily see in your everyday life. If you hang out with cool people.”
|“Phonogram” #3 cover based on Oasis’ “Definitely Maybe”|
To create “Phonogram’s” distinctive artwork, McKelvie began by laying out pages based on Gillen’s heavily detailed scripts. “Then I take a bunch of reference photos if I need them,” McKelvie explained. “These I upload to the computer and have on the screen next to me while I pencil (on Bristol board, pre-printed with lines from Image). Then, after penciling, I ink with Rapidographs, and a brush pen for large black areas. Then I scan in three sections on my letter-sized scanner before piecing together in Photoshop, then doing the grey tones (also in Photoshop).
“I just draw, and what comes out comes out,” McKevlie continued. “I’m not trained in any way so I’m pretty much flying blind. As for influences, I’d say Dave Gibbons, Andi Watson, maybe Paul Pope although you probably couldn’t see that in my stuff. Immonen, Wieringo, some Jock. Basically artists who draw great people and also have good design sense. A lot of my influence comes from outside of comics – album covers, design stuff, stencillers, graffiti artists.”
|“Phonogram” #4 cover based on Blur’s “Modern Life is Rubbish”|
Indeed, record sleeve designs are crucial to the “Phonogram” experience. “Rue Britannia’s” covers have become iconic to many in the indie comics as well as indie music scenes, which is of course ironic because those covers are based on iconic Britpop album sleeves. For the trade paperback, McKelvie and Gillen struggled to find a classic Britpop era compilation sleeve to use as inspiration, but the only suitable choice was the famous and oft-referenced/parodied/otherwise invoked “Trainspotting” film poster and soundtrack album.
“If ‘Trainspotting’ hadn’t been done to death already, it would be brilliant,” McKelvie said. “But that poster was parodied a million times in the UK, so to do yet another would be… lame.”
The “Rue Britannia” cover is based on the striking sleeve to Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” album. “We really wanted a Pulp cover,” remarked McKelvie. “We originally wanted to do one for issue #5’s cover, but none of the albums leapt out in a way that would fit. We considered one of the singles, but as the rest of the covers were albums, we felt it was cheating. And ‘This Is Hardcore’ ended up working out perfectly.”
|“Phonogram” #5 cover based on Suede’s self-titled debut|
McKelvie’s gift for translating our reality and its most precious pop culture into sophisticated cartoon form is plain to see, but with its focus on the ’90s Britpop era, “Phonogram: Rue Britannia” presented McKelvie with unique drawing challenges, particularly when it came to depicting the many Britpop icons who appear variously throughout the story. “[Blur singer] Damon [Albarn] wasn’t so hard as he’s still around today,” McKelvie explained. “But a lot of the Britpop era people are very hard to find in terms of reference photos. I threw away all my old music magazines a long while ago, so I didn’t have them to refer to. So they didn’t all turn out as well as I would have liked, but c’est la vie. More often than not, it was the idea of the person we were trying to get across, rather than the actual individual, so it’s fine.”
“Phonogram’s” supporting cast proved easier to depict, as virtually everyone is modeled after people McKelvie and Gillen actually know, while their personalities, attitudes and names are based on the affected narrative “voices” of particular British music journalists – or, if you like, “real” fake people. “‘David Kohl’ is an old pseudonym I had lying around,” confessed Gillen, who also happens to resemble his protagonist. “Kohl is my music journalism ‘voice’ of five years ago. Essentially monstrous. That sort of late 20s evil.”
|“Phonogram” #6 cover based on Manic Street Preachers’ “The Holy Bible”|
While David Kohl may yet prove be the indie comics anti-hero of this age, the breakout star of “Phonogram” is arguably his erstwhile sidekick, the cheerfully anarchic party man known only as Kid With Knife. In contrast to Kohl and his underground network of phonomancers, Kid With Knife isn’t a magician, nor does he seem to be more than vaguely aware of his friends’ amazing supernatural activities – not that he’d be interested even he did understand, as it would likely get in the way of his dancing and drinking. He is, however, very happy to drive David around.
