Note : Phonogram : The Singles Club is released on Wednesday 10th December
Has it really been two years since David Kohl first strolled onto the page with that Superman t-shirt and shit-eating grin? A lot’s happened in that time, most notably Gillen and McKelvie ascending to become the key controllers of the X-franchise, or something. But it’s finally time for a return to the series that made their name, in the shape of Phonogram : The Singles Club.
Right from the word go, it’s a different beast. It’s in colour, for one thing, although of course seeing McKelvie’s work coloured is hardly the massive culture shock it might have been a year or so ago. The pair have sought, meanwhile, to give the reader more than a simple 22-pages-of-story format for their however-many-dollars-comics-cost-this-week, and so instead we’re treated to sixteen pages of “main” story, the obligatory few pages of text that may have very little significant purpose (especially compared to Rue Britannia’s essays) but which are still the most entertaining journalism you’ll read outside of a Charlie Brooker column, and not one but two backup strips, entirely unconnected to the main story and with rotating guest artists.
As far as the main story goes, it’s simultaneously more accessible and yet perhaps less gripping than the first issue of volume one. A relatively self-contained story on the surface, it’s less reliant on knowledge of the background and references than Rue Britannia (and while I’m sure it was perfectly possible to enjoy that series without any knowledge of Britpop, I find it hard to believe that any such reader would have got quite so immersed in it), and is a more straightforward and less allusive tale. Perhaps that’s down to the very nature of Singles Club as a series – the seven parts of the story are sliced in a way completely lateral to the usual sequential progression of narrative, and so instead what we’re getting here is chronologically the entire evening, but told from a single point of view; and I suspect that Penny’s story will be illuminated further once we’ve had a chance to see things from a different perspective. It’s an exercise in world building, rather than – for the moment at least – telling a particularly compelling story.
And indeed, it’s in the rich expansion of Phonogram’s world that this issue satisfies the most. Character and dialogue have always been Gillen’s real strength, and already he’s filling out the series with new faces to match the likes of Kohl, Kid-with-Knife, Aster and Indie Dave. The obvious standouts here are the pairing of Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl, who (one suspects, though Gillen delights in proving us wrong) will probably never actually get their own distinct portion of the tale, but instead look like serving as its Greek chorus. Bingo is a marvellous creation, entirely convinced of his own righteous brilliance, sneering at all who dare to disagree with him. He’s downright objectionable in his treatment of poor Penny – but his rant is no less brilliant (even if it’s one of those times when we must be careful not to assume that the opinion of a character reflects that of a writer) and indeed is pretty much the issue’s high point. We hate him, of course, but we thoroughly enjoy doing so.
There are intriguing foundations laid for future issues, too, and I look forward to finding out more about Laura, Penny’s cohort. Ostensibly the “cooler” of the two, there’s something instantly dislikeable about her – while Penny is undoubtedly more than a bit silly and dumb, there’s at least a sincere honesty and sweetness behind her, while Laura’s oh-so-deliberate cynicism and forced attempt to live vicariously through the Long Blondes is all too familiar and grating – but it doesn’t stop me wanting to know what her story is. With Penny, though, I have to admit to wondering precisely what the point of her story was – on the surface it seems to summarise as “dancing phonomancer gets treated like shit for reasons she can’t understand, but then dances anyway” – and whether it’ll become illuminated by future issues. Those, I suppose, are questions for the end of the series – for the moment, it’s an enjoyable if fairly lightweight vignette.
Visually, of course, it’s an absolute delight – McKelvie continues to grow and grow as a storyteller, and here his range of character expression is put to arguably its sternest test (the whole series being, essentially, people standing and sitting around talking in a club), and passes with flying colours. If I’m honest, it felt at times in volume one like he wasn’t doing quite enough to differentiate certain characters, particularly female ones – but it’s not a problem he has here. Laura practices icy detachment, Penny bursts with unconcealed glee (although the single-page transformation of expression when she’s turned down by Marc is brilliantly handled) and Seth with pure unadulterated rage, while there’s a seemingly deliberate facelessness to Marc and Lloyd. And while he may still be a touch sparing in his use of background, his level of attention to detail in capturing an authentic look and feel of trendy youngsters out clubbing is top notch. It’s a far more confident visual work than Rue Britannia, with an excellent colouring job that particularly excels when emphasising the “glow” of both the music and the magic.
Given that backup strips can often by their very nature feel like afterthoughts, meanwhile, it’s surprising that the ones here contain some of the best material in the issue as a whole. The first, “She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment”, feels more like a continuation of the mood and theme of Rue Britannia than anything in the main story – Lauren McCubbin does an effective job of replicating the feel of McKelvie’s work on issue three while still giving a unique style to her interpretation of the Goddess. It’s less a story than it is a thematic musing, but it’s a strong one, as Gillen vents some pent-up anti-misogynist anger. The other strip, “Murder on the Dancefloor”, couldn’t be more different, and is a terrific example of Gillen’s ability to tailor his writing to a particular artist – here, the ever-excellent “gag strip” nature of Marc Ellerby’s work. It’s a simple, throwaway two-pager about Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl DJing a wedding, with a simple and clean resolution – but I defy you not to have a big grin on your face at the end. Of particular note is Ellerby’s portrayal of the Silent Girl, turning her into a Gromit-esque source of mute deadpan brilliance by virtue of a few glances, a single bit of pointing and the ever-reliable device of copy-and-pasted expressions.
While it’s ostensibly a more open and accessible issue than the first part of Rue Britannia, I do wonder if “Pull Shapes” is going to do a huge amount to immediately win over the unconverted. It’s a superbly crafted comic – not just in terms of the writing and art on the main story, but as an overall package it shows more devotion and thought than just about any other comic you’ll see – but while existing fans can see it as an engrossing expansion of a world we’re already engaged with, for the uninitiated it might feel like little more than an appetiser. To this I can only say, if past form is anything to go by : it’s going to be worth sticking with. There’s as much wit and imagination in a Gillen/McKelvie collaboration as you’ll find in present day comics, and for that alone they demand to be read. You might argue that it’s limited as a comic by only appealing to those interested in music – but come on, when did the opinion of people not interested in music matter, anyway?