In “Phonogram,” music is magic — literally. Properly wielded, a song can save your life — or end it. Practitioners of this dark but incredibly fun 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 cafe, in the club or in the queue. They’re not very nice people — quite nasty, really—although they do tend to dress well.
Created by the Eagle Award-nominated pair of comics writer and music/games journalist Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie (“Suburban Glamour,” “X-Men: Divided We Stand”), last year’s exceptionally well-reviewed “Phonogram: Rue Britannia” starred phonomancer David Kohl, a late-thirties prince of snobs and bastards who was recruited by the series’ most enigmatic character, The Goddess (of all music, presumably), to sort out some spiritual necrophilia being perpetrated upon one of her many aspects — in that instance, Britannia, the long-dead goddess of Britpop. Because it was during the ‘90s Britpop movement that Kohl made his bones as a phonomancer, the indie rock anti-hero had a personal stake in preserving Britannia’s spiritual remains from the intentions of the loathsome retromancers — dubious pop nostalgia parasites. The quest took Kohl on a harrowing journey through distorted memories of an extinct music scene in a story that had much to say about music’s role in our lives, and just how powerful a record can really be.
Beginning in December, “Phonogram: The Singles Club” introduces a new cast of phonomancers, younger and more impressionable, and with only the most minimal grasp of the wonderful and dangerous urban fantasy world in which they dwell. The cleverly titled miniseries is constructed as seven self-contained full-color issues, each spotlighting a different phonomancer — including some returning favorites from “Rue Britannia — as they experience the same club night from their own points of view. Every issue is sixteen pages written and drawn by Gillen and McKelvie, and supplemented with a variety of features including back-up stories by guest creators, interviews with musicians, essays, musical glossaries and other useful additions. Whereas “Rue Britannia’s” individual covers were tributes to classic Britpop album sleeves, “The Singles Club” covers will take from nightclub flyer design.
To learn more about the next stage of the Image Comics series Mike Carey said “kisses you passionately on the frontal lobe, then gets you drunk and rolls you for your stash,” CBR News reconnected with Gillen & McKelvie for an in-depth chat about “The Singles Club.”
CBR: If “Rue Britannia” was your debut album, what's “The Singles Club?” An experimental sequence of one-off singles recorded in the same studio sessions, or an extremely ambitious high-concept album?
Jamie McKelvie: Oh lord, you'll set him off again...
Kieron Gillen: “Rue Britannia” was a hyperliterate “Licence To Ill.” “The Singles Club” is “Paul's Boutique,” but hopefully without being a complete commercial disaster. Or “Rue Britannia” was the steely Daft Punk's debut, while “The Singles Club” is the rampant playful experimentation of “Discovery.” I fear the concept album answer may be the closest to it — in which case, the comparison I'd reach for would be the first two Streets albums. Man, I could play this game all day, and be no nearer to actually giving a workable answer.
CBR: “The Singles Club” is an entire comics series set in a dance club, on a single night, told from the points of view of different characters over the course of the seven issues. What was the goal behind this approach?
KG: To explore how much subjective experiences of a shared social event can differ. There's a quote I'm probably going to lob at the front of the trade from Wellington: “The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball…” His point being that you can't write a history of a battle because it's too confusing and the individual perspectives and understanding of events vary so much. You may as well try and write what happened at a party. “The Singles Club” flips that observation — and a party can be an awful lot like a battle. When a DJ plays a certain record, to one person it could be the best thing imaginable. To someone else, it may be the thing to totally destroy you.
CBR: The first personal movement we observe, literally, is that of one of several new phonomancers in “The Singles Club,” teenager Penny B. She dances ceacelessly, even at home, and generally behaves as though she is listening to Daft Punk on a small speaker implanted in her brain. What’s her deal?
KG: Andy! Are you saying you've never actually had Daft Punk playing inside your brain? I highly recommend it. Actually, the ability to hear music by an act of will is one of the core tricks than Phonomancers tend to acquire. I just haven't actually dealt with it explicitly yet — though it does turn up in issue 7.
Penny B is the first of four fledgling Phonomancers, each of whom get an issue this time out. Of the four, she's arguably the most powerful — or, at least, most successful, if only because she has relatively modest aims. That's one of the major differences between this series and last. “Rue Britannia” was about phonomancers who'd climbed that hill and were sliding down the other side. Some “Singles Club” characters would be overjoyed if they could even find the hill.
Penny B is beautiful, somewhat shallow and her main phonomantic rituals involve manipulating others via dancing into obeying her — in other words, were this almost any other comic, she'd be the villain. In Phonogram, surrounded by genuinely despicable people, she's as innocent and as doomed as 1970s Gwen Stacey. Her story is about dancing — specifically, what can it can be used for and what it's ultimate use is.
CBR: Tell us about the dance club itself. You’ve worked out exactly what sort of place it is, surely? What club night will readers experience — and what music will they play there?
