Inside Look: Phonogram 2 #1 - Part 1

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Kieron Gillen discusses the ins and outs of Phonogram: The Singles Club #1. Brace yourselves, because he's got lots to say...

Right – these notes are on carefully chosen pages (i.e. The first I found on my hard-drive) of Phonogram: The Singles club. It's the second arc of Jamie McKelvie’s and my comic. The first one, Phonogram: Rue Britannia has been in trade for over a year now, and still available to buy if you haven't read it – though the second arc stands alone. The series takes the form of seven issues, each following a single character through the same night in a single club. While each one is its own story, they all interlink to form a larger picture. Oh – and we've got back-up stories in every single issue too.

The following is ridiculously spoiler dense. I'm not just talking about what the page does – I'm talking about why effects on a page were necessary to create something later along. So I wouldn't go further until you've read the comic or if you don't care about the comic being spoiled.

Oh - And I talk a lot, so go and get a biscuit and cup of something warm to keep you company.


Before we talk about what we were trying to do with the page, we have to take a step back. The biggest problem was even approaching the thing. Phonogram, as a debut series by two complete nobodies about something no-one with any sense would care about, did extremely well. We got a splash of critical acclaim, an agreeably refreshing micro-backlash and did exactly what we wanted to do – that is, reach the sort of people we knew would love a comic like ours.

Hey, we even did the pop-comic thing and changed some poor unfortunate's lives. Which sounds arrogant – and is arrogant – but is just really scary. We wanted to create art which got to some people as much as the art which inspired us got to us. And, for a precious few, it worked. It mattered to them.

How do you do a sequel to that? How do you even start one?

Worse: it matters to us too much. On about every level imaginable, I'm aware that the various incarnations of Phonogram are the purest blast of me the world is going to see – or, at least, the me I've been so far. Thoughts of posterity have killed much better men than me, but there is the realisation that if I get crushed by a car tomorrow, on some level, I'd be fine with that. I got to do Phonogram, y'know? I was lucky.  So it's not just expectations of the readers. It's my own expectations. I've got this throbbing mass of seven issues of stuff to vomit into the world. I want to get as much of it out of my distended belly as possible, if only to  not look too tubby on the beach.

Er... this metaphor is going nowhere. Let's head a different way.

Phonogram. Hard to write. And Penny's issue, the first, proved especially scary – I'm intimidated by writing a character as unlike Kohl as this fluffy unselfconscious butterfly. I'm intimidated her being so different it'll throw the whole series out of whack. I'm worried that it's not the strongest story of the series – not that it's beneath par, but that I know it's not as good as the best... but equally I know we it has to go first to set up those later peaks. So I end up doing what every writer does. Procrastinate.

I wrote Issue 2 first, before finally approaching Penny, nervously, like the boys who gaze at her from the bar as she plays benevolent dictator of a dancefloor. The breakthrough, perhaps appropriately, was whilst dancing.

I'm at a friend's house party, talking nonsense after drinking my favourite drink (“Too much). The music is someone's Itunes playlist, and it's going through  late 90s/early 00s crossover dance stuff. A Fat Boy Slim Best Of... plays, which I hadn't thought about for years and I was amazed at it. As in, how lumpen it was, how graceless. I was never a particular fan, but at that drunken moment it was just music-as-gruel, functional, plodding, workmanlike.

And then Daft Punk's Discovery came on.


In a second I'm laughing. In another, I'm dancing.


It's just an enormous primary rush of colours in the form of music. It's so happy to be alive it's undeniable. It's just there.


Fuck yeah!

I realised that's what I needed the opening of Issue 1 to be like. Because Daft Punk were in exactly the same position as us (except enormously successful, with awesome robot heads). Their first album was this terse and taut dance classic. The expectation was enormous. And then, when they come back it's not something that reeks of self-importance and a sense of event. It's an airy thing that lifts you up and smiles and takes you into the moment.

In other words, I got over myself and – like Penny – tried to get my groove back on. While we don't even come close to matching One More Time, the opening page is trying to evoke that sudden friendliness – that bonhomie and joy. You're here! AWESOME! Haven't seen you in ages? Let's go!


As well as the meta-level (“Hello previous Phonogram readers! Thank you for your money again!”), we're primairly introducing Penny. She's tricky, and I want her to immediately engage. So she does it literally. She just talks to the reader, for the whole issue. While it turns up in non-fiction comics a fair bit, Fourth-wall-breaking talking to reader isn't common in fiction. Yeah, in captions. Yeah, occasional flourishes. But not just them staring out to you for page after page and having a good old chin-wag.  It can be done, of course.  One of my favourite comics ever – the pop-perfect anti-realism glacially-cool black-satire of Morrison/Bond's Kill Your Boyfriend – does it, but I was looking for a different sort of effect.

Penny's magic is based around dancing, manipulating people to do what she wants. She doesn't really even think about it. She dances. People like her. People obey her. That's just how it works, yeah?

In other words, if Penny was in pretty much every other comic in existence, she'd be the bad guy. She's beautiful, shallow and in a literal sense totally manipulative. I need to undermine reader's natural response to her, because in Phonogram... well, she's not that bad. She's actually a positive force in the world.

So, all along, I'm weighting the deck in her favour. Jamie helps. Ellis once talked about how if Alex Ross had drew the Authority, everyone would have got the joke that the heroes were really fascists. He's right. Imagine them in Ross' illustrated style, as stern figures looking down their gleaming noses while annihilating alt-dimension Italy. But Hitch did it, and Hitch draws sexy, likeable people and their charm pastes over what should be our response to their actions. Jamie's similar. He has charm – as I said to him “I need you to be my Cary Grant”.

So when we have Penny glance casually over her shoulder and welcome us, we feel welcomed. It's unexpected. Later on at the end of the page, we see her a little embarrassed, casual, friendly, intimate. She likes you. It's a natural human reaction for you to like her, even then, even just a little bit. And we only need a leeeeetle bit. Intimate is the key thing which the third-wall breaking gives us. All the other six episodes use different methods for the internal dialogue, if they have it at all. Because for them, intimacy and empathy are secondary compared to other effects. We need Penny to be liked.

(It's not going to work universally, of course, but the intent is to mitigate against it as much as possible. There's always going to be some readers who'll hate Penny for their own reasons, from everything from a nagging grudge at the people who didn't go out with them at school to just thinking that I wrote her shittily and a multitude in-between. C'est la vie. You can't win 'em all.)

Second thing the page does is set up the basic motifs of the issue – Penny performing for an audience. In this case, the audience is us. The eight-panel insert-grid was me lifting the technique Jamie used on the third page of the first issue of Suburban Glamour. Had I more pages, I'd have extended the dance even more. As it is, it works in a page. The main story being shorter means that space and compression was a constant worry.

Oh - Final thing: Last panel of the dance-sequence we have the eyes blacking over. Eyes are our shorthand for a magical effect taking place. In the first series it was normally pure black – which is our shorthand for a god getting involved. Actual Phonomancers have their own magical motifs, depending on what they're up to. Here, it's black but full of stars.

When Penny performs a dance ritual, she has that. There's a flash of symbolism there, and – despite the fact she seems lovely - we're quietly setting up the idea that maybe there isn't something entirely right about this. I suspect the Theban writing scrawled over the posters may increase the effect – the juxtaposition between the 60s-esque girl and the magical-ritual act may get people wondering about what's really going on.

But mainly it's about meeting Penny. Hello Penny!

To be continued tomorrow...

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