“I think we all know someone a bit like Kid With Knife,” McKelvie said, “but most of us avoid him, so we don’t get to see just how weird he is.”
“Kid With Knife is actually like that,” Gillen confessed of his real-life friend. “It’s not his real name, it’s what people call him. He’s a worrying force of nature. He’s an elemental creature. No self-reflection at all and incredibly fun to be with.”
|Kid With Knife “B-Side”|
While Kid With Knife may emerge from “Phonogram” as the fan favorite, the character with whom readers and critics seem to sympathize most is Beth, an old friend/flame of Kohl’s – he’s not quite sure which anymore, but he does know it’s not right to be encountering the ghost of a girl he knows is still alive.
The ghost Kohl enounters is that of an achingly gorgeous Beth of many years ago, very young and very heartbroken, with black mascara running down her face. Beth’s ghost tells David that she’s “still waiting for Richey,” referring to Richey James Edwards, the guitarist and lyricist of Welsh alt-rock group Manic Street Preachers.
“The Manics’ ‘Holy Bible’ is an incredibly depressing album, but it’s a phenomenal album,” Gillen said. “I remember the girl I based Beth around, one house party once, she took over the CD player and refused to let anyone else near it, and she just put ‘The Holy Bible’ on repeat and snarled at people who came close. The Manics engendered that kind of fanaticism.”
|The ghost of Beth’s younger self, still waiting for Richey Edwards to return|
In 1995, just before Manic Street Preachers were to embark upon an American tour, Richey Edwards disappeared and remains missing today.
“Basically, at the time, we generally viewed Richey James in the context of Kurt Cobain,” Gillen explained. “A kind of troika of depressing rock circa ’94. Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead. That led to Radiohead’s refusal to speak to the Melody Maker because they actively linked Radiohead to these two bands. One committed suicide, one literally disappeared off the face of the Earth. ‘This bloke in Radiohead is next to kill himself off!’
|Phonomancer Emily explains Richey’s significance|
“As Simon Price put it in his book on the Manics: Kurt Cobain fucks off. Died. Full stop. Richey James dies… question mark. Has he died? That’s kind of what the Manics were. They were this deeply contradictory, questioning band. He meant what Cobain meant, and that’s why he’s such an important figure to Beth,” and why her relationship with music changed so profoundly after he vanished.
During their sad and uncomfortable reunion, Beth professes to David that she no longer cares about music; that she’s content to listen to whatever’s on the radio – shocking to even the most unpretentious music snobs, much less a phonomancer. It’s a resonant scene, as most of “Phonogram’s” readers will have almost certainly attempted to make contact with a person or revisit a place from a special time in their past only to be met with similarly disappointing results.
|David and Beth’s reunion is a favorite scene among “Phonogram” fans|
“I don’t know what I saw in any of you,” Beth says.
The scene is one of several in “Phonogram” that makes the reader feel as though they’re somehow reading a pop album. Witnessing the awkward and even bitter reunion of these two characters has the same effect as hearing a sad love song and wondering if the singer is still in touch with the person they wrote the song about.
“Of all the people in the comic, ‘Beth,’ I don’t believe, knows about the comic,” Gillen said. “I really hope she never does, I don’t think she’ll get it.
“One of the reasons I draw so much from life and transmute it is because I’m trying to ground it. Since I’m taking so much parts of what I’ve seen and what’s happened to me and my friends and warped it, I want to try and apply that so it’s true of everyone. This is generally true. This isn’t something you just sit back and watch, this is something you can live. Music can transform your life if you want it to. That was absolutely the fucking key idea of the comic.”
