Saturday, 29 January 2011

Retromancing; First Thoughts On Kieron Gillen & James McKelvie's "Phonogram: Rue Britannia"


Honestly, I'm really not a betting man, but I'd happily invest a not inconsiderable amount of money on the proposition that most folks who finish "Phonogram: Rue Britannia" then suffer a barely controllable urge to blather about their favourite records, and of the youth cults that they belonged to, and of the pleasures and agonies of their own often exceptionally-protracted adolescence.

I'd also further risk that stake on a double which also predicts that just about everyone who's read the first Phonogram collection would testify as to how thoroughly enjoyable and, yes, moving "Rue Britannia" is.

It really is a tremendous achievement on the part of Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie. They've created a comic about an often unpleasant individual experiencing a distinct and distant period of pop music's evolution, and made the whole business compelling. And, I'd strongly imagine, they've also simultaneously succeeded in evoking the youth of just about everyone who ever fell in love with a particular type of music and a way of life which seemed inseparable from it.

That fusion of the detail of Brit-Pop, as experienced from the periphery of the West Country rather than supposed heartland of the Good Mixer in Camden Town, combined with a skillful representation of what it feels like to belong to a sub-culture which is already moving on and changing just as it's being discovered and defined, helps protect Phonogram from seeming too local and autobiographical, or too broad and patronisingly inclusive. Instead, the progression of our old and always reliable narrative friend the hero's journey is grounded and invigorated by a comic book structure that's informed both by the exotic detail of local youth cults and the emotional resonances of the reader's own experience of trying to, and trying not to, grow up.


And so, for all that I find myself really wanting to prattle on about the details of my own experiences, who really needs to know? We've got Phonogram, and Phonogram deals with a great deal of what feels so compelling about those stray fragments of everyone's personal experience , and it does so while telling a damn solid story too.


It strikes me that I can't think of another comic where the traditional hero's journey has been so convincingly cast in a recognisably modern context. The threat that Dave Kohl has to face up to, overcome, and learn from isn't, for example, one that can be dealt with by muscle power and physical bravery, as if the world were still a place where testosterone-balled fists can be relied upon to solve every problem. Indeed, where most every other adventure comic this side of Sandman would resolve at least some of its conflict through punch-ups supposedly standing for less specifically brawny values, Phonogram's showdowns are constantly closed through discussion and debate, through the development of self-awareness and the application of a benevolent cunning.

And for all that Phonogram is studded with the tropes of fantasy, from sorcery to goddesses and other-wordly realms, the central dilemma of Dave's protracted and selfish adolescence is a profoundly contemporary one. How is he to create a sense of self living as he does within a culture lacking set traditional roles and yet awash with far more ways of experiencing reality, some substantial, most very much not, than he can ever start to process? Dave fears that if he doesn't fix his own identity in terms of the experiences he's treasured, he'll be swept away, lost in a never-beaching tsunami of information and options. If he lets go of Britpop, not only will he loose his ability to justify doing whatever he likes to whoever he chooses to do it too, but he fears he'll loose himself as well. He'll be nothing but a man defined by the outside world, ever-shifting without autonomy, lacking freedom but subject to responsibility, a reflection of other people rather than himself; a bloke called "Dave Kohl" rather than Dave Kohl.

Now, falling for a comic, just like falling for a song or a novel, can leave you misty-minded, and so I've no idea of the accuracy of what I'm saying. Still, if I'm wrong, it's a wrongheadedness inspired by enthusiasm and enjoyment, and perhaps such a measure of over-reaction is entirely appropriate when writing about a book that's concerned with how our thoughts and feelings can be transformed for good and ill by the sheer bloody joyousness of pop culture.

But it seems to me that until Dave grasps that he can't impose a fixed order upon his own life through the manipulation of the objects of his past, and until he grasps that he shouldn't ever try, there's no possibility for anything more than the odd mood of quickly-passing triumphalism on his part. He can win this and beat away that, but he can't ever belong. For culture inevitably mutates, time inevitably passes, people inevitably change, but there's a character-fixing constancy to the business of being gentle and kind to others that Dave can only discover as he chooses to abandon the past. That still point of being a human being, a mensch, never changes even as everything else does, and that's what Dave eventually learns.

All of which is a rather endearingly sweet and life-affirming core to find in a book whose surface is often so knowing and arch and sharp-edged.


It's impossible not to be impressed by how the events of the mid-Nineties are woven into the narrative of "Phonogram". A great deal of the time, they're referred to in passing or touched upon rather than specified, unpretentiously left to lie in front of the reader so that anyone who recognises their value can benefit from their presence without the need for any story-slowing info-dumping. At other moments, of course, real-world events stand as symbols for major turning points in Dave Kohl's life, rather than merely marking the passing of time and the rise and decay of the goddesses reign.

