guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

June 2007

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Phonogram: Rue Britannia (Image, 2006-7). $3.50, six-issue miniseries.

By James Moore

Do you remember the first CD you ever bought? What song did you sing along on long summer drives with friends? What album did you play over and over after a bad breakup? What about what you danced to at your wedding? Music is entwined in our lives and memories. The importance of music in our lives and its effect on our identities is the driving force behind Rue Britannia, the first volume of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s comic book Phonogram.

The high concept of
Phonogram is one of those simple “can’t-believe-no-one’s-thought-of-this-before” ideas: music is magic. In the book, individuals called phonomancers use music as a means of causing various magical effects. Rue Britannia follows phonomancer David Kohl, who is forced by a goddess into investigating mysterious events concerning his deceased former patron goddess Britannia, Goddess of Brit Pop. This leads Kohl to confront his past misdeeds and forces him to reconcile his nostalgia with his future identity.

In his first outing as a comic book writer, music and video game journalist Kieron   Gillen makes a stunning first impression. Sharp, witty dialogue allows Gillen to flesh out his characters as well as his ideas smoothly and naturally. His gift for catchy, striking phrases is reminiscent of Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison. He creates a fully-formed world with vibrant, memorable characters like the acidic Emily Aster and Kohl’s oblivious best friend Kid-With-A-Knife.

Artist Jamie McKelvie brings the story to life with authenticity and detail that come from living in the subcultures being portrayed. His hipsters look like real hipsters, not MTV hipster cutouts. McKelvie’s characters are memorably designed and expressive. His crisp, clean style effortlessly balances realism and fantasy. From dank English clubs to surrealist dreamscapes, everything feels natural and lived-in.

Phonogram is technically about Britpop, knowledge of the genre is not necessary to enjoy the story. The references are dropped in such a way that the meaning is conveyed even when the reader may not know the specific band or song being talked about. The one exception to this is the surreal, symbol-drenched issue #4. Even here, there is enough of an emotional through-line from previous issues to carry us through.

A lot of effort is put into making
Phonogram a complete and fulfilling package, showing just how much care the creators have put into this work. The covers are slick homages to classic BritPop albums. The paper stock is thick and rough like a photocopied indie ’zine. Rounding out the book is the backmatter and a glossary. While not necessary for understanding the plot, the glossary provides further explanation for the references made with a dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. The rest of the backmatter is filled with essays by Gillen elaborating on the ideas of the book, background on BritPop, the genre’s key players, as well as what the movement meant (or rather what it ultimately didn’t mean). For those who wish to read the trade collection, be advised that only an abbreviated glossary and none of the essays will be included. This helps make the single issues of Phonogram a dense read, worth picking over again and again.

In many ways,
Phonogram is reminiscent of the mid-90’s Vertigo books that were proudly “literature of ideas.” It is a book with ideas and things to say about life and the world. It touches on the power of music, the impact of nostalgia, and how both can inform identity. Like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and The Sandman (and its contemporaries Fell and Casanova) before it, Phonogram provides a framework for any number of stories. A second volume is promised, and hopefully the series will continue afterwards.

Phonogram is also very clearly a labor of love for its creators. Both Gillen and McKelvie have spoken in both the backmatter and interviews about their involvement in the BritPop scene. There is a passion and energy to rival your favorite single on every page. Phonogram is a book written and drawn with a perfect fusion of head and heart. Like any great album, it is worth repeated playback.