Comics Review – Phonogram : Rue Britannia
Writer: Kieron Gillen ~ Art: Jamie McKelvie ~ Publisher: Image ~ Year: 2006
The Low-Down: A low-key but surprisingly engaging urban fantasy that blends mythology with the NME, this characterful comics miniseries takes a wonderfully left-field look at pop music and what it does to us.
The Backstory: Everybody knows about Phonomancy, right? The way you can use music to do magic? One of the simplest tricks in the books. Used correctly, music can do anything, touch on any emotions and unlock all kinds of doors…
What’s it About?: It’s 2006 and David Kohl, Phonomancer and egotist, is having a bad day. A one-night stand has come back to haunt him, and now he’s got a mystery to unravel. Someone is interfering with Britannia – the spiritual godhead of Britpop, dead these past ten years – and both his memory and reality itself are starting to alter and unravel…
The Story: Comics can do anything. You want proof? Look at Phonogram, a brilliantly oddball exploration of music and myth that dances along the edge between fantasy and music journalism without ever quite toppling either way. It’s the kind of work that’d feel too slight or too laboured in any other medium, but sits perfectly in comics, taking you on a quiet and characterful fantasy journey through Britpop. One of the best things about it is simply the way it plays the magic and fantasy as completely matter-of-fact and ordinary – because of course it isn’t about the magic, it’s about pop music, memory, and the way nostalgia can be both a comfort and your worst enemy. The word ‘urban’ springs to mind, and Phonogram is a genuinely urban fantasy that, even four years after being first published, does something fresh and inventive with a sub-genre that’s still mired in werewolf-shagging and winsome vampires.
Phonogram is something else altogether – a world of memory kingdoms and rituals, where ghosts are still mourning the absence of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards and whole lives can be defined by the music people listen to. Comparisons have been made to the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer (starring breathlessly cynical magician/bastard John Constantine), and there are definite echoes in the landscape and atmosphere of the comic – but Phonogram has a weirdness and a sense of playfulness all of its own. The whole thing was a labour of love for writer Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Gillen has already said in interviews that thanks to making so little money on Phonogram, the chances of any return visits after the brilliant second volume The Singles Club is unlikely), and making a comic-book voyage through the mythic landscape of Britpop is certainly one of those endeavours that qualifies as heroic. Like all the best music journalism, Phonogram flirts occasionally with pretension and isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s also not afraid of throwing in references or unexpectedly mythic cameos that its audience might not get (there’s a detailed four-page glossary in the back of the book for anyone who didn’t live through the Britpop years), and certainly doesn’t go for attention-grabbing tactics of action, sex or gore. This is a late-night wander of a graphic novel, the kind of story that’ll strike a chord with anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a song or experienced that one grand pop passion that somehow sums up a period of your life.
It’s also wickedly funny, with the entertainingly cynical Kohl acting as a brilliantly engaging (and occasionally foul-mouthed) protagonist. Gillen’s characterisation here is top notch, creating a rich cast of characters, especially the ascerbic and spiky Phonomancer Emily Aster, and delivering a whole series of finely crafted one-liners. A comic series that knows it isn’t for everyone (and isn’t trying to be), Rue Britannia is a little rough around the edges, but like all good pop, it’s the flaws and imperfections that make the moments of brilliance worthwhile.
The Art: Printed in black-and-white, Jamie McKelvie’s art style here is deceptively simple – he’s got a very clean-lined approach that’s almost the exact opposite of modern-day superhero comic art. Take a single panel, and it might look a little too simple – but place it in context, and you get a gorgeously easy visual ride that guides you through the story. He’s also brilliant at capturing characters – not many artists can handle making lengthy conversations visually interesting – and gives the whole series an off-beat, expressive and unique atmosphere.
The Verdict: Weird. Wonderful. Verging on essential. An excellent example of the kind of strange and unusual territory comics can explore – and the follow-up, The Singles Club, is even better.