Perhaps my favourite such use of a historical event being put to use is that placed in Book 6, where we're presented with Dave's sad diatribe against Richey Manic's decision to kill himself without ever informing his loved ones of the fact of his passing. It's a scene that marks Dave's first few steps on the path to a socially-hearted redemption, for he's been deeply moved by the confusion and grief of Beth's ghost and he's learning to think in terms of the consequences that our individual choices have for the well-being of others. Yet it's so cleverly marked that Dave's still got a long way to go, because even now he can't stop himself judging Richey Edwards in terms of his life as the pop star Richey Manic, in the context of his existence as a mass-medium player of meaning, rather than simply as a human being who suffered so that he couldn't bear to go on. For Dave defines Richey as "a shit" because he never left even a note to tell his loved ones that he really did intend to die rather than merely disappear, to save them those agonies of waiting and never knowing. And Dave interprets the symbols of Richey's death and decides that the whole process of the suicide was at least in part a singularity-sized egoistic design to create a myth of Richey Manic the self-slain and yet never-dying rock star.

That Dave should grieve for the appalling suffering of those Edwards left behind is a marker of the exceptional progress he's made. And perhaps Dave's distaste for Edward's behaviour is fuelled in part by his own shame at his own previous conviction that life should be experienced according to an archetypally callow music critic's code of what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour. But that Dave should still be unable to empathetically grasp that any man who kills himself is already beyond the degree of clear thinking and warmhearted social-mindedness that we'd hope for in an undisordered mind skillfully illustrates how Dave is viewing Richey's demise in terms of rock mythology and not individual suffering. Dave hasn't yet learn to always separate image from reality, legend from actuality. Edwards capacity to think and behave rationally had clearly been substantially if not entirely annihilated by the time of the death. In the weeks of his long passing, no matter what his mental processes led him to do or not do, Richey Edwards was a profoundly disordered and vulnerable young man, and already so close to if not completely beyond the event horizon of reason that any judgement of him surely needs to be supplanted by sympathy.

It's such a clever way of marking how Dave Kohl is growing up without presenting us with an all-knowing, completely empathetic ex-pop cult casualty born again as a paragon. Nobody changes that quickly, and Dave, for all that he's learning how relationships are marked by responsibility, is still carrying a mind that's all too full of the semiology of rock and not quite full enough as yet of kindness.


The use of Britpop as a symbol for Dave's life-defining and soul-constraining desire to lock himself into an irresponsible and eternal adolescence is a similarly sharp and self-aware choice, since Britpop itself can be understood as a fundamentally conservative reaction against an avalanche of cultural change combined with the fear of the decay of secure, informing and yet invidiously constraining traditional social roles.

That Britpop could also be very much more than that parallels the fact that so can Dave Kohl. But first, a fair degree of digging underneath the surface is, "Rue: Britannia" informs us, a necessary beginning to a healthier understanding of what was really going on, and why.

I'll be honest. My low-level cynicism about Britpop and its fellow travellers has quite evaporated since reading the first volume of Phonogram in the past few days. Britpop all seems to have been a far more democratic and empowering and enjoyable business than it did from the other side of 30, where I stood at the time.

Interlude - "Sing This Song To Your Children" - 10 Much-Loved Songs From The Britpop Era
  • Save Me I'm Yours (live) - Gene
  • Common People - Pulp
  • Chinese Bakery - The Auteurs
  • Stay Together - Suede
  • Live Forever - Oasis
  • Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead
  • Time - Supergrass
  • This Is A Low - Blur
  • This Is Yesterday - Manic Street Preachers
  • Kelly's Heroes - Black Grape
To be concluded, with particular attention owed to Mr McKelvie's fine work;



  1. Nice work. You're really onto something with the observation about Kohl's change coming on slowly. I hadn't thought about it that way, but it's made me even more impressed by Phonogram than I was before.

    I look forward to part two, especially hearing what you've got to say about McKelvie's art. Writers -- and I'm guilty of this, I'm sure -- often have a lot more to say about the writing than the art for obvious reasons. Which is a bit like writing about song lyrics without mentioning the tune.

  2. The original Phonogram is possibly the best book of the 00s; I had the same experience as you-- a deepened appreciation for Britpop (that continues to this day), which was a genre that I had previously next to no time for.

    All that said, I couldn't stand the singles club. Maybe you could discuss that next? I'd love to hear your take.