KG: Well, it's an indie dance club. Rather than a big venue, I wanted something intimate — the sort of place that gets a scene of people who come regularly, most of whom know each other. Like much of “Phonogram,” I'm lifting from real life and firing it through my filters. The place in question is one in Bristol, which does a monthly night upstairs in a pub. I didn't go to it nearly as often as I wanted to when I lived there, but it ended up a major focal part of my imagination. Its central prohibition — it'll play anything, as long as it's got a female vocalist — struck me as marvelous in a phonomancers-would-so-do-that sort of way. In other words, you'd get Girls Aloud bumping up against Sleater Kinney, and because they're open about that, gain a crowd who weren't expecting to dance to the Arctic Monkeys or whoever. It's oddly open while still being obviously fascistic — but fascistic in the way that writing poetry in a set form is fascistic. You have unbreakable rules, but that forces expression and inspiration.
For my purposes, it also made the night stand just to one side of the popular thrust of culture. These are people making sense of pop culture by themselves, in their own way. When “Rue Britannia” was about that mass movement, refocusing on the personal movements struck me as a worthwhile thing to do.
CBR: There’s are some extremely personal movements — both figuratively and literally — in issue #2, which stars a fellow called Marc, who seems quite down.
KG: Marc (Or — as most people call him — The Marquis) has things on his mind and things in his mind. As what was wrong... well, he was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?
JM: I do not endorse this use of an Avril Lavigne reference.
CBR: Like “Rue Britannia,” Marc’s story deals largely with memory. He hears a song in the club that reminds him of an old flame and he’s sent into a terrible phonomantic experience where he’s forced to relive a number of experiences with this girl. What are you trying to say about music and memory?
KG: This is the issue I actually describe to people who ask me about “Phonogram” generally, in terms of what we mean by music being magic — specifically, about using what real music does to people, then firing it through the music-is-magic filter. In this case, we've all heard a record and suddenly — just because it has memories linked to it — we can't help but recall the events, no matter how painful they may be. The wrong record playing at the wrong time can just destroy us, and anyone who listens to music regularly has records they avoid due to the connotations, at least for a while. In “Phonogram's” language, that record acts as a curse on you — it's forcing an action which you can't resist.
Issue #2 is about Marc's curse. There won't be a dry eye and/or people not screaming "bloody emo!" in the house.
CBR: That’s two starkly different characters in two issues, existing in the same space. What are the challenges of this approach with respect to something like “Phonogram?” What are the advantages?
KG: The minus is that it's even more work than “Rue Britannia.” Where do you start writing a story that doesn't really have a beginning or end? There's a terrible lot of planning — for about an hour of the club I know exactly every single record that's being played, and in what order. It certainly gives amusing plot holes to fill in a “Shit! Crystal Castles plays before NYPC! BOLLOCKS!” way.
There's lots of advantages - but the main one for “Phonogram” is that it allows us to change people's expectations. At the moment, we're David Kohl's Britpop Adventures. By using this approach, we stress that “Phonogram” is a world book. By choosing seven radically different characters with different hopes and fears we show many different takes on what it means to be a Phonomancer. In a single seven-issue series we show that the only constants people can expect are Music, Magic and McKelvie and my interpretations of that.
CBR: Tell us about some of the other phonomancers readers will meet in “Phonogram: The Singles Club.”
KG: The series is all about variety — each issue is radically different from the previous one. Issue #2's a love story. Issue #3, we get a brief look inside Emily Aster's head, and set up the third series of “Phonogram” — as Issue #1 of “Rue Britannia” was to the arc, this is to the hypothetical third series. Issue #4 is a DJ-booth view of the evening, with the ultrabitch pair of Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl in a comfortable comedy solipism. Issue #5 is about examining the person at the stage of life when they need art as a personality crutch. Now, the commonest argument against any form of youth movement is contemptuously noting that they all claim to be individuals but dress the same. Like, duh. They're not stupid. So why are they doing it. Issue #6 is the fanzine-inspired issue, where we actually create Lloyd's Grimoire's retelling of the evening. And we end with Kid-With-Knife's messy experiments with Phonomancery, which are just as disastrous and haywire as you can expect.
CBR: Where and when does “The Singles Club” take place in relation to “Rue Britannia?” What's David Kohl's role in the story/stories?
KG: It takes place just over a year later. While we never stated it outright, “Rue Britannia” happened at the start of Autumn in 2005. This is on December 23 2006, so all the old characters have had a year to grow up, or at least grow older. It's still set primarily in South West England, specifically in Bristol.
Kohl's main purpose is actually a supporting one — in the same way that Emily Aster and Kid-with-Knife existed to further Kohl's story in “Rue Britannia,” Kohl supports theirs in “The Singles Club.” At the most basic level, Kohl's the guy who invited them to the club night, which he's aware of because his old friend Seth Bingo is Djing.
CBR: There seem to be quite a lot of pretty girls in this comic book, and some sex as well. Don't you realize kids are going to read this book? In fact, how old are those characters who are having sex? Writing and drawing sex scenes for comics must come with its own challenges?
