There are probably a number of long-time fans of the writer-artist team of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie out there who are happy the pair have finally returned to their first music-themed collaboration, Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl (about people who use music as magic). I, however, as a fan who first encountered their work through The Wicked + The Divine (also about people who use music as magic, but in a slightly different way), see the series as a prelude to that later, greater work. Like a first album that only reaches at what the second album fully grasps. Gillen himself describes the books thusly in the back matter of this first issue (of six): “Phonogram is a stronger kettle of pretension than WicDiv.” That sounds about right.
Granted, the books are preoccupied with different aspects of the music business. The first is about being a fan and critic; the second is about converting fanaticism into creativity. Both involve performance, but what’s being performed in Phonogram isn’t music itself, it’s taste. The titular Immaterial Girl represents that in this third and final volume. Emily (née Claire) traded the self-destructive half of her soul to the being that lives behind the music videos in her television to become cool. In the book’s world, liking music is just as much about defining oneself as genuine enjoyment and what sacrificing part of herself did was turn Emily into a heartless pedant who lost the point years ago. The point being, that music is about being moved without–and in the case of these characters, despite–intellectualizing it.
Emily and her fellow phonomancers love music too deeply and inflict that love on others, calling them foolish or stupid if they don’t agree with what they think is good. This final chapter especially is about the smugness of that. In that way, it’s almost impossible to critique. The book itself is Gillen (who worked in music journalism before comics) in the act of dissecting the act of criticism to reveal the hubris and feelings of inadequacy beneath.
Despite that, I shall try anyway.
The first volume, Rue Britannia, is like an impenetrable concept album you make the mistake of letting be your first introduction to an artist’s style. The second volume, The Singles Club, is more like a compilation of songs on the same theme by different artists with each track given deeper meaning by their juxtaposition. It’s unclear at this stage exactly which Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl more closely resembles, but with five tracks issues left, it’s worth it to let the full thing play out and see how it gels.
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico.