Inside Look: Phonogram #3

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Phonogram #3 hit stores today, and writer Kieron Gillen stops by to discuss the ins and outs of the issue, and the overall quality of this acclaimed Image series.

Phonogram is a six-issue mini-series for Image Comics, with art by Jamie McKelvie and words by Kieron Gillen (that’s me), except we say “Music” and “Lyrics” respectively in the comic, because i) it’s a comic about pop music and ii) we’re terrible posers. The core of the comic is that music is literally magic, and there’s people known as Phonomancers who actively manipulate it. Imagine Hellblazer meets High Fidelity. Or rather don’t, as we’ve imagined it for you.

The plot so far has followed David Kohl who has been tricked by The Goddess into visiting one of her temples – a feminist rock Festival, Ladyfest. When there she cursed him for being a bastard in how he used his powers and then sent him to investigate what was happening to one of her aspects. The aspect in question is Britannia, Goddess of Britpop, who baptised Kohl, was the original source of his abilities and is at least ten years dead.

Starting to investigate, he discovers a ghost of a girl who used to have a crush on him – Beth – overlooking a Weir in Bath. The strange thing is that he knows the girl isn’t dead, and she looks exactly like she did ten years ago. The next day he wakes up to find that his memories have altered. He now remembers it was him, rather than his friend Kid-with-Knife, who had a one night stand with her. His memories are changing. Surely this has to be linked to whatever’s happening to Britannia…

Oh yeah, and if you’re already buying Phonogram: i) You’re lovely. ii) I urge you to actually read your copy before consuming these notes. We’re showing off Page 22, which while it doesn’t actually spoil the plot, will hit a damn sight harder if you have the build up.

Seriously, I’ve warned you.

Also, for everyone else… well, you, I warn that I ramble. Feel lucky. At least you don’t have to battle through my scripts like the poor lad McKelvie.


Click to enlargeWe’re not big on over-explaining what’s happening in the exact moment. We’d have probably torn off our limbs rather than ended issue #2 with “Oh no! I am now remembering something that I never actually did! Earlier I said I hated Echobelly, but now am I singing it! What is happening to me! Is this sufficient plot to fill a six-issue mini-series? God, I hope so!”, not least because exclamation marks are the world’s worst punctuation. But we’re aware that our less explicit approach may occasionally cause a little confusion.

In order to kick against that, the first few pages of any issue are going to recap the strangeness to make sure everyone’s up to speed. The trick there is making it natural. It helps that Kohl’s such a motor-mouth, and an intensely analytical character (both self-analytical and to the world), but there still has to be a good reason.

In this case, he’s gone to visit the Sorta-Ex Beth who he now remembers having a one night stand with. What actually did happen between Kohl and her has deliberately been left unexplained except in the vaguest details. It doesn’t matter here, as we all know what it’s like to know you’re about to see someone who you share a history with. This is probably the most human we’ve seen Kohl, so we keep the page simple to try and get close to that and allow us to empathise with the shit a little.

Modified Six-panel grid, four panels of which are just looking at the Phonomancer and letting Jamie show his increasingly impressive physical-acting skills to capture Kohl’s mounting anxiety. Fairly caption-heavy both to sneak in the exposition while making the subjective experience of the reader waiting for the door to open longer (basic comic thing: More words = longer the subjective sense of time. It’s why characters spouting monologues while punching each other lacks any real viscerality).

Oh - I love that big fake grin on the last panel. What a dolt.

We’ve got a six-page preview of the issue at a higher resolution over at our site, which I recommend you have a nose at rather than the lower ones here.


Click to enlargeNot much explanation here. In fact, pages 4 and 5 are more important in terms of actual use to the plot. I select this for one main reason – the last panel, which is one of my favourites in the entire issue. Showing a load of small-talk would be a waste of comic page, but I needed the next conversation to come from a distinct place of audience. Panel, knocked out to bleed to get that sense of timelessness and the two protagonists facing each other like a duel – but not being able to meet each other’s eyes. And if that wasn’t enough, the captions square in the middle, hanging ominously between them.

I’m quite a big fan on the idea of text as a visual element in comics. The truism that Comics Is A Visual Medium tends to forget that text is a visual element too, and important for reasons other than simply what it signifies in terms of speech. I’d love to do something like Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News, for example.

Though looking at it now, I wish I’d dropped the caption boxes and just had the words on the white space. I should be beaten. Beaten to death.


Click to enlargeThis page was rewritten far too many times, including one near the end when I realised that there was an enormous plot hole that needed filling. Well… not a plot hole, but something that was terribly unexplained, which made it handy that there was already a scene with Kid-with-Knife there to work in the required information.

The Kid’s one of my favourite characters in Phonogram, both in terms of how much fun he is to write (he doesn’t really care what’s going on, as long as it’s entertaining. No matter how strange things get, he’s never fazed) and in basic utility. It’s very easy/natural to get required exposition in the story, as he knows absolutely nothing. In that way, he serves the opposite purpose to Emily Aster, whose main use is in pointing out holes in Kohl’s reasoning. Having the pair of them to bounce off helps Kohl in a few other ways too.

One of the ways I went out of my way to make Kohl be a complete shit in the first issue was by isolating him. With Kid-with-knife, he seems a bit better because he’s in the context of someone he gets on with: as with real people, characters seem their best in the company of friends. When rubbing up against Emily he comes across a little better as he’s not quite as openly malicious as she is.

