Phonogram… Stripp’d

One could argue that the enduring popularity of genre motifs is a direct result of the death of God.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the people of the ancient and medieval worlds knew their place.  They knew that there were gods and demons, monsters and spirits. They knew that the good things in life could be lured to them by undertaking certain actions and they knew that the bad things could be kept in the shadows by undertaking other actions. They knew that their lives were meaningful and they knew that they were part of the elaborate tapestry of myth, prophecy and magic that held the world together. However, as science cast its light into the darkness old certainties were overturned and magic was forced from the world along with that sense of purpose that the ancients took for granted.  Suddenly, humanity knew that there was nothing to fear because nothing really mattered. Instead of ritual and magic, humanity contented itself with paperwork, breakfast cereals and trips to the bathroom. We had successfully dis-enchanted the world.

Fantasy, horror and science fiction can all be seen as attempts to recapture that sense of meaning by allowing audiences to escape to another world. A world filled with wonder, horror and magic.

The idea that the world has suffered from an excess of scientific rationalism and needs to be re-enchanted is one of the pillars of the intellectual and artistic movement known as Romanticism. One of the historical quirks surrounding Romanticism is that many of the people who championed it as a movement stood not only against the encroachment of scientific reason but also against the Enlightenment’s political ideals, ideals such as democracy and the right of normal people to free themselves of troublesome kings and set up their own governments. Because of this fluke of history, Romanticism’s yearning for the return of the gods has always been bound up with elements of nostalgia and the reactionary rejection of modernity in favour of moon-eyed harping over some mythical golden age. This reaction against modernity is evident even today in the fact that most works of genre fiction still look to the past for their sources of enchantment.

It is no accident that Tolkien’s hobbits lived in a pseudo-medieval version of Worcestershire rather than the present. No more than it is accidental that C.S. Lewis’ children entered their wardrobe in order to escape from the present into a mythical past or that Lovecraft’s racially insensitive college professors encounter the remains of an ancient civilisation rather than a civilisation in the process of being built. Even science fiction’s sense of wonder flows primarily from the vestiges of the past, for what is the idea of manned space flight but the ill-informed daydream of a generation still buoyed up by the myth of American exceptionalism and the final dregs of manifest destiny? Even paranormal romance draws its magical paramours from old folk tales and when Neil Gaiman wrote of the American Gods (2001), he could not help but make the gods of today seem like unsympathetic pricks compared to the gods of yesterday. Seemingly, if the world is to be re-enchanted, then it must somehow be returned to the past.

Why should this be? Why should the gods that people the world of today be the same gods that peopled the world of our ancestors? Why must magic always come from the past when there is so much magic surrounding us right here and right now? Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s series Phonogram can be seen as an attempt to answer all of these questions.

Set in contemporary Britain, Phonogram features a bunch of contemporary mages as they squabble, go to a club and engage in epic quests to save the soul of the nation. The name of the series derives from the fact that, rather than being possessors of forgotten lore and wielders of ancient powers, the comic’s characters derive their powers from that most achingly contemporary of art forms: popular music.

Initially, this idea seems profoundly counter-intuitive as one traditionally thinks of contemporary fantasy as being about characters that have learned some deeper truth about the world, a truth ignored or forgotten by the rest of us. Consider, for example, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996) in which a character from the human world discovers an ancient and magical civilisation living in the cracks of contemporary society. Because this society lives largely within the London Underground train system, Gaiman draws a subtle comparison between learning the rules of a magical kingdom and learning how to navigate public transport in a city as large as London. Both are forms of knowledge that are inaccessible to tourists and both are about knowledge of a world that is already there. In contrast, popular music is an art form so fleeting and fragile that it is difficult to think of it as being in some way part of the world. In fact, one would normally count pop music as part of the cultural detritus that prevents us from seeing the true underlying rules and systems of the world. However, the more you think about it… the more the idea of pop music as a source of enchantment starts to make sense.

