Phonogram #1


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Phonogram #1


  • Words: Kieron Gillen
  • Art: Jamie MacKelvie
  • Inks: Jamie MacKelvie
  • Colors: N/A
  • Story Title: Without Your Permission
  • Publisher: Image Comics
  • Price: $2.99
  • Release Date: Aug 16, 2006

Three words: Music is Magic. And it’s no metaphor. It’s real.

David Kohl is a self-professed phallocrat, about 250 pounds of hipster smart-ass making the London scene in what looks like a 165 pound body. Dig that crazy shiny metal Superman S on his chest, his "I’m a player but I read Cixous at night" swagger as he invades Lady Fest. He’s there to press the flesh in more ways than one, no matter how many post-feminists stare him down like he’s the first dude to set foot on Paradise Island. David has to sit through some rather atrocious sets, but the time pays off with the scent of prime grrl in the air. He pounces, ready to snag and bag his prey, but is interrupted by an act called Scout Niblett. Her lyrics and voice haunt him, and just when he’s about to make his move, Scout rings his number up like she’s Ma Bell, then transforms into the goddess she truly is. David gets a bathroom beatdown for being a boy pretending to be a man, a con artist and a huckster instead of a true phonomancer. The goddess should kill him for the transgression, but she doesn’t. Instead, she has a way for him to atone for his sins.

Besides an unalloyed love for the medium, the reason I write about comics is because I want to know what makes good comics good, bad comics bad, and mediocre comics not even worth the time, much less the three bucks. Consequently, it’s because of the love that I’m sometimes guilty of the bad faith critics commit too often and smugly believe that I know more about what’s really going on in a particular comic than its creator(s).

So here comes Phonogram. I read it once. Read it twice. Read it once more.

Then I put it down, queued "Crash Into Me" on the iPod, and flashed to 1998 and a house party where I was holding forth in the kitchen like a one-man Algonquin Round Table. Bushmills in one hand, Marlboro in the other, several sheets to the wind, a charming but equally soused woman going toe-to-toe with my ravings, both of us oblivious to our volume levels and shooting the occasional finger to anyone who’d only come to the kitchen to hit the fridge for more booze. At some point, me, catching her eye, locking it down, saying, "Hike up your skirt a little more." Her, flipping "What, and show my world to you?" right back at me like Rosalind Russell. Personal space gets to be a real non-issue, until her boyfriend walks in. 3 AM and things get thick, but I get the girl, partly because I needed a ride back to the city, but also, I’m seriously thinking now, because music really is magic, as later the two are laughing up our mutual dislike of Dave Matthews as the sun’s coming up over steak and eggs at a diner near the waterfront.

Then I read Phonogram once more…and got it. It wasn’t trying to entertain me. It was trying to speak to me, if I would listen. And when I listened, it was pure pop song brilliance, its voice distilled and evanescent, telling me more about myself than I thought I knew. It told me that anyone with ears to hear is a phonomancer, too. It told me that the first verse of The Cure’s "Just Like Heaven" is a moment of perfect love, that the third verse of Eminem’s "Lose Yourself" is a mission statement for anyone pursuing a dream at all costs, that The Afghan Whigs’ "Gentlemen" does in 4 minutes what Nietszche’s "Will To Power" does in 400 pages, and you can’t dance to Nietszche. And it told me that John Coltrane, The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, Frank Sinatra, Digable Planets, Public Enemy, U2, PJ Harvey, and everyone else in my iTunes library, even Dave Matthews, are shamans who, at any moment, if I’m willing to let them conjure their spells, can make Dr. Strange look like David Copperfield.

Don’t sweat the technique, Phonogram is about vision. Kieron Gillen is a wordsmith who backed up a Ford Ram 250 full of ideas, subtext, references, and resonances to his script and dumped the load into its 22 pages without making a mess of it all. The result is something that comes uncannily close to out-Ellis-ing Warren Ellis. But while the story itself—think what would happen if William Burroughs, Tori Amos, and Bono’s Mr. MacPhisto conspired to remix Scott Pilgrim while listening to, oh, James’ "Go To The Bank"—is easily worth the $3.50 price, the essay in the back is a thing of beauty in its own right, the best introduction to a work of fiction since William Gibson’s intro to Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. With writing like this, someone has to rein the madness in, and Jamie MacKelvie gets the job done with artwork that’s spare, tight, deceptively light-handed, damn near elemental, and is to Gillen’s writing what Yuval Gabay’s jazzy, hip-hop backbeats were to M. Doughty’s end-of-days voice back when Soul Coughing was the funkiest bunch of white boys on the planet.

Read Phonogram, but listen to it, too. And while you’re listening, when it’s really speaking to you, let your mind slip into the gear it’s in when you hear a song that has a private magic that couldn’t be meant for anyone else.

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