  3. Hello Jody:- I appreciate your generous words. I've very much enjoyed Phonogram, and wish I'd read it years before. Mea culpe. It's so good, it's creators so obviously able, that I've been suffering a degree of trepidation just talking about it, though I must say, that's nearly always how I feel.

    I'm looking to discussing Mr McKelvie's art. You're absolutely right that it's often a temptation, and without knowing it exists, to focus on one half of the creative team and not the other. Yet although it takes a great deal more time to write about an artist's achievements, that being a more distantly alligned discipline to mine than writing, it's always a worthwhile curve to climb.

    I enjoyed following the link by your name to your blog Inky Fingers. Any blog by a man writing about Kyle Baker's "Alice Through The Looking Glass" - well done! - has to be worth the visiting.

  4. Hello Anonymous:- I'm not sure where I'd put it in a Best Books of the '00s list, but I would put at the least very near the top. It's a pleasure to realise once again that there's great stuff out there waiting to be discovered by folks like m’self who tend to be late for the party.

    I was always rather fond of certain singles from the Britpop years. But it did seem like a rather thin spread of excellence to create a popular movement from. What I loved in Phonogram was the sense of folks making sense of their world and having a damn good time doing it with material which to the outsider may not seem so promising. But then, any good memoir of a youth spent in part listening to music and being moved by it inevitably makes that music seem beguiling. I even thoroughly enjoyed Robert Elm’s book on 70s fashion.

    I will be writing about Singles Club. I don't think I can bring myself not to, actually, though I'm not sure exactly when. I don't think we'll agree on that one, but if you should pop in when that piece goes up, please do feel free to let me know there why the one book and not the other caught your attention.

  5. It's a tiny thing, but I'm fascinated by all the 'Dave' - in critiquing a story about someone whose mission is to hold onto himself, or at least change that self on his own terms, you've subtly renamed him. Is 'Dave Kohl' easier to identify with than 'David Kohl'? 'David Kohl' sounds a little spiky, more-knowing-than-thou, a vodka or wine drinker. 'Dave Kohl' sounds chummier, friendlier, a good bloke, a pint man.

    Obviously, this isn't meant as denigration of your reading of the text - everything you've said about the main character is spot on, and the crticism of his anger at Richey Edwards/Manic opened a new door in the text for me. It's just that that slight renaming leapt out at me, because it signifies the David Kohl that exists in your reading of the text - when you talk about 'Dave Kohl', I'm very conscious of reading through your eyes. Does that make sense, or am I being overly persnickity?

    Anyway, great post as always. Looking forward to seeing you tackle The Singles Club!

  6. Hello Al:- you’re right! There’s me trying as hard as I can be to be objective, and even doing my best to sign up that I’m struggling to be so, and all the time my feelings are absolutely shining through. If I ever win the lottery, I’m hiring myself a copy editor.

    But you’re right that it’s not simply a matter of a typo. I’ve been trying to imagine replacing “Dave” with “David” and I find that I’m emotionally averse to it. “David” is this formal, artificial, closed-off construct, and I’ve little time for him at all. (Far too close to the product of a youth of mine spent reading all four music papers from front to back every Wednesday for a decade and more, and everything which you might imagine can follow from that!) To call him “David” feels as if I’m capitulating to his own self-deception and selfishness. To refer to him as “Dave” feels as if I’m describing a person, and a “person” I have a great deal of fondness for, feels as if I’m treating the character with the respect he’ll eventually earn rather than offering him the deference, the license, he initially demands.

    I can understand anyone chalking up the above to psychobabble, but I don’t think that’s so. I’ve always had a problem with accepting unearned and/or unestablished authority, and that “David” just sticks in my throat. But by the time we arrive at the Singles Club, which I’ve only started reading in any depth, I’ve gone from thinking he’s a character that needs to grow up incredibly quickly to a character I can imagine passing in the street and saying to the Splendid Wife as we walk by: “That’s Dave. He’s a damn good bloke.”

    I wonder if I should edit the piece, in the name of precision, or admit to my soft-headedness with an afternote which leads here? Whatever, I really do appreciate the point. I’d never have noticed it, and by making it, you’ve shown me more about my own lack of objectivity than even my lack of faith in my distance from the material would’ve credited. In short, it’s a book I’ve been greatly moved by …

  7. Hi Colin! I've never read Phonogram but your review makes it sound very interesting. And the cover art is beautiful! Those adaptations of familiar album covers are witty and well-chosen; I especially like the version of Pulp's "Pornography" ( the post-Britpop comedown album ) with the representation of Britannia replacing the porn actress. Great stuff!