Think of the wave speech about San Francisco in the 60s from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):

the Fillmore

650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge

L. L. Bean


Treasure Island





Golden Gate


Los Altos

La Honda

Think of the memories of Woodstock in the 60s, of the Kings Road in the late 70s and the acid house scene in the 80s. Think of the tales that people tell and of the sense of place that inhabit those stories. These were times when people knew where they were and they knew that what they were seeing was important. They knew that magic existed because they could see it spring fully formed on stage amidst the stenches of weed, sweat and overpriced cheap lager. Anyone who has been part of a musical scene will know what it is like to walk into a club and to know who everyone is and why they are there. To be a part of a scene is to know everyone’s side-projects and why absolutely nothing good can come from their decision to start fucking the bass-player. To be in the right place at the right time is to be cool and to be cool is magic. But then the bubble pops. The wave breaks. Maybe the lynchpin band fall out with each other or there’s a fire at the important venue. Maybe the wrong people start turning up to gigs and the atmosphere turned sour. All kinds of things can happen and when they do, you can feel it end. To be cool is to know what it’s like to live in a world filled with meaning and magic, but it is also to know what it’s like when the gods depart the stage and the magic drains from the world. To be cool is to know how it feels to be left standing in a sweaty club surrounded by stupid people who suddenly feel very tired, very old and very sad. Phonogram’s first volume is about confronting the nostalgic impulse to never let go of those perfect cultural moments.

Rue Britannia (2007) tells the story of Dave Kohl.  Kohl is a man in his thirties whose magical talent presents itself as what might once have been called music journalism but which is probably more accurately described as music criticism. Kohl knows all the music and all the bands and his skill lies in putting the right words together to capture what it is that makes a particular band or song special.

Kohl is a brilliantly conceived character as he not only embodies the brilliance of such music writers as Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus but also many of their less attractive characteristics. Right from the start, Gillen and McKelvie present Kohl as a swaggering letch, an intellectual bully and a preening tosspot. The fact that he resembles Gillen in the same way as King Mob resembles an idealised Grant Morrison can hardly be said to be accidental.  The difference is that while Morrison genuinely seems to believe that he is awesome and has magical powers, Gillen realises that an author’s persona draws its power as much from their context of their writing as from their talent.  Chances are that if you like Morrison’s writing then you’ll be impressed by his public performances, but if you don’t then you’ll most likely want to kick him to death for being such an insufferably smug cunt.

The fact that Kohl manages to walk a fine line between awesomeness and smug cuntishness perfectly situates him on the borders of cool.  Indeed, though Kohl is a phonomancer who draws his powers from popular music, Kohl has remained wedded to the Britpop phenomenon in a way that confuses many of his fellow mages.

To those who were not there, Britpop was a heavily mediatised confrontation between the southern art school pop of Blur and the northern working class rock of Oasis. Both bands were labelled as Britpop as both bands seemed to be concerned with asserting Britain’s native pop identity in the face of both continental dance music and American grunge. However, as the comic explains, Blur and Oasis were only the tip of an iceberg that contained dozens of genuinely exciting and genuinely innovative British bands who fed on each other’s creativity and a collective sense of cultural identity to create one of those moments where everything seemed to matter and everyone knew their place… as long as they were cool and Dave Kohl was definitely cool.

While many of Dave’s fellow phonomancers have recalibrated their identities to track new sources of musical enchantment, Kohl remains obsessed with the musical goddess Britannia whose arrival both caused and symbolised the rise of Britpop in that slightly paradoxical way that mythical entities tend to have. Kohl’s continued devotion to Britannia may well be incomprehensibly nostalgic given that there are new musical moments spawning every day, but it does make him the perfect candidate when someone somewhere starts interfering with Britannia’s corpse.

Rue Britannia is a comic concerned with navigating the perilous seas between nostalgia and aimlessness. Indeed, while the comic makes it quite clear that there’s something incredibly unhealthy about refusing to let go of the past or trying to resurrect something that has ceased to be, it also suggests that there’s something vaguely feckless and soul-destroying about constantly reinventing yourself in search of those fleeting moments of cool. By having the comic’s quest be undertaken by a phonomancer who draws his powers not only from a past cultural moment but also from a form of phallocratic music journalism that has arguably had its day, Gillen is attempting to find a way of reconciling a regret for the enchantment of the past with a guarded openness to the enchantments of the future. The solution Kohl reaches is not entirely satisfactory, which is hardly surprising as the issue that Gillen tries to solve is the issue that has separated the Romantics from the Modernists for most of the last hundred years.

