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Phonogram is a comic book that will make you believe in music again

Phonogram: Immaterial Girl no.1
Phonogram: Immaterial Girl no.1
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For the past two years, anyone who calls herself a comic book reader has had what I call "McKillen moments." Named after creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, these bits of life are defined by the Wednesday (a.k.a. new comic book day) adrenaline rush, the frantic paging through an issue, and then the split second when the art, writing, and plot come together and kiss a beloved character goodbye.

It's lightning on a page.

These moments make you groan, gasp, and alert your boss that you're not really doing your work. They're so good, they're maddening. They make you want to throw the issue across the room.

For the past year, these moments have come in Gillen and McKelvie's effortlessly chic comic The Wicked + The Divine (WicDiv). The story is a pop music murder mystery wrapped around a premise of 12 gods picked to live on Earth for two years at a time. Gods like Minerva, Lucifer, and Wóden (Odin) take the place of ordinary mortals. Each time these gods are found, the comic spews this morbid little bit: "You will be loved. You will be hated. You will be brilliant. Within two years, you will be dead."

WicDiv has been a massive hit for its creators. There's a huge following online. There are plans for the comic to become a television show. And the sales figures are good.

"Realistically, we were hoping to stabilize at around 13k, and we’d have been enormously happy with that, even if we weren’t selling trades. Which we are," Gillen wrote on his Tumblr. "WicDiv is a ludicrous success, by far the biggest thing in our entire career."

On Wednesday, Gillen and McKelvie are going back to a space and time before their giant hit — a comic book called Phonogram. Like WicDiv, its central focus is about the myth in music. Music is magic in Phonogram, and the mages who wield it are called "phonomancers." And laced into this crackling tale of sex, drugs, and Britpop is a profound message about how we consume, interpret, and relate to the music we listen to.

If WicDiv is like McKelvie and Gillen's stadium show, Phonogram is that acoustic gig that violates the fire codes. The two started it in 2006, and in 2010 took a break that seemed like an end. Five years later, they're home again this time focusing on the tale of phonomancer Emily Aster.

Phonogram is bookish, openly nerdy in parts. If we're comparing books, it feels more distant, a little more of a challenge than the glam and dazzle of WicDiv. But it isn't any less of a stunner. Phonogram just stuns in different, rattling ways.

I caught up with Gillen (McKelvie is in high demand and was buried under work) to talk about coming back to a comic he and McKelvie are so proud of, WicDiv's television plans, and, among other things, that one McKillen moment in WicDiv's latest issue, which I still haven't recovered from.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Toward the end of the interview there are spoilers about the latest issue of The Wicked + The Divine.

Alex Abad-Santos: I read an interview you did in 2010, and it sounded dire and melodramatic — as if you'd never be able to write another issue of Phonogram again. Fast-forward five years later, and you're in the position to resurrect it. How does it feel?

Phonogram (Image/McKelvie)

Phonogram: Immaterial Girl No.1. (Image/McKelvie)

Kieron Gillen: It's good to know when you sell your soul, it works. Satan, really he did provide when we came to him at the crossroads and offered him our very soul.

I think the most important thing that's changed since then is that it's just such a more healthy time for creators and books. I remember being in the back of a car with [Marvel Comics writer] Rick Remender around that period. We just realized Phonogram probably wouldn't be happening. I think he just finished Fear Agent as well. We kind of ended talking about the books and trying to desperately fight the gravity of comics. We talked about it almost like a fatal disease, as in, "Phonogram lost its fight against comics. After 17 issues, it's survived by Kieran Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson."

It almost feels blasphemous, the idea that it feels like the Phonogram canon has been solidified for so long. The idea that I see a page that Jamie has drawn … I feel just think it must be some kind of knockoff — you know, some fan author or something — because it's been such a solidified thing.

AAS: It's sort of like going from a stadium show back to the acoustic gig.