(The plot hole was making sure it was clear that memories were changing generally, but not completely. Things were fuzzed-up, foggy. A couple of pages back, Beth is just confused about what happened that night. Kid-with-Knife puts the distorted nature down to his chemical intake. Kohl, being a magician, is more aware of things not being right.)

I suspect these Director’s Notes are probably meant to be a little more saying how ace we are rather than just admitting we’re rubbish and came within inches of an embarrassing plot-hole. Er… I still like the “Freaky Girl” exchange which opens the page. Also, the first appearance of Kid-with-knife’s Army-Surplus Landrover! It’s a future icon in waiting, mark my words.

PAGE 8-9

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeAnd here’s Emily Aster.

This is the first time we’ve seen her wearing clothes, which is somewhat annoying, because of all the core Phonogram cast, she’s the one who we spent the most time considering what she’s be wearing… and then she ended up spending the first two issues lounging around naked since Kohl phoned her half-way through a Sapphic tryst. Man!

This is basically the most explanation we’ve got about Emily and who she is. The hard-cuts between Emily’s monologue and Kohl’s inner-monologue are probably a little overwhelming – and were more so in earlier drafts – but that’s kind of what we were aiming for. Emily’s an intense person. An intensely shallow person, but that doesn’t make it any less intense to be in her company. I sort of twin this page with the first one in the issue, in terms of it living and dying with McKelvie’s ability to make her act.

I think it lives. Thank whatever gods that are listening for Jamie McKelvie.

The white-backdrop is the second thing to notice. We’re isolated again. The previous page is a cut from Kohl and Kid-with-knife travelling to London, and now we’re being ranted at by a pretty – albeit large-chinned – lady waving a glass of wine around. The world doesn’t matter – it’s just her. And then when we move to the next page we finally reveal where we are…. a noticeably fancy restaurant.

Also worth noting is the caption placement on the first panel of Page 9. When confronted with this posh dining establishment, the reader should be wondering what on Earth these Indie-kids are doing there. We leave this information until the reader’s about to leave the panel. Putting it any later would, I think, drag the reader out the story as they wonder a little too much to follow the narrative. Any sooner, and there wouldn’t be the joke as the tension would be relieved too swiftly.

Or so was my thinking. You tell me, peeps.

This whole conversation (and it continues for a few more pages in the full issue) is a good example of the utility of Kid-with-Knife. While Emily and Kohl are swapping bon mots  in a terribly poncy fashion, Kid is eating an entirely inappropriate mixed grill in the background. It keeps the tone a little lighter. The sixth panel here is an incredibly sly nod towards top BBC kids-television show Grange Hill, by the way.

PAGE 18-19

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeProbably my favourite two pages in Phonogram so far, and tellingly the one where I basically shut the fuck-up and let McKelvie do his thing. And it’s an A-team-esque montage scene! Hurrah!

This whole section is important, as while we’ve seen tiny splashes of magic and there’s been something heftily supernatural every single issue, this is the first time Kohl’s actually finished a spell. These two pages are him preparing for the ritual itself by dressing in a relevant manner, loading up on the relevant drugs and heading to what used to be the relevant club.

We were trying to walk a line here. There’s few things finer than getting ready to hit a venue. Equally, the absolute seriousness Kohl’s treating it is more than a little silly. For me, the conflict between knowing both of the previous statements are totally true is something that drives Phonogram. It’s simultaneously the most important thing in the world, yet also completely ludicrous. Phonogram’s picked up some (justifiable) critiques that it’s a bit cool for school, which tend to miss the little narrative-eye-rolling we’re doing at Kohl. In this scene, which is probably the most eulogising of them all, we try to make things clear by him sliding his copy of a Sylvia Plath anthology in his back pocket as a final step.

In terms of a minor plot point people will probably miss, the half-a-stick of Eyeliner is the one Britannia gave him back at the beginning of issue #2 when she was baptising him. This is, for Kohl, a holy ceremony. A holy ceremony for a religion he doesn’t believe in any more, but a holy ceremony nevertheless.

Blimey. Didn’t say anything self-mocking about how rubbish we are in that entry. I really must like them.


Click to enlargeAnd Kohl at the end of his ritual.

And, yes, this is us trying to be a bit clever.

We’re kind of a fan of this playing with the form, in terms of deliberately going for an effect we’d never even seen before or hadn’t seen nearly enough. Even though I didn’t exactly fall in love with the denouement of Seven Soldiers, what J.H. Williams III does with his string of pastiches is absolutely inspired. In the first issue, we were using physical rips in the paper to represent flashbacks. In the second, we did a nod towards the cut and paste fanzines by burying a page in faux-zipatone, distorted text and all manner of other stuff. And in this one, we just try and represent magic by lobbing the sort of optical illusion which is designed to cause migraines and/or nervous breakdowns behind Kohl. Physical ink as literal neurological terrorism. You know… /magic/.

The optical illusion was inspired by a public domain one, which was then reinterpreted into our own “thing” by the lovely Charity Larrison who’s better at vector graphics than we are. I was clearly worried that it wouldn’t work properly when printed, but the actual physical one works even better than the on-screen one.

I suspect someone will sue us for giving them a brain tumour or something, but that’s the price you pay for this sort of posturing nonsense.

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