Monday, April 15, 2013

Opening Contract - Phonogram: Singles Club #3

There’s a moment in issue #6 of Phonogram: The Singles Club where a character describes the band Los Campesinos. They're about to say how big they're going to be but stop themselves. Instead, they decide that “they’re going to be big to some people”.

This is Phonogram in a nutshell. It never sold particularly well but, for its rabid fan-base, to those who have read it, it matters. It’s inspired fanzines (the awesome Phonogram Vs. The Fans), countless essays, articles and analysis. Then there was that time Pull Shapes was played at the Thought Bubble after show party. It was glorious.

So, it’s a bit daunting adding to such a passionate and eclectic stream of thoughts, opinions and experiences centred around one series.

Time (and deadlines) wait for no man though, so join me after the break where I take a look in the mirror, shrug off my fears and discuss the opening panel to Phonogram: Singles Club #3 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson.
The general premise of Singles Club concerns the notion of phonomancers, individuals who interpret magic through music. Basically, music=magic. The first series concerned itself with the adventures of David Kohl as he attempts to find the goddess Britannia. This second series focuses on the stories of seven different phonomancers (some new, some old) as they converge on a club in Bristol where such magic is discouraged. The series takes place over one night and each issue interlocks and touches upon characters and events from others.

Issue #3 focuses on a character introduced in the first series, Emily Aster. She’s a phonomancer too, a friend of Kohl and someone who has reinvented themselves several times over. She’s cold, direct and her sharp tongue can cut a grown man off at the knees.

The opener in question is a wide panel with the left side mostly taken up by white space and two captions. The right side of the panel is a close up on Emily looking through a gap in her fringe. She’s looking towards something on the left side of the panel. We’re not quite sure what. The captions read “I look in the mirror and…well, I know what you see”.

Mirrors. It’s all about the mirrors. The mirror amplifies, it reminds us of things we try to ignore about ourselves. A grey hair here, a scar there, you know the drill. But for Emily, this is increased tenfold.

In Rue Britannia we get a few pointers that Emily's undergone drastic change at some point in her past. As Kohl says:

“When I first met her, she answered to a different name.” “She snipped away the bits she didn’t like and traded them for power.”

We’re left with the impression that Emily paid a price for her reinvention. As Issue #3 of Singles Club progresses more of this idea is unpacked. But it’s also touched upon indirectly in the opening panel of Rue Britannia. This panel is a close up on Kohl’s eyes as he looks straight out of the panel at us, accompanied by captions that read:

“I look in the mirror and I like what I see. Sure, image is the first dogma of the Faustian process - but I’m all too at home with that.”

There’s mirroring with Emily's captions. But there's also that word, Faustian.
She’s not looking directly at us in this panel— none of Kohl’s confidence, arrogance and braggadocio. Instead she glances sideways through her fringe, almost as if avoiding our gaze.

It’s interesting to note that the first two issues of this series both feature wide opening panels featuring the specific protagonists (Penny B and Mark respectively) looking directly at us. The dialogue in both of these panels could also be taken as breaking the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly. “I know what you see” (emphasis from original), Emily seems to say to us. But her gaze can’t meet ours, suggesting guilt or shame. Or, is she in fact looking over her shoulder? What threatens to fill that white void?

As the story progresses there’s plenty to suggest Emily has something to fear. There’s a scene where Emily heads into the club toilets to do her makeup. Staring back at her from the mirror is the byproduct of whatever Faustian bargain she's entered into. It’s Emily as she used to be (or Claire as she was known then). She threatens Emily that one day she'll come back.

That look in the opening panel then could be paranoia and shame wrapped into one. We all worry about our past coming back to shame us. We all worry about the future and the threat of old age. That manifests itself in the mirror as we hold our gaze with the one person we’re only truly accountable to— ourselves. This is what Emily has to contend with writ large.

The connotations of this Faustian pact echo into later issues too. In the next issue, centered on Seth and Silent Girl’s escapades in the DJ booth, we reach a moment where Seth is feeling down due to the evening not going as well as he planned. Silent Girl begins to remind him that “This isn’t about looking good. This isn’t about making people like you. This isn’t about stealing a new you” (emphasis totally mine).

Ultimately though this panel is about mirrors and the depths we'll go to to delude ourselves. Emily's opening panel, as pointed out, is a mirror to Kohl's from the original series first issue. The next few panels in that initial issue go over the details of Kohl’s look and appearance. Later, they’re burned away and chastised as “symbols” by Britannia. The nature of symbols themselves have power here.

We’ve already touched on why Emily is averting her gaze from the mirror and maybe who the captions are aimed at. Not at us, but her old self. The panels that follow depict Emily talking us through her look, almost like Kohl did. She, like him, almost seems to be reaffirming these symbols through focus and repetition in an effort to keep the old her at bay for one more night.  Repeat something often enough and we ourselves, and by extension those around us, begin to believe it. This is how songs, good songs, come to pass too. Focus and repetition. All good songs are mantras. This opening panel then is the beginning of Emily's mantra.

As always, any thoughts and comments are welcome below.

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Hansel Moreno said...

Loved it beyond my ability to put my thoughts in to words. I look forward to series three.

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