  8. Hello cerebus660:- thank you! I always feel a touch worried when recommending a book enthusiastically. because obviously one person's great book is another's yawn. But I think it's one of those fine books which would undoubtedly - well, almost :) - interesting, as you say, even if it wasn't found to be entirely enjoyable. Part of that is that witty and appropriate use of the symbols of Britpop, which, as with all the cleverest use of such images, can be recognised or pass unseen according to the reader's own knowledge of the period: if they're not familiar, the reader won't loose out, but if they are, there's the enjoyment of seeing a team playing productively with the period's iconography.

  9. On re-reading my comment, it occurred to me that the Pulp album in question was called "This Is Hardcore", not "Pornography" - which was, in fact, an equally gloomy album by The Cure. Oops!

  10. Hello cerebus660:- you're right, and I didn't spot it either. Mind you, they're both albums by bands who I'd loved until that point, when a distinct darkening of the tone rather took away the fun of listening for me. A shame, because up until that point, Pulp really were the band of the '90s for me ...

  11. Wait, so you don't want to hear me rant about mid-'90s Boston-area hardcore punk? C-mon, it was the best! All that growling and screaming! Those choppy chords and heavy bass tightening up for the chorus! The clubs and bars and people and pits and, my God, it was some sort of ugly magic brought on by...

    Yeah, there are few thing less interesting than someone else's nostalgia. "Back in the day" meant as much to me as it did to anyone, but their days were totally disconnected from mine, off-putting and alien. It's somewhat remarkable that Phonogram resonates so strongly, then. I know something about britpop, although not nearly as much as Gillen & McKelvie, obviously. I didn't feel lost for most of the series, and I enjoyed its settings as much as its main plot.

    Remember when nostalgia was considered a sad emotion? Maybe it still is, but the trappings of my entire childhood and young adulthood are at my fingertips if I want to take them. There's something wrong with that, frankly. I can't go back, and I can't escape the moment in any real sense. I have to appreciate the now, even if the music sucks and the kids these days are all crazy and lazy and technology moves too fast and i have bills to pay and my kids are brats today. Really, my life is good. I miss certain aspects of youth, but I can't wallow there.

    I haven't been around these parts for a few days because of that current life, computer problems, and not wanting to read too much about Welcome to Tranquility without reading the comic itself (along w/ Secret Six, on my list of comics to get to as soon as I can). It's always good to be here, though, and, as always, I look forward to reading what you have to say next.

    - Mike Loughlin

  12. The big question this raises for me is: why the hell haven't I been reading Phonogram?!

    - Charles RB

  13. Hello Charles- yes, the same question applies to myself too. I might touch on this very point when I finish off this piece ready for putting up in the near future

  14. Hello Mike:- I've no idea why your comment has printed out of sequence, so my apologies. Charles's words appeared first in my inbox, so all I can is shrug and hope you don't think I've not replied.

    Now, you can certainly talk about THAT scene. It sounds impossibly exotic from the perspective of my appearance. But I get to talk about London's post-punk/futurist years too, and I warn you, I'll eventually get onto how Rusty Egan's DJ'ing in an obscure Laleham club convinced me Metro's America In My Head was the greatest record ever! For about five minutes ...

    I love how Phonogram resonates, as you say, by focusing on the through-line of everyone's experiences of their youthful scenes, namely the negotiation between wanting to stay safe in an environment which can only be passed through, learnt from and left behind. In such a way, it's a book that could pull in everybody from the birth of mass media-informed music/youth cults - shall we say Swing in the mid/late '30s - and make perfect sense to them. In such a way, I find it makes me thinks me of even Priestly's Lost Empires, about music hall long before Benny Goodman, as much as Love And Rockets and LA punk.

    I take that ironic comment on our own aging in your third paragraph and double it back at you. Phonogram's also a fine way of reminding the older reader - may I say? - that the experience of youth and music and everything along with it stays much the same even as the trappings change. I'd not have seen Britpop as having the same possibilities for social meaning as, say, the punk of my early teens, but of course that's because I can be an idiot. I appreciated how Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie reminded me not to get snotty about the new, even if it doesn't seem new, and might appear to be loud and all those other things my father used to say when faced with Bowie and Roxy, if not the Sweet and Slade, on Top Of The Pops.

    It's always good to hear from you, Mike. I hope all is well. I know when I blog about WTT or indeed Phonogram, there'll be folks who won't perhaps pop in, for one good reason or another. But it's always good to be able to welcome you over this way again :)

  15. Hey, "This Is Hardcore" is a great album, dadgummit. Maybe their best. Or their best after "Different Class."

    It's all about "Dishes," man. "Dishes."