Perhaps out of genuine affection or perhaps out of lingering guilt for his rotten behavior (or perhaps out of both), Kohl resolves to free the ghost of Beth’s past self from its self-imprisonment regardles of whether it has anything to do with his mission to find Britannia, which continues with increasingly strange and challenging questions.
|Indie Dave “B-side”|
The Richy Edwards incident echoes faintly that of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the hugely influential English post-punk band Joy Division. On the eve of the group’s first US tour, Curtis took his own life. Kohl’s quest brings he and Kid With Knife to the isolated, broken down shack of the phonomancer known as Indie Dave, possibly the most intense Joy Division fan in existence.
“Indie Dave equals Gollum,” stated McKelvie.
“Indie Dave is the guy who lives by himself and listens to old vinyl records and imagines himself in different places because his real life is shit,” Gillen explained. “He’s this ugly little skinny dude, he’s got no social life, nothing. All he’s got are his records and where they take him. He lives fictional lives through his music. He throws himself into the idea and essentially lives the myths.”
|Indie Dave on the dangers of Memory Kingdoms|
After speaking with Indie Dave, it becomes clear to Kohl that to find answers about what’s happened to Britannia, he has to excavate his own memories of Britpop; not an attractive prospect for a man so devoted to never looking back. Indie Dave warns Kohl of the dangers of reliving his memories, advising that it’s much safer to experience the lives of others. Eventually, Kohl clothes himself in the uniform of his younger self, puts a Pulp tape in an old Walkman and journeys into the Britpop Memory Kingdom, where humanity’s collective impressions, memories and revelations of Britpop exist as a kind of chimerical ghost town, and where Britannia’s attackers must certainly lie.
Guiding David through McKelvie’s nightmarish, surrealistic pop wasteland is a man known to hardly anyone on the surface of the Earth, although he did end up writing the introduction to the “Rue Britannia” collection.
“If you’re talking about Britpop and that whole era, if you need some sort of filter to talk about this, that’s Luke Haines. That’s essentially the role he created,” Gillen said.
|Musician Luke Haines guides Kohl through the Britpop Memory Kingdom|
The leader of proto-Britpop band the Auteurs, Luke Haines is an enigmatic figure who is credited by some as the true pioneer of the movement — even though he doesn’t seem to want much to do with it.
“He is peculiarly British,” remarked McKelvie. “Haines was always there, though, always on the fringes in NME or Select or Melody Maker, always doing something more interesting, even if no one else saw it.”
“Haines is sort of a Dickensian character,” Gillen added. “He was a very easy character to write and was really good fun. He quite enjoyed camping up in real life. ‘Yes, I’ll be the villain, the villains get the best lines.’ So why’d I use Luke Haines? Because I had to. Why do I love Luke Haines? He was very clever and very evil, and he still is a brilliant lyricist.”
“Rue Britannia” is brimming over with such references to real life music industry figures, trends, conventions and events, and it is to this fact that the book’s few critics invariably point. The claim by many of the book’s proponents that uninitiated readers need not be familiar with the enormous number of musical and cultural references to enjoy “Phonogram” is somewhat exaggerated, but it can also be argued that for such readers, “Phonogram” offers even greater rewards.
|“Rue Britannia” is rife with Britpop icons. Pictured: Jarvis Cocker, Luke Haines, Damon Albarn, and references to the Verve|
“There’s two sorts of people who read ‘Phonogram,'” Gillen stated. “Some people look at the references and don’t get them, and some of those people see it as a blockage. Some people see them as a door. Some people go, ‘I want to listen to this band further.’ Some people go, ‘just fuck off and die. You’re speaking a codified language that I don’t want to understand.'”
For most comics readers, whether their gateway book was “Justice League” or “2000 AD,” they didn’t come in knowing everything they “needed” to know and consequently derived tremendous pleasure in discovering all there was to learn about whatever title, character or universe they were enjoying. The same can be said for “Phonogram” and its relationship with music and culture, and Gillen and McKelvie report that many readers have become great fans of the referenced music.
