Posted by Don MacPherson on June 25th, 2007
Phonogram Vol. 1: Rue Britannia trade paperback
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist/Cover artist: Jamie McKelvie
Letters: Jamie McKelvie & Drew Gill
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $14.99 US
Though lauded by many, Phonogram has also been the target of criticism. Writer Kieron Gillen’s been accused of immersing the plot in far too many music references, ranging from the somewhat mainstream to the obscure. I have to admit that I didn’t pick up on the majority of the band and musician references that serve as important elements when it came to the plot and characters. Nevertheless, that insider, inaccessible perspective didn’t deter me. Gillen’s powerful characterization and novel ideas, combined with Jamie McKelvie’s soft but solid artwork, make for an engaging read. This story isn’t really about Britpop, undiscovered bands or music as magic. Instead, it’s about art being corrupted, manipulated from something that inspires, something one loves, into something to be used for personal gain, for ego. We’ve all got our passions, things we love that, in part, make us who we are, and Gillen’s story is about what happens when a warm, soothing passion turned into a cold, hard weapon.
David Kohl is cool. David Kohl is slick. David Kohl knows music better than you or me or any critic at Rolling Stone. David Kohl is sexy. And he’s an utter bastard. He’s all of those things, but most importantly, he’s a phonomancer, someone who sees the magic in music and can manipulate it. Past sins are coming back to bite him in the ass, as music goddess with a grudge imposes a mission upon him: to find the dead music goddess Britannia and discover why her essence is connected to upheaval in the magical/musical world. There’s just one problem: Britannia is the original music goddess from which David’s power flows. David’s identity and even his existence are on the line, but he soon discovers that much more than his sorry butt is on the line.
The chief influence at play in Jamie McKelvie’s art is that of Steve (Preacher) Dillon; it’s simply undeniable. Fortunately, McKelvie isn’t mimicking Dillon’s work; it looks a bit simpler in tone and less gritty. Other apparent influences include such artists as Joseph Michael (Dawn) Linser and Colleen (A Distant Soil) Doran. There are times when McKelvie really delivers a strong sense of place; as the title suggests, this is a thoroughly British story. The artist’s approach to backgrounds is somewhat minimalist in nature, but one definitely gets the feeling of being in the UK. The indoor scenes tend to be almost devoid of backgrounds at times, though, and there are moments when the characters look as though they exist in a void. McKelvie is to be commended, though, for how he depicts the same characters with different looks. I was particularly taken with the similarities and divergences in his portrayal of Beth at disparate times in her life.
Comparisons to DC’s Hellblazer are unavoidable here. David Kohl is John Constantine, only a decade or two younger and with a greater appreciation for modern music. He’s an utter bastard, the typical anti-hero who ultimately finds small moments of redemption in a life of indulgence and selfishness. He’s even got a ordinary-guy sidekick driving him all over England. Kohl is Constantine, but fortunately, the music-magic angle helps to set it apart and avoids an air of being derivative. If it weren’t for that original flavor, I’d swear this was a Hellblazer pitch repackaged for publication outside of DC Comics… but certainly not a pitch worthy of rejection. Gillen’s writing is strong enough for a stint on the long-running Vertigo title.
Gillen, whether he intends to or not, offers an interesting commentary on the comic-book industry of the 21st century. The story refers to people who are immersed in the past and how nostalgia is a negative force in art. There’s nothing wrong listening to old favorites, but the main character and Gillen take issue with those who are to reinvent the past as something new. It’s easy to see criticism of the state of comics today. While collected editions of classic Silver Age stories are a good thing today, some writers seem to focused on recapturing the wonder they enjoyed in their youth instead of exploring new territory.
Phonogram isn’t an easy comic book. It’s immersed in pop culture with which I am not personally familiar, and there are bound to be many readers who don’t appreciate it either. But Gillen’s script isn’t about leaving people out of the loop. He challenges his audience with the culture and craft of pop music. He does provide a glossary of terms in the back of this book, but mere awareness of the meaning of the references isn’t what’s needed. Yes, I think it’s safe to say this book will resonate more for those Britpop fans who will understand David Kohl’s language and culture. Nevertheless, understanding and appreciating those references aren’t necessary for one to enjoy the story. The atmosphere is dark and alluring, and even if one doesn’t understand Kohl’s world, even the uninitiated will want to be a part of it a little bit.
I am among those uninitiated readers, yes, but the main point of Gillen’s story isn’t about music or magic. David Kohl is an insider, a connoisseur, but we all have our little fields of expertise, our little worlds in which we are the kings and queens. I know comics, for example, and there are little-known stories and creators with which I am acquainted, yes, because I am passionate about the medium. David Kohl was once passionate about music, but over the years, he started using it as a tool, started viewing it as a means to an end rather than something to be loved in and of itself. This story is about allowing something one loves to be degraded into something one abuses. It’s about losing one’s passion and taking the art that one loved for granted. the happy ending lies in rediscovering the magic, in falling in love with the art all over again. 8/10