“Trying to Sentimentalise a Cultural Chernobyl”

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September 29, 2012 by raconteurmagazine

by Sam Flintlock

If you only read one book this year, you should be ashamed of yourself.  But if you haven’t read the graphic novel Phonogram written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie, while forgivable, you still need to rectify that.

It comes in two volumes.

The first tells the tale of the ‘phonomancer’ (a magician who works with music, basically) David Kohl and his attempt to save the Goddess of Britpop.  A man who, in the words of creator Kieron Gillen “is a monster for the first part of the comic” and something of a critique of Gillen himself.  (Gillen says that all the characters in the comic are based on him, his friends and acquaintances).  A man that goes to Ladyfest events solely with the purpose of getting laid.  A man whose creation is so pitch-perfect that he manages to fit perfectly on the thin line between “cool” and “scum”.

The second follows the adventures of a group of young phonomancers in a club, each issue of the series (now collected in a trade paperback) concentrating on a different character.

And character is an apposite word for these books.  All the protagonists feel like real people, when they’re arseholes, they’re real arseholes, not cartoons.  Apart from the retromancers (magicians who feed on nostalgia), because, Kieron tells me, “Phonogram has always had a problem with villains, even with the Retromancers I only dealt with it by making them an idea”.  This is something they hope to rectify in the third and final volume they’re currently working on as “people are more interesting.  The bad guy is you”.

The theme is “human beings being shaped by art, humans having real interests with ideas.  It’s the platonic ideal and not ideal.  And magic used as metaphor”.

As Kieron points out, some people simply haven’t been able to get past the Britpop reference.  “We were using Britpop as a case study.  A lot of people do get it but some simply don’t get it.  They get to the cultural reference and stop there”.

This is a pity, I agree with him that this isn’t actually the point at all.  “If a film was made it would be based on grunge and it would still make perfect sense.  It’s about memories being commodified.  To read Tolkien you don’t need to know the history of elves”.

Phonogram is a ridiculously ambitious piece.  Much like Generation Terrorists, you wonder whether it’s going to fall flat, but they somehow pull it off.

Kieron tells me that the third (and “almost certainly” final volume) The Immaterial Girl is going to follow the story of the character Emily Aster, called Claire in a previous life before she “sold her soul for power in a Faustian Pact”.  It’s based on 80’s pop video, on how it mutated pop music, on “the cost of a vision”.   And the question for Emily Aster is one of the oldest in existence.  “Can you truly escape yourself?”.

You don’t want to start there though.  If you love music and/or comics, you need to read this.  If you’ve ever been ‘cool’, you need to read this.  If you’ve come to realise that what is important to you is always going to be largely irrelevant to other people and in Kieron’s view it’s “evil to try to push that on others”, you need to read this.

Phonogram is simply stunning.  I’d go as far as to call it the most important comic of the past decade.  Although, naturally, that doesn’t necessarily mean I expect you to care.  But it’s at least worth finding out if you do.

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