KG: You know, like when Daft Punk came back. Discovery was a big album. It influenced a lot of things. Phonogram is very intense. It's fascistic, and fascistic in a self-disciplined way — more like trying to get as many people in the room as possible as a big communal statement in a variety of our stuff. They're [WicDiv and Phonogram] such similar books, but they're also contradictory and different.

AAS: At the heart of both, they're about your relationship or obsession with music. So why music and not some other form of art?

KG: God knows. It's like I'm obsessed over comics, and I've turned that into my life. I was obsessed over the games. I was a prolific games critic for 15 years. I launched websites, I won awards, I made movements, and all that kind of crap.

The difference with music is that I didn't do that. I did bits of criticism, and you can easily find stuff I wrote for various places, but I also kind of — whilst it was my life I didn't really have an output for those feelings as much.

Where Phonogram came from is — you could say it's like brewing. The idea we put all this stuff in a vat and kept it in a vat for a very long time. It eventually became vodka. That's kind of what happened with Phonogram. It's the idea that because I didn't become a music critic, Phonogram happened. I occasionally describe it as a pustule. This idea that this pustule eventually exploded out under intense pressure, which isn't a pretty metaphor but is an accurate one.

Comics are the opposite of music. Everything music does, comics doesn't do, and vice versa; therefore trying to do one in the other is by definition impossible. You're always going to fail, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. That's such a big part of what drives me as a creator, and Jamie as a creator as well. We're like, "Okay, we'll give it a shot."

AAS: I read Phonogram, and I kept thinking that this comic is just as much about music criticism and theory as it is about magic.

KG: A critic is somebody who has kind of lost themselves in the medium. The most common mistake people have about Phonogram is they think it's some kind of glorification or, like, dream, wish fulfillment, and it's completely the opposite.

This is a cautionary tale. Explicitly at the end of the second series of Phonogram, it's like, "Everyone uses music. Everyone knows music is magic."

The problem with the phonomancers is they are lost in it. They're addicts. They're not higher than the normal person; they're lower. They're chasing highs, and they're starting to put things in front of people. That's the cautionary tale, and this is kind of what I'm writing about.

I kind of take these pathologies of music love, which I think that's what a lot of being a critic is like, pathology and following it through. By seeing extreme cases, you can talk about — you can make clear, very general points. A lot of the characters in the book are fictionalized versions of people whose writing voices I admired.

AAS: Music has changed a lot since 2006 and even five years ago in 2010, when the last issue of Phonogram was published. Has your story changed?

KG: Specifically, I wrote it all in 2012. I've tweaked it since, but the story is such as it was written then. It was written about 2009. In other words, I haven't tried to future-proof the story. I've made no pretense to that. I just think choosing a moment in time and talking about how people saw stuff then and drawing what lessons you can from that moment in time gives you lessons that you can use in any period. This is history; this is what history is about for me.

AAS: There are a lot of pop music references in Phonogram — what's the significance of putting specific bands in certain places in your story?


Phonogram: Immaterial Girl No. 1. (Image)

KG: Some people come to Phonogram, and they know the stuff. Some people come to Phonogram, and they don't really care about the references. They get the general points because they know what it's like to hate a band. You don't need to know who the Sugababes are to get the joke, although the specifics are quite good. At the same time, some people come and go, "Oh, I want your recommendations," so we have the glossary in the back and we give some suggestions.

AAS: In the first issue of Phonogram, a character has a diatribe about how music videos — even fantastic ones — flatten music by being too specific. With plans of WicDiv going to television, do you feel the same way?

KG: Conceptually speaking, music videos are originally adverts for songs. At some point, music videos became the primary thing. The song was something that was merely in a music video. It was an entity in and of itself. I don't think that's the same when you adapt a book into a movie or anything like that. The transfer of medium is creating something else entirely new, whilst creating a music video is eating the original thing alive.

Phonogram is about how you use image and what you gain, what you lose — the Faustian deal, which is kind of the metaphor of the book. I have complicated feelings about things. I suppose if I didn't have complicated feelings, I probably wouldn't do a book about it. If I had really simple feelings I would just do a tweet.

