The Anchor Panel: Phonogram
Ever heard of Phonogram? Well, it was recently revealed that a new volume of this music-based Image Comics series is in the works for release in November 2012. At the behest of others on the 22 Pages staff, I was encouraged to read the first two volumes of the series and decided it might make for an interesting panel discussion with my musically inclined brother, Dennis.
Do these illustrations make us look like brothers?
You're not wearing your hat. Alright, let me get the heavy lifting out of the way: Phonogram is a comic by Kieron Gillon and Jamie McKelvie. It's about a loose collective of English magic users called phonomancers who appear to derive power from, or at least, base their power on music. As with most interesting things however, there is more to it than that.
I've never really been much into comic culture, but when you introduced me to the Phonogram series, I was mildly intrigued. My reading about music is normally limited to non-fiction documents or reviews. Though I've always been hesitant about music-related fiction, Phonogram is enjoyable for anyone who can relate (or, sympathize) with a music obsessive.
Yeah, when I told (ordered!) you to read this comic, I had to give you many assurances that it was about music and that you'd enjoy it. So before getting into the comic, let's tackle the music.
No lyric better articulates the fanatical relationship record geeks have with their music than the first line of Minutemen's "History Lesson Part II." Our band could be your life, D. Boon speak-sings over the song's opening riff.
I find it very telling that you could basically distil all of geekdom down to that very notion. Our band, comic, TV show, movie, videogame could be your life. But I digress...
The bands discussed in the Phonogram series are nothing like the Minutemen, a three-piece wrecking crew from Southern California. They do, however, identify something crucial about a young fan's relationship to his or her music. It is more than just sensory appeal, fleeting enjoyment or disposable leisure. Sometimes it's magic.
It is times like this when an idea for a comic really slaps you in the face with its unique potential and you wonder how it took so long for someone to incorporate the concept into a book.
Definitely. Rather than dive head first into the American underground, Phonogram navigates through the murky texts of Britpop, a genre defined not by a specific sound, but more taste dictated by geography.
This posed a unique challenge to both of us. Growing up we were steeped in British invasion era music, American folk and then later the sounds of classic and indie rock. A comic exploring the idea of music as magic is immediately understandable, but delving into the world of 80s and 90s era British music was a pretty alien experience.
True. I think for North American audiences, Britpop typically begins and ends with radio stalwarts like Oasis and Blur. This, however, is a flagrantly superficial take on a musical culture heavily steeped in the political and social unrest of bands like Pulp and The Clash. Britpop, many would argue, is more profoundly defined by a proud and unrelenting social stance than it is just about geography.
Do you think this choice of music made it easier or more difficult to get into the books? Or, to put it this way, could these characters (and this idea) been generated in a different music scene?
It's possible, but the Britpop scene is fitting, considering the culture of myth, obsession and unrest that continue to define it to this day. For example, in Volume 1, The Manic Street Preachers are discussed with almost religious reverence. Richey Edwards, the long-missing former guitarist of the Manics provides the void that plagues many of Phonogram's main characters.
Just to clear this up for everyone: Edwards was the guitarist and primary lyricist for the Manic Street Preachers from 1992 until his disappearance in 1995. He provided the lyrical spark that solidified the band's identity as angry and alienated British glam-punks. He then disappeared and was never found. Has that ever happened on this level?! Wouldn't you be obsessed with an artist if he managed to do that?
I still think it's crazy. Also, from what I gather, Edwards was a very enigmatic guy who already had a cult following while he was alive. While Oasis was singing “Live Forever”, the Manics were releasing albums called Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible.
Clearly not messing around.
It's no surprise that David Kohl insists the Manics' indelible stamp on his bleak cultural outlook deserves to be shared by all disciples of Britpop. He believes the desperation should be contagious – this music should be your life. Others believe their solace can only be found through stasis -- some wait for Richey's reappearance, while others plant themselves firmly in Britpop's long gone golden age.
You know, the first volume of the series was definitely building towards that. Kohl's journey through his own idealized nostalgia is a very relatable experience for anyone who's stumbled across some old CD they bought 15 years ago.
