Friday, July 16, 2010

Trade Waiting - Phonogram: Rue Britannia

Kieron Gillen has come to prominence lately with his Asgardian and space opera tales for Marvel comics but before all of that he was just a British guy telling some tales, with able support from Jamie McKelvie, about the Britpop music movement in a way that most people probably didn’t see coming. These two trades have got magic, phonomancers, memory realms and a whole lot of awesome and erudition packed into just six issues each. I’m not even going to bury the lead on this one, this comic is so much more than you’ll be expecting so go buy it, now, but maybe read the review first.

Phonogram: Rue Britannia
Lyrics by Kieron Gillen
Music by Jamie McKelvie

This comic was the sort of thing I never would have bought. Ever. Not in a million years. It’s some indie comic in black and white about British music, or something, and at a glance it just seems like the indie kid in the corner doing his best to make sure everyone looks and knows how indie he is. I’m so annoyed that I had this in my head but I’m glad this perception did not last long. And it certainly doesn’t hold still to today.

Kieron Gillen first came to me via his work writing S.W.O.R.D. for Marvel. His spacegirl Friday tale of Beast and Agent Brand won me over easily within the first 5 issues, but sadly those issues would be all the series would get. Cancellation set in like a fatal disease and we all smiled with tears in our eyes as such love was torn away from us years too soon. Gillen was writing Thor but I was too late and Thor never really captured me anyway so I waited and watched. Then I read some reviews of Phonogram and heard nothing but buzz as the second series of this title got nothing but raves for all of the single issues. I figured I could at least think about it.

I picked up the trade and had those feelings mentioned earlier, but only for a moment. I have a practice where creators build up credits with me, and because of S.W.O.R.D. I owed Gillen something. I purchased the trade and it dwelled in the middle of my reading stack for a few weeks. I finally took the plunge recently and now here I type furiously to get this review out because the gospel needs to be spread.

Gillen tells a sad tale about making Phonogram. He says that he never made any money off it and he would have loved to continue making it and would were it not for the fact that he needs to eat and pay bills. It’s extremely sad to know that Gillen poured himself into this endeavour, and Image thought it was good enough to publish, but it didn’t sell enough copies so he had to discontinue the idea and go off to work for the man instead. It also staggers me that only a few thousand people in the world would have read this same story that I enjoyed. Hopefully my words with raise that number.

The story is about David Kohl, an absolute smug prick who thinks he’s the goodness and the light of the world and that he’s absolutely, always right. He’s the sort of guy you see in pubs all the time and Gillen obviously has a lot, or else he’s been that guy before in his life, I’m not sure which. He’s on his way to a gig, which is an important ritual for him because he’s a phonomancer, a musical magician, if you will. He discovers, too late, that he’s been pured there by another of his kind and he’s to be tasked with a quest. He needs to find Britannia, a goddess of his world who has gone missing.

The goddess of Britannia is a great metaphor for the entire Britpop music phase that swept through the country like an enema and either left it cleansed or tired afterward. I must admit, I have no real knowledge of the period, or bands and songs, being discussed in this series but I don’t think it matters. Whether you’ve listened to the entire Manic Street Preachers (sorry, the Manics) back catalogue shouldn’t really matter. Sure, if you’re a massive Britpopper (my term, not Gillen’s) then you’ll probably get just that bit more from this than I did but overall I was in the loop, I know of everything being mentioned and that is certainly enough.

Gillen is clever in the way that he writes song lyrics into the scenes but doesn’t make this feel like just a Frankenstein monster of pastiche and homage. The story still stands alone and the idea that this goddess just wants to be loved like she was is quite well handled. Characters come in and out of David’s quest as he tries to find the ultimate source of the problem and then fix it. All the while reality around him is changing as someone tampers with it introducing false memories and making David start to question his musical tastes and memories in a few scenes that are pretty hilarious.

Gillen manages to sum up what was a major cultural movement and I’m not sure whether he’s aiming to idolise it even more or just pillories it in retrospect. Either way, it works. Gillen was obviously there, he knows what he’s talking about, but he’s here now and he’s a smart enough man to know that time changes everything and the times have certainly changed.

Jamie McKelvie’s artwork is simple and yet completely what it needs to be. He doesn’t add complexity of depth within his panels but certainly knows how to tell a story and get the mannerisms of his characters just right. He also works conversational scenes quite well as Gillen works to fit pages full of text to get across some very chatty people.

This series is pretty damn enjoyable in that I really came to like David despite his obvious flaws. In fact, I probably liked him for a lot of him because he’s a snob at heart and it’s always fun to watch someone who is so sure they’re smarter and better than everyone else around them. This is an ode to the time where British music very nearly dominated the world and why it is so important to love that time but to leave it where it is. Remembering is much different to reliving.

Verdict – Buy It. This work is exceptionally good and I think it would appeal to a lot more people than you might think. I’m not musical, or British, but I loved the writing in this. I flipped the pages along as much as I could and soaked up absolutely every page. There’s a stack of interesting ideas in this comic and I think it will only get stronger with more readings. I can only hope that the more work Gillen does for Marvel then possibly the more people will check out this much overlooked series, and check back here next week when I review the second trade, The Singles Club.

Care for another opinion on Phonogram: Rue Britannia?  You can check out Eric's review by clicking here

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btownlegend said...

McKelvie's art just ends up growing on you til you reach a point and get Suburban Glamour. Which isn't too shabby either. As for Gillen, he is a modern poet when it comes to music in general. Nice to see this reviewed here. All the covers pay tribute to actual album covers!!

Brian Dickey said...

My goodness, this series is amazing. Definitely captures everything that makes me glad I got back into comics. It only gets better with The Singles Club, too bad you'll only be reviewing the trade though. The backmatter and b-side stories in the singles were all definitely top notch.

Oh and fun little fact, you may have read, this series was what inspired Fraction to up his game on the second arc of Casanova. Which in turn upped Gillen's game writing The Singles Club.

Anonymous said...

This was not for me. It bored me to death

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