As for readers who do understand “Phonogram’s” references and subtext, “Rue Britannia” is likely to be huge for them.
“My idea was, we’re always going to be a cult book,” Gillen admitted. “Cults are fine. A small, devoted cult is a worthwhile and interesting thing; speaking that codified language. When I was writing ‘Phonogram,’ given the choice to making the book mean more to a million people or making the book mean the world to about four people, I usually chose the four.
“Understanding of subtexts and other meanings makes one occasionally overlook the main meaning; the actual form,” Gillen continued. “Subtext makes us forget about Text. If you’re constantly wanting the subtext, you’re not actually reading the fucking thing. It’s a cancer of the post-modern conceit. It affects me, I do it as much as anybody.”
Fortunately, for those readers unfamiliar with the lore of Britpop and other cultural references, the “Rue Britannia” trade comes with an entertaining glossary of useful items custom-made for the collected edition. The original singles contained glossaries unique to each issue, along with several pages of essays, playlists, backup stories and reader correspondence, none of which will be contained in the “Rue Britannia” trade.
“We didn’t want anything from the singles in the trade, apart from the stories,” Gillen explained. “I like the idea of extra value for anyone who actually bought the singles. That’s quite a big thing for me and McKelvie, the idea that they are separate objects and we like them both to be valid and interesting unto themselves. If you buy them all, great. EPs to albums, that’s always been the way we think. If [Matt] Fraction hadn’t decided to use the word ‘album’ for the ‘Casanova’ collection we’d probably be pushing that harder.”
If Gillen & McKelvie are a band and “Phonogram” is an album, then it achieves its rousing, four-on-the-floor comeback-after-a-difficult-but-udeniably-sophisticated-and-experimental third or fourth single when David Kohl discovers that Britannia, the dead Goddess of Britpop, has been forcibly resurrected by the dreaded and loathsome retromancers – nostalgia parasites, a kind of phonomancer, Kohl says, in the same way a date rapist is a kind of lover.
“They’re people feeding off nostalgic emotions for their own use,” McKelvie explained. “A few people have misinterpreted us, saying that ‘Phonogram’ itself is an exercise in retromancy. That’s fine, I don’t mind people being wrong.”
“[‘Phonogram’] is an act of retromancery to destroy retromancery,” added Gillen. “I’m not sure it does, but I hope it does.”
|Retromancers resurrect Britannia, Goddess of Britpop|
The line Gillen and McKelvie draw isn’t thin, but it’s not exactly straight either. Ultimately, “Rue Britannia” is not an anti-nostalgia story, necessarily, but it’s certainly a cautionary tale (one that’s perhaps even more relevant in the area of comic books than in pop music).
The grey area is important. Like that first raw, startlingly ambitious debut album by one of your favorite bands, “Phonogram” seeks to create a synthesis of opposing philosophies and express what the band believes to be actually true. In “Phonogram’s” case, the “band’s” message is sent loudest and most clearest in the form of “Rue Britannia’s” closing sequence (or track, if you like), when David returns from his quest with the mission accomplished, but also with the ghost of Beth’s tragic youth put to rest. The present day Beth wakes up in her boyfriend’s arms, the Manics playing on the radio, and after who knows how many bitter, quiet years, she simply listens and smiles.
“That’s my favourite page in the whole thing,” Gillen confessed. “When McKelvie sent me that final page I just obsessed over it. It was just perfect. It absolutely caught the emotional note. The very small pleasure of nostalgia. The ‘Oh, I liked that record once, and it meant everything to me.’ Beth was about making ‘Phonogram’ not an anti-nostalgia story.”
|Kohl emerges from “Rue Britannia” with a new(ish) perspective|
Indeed, by the end, even Kohl becomes slightly less of an asshole and also realizes he actually likes Britpop quite a bit more than he did at the beginning.
“Even the shit stuff!” Gillen said.
