Music is important in Phonogram: The Singles Club, the second mini-series of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram series. (A third is slated for publishing at some as yet determined point in the future and the first is subtitled Rue Britannia.) It would have to be, the world of Phonogram is one in which music itself is magic; a conceit that defines much of the series, even as The Singles Club takes place primarily during a club night in London where any magic is expressly forbidden. Gillen and McKelvie, in choosing to tell the tales of the Phonogram universe in the medium of comics of course run face first into a giant problem; comics have no ability to portray sound. They’re a purely visual medium of text and art combining to create story.
Luckily, for as much as Phonogram is inextricably linked with music, it’s not necessarily a story about music, but about the kinds of people who are drawn to it. What music means to them, what gaps it fills in their lives, and how they relate to it. All of which means that while Gillen and McKelvie are tasked with figuring out how to represent music visually, they aren’t necessarily biting off more than comics can chew with the milieu of Phonogram. Sound isn’t the end all be all of Phonogram, but it’s a key part of the world Gillen and McKelvie are depicting and one that they must deal with if they are to be successful in their storytelling. The first issue of The Singles Club is emblematic of the kind of approach the creators bring to the problem. Gillen and McKelvie tell a story that deals with music and sound but base their story around a more visually oriented metaphor, allowing them room to play with visual representations of music as a route to exploring the thematic concerns of the issue.
Even if portraying sound visually isn’t the primary concern of the issue, it’s still a problem that Gillen and McKelvie are keenly aware of, and they immediately confront it on the very first page of the first issue of the series. Gillen, McKelvie, and colorist Matthew Wilson make a clear visual distinction between musical and non-musical spaces almost immediately, establishing that music and its aural components can be represented in visual terms. Penny, the lead character of the first issue directly addresses the reader in the initial panel and then, in the next panel, turns on some music. When she does so the background of the panel abstracts, turning from the realistic depiction of Penny’s room seen in the first panel to a background filled only with the colors white and teal, colors that intermingle through a dotting pattern. But not only do the backgrounds change, the type of visuals used shift as well, the first and last panels of the page exist mostly outside of the musical realm and use fairly traditional, straight on, medium close-ups of Penny. But the eight panels sandwiched between them are extreme close-ups of various parts of Penny’s body, her fingers as she messes with the volume, two-thirds of her smile as she dances, her hands clapping, and so on. Both the background of the panels and the comic’s visual depiction of Penny shift when she turns on music and begins to dance. This storytelling device smartly forefronts the importance and power of music in the world of Phonogram, it’s a transformative aspect of Phonogram’s universe. It quite literally alters the way we see Penny here, and while we can’t hear the music that Penny’s dancing to, we can see the effect that music has on her. Not only that, but the teal that largely defines the music sequence actually underlies the first and last panels on this page, further illuminating the influence music has on Penny. Those first and last panels don’t necessarily feature Penny dancing, or imply that music is playing, but the teal color underlays them all the same, hinting that even when music isn’t an immediate part of Penny’s world, it’s still present in her life.
This first page introduces the reader to both the ways that sound will be represented visually as well as fore fronting just how important the physical act of dancing is to Penny. Later in the issue Penny details her earliest recollection of dancing, recalling that she was three and understood only that the other members of her family were moving their arms up and down, and that they seemed happy, so she copied them and the shared motion brought happiness, a happiness that’s linked to dancing in her mind to this day. It’s a key moment in the story, both for establishing just how intrinsically linked Penny and dancing are, but also for establishing that Penny dances in groups and for groups. It’s why when the issue opens Penny is directly speaking to the reader, claiming she didn’t expect anyone so soon and that she needs just a moment to dance. And once she’s done with that, she informs the reader that we’re her audience for the night. She’s a performer, dancing to be seen, and since she’s pretty, well-dressed, and good at dancing that’s been enough to make things go well for her up to this point. She’s gotten what she wanted by being seen.
