Phonogram : The Singles Club #2
“Wine and Bed and More and Again”
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie, with Emma Vieceli and Daniel Heard
Colours by Matt Wilson
This article was originally published over at Comics Daily, but since the book is out this week (Wed 29th in the US, Thur 30th in the UK) I thought it worth posting here as well. It’s a little unusual for us to post an entire article reviewing just one single issue - but as you’ll see, I don’t think this is an ordinary single issue…
Oh, so that’s what it’s doing.
Let’s be clear on this - for all the depth of imagery and subtext in volume one of Phonogram, the story itself was a relatively straightforward Hellblazer-esque magic-related “quest” tale, with a beginning-middle-and-end sort of a structure. It therefore wasn’t unreasonable to expect something similar from volume two - and while issue one of The Singles Club, “Pull Shapes”, was rather less dense, and confined itself to a single location on a single evening, it still appeared that the type of story on show was going to be pretty down-the-line, even if it didn’t fill itself out with reams of dialogue about Luke Haines, the Manic Street Preachers and Joy Division. Issue two, “Wine and Bed and More and Again”, blows that theory apart rather spectacularly.
Because in much the same way as this issue has the expected effect on issue one of illuminating some of its events by turning around and revealing a new facet (fun game : try reading the scene in “Pull Shapes” where Penny asks Marc to dance before you read this issue, and then see how different the voices in your head sound when you get to it a second time), it’s rather more unexpected that it does exactly the same thing to volume two as a whole. An issue that looks deceptively simple in terms of its action, visuals and dialogue suddenly clicks about halfway through into revealing exactly what the nature of The Singles Club is. And it’s this : a whopping great big holy sodding allegory.
You see, you can take the events of this issue either entirely literally (as you would with most of Rue Britannia - unless you prefer to believe that Kohl is just on some particularly energetic drugs), entirely metaphorically, or even somewhere inbetween. If Rue Britannia was about a practical, tangible use of “magic” as we’d understand it in the Harry-Potter-Tim-Hunter-Gandalf sense, then The Singles Club is about how the whole “music-is-magic” thing relates to every single person that’s ever been affected by music itself. You don’t have to be a phonomancer to appreciate the experience of the “curse” that Marc is under - if you’ve ever been reminded of someone who’s not around any more by a particular song playing, then this issue will get inside you and rip your heart out. It’s a devastatingly accurate analogical representation of an all-too-identifiable feeling - and it sheds new light on the pages of issue #1, because you can apply this perspective to almost anything that happens there, as well. Is Penny a genuine magician, or does her dancing win people over just because she’s a pretty girl who dances well? Does “The Power of Love” break up a wedding fight because Seth “charged” the record first, or simply because everyone loves the song? The answer, of course, is that both interpretations can be true both independently of, and in harmony with, one-another.
But it’s in execution as much as conception that this dazzles. Gillen’s still relatively new to comics, and it’s fair to say that while he’s undeniably a brilliant writer, he’s not necessarily shown himself so far to be a comics storyteller of experimental flair. This might just be the issue that changes that perception - for the first time, he’s playing with the unique tools that the medium offers, hopping between past and present, vision and reality, in that way that only comics can. It’s initially disconcerting, but picking carefully at the issue - rather than giving it the skim its glossy surface might suggest - renders it easier to follow.
His other masterstroke is in his use of voice, specifically that of The Girl (bloody pretentious not-naming-their-characters writers). Having known people who’ve lived in the UK long enough to have picked up elements of idiom while still mangling it through translation in an amusing fashion, I can see exactly what Gillen’s doing with her language - and it’s a brilliant, charming, engaging pattern of speech, packed with blunt yet endlessly quotable witticisms (“Are you emperor of whine? Are you MCR fan now?”) and genuinely unique. It also means that when she delivers an almost cliched bit of sage wisdom at the issue’s close (“Do not be holding on to the bads. It is just a things. Things happens. Things is things.”), the stark simplicity makes it all the more touching. And if there’s a slightly overplayed element of wish-fulfilment-perfection about the character (which is sort of forgiveable when you realise it’s a plot point), it’s nevertheless refreshing to see an honestly-portrayed rejection of “man-bullshit protection”.
“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “Surely Kieron Gillen hasn’t gone all soft on us?” Well, no, not entirely. If you want the biting wit, sinister hints and genuine laughs that you know and love Phonogram for, then they’re present and correct - there’s a whole four-and-a-half pages to get through before “Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above” starts playing, and in them we see Lloyd (sorry… “Mr Logos”) set up as the Gillen-voiced comic foil of this series (I’m already looking forward to his issue as a result), and a proper laugh-out-loud cameo from one Kohl, D. Having already had our first example of the wider story being unravelled by successive issues, the intrigue is now building for how subsequent characters and vignettes will cross over and affect one-another.
It’s all too easy, of course, to neglect to say much about the art on a comic like this, having already spent 900 words discussing the story. McKelvie’s also becoming one of those artists who are so consistently perfect, it’s hard to find new things to say about them. Nevertheless, while this issue doesn’t rely quite so much on the explosion of colour that characterised #1, the artist’s ability to convincingly portray character simply can’t be understated - here, his highlights include the introduction of The Girl (playing up to all the cliches that have become true about his work), and the level of expression and character given to Marc - who might have suffered from coming off as a generic irritating pretty-boy, but whose heartbreak is genuinely conveyed by McKelvie’s assured lines. And the subtle differences in portrayal of the characters at different times and states of reality is as vital a tool of the storytelling as Gillen’s narrative structuring.
And I’ve not even got as far as the backup strips yet. These charming vignettes are proving a brilliant addition to the Phonogram world - in the longer one, we encounter Indie Dave yet again in what is a lovely tribute to “Wuthering Heights”, another example of the effect that music can have on people’s psyches, and Gillen yet again playing to the strength of his artist by allowing Emma Vieceli to express the story almost entirely silently. The two-pager, meanwhile, is a Kohl story (although… well, come on, it’s just Kieron, isn’t it?) which showcases an absolutely stunning full-page piece of expressionistic art from Daniel Heard - one which I can’t even begin to conceive the mechanics of scripting - followed by a nice little coda.
It’s actually kind of terrifying to see just how good Phonogram has become. It was previously an excellent comic with something of a niche appeal, but I honestly think it’s hauled itself up to a point where it deserves to be talked about in the same breath as the likes of Scott Pilgrim as one of the best things the industry currently has to offer. While I find it hard to believe that anyone could fail to engage with the series’ exploration of the meaning of music, it can at least be admitted that there are people in the world who simply have no emotional connection to music of any kind. That’s no longer any excuse for not reading Phonogram, though - you can only get away with it now if you have no emotional connection to anything.