JM: You're quite right, kids should be prevented from ever seeing pretty girls.
KG: Hey, there's pretty boys too.
Yeah, it's a tricky one. Ever since Elvis, pop music's molten core is sex. As Laura says — paraphrasing Wilde — dancing is an expression of horizontal desire, so to do a comic about Pop Music you need to be able to deal with it as and when it's required. “Rue Britannia's” handling of sex was... well, mixed. I think we do it better this time, but it's something you need to be careful with. A sex scene is just a type of scene, and what's important is the emotion it's trying to provoke. If a sex scene is just about flesh and the fuck, you're in trouble. And yes - the cast are all older than — say — Jamie's characters in “Suburban Glamour,” being in the late teens at the earliest. And even if they weren't, teenage life isn't rated PG.
JM: There's a definite balance you have to strike when it comes to sex scenes - you don't want them to appear gratuitous. I try to play them as realistic and natural as possible to avoid that. Kieron makes that difficult by writing them porno-style, of course, but I have to make do.
KG: “Phonogram” isn't in any way a kids’ comic, but I'd be fine with any teenagers reading it. The kids are playing “GTA4,” y'know? All too many people writing books for teens are actually aimed at parents, not at kids. The ideal kids’ comic — or band, game, film or whatever — should be something just offensive enough so the parents don't approve of it, but just short of them actually banning it. But we're getting off topic.
CBR: When “Rue Britannia” was originally released in single issues, each came with a substantial portion of back-matter in the form of essays, a glossary of terms and musical references and other similarly useful material. What’s the plan for extras in “The Singles Club?”
KG: We're having six pages of back-up stories — normally two stories — with art from our friends who we've bullied into helping out. In other words, each issue will have the same 22 pages of comics people expect. The remainder of the issue will be packed with as much back-matter as I can cram in — essays, glossaries, letters pages and maybe even a few interviews which I have on file of the bands who inspired the series. Essentially, if there's a square inch of space, I'll try and fill it.
[The back-up stories] also all stand alone, meaning that in most issues of “Phonogram,” you'll be getting three music-is-magic stories. The great joy of it is seeing some of our favorite artists actually doing our characters. Also, we kind of like acting like a gazetter of comics — there's so many stylistic approaches which you can take, by reading the whole series someone who doesn't know much about comics will become aware of the sheer variety that's possible. Hell, in the first issue alone, we've got Laurenn McCubbin's photo-referenced cool illustration next to Marc Ellerby's bold slice-of-life cartooning. Laurenn's story is a psychological music-theory horror piece somewhat similar to the first series of Phonogram, while Marc's is actually a straight gag-strip. And it's like that each issue, bouncing genres and styles while keeping beneath the umbrella concept of “Phonogram.” We're having a lot of fun with it.
p>Oh — and for those “Phonogram” followers, some of the characters who aren't in the main arc turn up in the back ups. For example, the hermit-like Indie Dave features in four, forming a character arc which brings him up to where he is in Series Three.
CBR: Will any of this back-up material be available in the eventual trade paperback?
KG: Our idea is to make the singles a really attractive object in and of themselves — as readers of comics, we both tend to buy trades unless there's a good reason to buy the singles. With “The Singles Club,” we're trying to make individual comics pretty much irresistible. This is partially for the above financial reasons — we need the issues to sell or we'll never get to the trade — and partially because the nature of the story means that, once collected, those seven chapters work in a different way. By themselves, it's more about the individual stand-alone stories. Collected, it's more about the novelistic connections between them — and so including any of the back-matter would actually undermine that purpose.
And if someone has no interest in the singles whatsoever, it’s worth noting that down the line that we'd like to do a B-side and rarities collection. But that'll be in at least four years time.
CBR: Being deep into production on “The Singles Club,” in what ways have you observed your work changing or improving?
JM: I think I've got better. I still have a long way to go to get where I want (and I'm not sure I ever will), but there's a definite improvement to the artwork. Which is as it should be - if I'm no better than I was two years ago, what's the point in continuing?
KG: Jamie's just sickeningly good now, frankly. In terms of me... well, I think I've loosened up a little. I'm still interested in formalism — I'm someone who's interested in writing stories in comics rather than stories per se. If it's not shaped by the medium, I really don't see the point — but I'm more prepared to step back a little. “Rue Britannia” occasionally felt like certain strands of post-punk to me — very rigorously composed at the expense of occasional moments of aridity. While there's always something fancy going on, there's more room to breathe. I'm lucky enough to have an artist who has an almost magical ability to draw expressions. I'm learned to make more use of that now.
CBR: And what should the more elite readers listen to in preparation?
KG: The easiest way to prepare is to listen to the seven bands who inspired each issue. In other words: The Pipettes, Cansei De Ser Sexy, The Knife, Robyn, The Long Blondes, Camera Obscura and TV On the Radio.