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Dave McLeod has published 9 articles

Sound and Vision

Dave McLeod talks to author Kieron Gillen about his music inspired graphic novel Phonogram
Dave McLeod on Friday 5th June 2009
Photograph: Jamie McKelvie

Isn't music amazing? The things it can do to people, the way it influences and shapes pretty much everything we see and experience throughout our lives? Think about it, imagine it, spot it the next time you're out. See the girl everyone's watching as she clicks her heels across a dance-floor; hear the roar as ‘Mr Brightside' first chimes through the room; feel yourself lose it pulling shameless shapes to raise a smile from the angel across the room. You might call it a kind of magic. One man knows what you mean.

I'm outside Euston station to meet Kieron Gillen, author of graphic novel and under-underground cult sensation Phonogram, currently half-way through it's second sell-out series. The premise is a world identical to our own (to Bristol, if you're being technical) where this musical magic is pushed to just the other side of literal, to be manipulated by people with enough musical sensitivity. It's used for plenty of ends, whether it's getting you onto the guest-list at exclusive cubs, helping you pull at the end of the night, or staging a nation-wide comeback of the guitar-driven Britpop that made Oasis and Blur household names.

Still not quite getting it? You will. As we sit down at a nearby pub, we get a nice illustration of one of the most accessible concepts in Phonogram; curse songs. Think of an old loved one. Does a specific song leap to mind? Some film score maybe, or a track that for some reason you just can't do anything but associate with them? How does it feel to listen to it again? Painful, right? That's a curse song.

As we sit down, a song (which will mercifully go unnamed) comes on that's one of Gillens. The relevance is that the latest issue of Phonogram explored this same concept. ‘Curse songs' in the Phonogram universe literally invoke these memories, forcing you to relive them with crushing vivacity. It's the same reason I can never watch Amelie again, or listen to Lady Gaga's ‘Just Dance'. You're probably thinking of a song yourself right now too.

I put to Kieron the idea that the appeal of Phonogram is that, as much as it's a fantasy, it's a very real one, something very easy to identify with. ‘It's the idea that these things which are very, very normal, are actually magic, and it's the kind of fantasy it is to me. It's a kind of manifesto, and it's also my way of re-imagining reality. Its like Parkour. I love Parkour because you see these guys living in big tower blocks in Paris, and saying ‘This is designed as a prison, but this is actually a playground. Or graffiti artists like Banksy.'

Manifesto is a fair summary. One of the joys of Phonogram is the back-matter included with each issue. The current series, The Singles Club, draws its name from the structure of the narrative. Each of the 7 issues, the ‘singles', comes with a main plot line, a glossary of the not-too-exclusive musical references, a short essay, and two ‘b-sides'; two to three page comics illustrated by a guest artist. Each single stands alone as a statement about some insight in some way familiar to anyone who's ever listened to the same song 50 times in a row because it was that good.

It's the inclusion of these features which helps outsiders understand part of the reason Gillen has gone for comics as a medium over any other. With each single, the opportunity is there to do something unique and deliberate. ‘Comics are very much about the structure of the thing. Something like Phonogram has me thinking hard about panel layout, about specific angles, about how things should be done on a page. It's like poetry; things like Meter, Stanzas.'

The amount of thought that goes into every detail is staggering. ‘With every script I do for an artist that's not Jamie [Mckelvie, Phonogram head artist and Gillen's collaborator], I write heavy scripts. I like heavy scripts because I want to make sure there's a solution, but I'm happy to say ‘You've got a much better visual eye than I do, and if there's something you think could be done better, please do'. Heavy script means that for an issue of Phonogram, which might contain up to 1000 words of dialogue, the script that goes to an artist will be 10,000 words. ‘Most comic scripts are 4000.

‘And then, some people are like ‘Alan Moore [creator of Watchmen] writes scripts that are 22,000 words long, I know! I'll write scripts that are 22,000 words!' without really seeing the point. If you read an Alan Moore script you see he's doing that for a reason.'

Gillen gives you the impression that what he's trying to do couldn't succeed in any other medium, for several reasons. For example, the issue of getting away with it in a financial sense. Running away with his self-described ‘wanky' tendencies, he describes this writing for a particular group of hardcore music lovers as ‘memic engineering'.

‘It's easier to do that kind of memic engineering in a comic because the risk is so low. Me and Jamie are playing the same game as other comic writer and artist teams because it comes down to the same playing field. Whatever one man can draw versus whatever one man can draw. However, an indie film maker isn't playing on the same field as someone with a multi-million budget.' A Phonogram movie, as he puts it, ‘wouldn't be Phonogram', because the idea just wouldn't have enough mainstream buoyancy.

The other is the array of tricks he can accomplish with comics as a form that convey so effectively his ‘music is magic' motif. Even details like the number of panels to a page. ‘I quite like the shape of an 8 panel page; it's like how the human eye sees the world. As opposed to the 9 panel, which is strangely claustrophobic'. There are something's on a script that have to be done just so; something he's noticed on other scripts is how writers highlight details that might seem arbitrary that have to be included. ‘You might see, ‘There's a red door in the background'; ‘red door' is marked out.' While he allows the artist freedom, he'll stick to his guns where necessary.

With the very sensory-focussed visual influence that comics have on the reader, Gillen writes to control the pace of the narrative. He makes the comparison between song and narrative structure. ‘Issue 7 [of The Singles Club] will be about me translating [the two]; it'll have that long intro, and then it kicks in, and it pounds. Then you've got a couple of choruses, and the bridge, the bridge absolutely melts, and it kicks back it. And that's the structure of the issue.'

I ask about the method he goes through when sitting down to write something so personal like Phonogram. ‘Drunk!', he replies instantly. Because of what he describes as the ‘emotional warmness' of the books, he finds that there are various tricks he can use to settle into the mood for a particular character. One recent experiment has involved ‘method drinking'. ‘I'm often thinking, ‘I want to write something now', will sit down, open a bottle of wine and have a play with it. But edit sober!...I've thought, ‘I know, I'll drink what the character would be drinking in the club, so I can be closer to the character.'

‘The first one I wrote with drinking was issue 5. So I went and got the cheapest own-brand Vodka, I think it said ‘such-and-such makes the happy vodka' on the label. [For another] I drank alcopops...Didn't realize they were caffeinated!'-this exclamation is accompanied with furious fist pumps by means of illustration. Hearing rumours that a particularly respected visiting philosopher was spotted drinking vodka while giving a groundbreaking seminar, this is definitely a method that might deserve some exploration...

Phonogram is definitely worth reading. As someone not a naturally massive fan of comic books, I was pleasantly surprised when I was pushed onto it. Gillen as a writer has a gift for making very complicated, very difficult to explain ideas from an abstract medium like music, understandable to anyone.

He's described Phonogram in the past as a particular kind of music criticism; this seems more than fair. It's a manifesto of music being something more than just listened to, but experienced. Phonogram, basically, goes a long way towards paying music the respect it deserves.
Nip to Amazon and pick up a copy of Rue Britannia-you won't regret it.