AAS: Where are you with the WicDiv television show?

KG: It's still early days. You know how TVs work — it's still a lottery ticket whether that will ever actually happen, but it's exciting going to meetings and having food bought for you. I've never had any of the options, so the whole process is interesting in a way that's intriguing. I try to deliberately not get excited about it because I've got so much on my plate. If it doesn't happen, I'm fine because I'm doing really cool comics I love. That kind of pining after something which you have very little control about in the larger scale of things is bad for your mental health. That's why I don't.

AAS: When you talk about WicDiv, you call it a story about dying. Phonogram, you wrote in your author's note, is about aging. Can you explain the difference?

KG: I just kind of wrote it all myself off the top of my head. I found myself thinking that obviously I've always said Phonogram is about being a consumer of art, how art transforms you, and it was about being a creator of art and transforming from somebody who was merely into the culture versus somebody who is supplying the culture. That's a big deal, but I thought about the developments of it and the ways they're different. In terms of the stories that exist in Phonogram, they're often about how you feel about stuff that has defined you later on. It's very rarely about just something in the moment. It's about how art changes you, and change means time.

I find the other thing interesting about that, would that have changed if we had done more Phonogram? I don't know, because we will never know. It's like the fact that it took so long to get Phonogram out meant that the concept of time and distance became more important to it. That was my gut feeling about it anyway.

If there's only one of my comics that has to exist, I would probably still keep Singles Club [the second arc/series of Phonogram]. I would burn all of WicDiv before Singles Club and that kind of statement of what I think the world is. I may feel differently when I get to issue 40 of WicDiv. I hope I do, because the idea of WicDiv is to be good.

Phonogram is what it is what it is. We would love to be a number one band, but I don't think it's going to happen when we're doing what we do. WicDiv is much more concentrated on the "Aaaaaaah!" [Ed. note: Alex was not sure whether this was a sound made during intimacy, or death, or both.]

AAS: I am not sure how to even write the sound you just made.

KG: That's a quote. "Aaaaaaah!"

AAS: Let's talk about one of those moments — this last issue. Holy shit, Kieron. You killed someone again?!

The Wicked + The Divine (Image) Image

The Wicked + The Divine. (Image)

KG: It's one of the things — we put what WicDiv is in the front of every issue. I was saying to somebody recently, they're 12 gods. They live for two years. Then they all die. That's, like, almost a trigger warning.

People say, "Oh, there's a surprise death in WicDiv."

No, it's not a surprise death. I'm sorry. The question is always: How? It's like a card trick. It's the question of how the card trick is going to be pulled off. The deaths are important because it's how these various young people are navigating mortality and fame and desire and creativity. Every one of the gods has their own different take on what's really important.

[Spoilers follow]

AAS: But Tara's death hit me hard. We were just getting to know her.

KG: Something Tara represents in this issue is I imagine the gods feel quite different from each other, but Tara is an extreme case. As she puts it, they're all going to die or really love being a god. None of them really seems to hate the concept of being a god.

I mean, this is obviously an issue about lots of things. It's about misogyny and women in the media and how we treat people on pedestals and trying to be an artist and your relationship with artists and all those kinds of things.

AAS: She's bullied and taunted in a way that men aren't.

KG: That was really hard; [writing this issue], that was a horrible day. That involved me searching a lot of tweets. I am friendly with people who have been targeted in severe ways. I don't even want to name the movements in question because I'd rather not give them publicity, to be honest.

AAS: What was done so well was the way the comic book depicted the internet, Twitter, and what it looks like to deal with hate today. Tula Lotay's art is what hit me.

KG: Tula — she draws incredibly beautiful things. That makes when you get to the spread of the tweets all harder. Everything is like a dream sequence, and then suddenly you get this awful, like, sledgehammer in the face. That's something I wanted to do all the way through.

From very little information, people jumped on the fucking Tara running joke. In other words, we're all kind of easily talked into joining hate mobs. It's kind of the meta aspect. It was very important to say, "We haven't seen Tara, and now we've met Tara, and she's going through stuff you don't know. "

AAS: What the issue did is really encapsulate what it's like to hate in the age of Twitter and how it's impossible to escape.