Subsequently, the issue starts taking Penny apart. First Seth Bingo, one of the DJs at the club, eviscerates Penny for attempting to use magic on him. Seth is a uniquely expressive character, partially due to Jamie McKelvie’s uncanny knack for depicting body language, but also due to the lettering used for the character’s speech. Seth rages, yelling and using big, bolded, large point letters to do so. His words explode on the page in contrast to Penny’s shrinking text. All of which culminates in Seth’s most potent insult, calling Penny nothing. For this we see only the bottom half of Seth’s face, as the single, unaccented word “nothing” floats in his mouth.
Up until this point Penny has at least been trying to fight back, even if it is weakly, attempting to sway Seth from his all-out assault, but this insult is more than just words and it doesn’t need to be accentuated with size. This is an insult that comes from the core of Seth’s being and it’s presented as such, residing not in a word balloon outside of Seth’s body but instead physically placed inside his mouth. He genuinely believes that Penny is nothing, at least in Penny’s eyes. It’s the worst kind of insult she could receive, one that implies nothing she does is worthy of notice. Penny’s wrapped up in being seen, and Seth believes her unworthy of any sort of recognition, and the comic beautifully portrays his assault on Penny with expressive text that highlights the aural qualities of his verbal assault via visual means. It’s a sequence that unites the thematic concerns of the issue with the intelligent solutions that Gillen and McKelvie work out for bringing out the expressive qualities of sound in a medium absent any aural qualities. The characters and their emotions come across through the text and how it is deployed. Whether that means altering the size of the text or placing it in unlikely positions, the visual depiction of the words help guide the reader to understand how they might sound if they were actually spoken aloud.
As the story continues to unfold Penny loses still more, her crush Marc rejects her, her best friend Laura abandons her, and she’s dressed down yet again by another phonomancer. Penny’s at her lowest during this final conversation, where Lloyd, accuses her of being a leech, feeding off attention. And for the most part he’s right. Penny has been obsessed with being seen, but then music begins to creep in from the side of the panel, represented as pink floating notes. Penny, recognizing them, actually looks up as the notes encroach and ultimately twist around her body, leading her to the dance floor. The notes become a physical presence on the page in this moment, the literalized music beckoning Penny to the dance floor as their point of origin, the right side of the panel, begins to glow. The music pulls Penny away, focusing her on nothing but the sound of the song she requested earlier.
As the issue closes out, the comic alternates between panels of Penny and panels of all the other characters we’ve met throughout the issue. Penny makes her way back to the dance floor, and once she’s there the other figures start to disappear. At first they’re only silhouettes behind her, but then they glow white, and then, they disappear altogether. Penny addresses us once more, explaining that she has to dance, because the song is for dancing and as she does so her panels are filled with notes and a brilliant white light, expressions of the song being played, a white that’s also reflected in Penny’s eyes. Gillen and McKelvie once more find a way to visualize the music in the world of the story, both for the reader and for the characters. Penny’s enveloped in the music, swept away into a world where all that is left is herself and the song represented by the white that overwhelms every aspect of the panels depicting her. Gillen and McKelvie contrast that illuminating glow by alternating panels with the other characters in the issue who exist in the “normal” version of the world, filled with other people and normal color schemes.
Finally, Penny thanks the reader for understanding that this dance isn’t for them, which in turn leads the reader to flipping to the last page of the story which is simply an explosion of white with the title and credits for the issue. Penny’s been swept away in the song, and the lack of image suggests that Penny’s been able to transcend the need for an audience. She doesn’t have to be seen anymore and thus, we can no longer see her.
By turning the issue’s concerns into an issue of sight Gillen and McKelvie find the road into a comic built around characters obsessed with music. It’s not exactly a shock that they portray it visually since comics are solely a visual medium, but it’s impressive all the same. The “aural” components of the issue resonate so strongly because they’re linked with visual concerns, and that’s exactly what’s required when you choose to tell a story saturated in music in a medium bereft of sound.