Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #5 is released on Wednesday 11th November.
We’re past the point with Phonogram where it can really be judged by any sort of normal critical standard. There won’t be an issue of this series – I’m confident of that now, I really am – that is anything less than exquisite, and even before The Singles Club is complete it stands among the comics medium’s finest achievements of the second half of this decade. What the individual issues start to come down to, then, is personal preference – it’s known already that #2 struck a particularly personal chord with me, while I found #4 to be by far the most enjoyable, inspirational and downright accurate issue so far. Yet others will have their own preferences – I know how much James, for example, was struck by Emily Aster’s story in #3.
So #5 isn’t necessarily my favourite issue, because it deals with a character I don’t particularly like (and that, I suspect, someone like myself was never really meant to) – but there are those who will identify more closely with Laura, and I’m sure that this issue will therefore be their heartbreaker. Me, I’m just amazed that a story can go so far towards helping you understand a person and still allow you to maintain that disdainful distance. After reading Laura admit the reasoning behind her living so vicariously through Long Blondes songs, I’m sympathetic towards her – and yet I still can’t help but agree with Aster’s devastatingly accurate (if mildly hypocritical) sudden skewering, which essentially amounts to “PRETENTION. YR DOIN IT WRONG”. And yet that bathroom conversation between them – glimpsed in part throughout the series, only realised in full now – is sort of touching, as Aster looks directly at someone who reminds her so much of herself, and can’t help but feel moved to protect her.
I also can’t help but wonder if Laura’s is the first story that could, in fact, just as easily be about something other than music. Penny dances, Marc hears, Seth and Silent play. Emily’s personality could have been shaped by something else, except that her “original” self can’t be anything other than a Manics fan. But Laura is someone who models herself on pop culture iconography – and while in this instance it happens to be Dorian and Kate, she (or someone just like her) could just as easily be trying to be, say, a film star (indeed, littered throughout the many – and highly amusingly annotated – Long Blondes quotations she deliberately lifts a gag form from Airplane). And there’s a notable moment where she makes the sort of music-misidentification-mistake (sneering at the wrong Police song) that you wouldn’t suspect Phonomancers to be capable of. Is she really in it for the music at all, then, or just for something – anything – to latch onto?
Rather more centred around a particular type of music is the issue’s backup strip (only one this time – no Indie Dave, sadly) – and you have to admit that for the “pretentious indie hipster posers” reputation that Phonogram has attracted in some quarters, its world has already proven to be a surprisingly broad church, at least in the backup strips. Last issue we saw Kohl unable to shift Outkast from his head, and here he’s part of a troupe that venture to a specific club on a specific night with the express purpose of doing “the Madness dance” en masse to “One Step Beyond”. If you’ve ever done the same thing, then the strip’s two splashes (one of the group skanking, and an entirely gratuitous yet brilliant use of two pages containing nothing but the song’s titular shout to arms) will prove an absolute joy – and Dan Boultwood’s cartoony, angular, energetic style is a perfect fit.
The fact that this might not be my personal favourite issue of the series (or that it might be the least effective at telling a self-contained story, working instead as more of a mood and character piece, centred around Laura’s internal and external observations rather than what actually happens to her) shouldn’t, of course, detract from its quality – this is Phonogram, a series in which Gillen demonstrates an utterly devastating knack for just getting human beings; in which McKelvie captures personality in the way that most artists with twice his amount of experience still struggle to, and allies it with a wonderful design sense – and finds the perfect partner in colourist Matt Wilson, to boot. And if its momentum has been hurt slightly by the production problems that have caused its delay, then perhaps there’s some consolation in knowing that it’s drawn out the glorious experience of getting new issues of the thing that bit longer.