Phonogram: The Singles Club by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Posted by on February 25th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Image; 7 x32 pp. comics

Using the prism of culture — especially music — to examine life is often seen as a desperate grasp for an easily satisfied sense of superiority. By making moral judgments on others’ tastes, the author is able to comfortably reaffirm their elitism and keep populist tastes at a disdainful arms’ length.

Of course, this is utter bollocks.

Phonogram - The Singles Club
Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts feature art by Jamie McKelvie and words by Kieron Gillen, and are ©2009 Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.

Music is transformative, spiritual, but, above all, a shared experience and this is key idea behind The Singles Club.  The series is a follow-up to the Rue Britannia miniseries — also written and illustrated by Gillen and McKelvie — which, to be fair, did often veer into Britpop navel-gazing and elitist sneering.  With the new series, though, they take the key Phonogram conceit of “music as magic” and expand it to a universal level.  Through its club setting, the comics manage to encompass every musical genre from disco to metal, leaving its doors open to all comers this time.

The set-up is fiendishly simple: the whole series takes place over a single night at a small, upstairs club (Never on a Sunday).  As a narrative, it does more running in place than an entire years’ worth of Archie, since each issue repeats the same time frame, albeit from the perspective of a different character each time.  This allows the creators to achieve that kaleidoscopic type of storytelling whereby every time we revisit an event, the different perspectives help to comment on and even completely change our perceptions of the characters and their actions.

Phonogram - The Singles Club
Lyrics by Morrissey

The characters in this series are all-too-familiar.  Just like any night at a club, there’s someone you recognize from school, the girl that you (and all your friends) lust after, the guy who’s slightly too old to be there and, of course, yourself.

David Kohl has less of a presence here — as Gillen’s stand-in, he dominated Rue Britannia and much of the examination of music was from his very subjective point-of-view.  While it was a powerful and frequently humorous voice, it made the series almost inaccessible if you hadn’t “lived” Britpop.  This really gives the rest of cast a chance to shine.

Claire Aster returns from the previous series — one its more intriguing characters — to become something of a tragic figure.  Behind her bitchy exterior lies the former self she is desperately trying to escape — the depressed, self-harming teenage persona that haunts her to the point of changing her name.  In one particularly touching scene, she confronts herself in the bathroom mirror, attempting to reconcile her identity.  In Gillen and McKelvie’s hands it becomes less a John Hughes moment and more the final episode of Twin Peaks.

Phonogram - The Singles Club

Two new additions, the DJs Seth Bingo and Silent, are like a hipster Statler and Waldorf, sneering at everyone from their booth and offering some genuine comic relief.  They become the series’ center — both thematically and literally, since the fourth issue is entirely told from the DJ booth — because they are the keystone. It’s their playlist that clues us into when things happen and help to illuminate just how music affects us in different ways.  For instance, the distinct eeeeoooeeee of CSS’s “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above” — when it appears, for some it’s three-and-a-half minutes of joy on the dance floor, for others, it’s their “curse song” — a frighteningly resonant conceit that we can all relate to — that one song that dredges up some awful memories.  It’s this innate grasp of what music can do us, why it’s important, that really gives Gillen’s writing its power.

Staying true to the metaphor of a “singles club” the issues all come backed with B-side material that doesn’t appear on the “album” (or trade paperback, as the case may be).  These not only serve to expand the Phonogram universe, with short, whimsical tales loosely connected to the main story, but also showcased some real rising talents of the UK comics scene.  Emma Vieceli’s victorimanga take on Kate Bush and Daniel Heard’s terrifying visualization of Diamanda Galas’s voice being two of the real stand-outs.

Phonogram - The Singles Club
Art by Daniel Heard.

While the guest artists do admirable work on these stories, they can’t help but cast in to relief just how perfect Jamie McKelvie’s art is for a project like this.  While his work on other titles has been criticized for being too stilted and posed, that approach works beautifully here — every panel becomes like a frozen moment in the strobe light. The cell-shaded style of his art even gives each of them the quality of a fashionable album cover. His real talent, though, is in capturing the characters.  While Gillen gives them their lines and motivation, McKelvie makes them real with his innate sense of fashion and style. Like any club, the characters here wear their personalities, giving them swagger and bravado.  McKelvie nails it every time, picking the exact outfit or make-up or hairstyle that makes them not just believable, but recognizable. In the last issue, he even gets a chance to silence his critics with a frenetic chase sequence that shows how far he’s really come as an artist in the last few years.

Phonogram - The Singles Club

In the course of our one evening at Never On a Sunday there is drinking, dancing, fighting, hook-ups, break-ups, falling-outs and even the Pipettes.  Of course, it ends happily, with a little touch of magic and some wish fulfillment as Kid With Knife — the series’ awkward outsider — partners with Penny — a pure distillation of musical joy — and is taken home for a on- night stand.  So, is this what it boils down to?  That the magic of music is just a lie?  Another line to impress a girl?  Maybe for some.  For others, the magic is transformative, allowing them to become wonderful for an evening; or a spiritual transcendence where they banish the painful past.  This is the beauty of Phonogram: that it can illuminate that power that music has over all of us.

Phonogram - The Singles Club

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4 Responses to “Phonogram: The Singles Club by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie”

  1. Al_Ewing says:

    Kind of fascinating that you immediately see the Penny/KWK pairing as a one-night-stand…

  2. Gavin Lees says:

    Look at Penny’s behaviour and the way she’s characterised – she’s a cypher for pop – the ephemeral, transitory area of music. Why wouldn’t her relationship be a “one hit wonder” also?

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by KieronGillen: Gavin Lees at The Comics Journal on The Singles Club. Obviously, spoilers: http://tinyurl.com/ygrz9fn Crikey….