Monday, May 31, 2010

Introducing... Justin Couch + Phonogram Vol. 1 & 2

Remember when I mentioned Justin Couch in my review of Gayngs Relayted album? Remember how he is that saxophone hating curmudgeon who attests that the saaax ruined music in the 80's? Well, turns out Justin is a fantastic writer, a passionate comic book afficienado, and has the most encyclopedic knowledge of all things music out of anyone I ever met. Justin and I met in a sophomore AP European History class in High School. Justin was a gateway to all those formative indie rock bands that you listened to in High School. Remember your first time listening to Built to Spill....Justin Couch. Modest Mouse...JC. Uh, do The Fugs count?....Couchman. Anyway, Crawford was his roommate in college, we met at Justin's wedding (how romantic)...and the rest is history.

Now, he has offered to lend his writing talents to the TOME, you should read his and Ben Martin's movie blog. The Movie Advocate. His weekly column will focus on all things music culture. His first installment is an in depth look into the comic book Phonogram Vol. 1 & 2 which explores music, its devotees, and all of its mystical properites. So, with no further ado....This is Justin.

Phonogram Vols 1 &2 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Image Comics, 2007, 2010)

For: Anyone who loves music and has had even a passing interest in comics

Byline: Music is literally magic

If you're a regular reader of Tome, then you probably already know that music is magic. I'm not talking magic in the high fantasy sense, but in a broader, more grounded sense. Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) contends that ALL creation is magic, that the act of bringing something into being from imagination to something that exists corporeally is magic in itself. Music has major transformative properties - you can be a complete skeptic and believe that. You know this if you've experienced a moment of clarity at show, if you've ever been at a party and someone put on just the right record, or when you hear an album for the first time but it's already as familiar as your favorite old t-shirt. 7 inches of vinyl can alter your path in life dramatically.

The premise of Phonogram as a whole is that there are magicians, Phonomancers, who use music as a way of channeling mystic energies. But I really don't want to say that for fear that all of the sudden, this may be a little too nerdy. It definitely is a little nerdy, but the magic angle is simply a device for explaining why we're obsessed with music, and what it can do to us under the right circumstances. At this point, I want to give some disclosure, I'm a total comic geek, I read about 50 of comics a month covering nearly every genre. I also totally understand why you don't read comics, and it's OK, trust me, you're going to love this one. I'm not trying to win you over to comics. Frankly, I could care less, but you really really need to read this one if you love music, trust me – it's the message not the medium we're concerned about.

I recommend starting with Phonogram Volume 2, The Singles Club. You don't need to have read the first book to understand what's going on. This volume is more accessible both in terms of comic book convention and the music discussed requires less specialized knowledge. The premise is that 2 phonomancers are doing a DJ set at a club and there are 3 rules: no music will be played with a male vocalist, if you have legs – you must dance, and no magic. The trade paperback collects 7 issues each focusing on a different person over the course of the night, stories overlap, the time line is consistent, and you get to see how the different characters relate to the music being played. If there is a song that seems a little off, chances are one of the characters actually shares your opinion. For instance, the first issue focuses on a vapid party girl who wants nothing more than to dance to “Pull Shapes” by The Pipettes, while I'm totally gay for this song, some of the characters in the comic talk about it derisively like I know a lot of people do.

If “Pull Shapes” seems like kind of a dated choice, that's because the comic actually takes place in 2006. Which was something about this book that actually gave me a much stronger connection to it. I was the same age as most of the characters at the time this comic takes place. I have fond memories of going to dance parties and playing these songs or dancing to these songs, or begging whoever had the i-pod to play these songs. This was also probably the last year that I followed music as intensely as the music obsessed in this comic.

Where this comic excels is through Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's ability to convey the different experiences of listening to music. Listening while you're dancing, when you're distracted by someone else, when you don't fit in to the scene, when you're the one picking the music, when you're using music as emotional fuel, when you listen to music alone in your room, and when you totally get high on the energy of a song. Each issue focuses around a different song, and each one is absolutely appropriate and wonderful. Without giving too much away, my favorite issues were “Konichiwa Bitches,” (after the Robyn song) which immediately captured the drunken bravado of batting .900 when DJing, and “Ready to be Heartbroken,” (after the Camera Obscura song), which I related with way too much.

The first volume of Phonogram, Rue Britannia, has a more traditional a to b story. It follows David Kohl, a supporting character in volume 2 as he confronts ghosts from his past particularly relating to second wave Brit-Pop (Oasis, Blur, Pulp, etc.) Essentially, David's magic center is the Goddess of Brit-pop, Britannia who appeared for the Bristish invasion in the mid-60's as well as for the resurgence in the 90s before unceremoniously dying as Brit-Pop ebbed in popularity. This story takes place in about 2002 as it looked like another aborted attempt at Brit-Pop was coming to fruition with The Libertines and The Arctic Monkeys. This is symbolically portrayed as Britannia being resurrected far too early as flesh droops from her face and bones are exposed. It's quite funny and is a really good device. Additionally, there's a B-Plot involving one of David's ex-flames and needing closure from the old part of her life shown through the lens of the mysterious disappearance of Richey Edwards from The Manic Street Preachers.

Aside from the engrossing and engaging plot, the comic deals with broader themes of reconciling the present to the past, even the embarrassing parts. One phonomancer, Indie-Dave has an extremely unhealthy obsession with and inability to move beyond Joy Division, he's portrayed as a Golem-like caution. The book contains a wealth of wisdom and endless fascinating ruminations on living in part by defining yourself off of what you listen to and what happens when your scene dies. As David Kohl says in volume 1, “Being an indie kid is a little like Catholicism. You never quite get over it.”

No matter how deep you are into this indie thing, no matter what your background is with regard to music, no matter how many new albums you listen to a month, there's something here for you and I humbly ask you to take a chance outside of your comfort zone. Each collection costs less than a CD, and used bookstores usually pay pretty well for lightly used comic trades if you don't like it.

If you take a chance and end up enjoying Phonogram and are interested in more music related comics, I would suggest David Lapham's Young Liars and Brian O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series.

Justin Couch

Justin plays in a band called Lil' Slugger in Denver. Check em out here.


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