Despite being their first long-form work, Gillen and McKelvie created “Phonogram” in many of the best traditions of indie comics, especially in the area of personal sacrifice, both social and financial. “The weirdest thing about ‘Phonogram’ is that I haven’t pitched a single other project,” Gillen said. “I haven’t been able to work properly on anything else until it was all done. I still walk around thinking about ‘Rue Britannia’ even though it’s dead. It’s six fucking issues, but it was an intense six fucking issues. If you actually look at the back matter; at the essays where I say where I am each time, they’re all different. It was an intense part of my life. I split with my long-term girlfriend at the time. I was living in a variety of houses. I was sleeping on a mate’s sofa and I’d have to get up in time to write the back matter of ‘Phonogram.'”
McKelvie was on vacation in Los Angeles last summer, during the week leading up to the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con International. CBR News witnessed the artist missing out on a number of holiday activities so as to draw as much of ‘Phonogram’ as possible, often on a portable surface which he moved from place to place all over the city. McKelvie was unable to attend a screening of “Superman Returns” with CBR, and later passed out from exhaustion, prompting various comics industry insiders to take humiliating photographs of his unconscious body.
|David Kohl: newish and improvished, and tolerant of a new generation’s love for bad music|
“Yeah,” McKelvie confirmed, “but I don’t think missing out on ‘Superman Returns’ was any big loss, let’s be honest.
“There were months of poverty,” he continued. “I mean proper borderline-starving no-cash-whatsoever, which led to a few delays as I had to get that money elsewhere (commissions, etc). Regrettable, but that’s the way it goes. Luckily I have a very understanding girlfriend.”
McKelvie’s hardships continued even after the publishing of the “Phonogram: Rue Britannia” trade paperback. In a recent development reported on by CBR’s Rich Johnston, publisher copies of the collection never made it into McKelvie’s hands. “Turns out that, accidentally, Image sent [McKelvie’s] comps to an old address,” Johnston reported. “Where the tenant had signed for the books using Jamie’s name and now has no intention of giving them to Jamie. I understand the police are involved.”
“Also,” McKelvie added, “my computer actually blew up.”
“It’s emotionally exhausting,” Gillen said. “There’s nothing funny about ‘Phonogram’ in emotional terms, it’s just thinking about this one thing every time. You’ve got one shot at this. One thing [‘Smoke’ writer] Alex DeCampi said to me before I did ‘Phonogram,’ ‘Are you sure you want this to be your first comic?’ She was right, you’ve only got one debut comic. One first single. One first kiss. I think that’s why I stopped working on everything else and just focused on ‘Phonogram.’ It was my first comic and I wanted it to be everything it could be.”
|David Kohl “B-Side”|
By virtually any standard, Gillen and McKelvie’s efforts were successful. Just ask their fans. Unlike many of today’s most popular indie books, which tend to be about things like down-on-their-luck thieves or religiously challenged assassins – many of which are brilliant–“Phonogram” offers readers – particularly young readers – something they can genuinely relate to. Fans see their snobby yet endearing musical prejudices personified in every extreme with David Kohl and his dark mirror Indie Dave. They see their insane-with-a-heart-of-gold friends in Kid With Knife, and they see their own personal Beths in Beth, because everybody has at least one. Indeed, “Phonogram” fans read “Phonogram” and see themselves.
“Well, that’s what we set out to do,” McKelvie said. “Of course, we thought we’d only get that reaction in two people. So it was awesome to see so many other people get it. You don’t need to even know about Britpop, the ideas behind the book are universal to anyone who loves music. And I don’t get people who don’t have passion for music. I really, truly don’t. It is an entirely alien state of being to me.”
“I quite like the idea that I would actually like every single one of ‘Phonogram’s’ readers,” Gillen added. “As in every single one who reads a copy and likes it, I would have something in common with. There’s a degree of that. As I said, it’s a cult book, and I think comics could do with more cult books. ‘Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.’ There’s an example of a cult book that sells fucking trazillions!
