The first time I heard of Phonogram, it was from online reviewer Noah Antwiler, otherwise known as The Spoony One. I don’t remember what exactly he said about it, but I remember that it boiled down to “hipster bullshit.”
Of course, I very rarely took Spoony’s opinions about things besides the bad movies he reviewed seriously. Too much vitriol. Not enough critical thought. I didn’t even think of the series again until an online friend suggested it to me, insisting that I was a phonomancer like in the comic.
It wasn’t until I re-read the series recently that I realized that Phonogram was not a comic made for people like Spoony. It was made for people like the characters in the comic.
People like me.
If you’re not aware of Phonogram, it is a comic book series created by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. If the names sound familiar to you, you’ve probably read and/or seen their work at Marvel in the past few years. McKelvie is responsible for designing the Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel costumes while Gillen wrote on Thor and Journey Into Mystery. The two worked together again on Young Avengers, which just recently finished its run.
Phonogram follows a certain sect of people in England that call themselves Phonomancers. These are people who channel magical powers in various ways with music acting as a conduit. I always sound terrible when I describe this because people automatically imagine people with musical themed superpowers, but it’s way more subtle than that. It’s more like paganism, but with more worship of a Goddess that envelops just music.
The first mini-series of Phonogram was titled Rue Britannia and was released through Image Comics from 2006 to 2007. The series followed phonomancer David Kohl as he searched for his patron Britannia, a Britpop goddess long dead that has gone missing from her tomb. As David searches for her, it becomes obvious that the story is less about David trying to find this missing goddess and more about David learning what to let go of his past and what to hold on to. It also involves some really trippy sequences in a place called “a memory kingdom” that makes me simultaneous kind of happy and sad that Rue Britannia was all black and white.
The Singles Club was the second volume that released from 2008 to 2010. All set in one night in a single club, the comic follows several young phonomancers (as well as David and Emily Aster from Rue Britannia) as they all work through their own things with music and drinking. If Rue Britannia was all about growing up, The Singles Club is all about growing pains. About how sometimes, trying to impress someone else or trying to figure out your own self is so painful that all you can do is either dance it out or listen to the same song for hours in your room alone.
When I realized that, I started to realize what audience Phonogram is really for.
The series can feel like hipster bullshit sometimes. I mean, both volumes have a freaking glossary at the end of the book to explain all the music references and it often felt like the only ones I understood right away were for Blondie, Operator Please, Oasis, Blur, and Gillen lamenting over not making a My Chemical Romance themed issue to get The Umbrella Academy crowd to pick up the book.
(Side note: Why is it that everyone was so surprised that Gerard Way is a good comic book writer? Did they not realize how nerdy My Chemical Romance was or notice the comic book-esque themes Way put into their music?)
However, to get through the glossary, it is important to remember that the places the book is set in is unfamiliar to a lot of readers. I doubt there are a ton of Britpop aficionados from the 90s or English indie club kids mid-2000s that are also comic book readers. The glossary isn’t there to try to rub your face in some music you’ve never heard of. It’s to give you a better understand of the world Phonogram exists in. A world where this music that has a few lines in the glossary means the world to the characters in the pages.
That’s when it becomes easier to understand what kind of audience really gets Phonogram, even if they don’t get all the music reference. The genres may be different, but the story is the same.
Phonogram is not a comic for the guys who sit around in your local comic book store, arguing over whether Paul Rudd playing Scott Lang instead of Hank Pym in the Ant-Man movie is a good idea. It’s for the people who’s LCS is also their local record store and who will bounce back and forth between the sections with ease.
It’s for people who consider themselves music lovers, but know that they need a word bigger and better than that to actually describe it and set them apart from people who just like music.
It’s for people who let music into their soul to help cure it when things are at the worst.
It’s for the people who stop conversations because that one song they love comes on in public.
It’s for anyone who’s given a death glare to someone who dares insult a band who guided them through the worst times because the other person just doesn’t get it.
It’s for people who have a band that they hate so much that they’re practically a fan of how much they suck (what up, Fun).
It’s for people like me, who say that music has saved their life and mean it.
Phonogram is for people who turn the music up and feel unstoppable when those notes hit their ears and their heart.
At some point later this year, a third volume titled The Immaterial Girl is supposed to release. It’s all about Emily Aster (one of the leaders of David’s coven), her past and her struggle with her original personality Claire. However, this volume has been hilariously delayed since 2012 with all of Gillen and McKelvie’s work at Marvel and now with their upcoming Image release The Wicked and The Divine. Which I am looking forward to very much because from everything I’ve read about the series, it could be our generation’s Sandman. It’s just been that waiting for The Immaterial Girl has been like waiting for that long awaited album from your very favorite band. I trust that it will be here eventually. I just hate that it isn’t here yet. Still, Gillen has promised that it will still come in the latter half of 2014 and I just hope he doesn’t steer me wrong.
For now, you can find Phonogram: Rue Britannia and Phonogram: The Singles Club through your local comic book store or Comixology. You can even download the first issue of The Singles Club for free at Comixology. In fact, a letter in the back of that issue is what inspired this post.
So go dance with Penny B. and see if a life of phonomancy is the life for you.