Phonogram: The Singles Club
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Cover: Jamie McKelvie
By Tom Hemmings
25 June 2010 — The title The Singles Club refers both to the setting of this book and its nature; seven single stories being told about different characters, all occurring at one club in one night. The stories intermingle, pulling threads from each other and providing new perspective each time. Really what you're looking at here is something similar to Brian Wood's Local or Demo, thrown together with a dollop of Hellblazer, constructed as a more elaborate version of the 1999 film Go, with an unhealthy sample of pop culture. Where the first volume, Rue Britannia, was a noir-ish investigation into the death of a pop goddess (literally), The Singles Club spreads itself out, creating a fleshed out set of characters rather than just a musical John Constantine. Penny B, The Marquis, Aster, Seth Bingo and The Silent Girl, Lloyd AKA Mr. Logos, Laura Heaven (an intentionally awful name), and Kid-with-Knife, everyone here gets their time to shine and their story told, at least for just one night.
The Phonogram series heightens reality to create a sort of magic based in music. But where this was more overt in the first volume, here the net effect is to demonstrate exactly how magical music can be, and how vital a part it plays with fashion in the modern construction of identity. The actual magic doesn't amount to much more than a Jedi mind trick, although I suppose that goes to how far you're willing to argue the nature of magic. (For more on that, see YouTube for Stewart Lee's excellent interview with comic book legend Alan Moore.) The great thing about this book is the way that it explores how we present ourselves, and here each person does it through magic and acting on what inspires them. This propagation of image and music as the all-important aspects of modern life might seem shallow until you realize how much these things do affect our lives and relationships; they change how we see others, how they see us, and how we see ourselves. Music can and has changed the world, and Gillen is savvy enough to recognize its importance.
For example, in the first issue, Penny uses her magic chiefly to perform. She's addicted to dancing to such a degree that she can't complete a conversation without walking back to the floor when a new song comes on. She uses her magic in the moment, fleetingly and unwittingly selfishly. This is, like in all good mystic / sci-fi material, completely incidental. Magic is just another way for Gillen to develop his characters and create the aura he's looking for in the book. Penny herself has so much more to her; she's judged (partially on her looks) to be unworthy of good opinion because she appears to only have a surface attraction to music. Of course, she's probably the one who appreciates it most of all — uncynically and joyously — dancing to anything and everything. People who try to hurt her can't, but people who don't even notice her hurt her most of all. Gillen takes a near stereotype of an attractive, fun-loving girl and paints her so complexly within the space of one issue that she completely comes to life. This is true of most of the characters in these issues.
Core to this book is its affection for music. This is a book that makes you want to love music just like High Fidelity did, only it makes it look even more fun. The advertising for the series and all of the covers are based on album covers and music posters. McKelvie even adapted the Manic Street Preachers' Journal for Plague Lovers album cover for one of the book's characters, which can be found in the extensive extra features portion of the trade paperback. Also in this section is a glossary of all the music references, clubs, and, crucially, the playlist for the club that night — the beating heart behind all the events of the story. It's a great addition that really helps flesh out the whole trade, and if you have the spare cash and iTunes, you'll be fully set to experience the book even further.
The art is clean, crisp, and gorgeous. I'm a huge fan of Jamie McKelvie; I tend to buy everything he does, but this is his pinnacle so far. Previous works, such as Rue Britannia and Long Hot Summer, have been purely black and white, resulting in a myriad of dot-print effect greys, providing the right kind of palette for his work. However, since his own self-written / drawn first volume of Suburban Glamour came out, McKelvie has kicked into high gear, using block colors and a deeper progression into pop art aesthetics to create gorgeous, vivid visuals that are an absolute delight throughout the book. He creates distinctive characters that are incredibly consistent. Despite a slight create-a-character approach to their initial design, you'll never be lost trying to determine who's who.
Of course it's also incredibly cool that this series is set in my hometown of Bristol, to the point where major characters attended my school, they go to the same clubs, pubs, bars, and streets as I do. I even recognized nameless bar staff from my own nights out. Even further than that, I recently took down the stage for the Cardiff-based band Los Campesinos!, who are featured in the book at a pivotal moment. They even get a quote on the back cover of the trade. I'm sure that few people will feel a book so perfectly timed and fitted for them as I do this one. It's pretty safe that's a chunk of why I love this so much, but it doesn't change the quality of art or writing at work. This would be great if it were set anywhere with a big music and club scene.
This isn't a perfect book. I'm not sure the perfect book actually exists, but if it does I'm man enough to admit this isn't it. The pretension surrounding the music often extents beyond the characters and seeps into the very nature of the book, which might lead you to question if Girls Aloud can justify this kind of glorification. Sometimes the magic seems a little out of place, to the point where I occasionally questioned its presence; the book seems strong enough not to need it, because the mysticism exists more as an emotional cipher than anything else. Some of the stories are less enjoyable by their very nature. Lloyd aka Mr. Logos is a strange, lonely Dexys Midnight Runners-obsessed weirdo, and his chapter is certainly less appealing than some others. Of course, like any great album, you need to slow it down so you can finish big, and Kid-with-Knife is certainly a hell of a finale all around.
On a first pass this book might appear as lightweight and ephemeral as much of the pop music it espouses, but I think there's more to it. The characters are sexy, complex, and downtrodden in their own way, but free through their passions. This isn't for everyone. It's certainly not just for me. Like music itself it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I can only hope it will at least mean something to you, too. Don't worry that this is the second volume; it stands alone, and you can pick up Rue Britannia later. This, in the words of Tim Bisley, is the good shit.