(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
Phonogram is a comic with an incredibly fragile concept. It’s the kind of idea that could fail completely with even the slightest lapse in storytelling judgement. It’s entirely possible that some readers have glanced at the synopsis, said “That’ll never work,” and then put it back down. It’s remarkable that writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie succeed in executing Phonogram‘s concept so flawlessly, but this is more than just a nifty idea played out in style. Phonogram is one of the most original comics you will ever read.
David Kohl is a phonomancer. That means that, with the right tune, he can perform powerful magic. In the world of Phonogram, a strong belief in a musical movement can produce tremendous power for a phonomancer. But as with any breed of magic, there are dangers.
Weird things are happening to David lately. He’s remembering the music of a coven he’s no longer a member of, he’s seeing ghosts, and it seems the goddess Britannia – who he used to worship – may be on her way back from the dead…again.
It’s a bit hard to explain any better than that. Just read the thing. “Rue Brittania” is Phonogram‘s first six-part arc (a second, The Singles Club, is also available, and Gillen, McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson have reunited for a third, The Immaterial Girl, which should drop sometime this year), and it brilliantly and seamlessly manages to both introduce the idea of phonomancers to the world and produce a powerfully intoxicating story. So, why ‘s it so good?
For one thing, Gillen (who you might know best for his work on Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery) is at the peak of his powers here. This isn’t an action-heavy comic about music-based superheroes running around having wizarding duels set to Britpop and post-punk. The magic in Phonogram is tangible, at times even overwhelming, but the characters are at the heart of the thing. Beyond the whole “using music to do magic thing,” which is just plain cool, Gillen is telling the story of a man’s search for identity. David finds himself forced to look back in an effort to look forward, forced to remember his reckless youth in order to banish it from his future. If you read carefully you see layers forming here. There’s the story of David’s musical (and by extension, magical) journey, the story of his journey to solve the riddle of Britannia, and the story of how the world moves on from one musical movement or another. Audiophiles will find Phonogram riddled with references to bands, movements and records (all of which are detailed by Gillen in a handy glossary), but even if your musical knowledge doesn’t extend past The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, you can see that there’s more at work here than magic. Phonogram is that rare story that manages to meld plot with cultural commentary while stuffing neither down your throat. And the dialogue. Hot damn, the dialogue. It’s some of the best I’ve ever read in a comic book.
And then there’s Jamie McKelvie. He’s one of my favorite artists in comics right now. His work doesn’t look like anyone else’s. He’s got a knack for making scenes interesting even when there’s no cape-clad hero leaping through them, which makes him perfect for Phonogram. The art is crisp, bright and slick, the perfect foil for the often chaotic story Gillen constructs over it. In “Rue Britannia” these two have revealed themselves to be among the more dynamic pairings in comics.
Add Phonogram to the list of creator-owned comics that you must read before you die. It’s an essential for readers of all genres, a truly rare gem. Big ideas, brilliant execution, and enough substance that you’ll want to read it 10 or 12 times.