Making Magic out of Music - Part 1

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This August, music is magic as Image Comics delivers writer Kieron Gillen’s “Phonogram” to the masses. Broken Frontier got a chance to chat with Kieron about the upcoming limited series.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Could you give us a quick summary of the book?

KIERON GILLEN: Britannia’s a dead Goddess, patron of the equally dead mid-nineties pop-movement Britpop. Someone’s interfering with her. The Goddess gets full-time phonomancer and part-time bastard David Kohl to try and work out what’s happening. Why does Kohl care? Because since Britannia christened him all those years ago, if she changes in any significant way, so will he. Cue six issues of running around, desperately following leads while his memory distends into grotesque shapes. Also jokes, nastily brooding horror, and the soon-to-be-patented ‘Jamie McKelvie Hot Punk Girls’.

If you want a movie-style high-concept comparison, the current best one is “High Fidelity Meets Hellblazer”.

BF: What exactly is a Phonomancer?

KG: Phonogram is based off the idea that pop music is magic, which it kind of is in real life: science really only has only the barest trace of a clue how and why music creates such enormous emotional responses in human beings. In Phonogram, any of the ways music can affect people are treated as magical events.

A Phonomancer is someone who’s actively aware that the universe works like this, and goes out of their way to use these effects to change the world more to their liking. He or she may spend much of their time making choice mix tapes to warp someone’s feelings in a way of their choosing, lost in a fantastical, blissful reverie through deep meditative integration with a particularly epic pop record or twirling the dial of the radio until a fragment of a song gives a little oracular insight into their current predicament. Some kind of broken person who decides to prop up their personality with an exoskeleton made of papier-mâché made of old music mags and warping vinyl, basically.

They’re not often nice people, but they’re fun to be around.

BF: Are you afraid that some of the Britpop references will be lost on the American audience and do you feel that your readers who are more intimately familiar with Britpop will get more out of the story?

KG: Does it worry me that we’re being too niche? Hell yes.

But while there are all sorts of buried material and subtext for the true pop-obsessives to decode, the actual plot is made to be able to be appreciated by anyone with any interest for a dark-fantasy story with a modern setting. If someone’s willing to accept the concept and run with it, we’ll show them a crazy-fun time. After all, you don’t need to be able to spot every single literary gag buried in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to enjoy Moore’s charged and inventive neo-pulp narrative.

We’re not-so-secretly hoping that rather than the references being a barrier, they’ll be a gateway. If someone doesn’t know the references, they’ll enjoy the rest of the story so much that they’ll want to investigate further. In the modern internet world, it’s hardly tricky to search down a band…

BF: The musical era of Phonogram is that of Britpop's high point, with the success of Blur and Oasis. What made you decide to center on this particular era and genre of music?

KG: Primarily timeliness. When I was conceiving the story it was a few years before a decade’s gap had opened up since the period. In fact, the first issue will be released in a couple of weeks of the 10th anniversary of Oasis’ Knebworth gigs which is arguably the close of “high” Britpop. That sort of period in history is about the time the nostalgia circle starts to kick in, and people start trying to re-examine the period, and even considering a revival. I was interested in the concept of how nostalgia and history war with each other in terms of a pop-movement, and that Britpop was the one going through the process made it perfect to use for a case study. I could have written it about Punk or Madchester or anything else – but timeliness made Britpop perfect.

Secondarily – and it’s a close secondarily, I’ll have to admit – the personal. It was the first major movement which we’d been involved in. This made our understanding of the whole nostalgia/history thing with Britpop being particularly acute. If I used Punk as my case study, I could possibly have fallen into the traps which Rue Britannia’s actually warning against. With Britpop, since I was there, I can speak with confidence.

Yuck. “Case study”. This makes it sound like homework. It should be stressed all this is subtext to the story’s main thrust.

BF: You've been working on this story for years... were there any major changes that occurred to the story over that time?

KG: The cast surrounding Kohl was originally a lot larger, but the longer I worked on the story, the more I understood that the vast majority didn’t serve sufficient purpose and confused the story by even existing – and there was already a stronger character who could perform the plot task just as well. For example, a couple of minor characters got merged with David Kohl’s trusty sidekick Kid-With-Knife for clarity’s sake.

Secondly, Phonogram: Rue Britannia is at least partly a commentary on Britpop Nostalgia and revivalism. When I conceived the story, it hadn’t really started happening yet – I knew it was about to, but it hadn’t. If it had come out then, it’d have been genuinely prescient. Since it’s taken a few years, and saw how bits of it played out in that Libertines-Franz Ferdinand-Kaiser Chiefs-Arctic Monkeys-Kooks rush, I worked in some explicit commentary on what actually did happen rather than what I thought would happen. There’s a key scene with a Libertines fan in the fifth episode which wasn’t there in my earlier takes on the story.

Thirdly, I suspect I just became a better writer over the years. Stuff changed as I realized how flimsy some characters’ motivations were. I definitely decided to work in a plot at some point. That was probably a smart move.

BF: How did you hook up with artist Jamie McKelvie for this series, and how much of the story belongs to him and to you?

KG: Bristol Comics Con. Jamie walks up to the Small Press table, starts chatting and shows me his portfolio. I tell him I’ve got a comic I’m working on I think he’d be perfect for. Cue frenetic internet copulation and after a suitable gestation period, out pops Phonogram.

Who owns Phonogram? Well, legally speaking it’s 50:50, as anything else would be stupid. In terms of actual creative parenthood… I like to think that it’s a genuine and intense collaboration. In terms of high level concept, plot and character, it comes from me. But in terms of implementation, no matter how anally written my scripts are – and they’re monstrously anal things – there’s an incredible amount of back and forth. We’re on Instant Messenger most days, and McKelvie is lobbing back ideas for small detail which often just transform what I was thinking about into something even better.

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BF: You feel that getting the feel for this era was important for the artist of the book; was that something that Jamie did automatically? Was he already aware of the scene, or did you have to ‘coach’ him a bit?

KG: No coaching required. He’s a natural. That McKelvie understood everything without explanation is one of the reasons why he’s the perfect collaborator on this. He’s even capable of filling in the gaps by himself. He’ll know if someone wears a certain pair of shoes it implies a certain thing about them, and be entirely able to decide according to what I’ve written about their personality what pair they’d be wearing.

That I’ve kept Kohl’s phonomancer colleague Emily Aster naked for the first two issues is a complete waste, really. I should be shot.

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BF: Is the attention you are receiving this early before the first issue has shipped surprising to you?

KG: We’re a little disappointed, to be honest. We were hoping for statues to be erected in comic-shops worldwide where the faithful would congregate, chant and endlessly recite holy verse taken from the internet preview. We deserve worshippers.

More seriously, Yes. It’s an idea that’s been inside my head for so long, and I’ve constantly questioned whether it’s just something that would only appeal to people called “Kieron Gillen” who live in South-West England. That at least some people seem to get it and are excited about it means everything to me.

Of course, now I’m just worried about letting them down. Always, the angst.

Check back here on Monday for the conclusion of our conversation with Kieron Gillen.

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