Yeah, this part is thoroughly entertaining for anyone who's ever been caught defending a record they loved when they were 13. While most of us are content with relegating those CDs to taste's past, Kohl is admirable in searching for some sort meaning in his young dedication to Britpop. Given that this still is a comic book, it was fascinating to see the authors translate this juvenile obsession into something supernatural.
This was definitely my favourite part of the first volume. For example, I loved the idea of DJs as cultural retromancers, dredging up history to draw power from your romantic feelings for the past. I also liked the idea of Indie Dave, an isolated oracle, who has allowed music to consume and fuel him. Those great concepts really balanced perfectly the idea of musical and magical power.
Kohl is a great sketch of the bitter music fan constantly upset that no one identifies with the music quite like he does. Britpop is certainly Kohl's drug, yet it's a drug that he's happy to allow destroy him as he too revels in the past in his own memory kingdom.
It's a very different Kohl we meet in the second volume, for sure. What was your take on it? It feels much more personal to me.
Well, for starters, Kohl appears to be much more of a grounded individual in Vol. 2 as opposed to someone who is, you know, travelling through his own memory trying to save Britpop. His brief cameos are more entertaining than anything, like when his sandwich-wielding meathead buddy shows up and they dance to TV on the Radio. In Vol. 2, Kohl is ready to share his passion with others and surrender to the magic of the dance floor.
Come on, you've gotta love Kid-with-knife as the music scene's clueless id!
I probably enjoyed Vol. 2 more than Vol. 1, and this has actually has a lot to do with David Kohl's character. In Vol. 1, his journey is so painfully self-involved that you can't help but roll your eyes at how boneheaded he is. He's not necessarily a hero or even an antihero, but a guy you wish would learn to use his musical knowledge (or, superpowers, I suppose) for something other than judging everyone.
Oh yeah, Kohl's odyssey is one that had my eyes rolling a bit as I was reading, mostly because his taste is so wildly different from mine. Now, if he had been talking about Big Wreck or Broken Social Scene (circa 2005), I too would have been defending my hard-won nostalgia.
Kohl harbours a more sympathetic self in Vol. 2 that allows a variety of more interesting characters to flourish as they learn to understand their crippling obsessions.
Given how Kohl-centric Vol.1 is, it makes sense that Gillon would steer the story towards some previously unexamined characters (like Emily Aster, in all her austere beauty). I was a bit surprised at the introduction of a batch of new characters, but it makes sense. To discuss the different affects of music on people's lives, you need more lives to discuss.
Lloyd, for instance, shares a great chat with Kohl in Vol. 2 as he searches for answers regarding his master plan. Of course, it helps that Lloyd's master plan is easily the best part of both volumes. Without giving too much away, Lloyd is an equally compelling and hilarious character that believes he has a foolproof plan for recreating a wealth of classic tunes in a new crude and provocative manner.
I actually liked the DJ characters Seth and Silent Girl the most with their duelling desire to appease the crowd while satisfying their own internal musical beliefs (Ok, it's mostly Seth trying for the latter). With Lloyd, his struggle is something I think any semi-creative person can identify with. It's that desire to try to share some idea or feeling that you are absolutely sure is awesome (but have tremendous difficulty articulating).
Overall, I found these two volumes of the Phonogram series pretty enjoyable. Based on the bands they use to fill out the story, it's clear that the creators are as music obsessed as their characters.
Definitely a labour of love, though I never would have guessed it to have come from Gillon. I mean, I first knew of him through his video game journalism and now he writes Uncanny X-Men. So go figure.
As someone who is also dangerously into music, I found that Phonogram did an affable job in marrying pop music with the more fantastical world of comic lit, despite the inclusion of Los Campesinos near the end of Vol. 2. Oh shit, did I just get all 'David Kohl' elitist on you?
Heh, I knew you wouldn't be able to make it to the end without taking a stab at something. Thanks for joining the Panel. See us next month when we review the new Avengers movie!