Phonogram was one of the few comics worth reading in the last couple years, and like any other forward-thinking project, it was bought by no one (approximately 4,000 people in the U.S. per issue) and had to stop. It was a comic about teenagers, deeply held convictions, wrong ideas and alcohol. Music, of course, should flow naturally.
Yes: This is the second volume (subtitled The Singles Club) of the now-canceled comic, so there's only a little bit of catch-up to do.
The first volume was full-time wanker, part-time music shaman and Britpop devotee Dave Kohl (see above) going through an off-brand Hellblazer adventure to keep the corpse of Britannia (the source of his magical power) from being exhumed and reanimated by people even more desperate for the old days than him. He was helped along on his quest by his drug dealer and 7 INT score crony, Kid-With-Knife and Emily "All I ever do is drink, talk about scoring drugs and smirk insufferably" Aster (below), who sold off portions of her personality she didn't like for magical power.
That was Vol 1.
Right, before I forget. There's magic. But don't worry, it can be passed over, or at least dealt with quickly. There's no epic conspiracies involving a secretive order of mages threatening to unleash apocalypse that only one character can halt through determination, quick thinking and a little help from their friends. This is magic realism, folks, à la Questionable Content. To put my Eric Burns hat on further, the magical elements are the mechanism for the story and not the point.
In Vol. 2, there is almost no magic. Sure, a character can't help but be magical, but it's hardly her fault.
It bears repeating: Vol. 2 can be a standalone book. David Kohl only appears in half the issues and even then he's never the focus. This collection is based around a single night from multiple perspectives told in a non-linear fashion. The stakes are relatively low. Both sexes go out to drink and dance, and one couple (Silent Girl and her not-boyfriend Seth Blingo) DJs the night while commentating from the safety of the booth. Along the way, there's moments about a car crash, cutting, zine-making and a really terrible cab ride.
The format here is fun. We find out Pitchfork hip-hop enthusiast Kid-With-Knife gets laid early on, but we don't find out any of the specifics until the final issue--we find (over the course of the book) an infuriatingly smug Emily Aster might just have done something good for someone else, even if it is when no one is watching.
Switching gears a little bit, Jamie McKelvie's art shines like PVC. The primary colors here are supercharged with neon and the darks have a sultry glow about them that sucks in the light. The inking is wider than expected, but the characters all have a unique look, irrespective of Gillen's Ass Semiotics (mentioned in the backmatter), with the most senior female Phonomancer Emily Aster, looking the most period-specific, and the youngest one (Penny, as radiant and as positive as her name implies) looks the most classically attractive and not restricted to a decade, year or even month.
Despite the arcane subject matter, McKelvie and Gillen author the characters with the knowing love that this was their youth. The hyper-serious Lloyd (he desperately wants to be called Mr. Logos) listens to Very Serious Music with a Very Serious Plan to start a band that sounds awfully similar to the Pipettes, might get Robert Berry angry and possibly litigious, but, it's clear from the soft rendering of Lloyd that McKelvie and Gillen aren't taking shots at British composers through Lloyd, but are instead fucking fond of him. He's an aspect of themselves that they want to make right. If Kohl (and his adventure in Vol. 1) was the personification of their sins, Lloyd is the opportunity to do right by themselves at a specific point in their lives.
And it shows in McKelvie's linework. Mr. Logos dresses himself very sharply, but there's a fundamental softness to his features that could only come from his designers. Where McKelvie shines, though, is the faces. Silent Girl communicates in an eyebrow as much as her hyperbolic not-boyfriend in gigantic word balloons, and the sheer joy on the faces of Kid-With-Knife and Penny could power Japanese cities.
This is not to say the comic is without fault. The "should have been a money shot" of Emily Aster quietly saying that mutual loathing shouldn't get in the way of a free drink is drawn painfully out of focus; some of Penny's moments will age badly in under a year; the architectural conceit of the final issue isn't realized; and Gillen and McKelvie's moralizing is a little bit saccharine. But ultimately, these things are less important than all the good of the arc. The bits of backmatter are smart, including (especially usefully) the pitch from Kieron Gillen to Jamie McKelvie for the new series and pretty awesome cover used for a Phonogram fanzine.
Like our favorite punk records, Phonogram Vol. 2 is authentically itself and overflowing with emotion. Gillen and McKelvie's influences (Demo, Britpop, Hellblazer, Wire-inspired bands generally) are obvious, but are taken on a ride that leads them to a different place entirely. Yes, it takes a little bit of work to get acclimated to Phonogram, but get past (or simply accept) the posturing, and the book opens up its neon-colored heart to you.
Phonogram might not necessarily be my favorite British export since the Clash, but it's certainly my favorite export from the Isles since the Steal. Enthusiastically recommended.
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