“I wanted a comic essentially for someone like me,” Gillen continued. “A lot of people who I think would like ‘Phonogram’ would never, ever know where a comic shop is, let alone go into one. It’s that sort of thing. It’s absolutely for people who get that hand-clench gesture when they read it. I’ve talked a bit about talking in coded languages. That’s what it’s a bit about, the idea of actually trying to express that honestly. Music changed my life and ‘Phonogram’ is me trying to talk about it.”
|Phonogram t-shirt design|
“It’s a success in that we got it all out there,” McKelvie added. “It’s a success in that the critical acclaim has been far greater than we hoped for. It’s successful in that we did what we set out to do, and that we eventually earned enough to get by from it. And it’s finding new readers every day, new people connecting to it and us. So I think on any level I actually care about, yes, it’s a success.
“I had to draw a lot of stuff for the first time – Kieron really pushed me and I think I’m a much better artist now than when I started. As for Kieron, I refuse to acknowledge that he’s done anything worth praising because then he’ll have power over me. But he did deliver a fucking fantastic story. ”
“Phonogram” will return with a new series tentatively titled “Singles Club,” which takes place on the evening of December 23, 2006, in an English nightclub. The series will run seven issues, each one being a self-contained “solo” story starring Kid With Knife, “Rue Britannia’s” Emily and five new “Phonogram” characters. David Kohl will appear, but not as a principal.
“Phonogram is ‘the Britpop comic’ and it’s the ‘David Kohl’ comic – at the moment,” Gillen explained. “I wanted to essentially free us up a bit. If I wanted to go back and do a story set in the 13th century based on Romanian peasant music, I would like the freedom to do that. Not that I necessarily would. I need to escape the boundaries a little, so the idea of setting it basically contemporary and basically a group piece with a variety of different characters was my idea of freeing it up. So if we do a third series, which we would like to do, at the end of the second series people will have their expectations freed. We might lose readers or whatever, and I hope we don’t because I think the second series may actually be more accessible than the first.”
The “Singles Club” covers will be based on nightclub flyers, giving McKelvie an opportunity to play heavily with text-based designs. Each issue will contain sixteen pages of story with an additional ten pages of back matter including ads and a six-page backup illustrated by a different guest artist each month. With an eye towards making the single issues more like classic music zines, Gillen and McKelvie also hope to include additional backup material like interviews with famous bands such as TV on the Radio.
|Jamie McKelvie’s “Suburban Glamour,” coming this September|
Solicited this month is Jamie McKelvie’s forthcoming “Suburban Glamour,” also from Image Comics. Written and illustrated by McKelvie, “Suburban Glamour” is a mini-series about magic, mystery and underage drinking. It stars Astrid and Dave, two teenagers stuck in a dead-end suburban town living uneventful lives — “Until Astrid gets a visit from her childhood imaginary friends, who tell her something big is about to happen,” McKelvie said. “Are they real or is she crazy? Life is about to get a lot more interesting for the pair – interesting and very, very dangerous.”
Kieron Gillen will be releasing more comics work, but the writer is unlikely to turn his back on games and music journalism anytime soon. “It’s not really about the money, because games journalism doesn’t pay very well either,” Gillen stated. “With the actual money for the job, you kind of live in squalor. It pays better in the States to be honest. In the UK it’s not exactly lots of money unless you’re really willing to hack it out – which I’m not, or I can’t because I’m too lazy.
“I love journalism and it’s something that’s very deeply into me. I would like to do more comics, but it would be a sad day if I wasn’t writing journalism – not necessarily games journalism, but I would like to games journalism as well. I like it.
“I wrote ‘Phonogram’ because I wanted it to mean something to people. I’d rather it mean everything to one person than, you know, a million people quite liked it. I would make that exchange, because some people genuinely have embraced it. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what every band tries to do.”
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