Gillen suggests that the desire to return to a meaningful world is itself a source of power. We do not need to recognise the truth of either Christianity or ancient paganism in order to realise that both of those worldviews once shaped the world and that their shapes and forms live on in theories and ideas born of this current moment. Part of Christianity’s power derives precisely from the fact that God is dead and that people are still struggling to come to terms it. We may be children of an absent Father but we are still children. If this summary of Rue Britannnia’s conclusion seems somewhat hand-wavy it is because the conclusion is too. Having defeated those who would bring Britpop back to life, Kohl helps a Manic Street Preachers fan to get over the fact that their guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared… the fact that Richey disappeared, argues Gillen, has a power of its own and to live in expectation of Richey’s return is not only to squander the opportunity to discover new sources of power, it is also to deny the very thing that makes Richey such a potent cultural figure: He never came back, and if he did then he wouldn’t be Richey.

Phonogram’s second volume Singles Club (2009) is a less intense but no less interesting return to the same world of music and magic.  Disentangling itself from Kohl’s intellectualism, the comic adopts a Rashomon-style structure to explore the same club night from the perspective of a number of different phonomancers with different attitudes not only to what constitutes good music but also how to best engage with the music.

The first character we encounter is almost a negative image of Dave Kohl. Where Kohl is an aging, dark-haired intellectual with a fondness for obscure punk-infused pop, Penny is a vivacious blond whose phonomancy involves mindlessly dancing to cheesy 50s-inspired pop. From there we encounter gatekeeping music snobs who are all about playing the right record in the right club at the right time, depressed teenagers whose devotion to music leads them first to self-harm and then to re-invention and fiercely intense young men who are always on the spur of starting a project that will seize the day, capture the moment and define the times. Even handed as ever, Gillen does an exquisite job of presenting each of these forms of engagement in light that swings between the flattering and the decidedly uncharitable. The point is that none of these phonomancers have it completely right, but their different modes of engagement with the music contribute to a rich ecology of cool.

While Rue Britannia was clearly written in the shadow of Britpop, The Singles Club is far more fickle in its musical affections.  This gives an incredibly vivid impression of a post-modern cultural moment in which everyone has something the like but without the sense of community and belonging that accompanied Britpop. By describing the clashing ideas and methodologies and the bickering the results from these clashes, Gillen etches the outlines of a great machine just waiting to spring to life. Indeed, were another moment like Britpop to come along, it is easy to see how the various phonomancers would work together to turn it into something genuinely magical. However, without a single band or a movement to cling to, the different mages bicker and bounce off each other, occasionally exchanging ideas and memories but with each of them very firmly rooted in their own modestly enchanted worlds.

The Singles Club is a brilliant addition to Rue Britannia as its description of a post-modern cultural milieu perfectly follows on from Kohl’s realisation that he cannot live in the past. In order to fill the gap in our lives left by God, we have all found ways to give our lives meaning.  Some of us are parents, some of us are political activists and some of them sit in large rambling houses writing about how funny books engage with the post-modern condition. These are all modes of enchantment as they all give our lives the sort of structure and meaning that traditionally would have come from religion. However, because we are all post-modern critters, we know that there’s an element of futility about what it is that we do.  Sure, our lives have some degree of meaning but we know that these meanings are ones that we have cooked up for ourselves and this knowledge makes those meanings seem somehow less concrete. When Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the shared sense that whatever it was that people were doing in 1960s San Francisco, they knew it was right and that they were winning, he is riffing on the power of community to banish that ironic post-modern ache. It is one thing to say that your life is meaningful because you enjoy doing something, but it is quite another to have what you are doing recognised by others as meaningful and valuable. It is in those moments when we look around us and realise that we are thinking the same thing as other people that we forget quite how lost we really are. The even-handed nature of The Singles Club is about the tension between the subjective perception of meaning and the lack of recognition by other people.  When the DJs are talking about the music they like and why they like it, they seem to be cool and to know what they are doing.  When they are being horrible to other people for their taste in music, they seem like intolerable pricks. Such is the tension born of the post-modern condition.

Phonogram is a series that not only an ode to great music, it also captures and interrogates the genuinely spiritual dimension of hearing the right record at the right time. This is a comic that is about the challenge of putting music and wonder into our lives and the struggle to keep it there for the right reasons. It is a comic that cuts to the bone of what it means to be alive in the West in the 21st Century.

– originally published 7/31/2011