  16. Hello Bill:- I certainly wouldn't disagree with you that it's a great album. But the thing is, I'm already naturally gifted at the business of gloom. I know it so well that I've little use for work which explores it in such depth. It's not that I don't respect it, it's just that I don't want to go on my holidays to somewhere that reminds of a place where I once lived, and where I didn't much like it at all anyway. Or something like that. I'm much more into the business of resistance than the process of capitulation.

    Now "Babies" and "My Legendary Girlfriend" and so much of the years 92 to 95 was damn witty, and full of ambition, and uplifting too. Oxfam anti-chic was where it was happening, man ....

  17. Oh, golly. I bought this based on all the glowing ink (pixels?) spilled on it online, and I simply didn't enjoy it at all. That's not the same as begrudging its existence or even my purchase (even if it with a gift card) but I am afraid it's pretty impossible to relate to this thing when you have always listened to music that almost no one around you (in a local or virtual context) listened to. Or at least, that's my explanation for reacting in the way that I did, while still retaining an interest in other work by the creators. I hope I've at least been able to convey my disappointment with the same courtesy you always manage, Colin, rather than with "fanboy rampage" of some kind! But I have to politely disagree with your first paragraph. Who knows, though, I might go ahead and read this series after I find my glasses. We'll see.

  18. Hello Carl:- well, I'm glad I'm wrote "most folks" in that first line!

    It's got to hear from you again, and it's also good to be disagreed with in a way that's quite absent from, as you say, "fanboy rampage". I think the fact of that is well worth the time spent time writing a piece, because it does stand as a little but significant island of civility.

    I would add, however, that pretty much all of the music that's discussed in the first book of Phonogram is actually music which no-one by 2005/6 considered worth taking seriously. In fact, as Mr Gillen himself has said, nothing was less cool than Britpop then. The only band still going and with a popular following by then was Oasis, and Rue Britannia rarely, rarely touches on the lad-rock side of that period. In a sense, because Dave Kohl is so sure he's cool, he gives that the impression that he really is. But his taste, for all that anyone's got the right to enjoy what they like, is, in the context of the book's time, quite laughable. Shampoo? Kenicke? In 2006? It really is a case of a bloke listening to music that no-one, as you say, around himself is listening to. Even Emily laughs at him.

    Your comment really made me think about the music represented in PRB. Even the Manics were a cult and actually rather despised band in a lot of places until Britpop was almost over. Even today, Britpop really is the period that no-one really thinks worth celebrating. And even during the period, with the exception of the big 3 bands of the era, Britpop was something of an embarrassment in many ways.

    But of course, if the music you like, and always have, never had a heyday at all, no matter how brief and qualified, then DK's experience might indeed be held to one it's hard to latch onto. Your comments make me realise that I've been obsessed with music all my life and yet I'm still not good at grasping how other folks make sense of it! It's a good thing to be reminded of, and I appreciate it.

    Well, a world in which folks respectfully degree and then chat about it without ever wanting or caring to convince the other of their rightness. Thank you for a fine way to wake up to a wet Monday morning!

  19. To be more specific. I primarily listen to hip hop (which was indeed mentioned in the book at least) and I think it probably had a heyday (not sure of precise years but definitely including 1994 and definitely not including now, with a few exceptions). But I've never been a part of any community of it, even online, for various reasons. So I guess I'm pretty envious of people who have been! Thanks for your response; I typed mine on my Android phone, only because you planted the idea in my head, although unintentionally.

  20. Hello Carl:- and now, having googled the phrase, I know what an Android phone is too. When I was a teacher, my students would keep me up to date; there's nothing like the conspicious consumption in a Sixth Form College to do so. Now I'm out of the loop!

    On Hip-Hop; I remember so intensely hearing The Message over and over and over during 1982 when I was in NYC then. And from then until the decline of Wu Tang Clan into indolence, I always found a mass of interesting material to engage with, even if I often couldn't always love it. Now, I really do struggle; there are moments here and there just as there are moments in rock and pop too. But I do miss that sense of a vital cultural landslide. I've been lucky enough to witness a few in my life. It would be great to experience another one, like 1976/7 and 1978/82.

    I have always wanted to feel that I belonged to a cultural community, but never did. In a way, having a blog which tries to be as inclusive as possible is my way of gaining all the advantages of such a thing without any of the many and manifest disadvantages. And anyway, as Groucho said, who'd want to belong to a club that'd have me as a member?

    I hope the day is treating you kindly, Carl. Thanks for the comment.