KG: That's the same about everybody in the world. I know it's very easy to be angry, and I understand that anger, but I think we're all victim to this in one way or another. We may not go down that hole as much as the worst of the misogynist scum on the internet do, but I've definitely seen stuff from people on the internet. All I know is a tweet about them. It's worth having an honest conversation with yourself about this. That was the other half of it, I guess. It's a complicated issue. There's nothing subtle about it.

AAS: So much of Tara's issue was based in attacks on her being a woman. The male gods like Baal don't face that, or we haven't seen it.

KG: I said I've got a lot of friends who this happens to in a major way. Especially most of last year, I got in the habit of reading their @messages. The thing about misogyny is a lot of men don't notice it. Catcalling doesn't tend to happen when women are around men. It does, honestly.

It's like, why didn't you believe them? A lot of this is just listening to people about their lives, my friends and lovers and people who I'm close to, and just coming from all of that, I guess. It's important because it's the world. This arc of WicDiv is pretty dark. I swear, eventually we'll get some more fun stuff again. I'm laughing here, and there's nothing funny about it. The next issue is really horrible in a completely different way.

AAS: Oh joy. What's the next issue about?

KG: It's like Wóden, and Wóden is a monster. He is awful. Writing him for a whole issue was hard. Trying to get into that mental space and trying to create this misogynist but writing the least misogynist is in some way internally coherent. It was a misogynist I could almost imagine being. I've taken the very, very worst parts of myself and expanded them out horrifically, and cut away anything that's good about me. Yeah that's horrible, fucking horrible. It scares the shit out of me.

It's important for me to include this stuff because it's kind of what the book is about. It's about the fame and creativity and how these desires push and pull you. In some ways, I view it as a degree course. It will be about four years long.

You start at the beginning, and by the end of it I will teach you almost everything I've learned across 40 years on this planet. This is my, "Okay, I was into pop culture. This is what I got about pop culture. Take it and do what you can."

AAS: What's next for WicDiv and Phonogram?

Phonogram is, like, six issues. It's got B sides. It's got extra stories in the single issues, so it's a really good thing to pick up individually. You can start on any Phonogram.

WicDiv — like I said — next issue is really weird. It's got Wóden in it. It's by me, Jamie, and Matt, so it's not actually a guest artist, but it's done in such a weird way that I have no idea what people's response is going to be. I don't think anyone has ever done an issue like this before.

We have a guest artist, Leila del Duca from Shutter. She's doing the Morrigan issue, so I get to be really goth. It's very funny. It's like my love song to being teenage and goth. Issue 15 is Amaterasu done by Stephanie Hands, which is glorious. Issue 17 is Brandon Graham doing Sakhmet.

AAS: When I interviewed you last year, you mentioned that Taylor Swift was an inspiration for one of the gods. Was it Tara?

KG: Her height I got from Taylor Swift, as in she's taller than Taylor Swift is, but she's very tall. I would say Gaga meets Taylor Swift would be my kind of comparison.

AAS: Last question: Why are your puns so bad?

KG: I practice. It's weird. Last year was really emotionally traumatic for me, as I sort of said a few times. Two creative movements came out of it, both kind of coping mechanisms. One of them is WicDiv, and the other one is really bad puns on Twitter.

I think definitely one of them has been more successful than the other one. They get a lot of retweets. Yeah, it's weird. I'm trying to cut it down at the moment, actually, because last week I realized I was getting really kind of compulsive about it. Anytime I saw something, I just started breaking words apart and seeing what you can do with that. I was like, "No, this is not a good use of your brain, Kieron." I think I did four or five all of last week, which isn't bad for me.

Four and a half years of my working life, I worked in an environment [a video game magazine] entirely based around shouting out puns, really bad puns. I got trained, and now I put the training to bad use on the internet.

Phonogram: Immaterial Girl is available in stores and online today.

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