Phonogram v1: Rue Britannia

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
"Please don't put your life in the hands
Of a Rock n Roll band
Who'll throw it all away"
- Oasis, "Don't Look Back in Anger"

Back in the late '80s I worked as a college radio DJ. When I worked at little ol’ KLC in Portland, Oregon, we staffers had endless debates about our favorite bands. One debate we had for a long time was about the college radio mavens R.E.M. and how they sold their soul when they moved from I.R.S. records to Warner Brothers, how "Green" was a betrayal of the college radio spirit of the band. Of course, after the band moved to Warners, they released two of the finest albums of their career, "Automatic for the People" and "Monster", and stayed true to their morals while selling many more copies.

But this debate is completely academic at this point. I've moved on. The debates about stuff like music is back in my distant past - heck, "Green" was released on Election Day, 1988, the day the first President Bush beat the long-forgotten Michael Dukakis for the Presidency. I stopped caring about the music scene, got married, bought a house, settled down. I still love music but it’s no longer the sole motivating force in my life.

But David Kohl, the protagonist of this book, has never moved on from his past. He's stuck thinking about and living in Britpop, a movement that happened in the mid-'90s. He still cares about the bands of the time and is fond of asking his friends crazy, immature questions like "Did I ever like Echobelly?" as if they're vitally important. Okay, so David supposedly has some sort of mystical connection to music, which makes him part of a tribe of phonomancers, but really, he just comes across as just a jerk that needs to move on with his life.

Tied to that obsession with the past is a lost relationship David had with a woman called Britannia who had passed away several years previously. In chapter 2, the girl appears as a ghost to David and his friend, the inexplicably named Kid-With-Knife, possibly because phonomancers have a mystical connection to music, and Britannia is closely tied to David’s obsessions with music.

The book opens with David attending Ladyfest, a women's celebration of music and art, mainly as a place for him to pick up girls. Full of himself and his enormous sense of his virility, David strives to graft onto pop-feminism as a chance to get laid. And, oh yeah, because there are phonomantic energies in the place. David is intended to seem roguish, interesting and fun-loving, but to me he seems simply like a pathetic jerk, a guy who never set roots down, had a steady girlfriend, or found a steady job. He seems like one of those guys in their 30s who thinks he's superior to most people he meets because once upon a time, for a fleeting moment, he was the height of coolness.

And yet, at least to me, David is the opposite of cool. He seems pathetic. In a scene at the beginning of chapter three, David visits his old friend Beth, who was a fellow member of the Britpop scene. Beth has moved on with her life, has a steady job, lives with her boyfriend, and apparently owns a nice, quiet, suburban house. The meeting is awkward: "fifteen minutes of generous silence interspersed with pained sentences. The smallest of talk." as David says. David is shocked to hear that Beth no longer listens to music - oh, the horror! When Beth dismisses David with "I don't know what I saw in any of you," David seems to take it as a kind of personal insult. How can this formerly freaky girl have settled down? What about all that Britpop represented?

Thankfully David has some friends who are as freaky as he is. Emily Aster is sexually jaded and fond of bizarre philosophy like "revolution is just change with ideological roots showing like bad peroxide. Less a band than the fuel they burnt." Or like the freakish Indy, who lives a monklike existence that's all about the mysterious are of phonomancy.

David chooses to follow the road less followed and follow the same path that his freakish friends have taken. In some hands this might be a nice statement for personal freedom and the positive approach of sticking to one’s convictions. But with David, it feels like he’s embracing the way of a bunch of freaks. Indy lives in a hovel without electricity. It seems impossible that a spoiled middle class kid like David could stand a day living the same life as Indy.

I do have to say that the use of magic in this book is unique and entertaining. The concept of "memory kingdoms" is really intriguing, and Gillen and McKelvie do a nice job of depicting them. It's nice how the magic in this book feels very different from any other magic depicted in comics. It gives this comic its own unique beat. Indy really does seem like some sort of bizarre mystic. For all his crazy faults, Indy represents a guru, a man who once was like David but followed his convictions to their logical ends.

And I love the central concept, that music has magical power. Music, like all art, is truly magical. It has the ability to affect the human brain in completely unique ways, the ability to alter our perceptions, moods and attitudes in ways that no other artform can. The idea of a person who uses music as a form of time travel, of moving between dimensions, as a way of transcending reality, is fascinating. And if David had used magic as a way to overcome his arrogance and find the true person inside him, book would at least have had a transcendent element to it.

But to me, this comic is about a man suffering from Peter Pan syndrome, a man who just can't get his mind out of the past. David's arrogance, over-inflation of past events, and condescending attitude are exhausting. In chapter five, David actually condescends to say “And regarding Carl, well… I want to say that Dirty Pretty Things is the single worst name I’ve heard for a band in my entire fucking life. A week ago I probably would have.” Yeah, wow, David Kohl has grown and now he’s not actually quite as much of a total jerk as he was before. What a great achievement. Some glorified British pop band probably has a song for a guy like this. When David finally, at the very end, starts singing "We Are the Champions", it feels like he's finally growing a little bit. But the boy still has a lot of growth before he becomes a man.

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