Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #6 is released on Wednesday 9th December
Phonogram‘s always done a nice job of surprising us, but I knew a long time ago that issue #6 of The Singles Club was going to be one to look forward to, based on the hints about Lloyd and his character seen dotted throughout earlier chapters. Sure enough, it doesn’t disappoint, offering one of the most satisfying experiences the series has offered so far – taking a character with whom it’s all too easy to identify (although, thankfully, from the distance of no longer being a late-teenager wrapped up in his own thoughts and emotions) and showing us a pivotal moment in their progression towards emotional maturity. And, of course, it’s music that provides the catalyst.
That’s not to say that, just because “Ready to Heartbroken” (and I still love that title) is as good as I was expecting, it can’t still surprise. While Gillen and McKelvie have shown a willingness to play with form throughout this run, it’s experimentation that drives this particular issue like no other. Indeed, while most of us talk about the personal or emotional reactions the comic instils when reviewing it (it’s just that sort of book), it’s all-too-easy to forget that it is a comic, and to bypass appraising it on that level. But it’s a point that bears repeating – this is comics made by people with an innate understanding of the medium, and sufficient ability and confidence to snap its form in half if they so desire, safe in the knowledge that they’re skilled enough to put it back together again. And so here, following a Morrisonian moment of metafiction (and one of those glorious ones that only comics are able to achieve), the lines between fanzine and comic are blurred more than ever before.
And yet at the same time as the issue is flouting tradition – even so far as to be the first issue whose “present” is set after the nightclub closes, returning to it only in flashback – it positions itself firmly as The Singles Club‘s most obvious tie (notwithstanding the fact that we’ve had an entire issue about Aster, of course) to the world and themes established by Rue Britannia. Magic in the more ostensibly literal sense returns to the fore, as Lloyd is the first of this series’ phonomancers to actually mess around with grimoires and symbols and that sort of thing. It’s appropriate, of course, given the intense seriousness of his character – of course he takes the whole magic thing more seriously than some of his peers. Yet it’s magic of a very different kind that informs the latter half of the issue’s events – to say much more would risk spoiling a wonderful moment of surprise, but it’s utterly inspiring stuff, casting David Kohl in the unexpected role of a benign, Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque figure before leading to a sequence of pure joy, choreographed perfectly by McKelvie. And admittedly, while the experience is universal, it’s one of those rare Phonogram moments made richer by knowing the reference involved – as you wonder why you didn’t see it coming, so natural and obvious (both in relation to the character, and to Gillen’s own tastes) it is, and so conspicuous by its absence up to this point.
It’s also an issue that seems to cater more specifically to McKelvie’s strengths – he’s required to employ his singular skill with emotions across a range of Lloyd’s moods, from uncontained fury to unabashed joy; and it has to be said that his design sense is actually as much of a talent as his art itself, and the unique format employed for much of this issue allows him to play with that much more than usual. Gillen, meanwhile, is just enjoying filling in the pieces left out of earlier Singles Club issues – and credit is due for, despite it always having been obvious that Lloyd’s words to Penny in issue #1 had more to them than it seemed on the surface, still making something a bit tragic and heartbreaking out of the moment of revelation.
Backed up as ever by classy short stories (although there’s a hint of disappointment that Indie Dave seems to have disappeared, and the backups now revolve largely around what seem to be real-life Gillen experiences that he’s transposed onto Kohl, the first one is still a strong little tale, while the second features Adam Cadwell, an artist who – if he keeps this sort of thing up – might just start to get called “the next Jamie McKelvie”), Phonogram remains about as essential a purchase as any comic gets at the moment. Regular readers will be tired of hearing us say it, I’m sure, but if you’re not reading it, then one has to wonder just what you expect from the medium.