Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1-- "Is it life or just to play my worries away?"

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1
Written by: Kieron Gillen
Drawn by: Jamie McKelvie
Colored by: Matt Wilson
Published by: Image Comics

Some people may be The Wicked + The Divine people. But me? I’m a Phonogram man through and through, even if I don’t get most of the Britpop references that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie make throughout their books. I don’t know my Blur from my ______ (fill in any other Britpop band name here. Really. Any other.) And that may be the biggest problem with the two previous Phonogram stories, Rue Brittania and The Singles Club; it’s too easy to get caught up in the details of the spells that these creators are weaving. The devil is in the details, as they say. But in both of those series, it wasn’t the details that were the stories; it was the characters. It was David Kohl, Kid With Knife, Seth Bingo, Laura, Emily Aster and all of the others.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 isn’t about music as magic like the previous books have been. It’s about music videos as gateways to magic. Emily Aster, David Kohl’s confidant and partner in crime in the previous books, has always been about maintaining an image. This is what we saw The Singles Club issue that focused on her as the woman who looked in the mirror saw a very different reflection of herself. She saw the herself that she hoped was gone. That much was made clear on that night in The Singles Club but there was still so much mystery to Emily. Half the most confident person in the room and half just being a plain bitch, Emily was the only person who could match Kohl in his warm aloofness from the whole proceedings of that magical night. But Emily Aster is a construct. She’s as much an immaterial girl as Claire is, the other her that stared out of the mirror’s reflection. And this is their story. 

When The Wicked + The Divine launched, a lot of people were wondering why it wasn’t just another Phonogram story but The Immaterial Girl #1 perfectly draws the line of demarcation between the two books. The Wicked + The Divine is a fantasy about the power of music; Phonogram is a slice-of-life magical realism story about the fandom of music. David Kohl and Emily Aster are fans who have created their own image and myths about their own relationships to music. While music plays such an integral part of both comics, Phonogram is so much more about the experience and how the experience of music changes you. The Singles Club was all about the experience of a night and how just the right club and just the right DJ who spins just the right records can transform you for that night.  This new series is about the experience of changing yourself through music.

Emily’s story in this new series is that transformative power writ large and grander as her metamorphosis was for more than just for a night. It was supposed to be for a lifetime, or at least that’s what she could have hoped for. Live fast, die young and leave behind a beautiful corpse. Emily probably wanted at least two out of those three things, if not all three but most songs only last three to five minutes. Maybe that’s all the time Emily gets as well. Like Loki in Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery, there’s a ticking clock counting down just how long Emily can remain the Cinderella of her story before the clock strikes midnight and her other self returns. And all the time, A-Ha is playing as Emily’s personal soundtrack; “I’ll be gone in a day or two.”

The other big difference between this and Gillen and McKelvie’s other joint venture is the storytelling. The Wicked + The Divine is all about the drama and the spectacle. Almost every panel of Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 is about the ways we verbally, emotionally and physically cut others and ourselves. The acerbity of the story and dialogue carries through to McKelvie’s artwork that takes a bit of glee in the sharp edge of these personalities. These are characters who are proud of their self-perceived moral superiority and McKelvie captures that in a story where what the characters say is so much more important than what they do. 

In this issue, the storytelling is completely based around what they’re saying because Gillen and McKelvie know the power of words, of lyrics and of the spells they cast. They know the power of performance so McKelvie’s staging has to be different here than in the other series where the characters have to strut like they have real power behind them. Perhaps that’s the difference of the Britpop that influences this series as opposed to Wic+Div’s current pop scene that is so blatantly about performance and spectacle. Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl shows how things like music and magic can mold, shape and change us.

The opening of the comic, the debut of Emily Aster on a November 2001 night, is about the call for a better and stronger fandom. Trying to convene a music-based coven, it’s hopeful high priest declared, “But jerks do the knee-jerk. You gotta be better.” That’s just what Emily needed to hear as the ghost of the girl she used to be was gone and buried. Gillen and McKelvie show us a woman who thinks she’s better than the girl that she was but it’s hard for almost anyone else to see her. A one-time idol looks at Emily and says, “Wow, Emily. You really are a cow.” It’s hard to know what better can be when you didn’t like yourself much then or now.  Different isn't always better.