Comic Book / Phonogram

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"Has a song ever changed your life?
Did you ever wonder how?"

Phonogram is a series of comic book miniseries by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie that takes Magic Music into the 21st century. In this universe, pop songs have power and the people who can use it are known as "phonomancers". The first miniseries, Rue Britannia, serialised in 2006-7, follows phonomancer David Kohl's attempts to discover who is trying to resurrect the dead goddess of Britpop. The second series, The Singles Club, serialised in 2008-10, takes place over one evening in a club, each issue viewing the events through the perspective of a different character. Gillen and McKelvie then announced a third series, The Immaterial Girl, which follows the character Emily Aster; thanks to both creators' work for Marvel Comics, it spent several years in Development Hell, but was finally published starting in August 2015.

Each issue is so jam-packed with references to bands and music that a 'crib sheet' is included in the back. This is often one of the most entertaining bits of the comic, as its tone is very personal and informal.


Tropes:

  • Anachronism Stew: Invoked and lampshaded in "The Immaterial Girl": at an important point in the fifth issue, David Kohl summons and uses Jay-Z and Alicia Keys's "Empire State of Mind" for phonomancy-reasons despite the fact that it hasn't been written or recorded at the time the story takes place. How? It's magic.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Basically the whole younger generation, though its mostly subtext except for Laura.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Britannia, mod-goddess of Britpop; herself an aspect of The Goddess (also called The Feminine Principle), who embodies femininity in general.
  • Arc Words: "Behind the screen, sometime during forever" in The Immaterial Girl.
  • Art Imitates Art: As in the page image, many of the covers reference famous album covers or, in The Immaterial Girl, pop videos.
  • Art Shift: In issue #2 of Immaterial Girl, which takes place mostly in the video for "Take On Me" by a-ha.
  • Ascended Extra: The Libertines fan David Kohl encountered in Rue Britannia returns in The Immaterial Girl as Emily Aster's "apprentice-cum-serf."
  • Bath Suicide: Claire attempts this as Emily battles the King behind the Screen and in extension herself. It doesn't take as Claire and Emily come to a truce.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Seth Bingo has several: Do not do magic at his club night. Do not request records with male vocals or The Pipettes' "Pull Shapes". Also, don't say Girls Aloud aren't a real band, or he will destroy every thought you've ever had.
    • David Kohl has The Libertines, but manages to keep his rage in interior monologue form.
  • British English: Well, it's written by two Brits and takes place in Bristol, Bath and London.
  • Call Back: Claire taking over Emily's body at the beginning of Immaterial Girl #2 matches the opening scene of The Singles Club with Penny B panel to panel.
  • Came Back Wrong: The goddess Britannia's resurrection doesn't change the fact that she's been rotting since Britpop died.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Almost all of the main cast of The Singles Club. Special mention goes to Laura, however, as she manages to be a Deadpan Snarker while speaking almost exclusively via quotes from songs and writers.
  • Disco Dan: The Retromancers.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Lloyd, who would much rather be known as Mr. Logos. Inverted with his friend Marc, whom everyone calls the Marquis despite his protests.
  • End of an Era: The Immaterial Girl deals with this among the London Phonomancer community. Everyone starts to realize that they've been wasting their time and haven't done anything worthwhile. The coven is disbanded, David decides to use all the power he got from killing Brittannia to send Kid-With-Knife to New York, and Emily and Claire make peace with one another. The finality is cemented when Emily wakes up in her bathroom and finds a text from David telling her about Michael Jackson's death.
  • Evil Twin: Played with in "The Immaterial Girl". Claire initially seems set up to be this to Emily, but the point is clearly made that Claire is merely an alternative side of Emily's personality (specifically, the side of her that is inclined to be a Goth Chick rather than a Material Girl) rather than being evil and, while she spitefully sets out to destroy Emily's life, her vindictiveness is far from unjustified. In fact, given how cruel, aloof and callous we've seen Emily be, she arguably has as much if not more claim to be the 'evil' side of the personality than Claire does.
  • Exact Words: When Claire takes Emily's place, the King tells Emily that the deal is still good because Emily never specified which half of her had to stay in the TV.
  • Future Me Scares Me: In "The Immaterial Girl" #3 both Claire and Emily end up in front of their childhood self demanding that when she make her deal she include terms that will ensure the existence of one or the other. Unfortunately for them, Young Claire isn't particularly impressed with either of them...
  • Hollywood Homely: Invoked and lampshaded by Gillen when it comes to Laura Heaven, who is meant to be shorter, slightly fuller-figured and not quite as attractive as Penny B or Emily Aster. Only as Gillen points out, this is a world drawn by Jamie McKelvie, so 'less attractive is relative'.
  • Homage: The Immaterial Girl takes place in several 80s music videos. As such, Emily finds herself running through scenes from "Take On Me", "Thriller", Material Girl, and Total Eclipse of the Heart.
  • Implied Love Interest: Several, Seth/Silent Girl, Marc/Penny, Laura/Lloyd and possible David/Silent Girl, most were either confirmed or dismissed by Word of God but some are still unclear.
  • It's Popular, Now It Sucks: Used In-Universe. Since the cast is made up primarily of people who are essentially indie music snobs with magic powers who draw their power from their indie music snobbery, this trope can appear from time to time. The crib sheets suggest that the authors aren't entirely free of this trope either. They do, however, at least demonstrate a bit of self-awareness about this, and in the first volume Kohl's Character Development centres around his, if not exactly abandoning this mindset, then at least deciding to be a bit less of a dick about it.
