Phonogram: The Singles Club #1
“Pull Shapes” and two backup features
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie, Laurenn McCubbin & Marc Ellerby
Colors: Matthew Wilson
Cover artist: Jamie McKelvie
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie return to their world of music magicians, but they explore their creation in a radically different way than last time. The first Phonogram series was something of a redemption quest for a rogue, steeped in dark and dangerous tones that were alluring in their own way. This issue is more of a character study, and it’s incredibly grounded. Penny B is a figure who’s both heartening and pitiful at the same time, and she exemplifies the portrait of a young adult who still has a lot of growing up to do. The fact that she’s a phonomancer, a magic user who relies on music for her power, is really quite secondary to the story. Ultimately, Gillen shows us there’s plenty of everyday magic in music in the right circumstances. Though there’s a sad quality to Penny B’s character, the overall tone of the main story is really a hopeful and celebratory one. Those who enjoyed the first Phonogram series will find the same strong storytelling here, but they’ll also find a much different kind of story as well.
When Penny B hits the dance floor and sways to the music, people stop to watch or are drawn to join her. It happens without fail, but that’s because Penny is a phonomancer, a magician whose powers flow from music. Penny not only has power but a penchant for breaking the rules as well. Despite her special qualities, though, she finds her heart’s desire to be elusive.
McKelvie’s clean, crisp style is ideal for bringing Penny B’s pristine, untouched youth to life. She looks flawless, which works well with the story as the real conflict in an internal, emotional one. The artist’s choice to dress her in mod clothes also tells the reader that she’s not just focused on new music and performers, that she has a broader appreciation of pop culture beyond the here and now. Matthew Wilson’s neon colors add energy to this urban fantasy story, but more importantly, it helps to convey the atmosphere of the dance club and intangible power of the music.
Marc Ellerby contributes art to one of the short backup stories, and he’s no stranger to the world that Gillen explores in these Phonogram comics; just check out his art on Jamie S. Rich’s Love the Way You Love graphic novels. Ellerby’s style is much more cartoony than McKelvie’s, but it’s in keeping with the frenetic, oddball tone of his feature. Conversely, Laurenn McCubbin’s art for the other short piece is darker and grittier than McKelvie’s, but again, it fits the story she helps to tell. It’s much darker and more raw, as Gillen touches more on the same sort of gloomy, foreboding tone that was a part of the first Phonogram series.
One of the backup features explores the notion of misogyny in music, and it’s a haunting piece that’s really about gender inequalities in society as a whole. It depicts women as both empowered and victimized, as nurturing yet angry. It’s a weird piece, meant to disturb as it challenges the reader. The other piece, “Murder on the Dance Floor,” is much more playful and down to earth. It’s about how the right tune and the right atmosphere can diffuse even the most tense of situations. It’s about the magic of music, but not in a literal sense.
The script suggests that some of Penny B’s power stems from her love of dancing, that she’s able to affect others when she sways her body in time with the tunes at the club. I not only enjoyed how this distinguishes her from the characters in the first volume, but it also grounds her characters and makes her magical world something to which the reader can relate much more readily. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve given in to the music, moved awkwardly or beautifully, never giving a thought to how we look. Penny seems to transform those fleeting moments of personal freedom lacking in self-consciousness into an entire lifestyle.
What’s most interesting about this story — which is more of a captivating character study than anything — is the dichotomy of the central figure. Gillen script is about exploring isolation and togetherness. Penny B seems to this lively, hopeful person, and when she dances, she’s quickly at the heart of a crowd that loses itself in music, fun and freedom. But Penny ultimately feels very much alone. While she loves losing herself in music and dance, it seems as though she also revels in how it draws others to her. She desperately wants a deeper connection with someone, but she’s incapable of making it. She seems to have only one real friend, and she’s completely removed from Penny emotionally. Even the fact that Penny serves as the narrator reinforces the solitary nature of the character. As Penny speaks to an audience no other characters acknowledge, she’s isolated further. I don’t know if we’ll see Penny’s larger, ongoing story as a part of this series, but even this passing glimpse elicits reflection. 9/10