Comics about pop music are a tempting, vexing proposition. You can tell stories about bands (D.M.C., Greatest Hits); you can try to build narratives around lyrics (Comic Book Tattoo); you can make fantastic comics about the subcultures that arise around music, and the way people respond to it (Scott Pilgrim, Hate). But it’s nearly impossible to evoke the sound of music in images. Like a record or a CD, the comics that try always seem to have a hole at their center.
Not many have tried harder than Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram series, whose second–and probably final, it seems–collection, The Singles Club, came out this week. It’s a clever conceit, nicely executed: seven intersecting stories that all happen over the course of an hour or so at a Britpop-focused dance club, whose playlist becomes the timeline and backbone of the whole thing. (Gillen kindly provides the song sequence in the collection’s back-matter.) Some of the characters are “phonomancers,” who channel magic through pop songs; all of them are obsessed with pop, and define themselves by their particular cross-sections of NME-reader taste. The stories are heavily peppered with references to particular bands and songs, and there are a lot of little in-jokes for hardcore music geeks, like the prankster who asks the DJs to play Rhoda and the Specials’ “The Boiler”–a 1982 obscurity with an unparalleled capacity to destroy a happy dancefloor vibe.
That sort of arcane knowledge, Gillen suggests, isn’t unlike the arcane knowledge of magic, and The Singles Club incorporates a lot of other formal attempts to work like its characters’ experience of the evening. Each chapter is brief and brisk, with its own dominant color scheme; the central chapter, “Konichiwa Bitches,” is naturally set in the club’s DJ booth. McKelvie even designed the individual issues’ covers to look like club flyers.
Still, the cleverest idea behind Phonogram–the conceit that the magic of pop could be an actual kind of magic–ends up backfiring on it. We only see the characters of The Singles Club on their night out, but the fact that they’re all constructed personae, one way or another, means that they don’t go much deeper than indie-club-kid archetypes. (McKelvie draws everyone as smooth and beautiful-looking, which is great for the characters who are supposed to be but doesn’t work as well for the ones who are meant to be awkward and sad.) And there are points when the parade of records-as-signifiers grows tiring, maybe because Gillen works from the assumption that, say, Blondie’s “Atomic” has a fixed and powerful meaning for everyone.
There are also places where The Singles Club falls right into that center hole, because so much of it is built on specific records, and all it can offer of them is their lyrics. One chapter centers on a self-injuring character named Laura who’s obsessed with the Long Blondes and quotes their lyrics ceaselessly. Those quotes, though, don’t tell us much about her, because the Long Blondes are performers rather than poets. There’s more insight into both the band and the character in the panel where Laura notes that Kate Jackson “sings like the slave girl on her knees whose eyes are raised in a way which makes men reach for the whip” than in all the actual lines from Long Blondes songs that appear here. Phonogram ends up mostly being about the way music can function totemically–as a set of references by which people can recognize members of their tribe, and freeze out everyone else.
This week’s Hellblazer #265, by Peter Milligan and Simon Bisley, is literally about a rock ‘n’ roll totem: John Constantine encounters a punk rock cult built around an effigy of Sid Vicious that incorporates artifacts touched by the Sex Pistols’ bassist himself–“The syringe he killed himself with. The knife said to’ve been used on Nancy Spungeon” [sic]. The cult’s members are being drawn away (and drawn into violence) by Britain’s Conservative Party, in what becomes a symbolic conflation of the death of first-wave punk rock, the rise of the right-wing street-punk scene, and the 1979 ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher.
On some level, creating bitter punk-rock-themed comics about Thatcherism in 2010 is about as timely as Crisis of Conformity calling out Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig a few weeks ago on Saturday Night Live. The punk business is part of Constantine’s past, though (it was established long ago that he was in a minor band called Mucous Membrane), and it’s also kind of fantastic to see Milligan writing a story that’s not just overtly political but partisan. This issue’s final panel is a wonderfully gruesome Bisley image of a murderous, fly-covered zombie muttering “God bless the Conservative Party.” It’s hard to imagine a similar panel in a mainstream comic book that would substitute “Republican” for that “Conservative” right now.
Even so, Milligan and Bisley are forced to substitute style for sound here. In the climactic fight scene, as Constantine’s being beaten up by neocon Oi! boys, fragments of the Sex Pistols’ endlessly quotable “God Save The Queen” flash through his narrative captions–actually, make that fragments of its endlessly quotable lyrics. The music itself is dismissed as “the three-chord shriek of Thatcher’s little monsters”: the byproduct of a subculture, instead of the invisible, magical monolith around which it formed.