    • Deconstructed in the third volume: After Claire-as-Emily dissolves the coven David begins to wonder what to do next, coming to the gradual realization that always being a pretentious music snob is maybe not an entirely productive or mature way to live your life, even if it does come with magic powers. The final issues feature several other characters realizing the same thing.
  • Jerkass:
    • As he gleefully says in the first few pages of Rue Britannia, David Kohl is such a cock. (This leads to him being tricked and then beat down by The Goddess, just on principle, before she informs him someone's trying to resurrect Britannia and makes him try and stop it.) He gradually progresses to the outer fringes of Jerk with a Heart of Gold, however.
    • Emily Aster isn't incredibly nice either. This is made a plot point in "The Immaterial Girl" concerning her overall lack of Character Development over the years; while in her younger years her more cutting nature made her seem bold and confident to her peers, by 2009 people are clearly starting to disapprove of and get sick of her thoughtlessness and cruelty.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In the first issue of "The Immaterial Girl", when cruelly demolishing a proposal made by one of her underlings about the relationship between magic and music videos, Emily uses the video for a-ha's "Take On Me" as a counter-example. Guess which music video she finds herself trapped in by the end of the issue.
  • Literal Split Personality: Claire sold half of her personality to a being inside the TV when she was younger, becoming Emily Aster. The Claire portion has been simmering just behind mirrors, waiting for her chance to retake her body - a chance she gets at the end of Immaterial Girl #1.
  • Magic Music: A very postmodern example.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The Girl (a Polish phonomancer) seems to be like this for Marc.
    Word of God: Her role is to be every model of the strange, exotic, brilliant, life-affirming, sexy, tempestuous, slightly insane girl who you can't believe you're with all the time you were with her.
  • Medium Awareness: A side-effect of Emily being Trapped in TV Land. Her meeting with the King Behind The Screen is cut short when the mechanics from "Take On Me" find her, heralded by their own synth rift.
  • Mind Screw: The sequences in the Memory Kingdom in the first volume are somewhat difficult to wrap your head around.
  • Monochromatic Eyes: The telltale sign that someone is doing magic.
    • "Uh-Oh" Eyes: David suddenly realizes how much trouble he's in at the beginning of Rue Britannia when The Goddess' eyes turn black.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be/Nostalgia Filter: The whole point of Rue Britannia; the retromancers are driven by their inability to let go of the music they love and the false youth it gives them, but in the climax David makes the not-invalid point to the Goddess of Britpop that she's better off being a much-loved relic of the past who accepts that her time has been and gone and she's not relevant any more, rather than a decaying relic who just keeps on going because she doesn't know how to stop and can't accept that she's irrelevant now.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. David Kohl is a major character in all three arcs, but Indie Dave also appears in important roles.
  • Perspective Flip: The Singles Club, where every issue takes place from the point of view of a different character attending an event over the course of a single night, features a few of these. For example, one issue involves a girl building up to ask a guy to dance, at which point he brushes her off in a way that makes him seem quite cruel and rude. A later issue takes place from his perspective, which reveals that from his point of view he's distracted and depressed about something else when she asks, and doesn't intend to be malicious to her.
  • Post-Modern Magik: With pop music as its vessel.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "I! FUCKING! HATE! KULA! FUCKING! SHAKER!"
  • Shout-Out: No duh. Pretty much any obscure indie act or any British act you can think of is referenced in some capacity, from the Manic Street Preachers to Elastica to the Long Blondes and beyond. Fortunately, there's an index at the end of each issue (and at the back of the collected editions) to help explain every reference made in the event it goes over the head of the uninformed reader.
  • Shown Their Work: Kieron Gillen knows quite a lot about music.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: By Emily's Literal Split Personality Claire at the end of Immaterial Girl #1, by way of trapping Emily in 80s music videos.
  • Take That: No not them, but David is very vocal about his disdain for Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene
  • Third-Person Person: Seth Bingo has been known to do this, according to Word of God.
  • Trapped in TV Land: Emily Aster gets trapped in several 80s music videos in "Immaterial Girl".
  • Unreliable Narrator: A back-up strip in "The Singles Club" tells the story of "Rue Britannia" from the point of one of Kohl's mates, a minor character in the earlier work. It's mostly a faithful retelling, if a bit vague as if to suggest that the other character didn't quite know what was going on at the time, but his story goes completely off the rails when it ends with him shooting what he presumes to be the bad guy with a huge gun and then going off to have sex with two beautiful women. Kohl is not particularly impressed with this addition to the narrative.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Seth Bingo and Silent Girl; David Kohl and Emily Aster.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Happens quite often, with the index usually having to explain where the lyrics are from and the context they're being used in.
  • Wham Line: In The Immaterial Girl, cementing the End of an Era theme for the comic and reminding readers that the whole comic was set several years back.
    David (texting Emily): Jackson's dead.
  • Whatevermancy: Phonomancy - sound magic.

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