Phonogram – An Interview with Kieron Gillen

Kieron Gillen

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”

He also said,

“It is foolish to pretend that one is fully recovered from a disappointed passion.  Such wounds always leave a scar.”

Only one of these quotes from Longfellow was directly referencing music, but you could easily see where both could apply.   While it is true, music is the universal language of mankind, only some of us speak it eloquently and the rest are left only to appreciate those who can.

I was struck by this very fact, when I read a quote by Kieron Gillen in regard to his Image comic Phonogram,

It’s my love letter to music. It’s an honest letter – I’ve been shacked up with her for long enough to know that she’s a bitch with a cruel tongue and will happily destroy people on a whim – but it’s still hopelessly in love with her.

Hmm…sure sounds like Longfellow and Gillen are talking about the same thing…right?  Music can be a bitch, but an intoxicating one that many of us will never master.  So how do we express our love for it?  Well, it depends.  Some of us become avid fans, others write about it, and still others use it as a form of inspiration to create other forms of expression.  Phonogram is all of those things put together.

So what is Phonogram and who is Kieron Gillen?  Phonogram is a comic book created by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and published by Image Comics.  Gillen and McKelvie have described it as Hellblazer meets High Fidelity, and it’s deeply inspired by music.  What’s really interesting about it though is that it manages to express through words and pictures what makes us all so passionate about music – its magic.  Gillen and McKelvie describe it in this way,

Music is magic.  You know this already.  You’ve known this from the first time a record sent a divine shiver down your spine or when a band changed the way you dressed forever.  How does something that’s just noises arranged in sequence do that?  No-one knows.  It’s just…magic.  Everyone knows that.  It’s just that some realise that it’s more than metaphor.

Clearly these guys have a passion for music, but yet they aren’t musicians.  Instead, they are writers and artists who convey their passion for music in a medium best known for superhero’s and villains.  Hey, maybe we are talking about the music industry after all?  But seriously, Phonogram may not be music, but it is without a doubt inspired by it, and in its own way creates a little of its’ own magic.  With that in mind we thought it might be interesting to find out more about what goes into creating Phonogram, so we tracked down Kieron Gillen to ask him a few questions.

Music Lit 101:   Tell us little bit about Phonogram and how you got involved with the project.

Kieron Gillen:  Phonogram is pretty much the story of me deciding not to become a music writer.  So instead of actually letting all this stuff off a tiny drop of mental-fluid at a time, I built up into an enormous septic sore which I lanced in one go. It’s distilled putrefied thoughts on music.  And jokes.  Always jokes.

I had the idea as something I’d like to do in comics, met Jamie and somehow talked him into it. I was very lucky.

Music Lit 101:  What are Phonomancers and Retromancers, and how does magic play into the Phonogram storyline?

KG:  We use magic as a metaphor for whatever music does to people – it’s a device to highlight the effects. So rather than Dungeons & Dragons Harry-Potterisms, we have these low-level, often very subjective effects.

The example I normally use is the second issue in series 2. The basic plot involves a guy walking into a club and a record plays. Suddenly, time freezes and he’s suddenly confronted by an Ex who forces him to relieve a painful memory involving her and the record. Effectively, he’s been cursed by the record. Of course, we’re using it to highlight that gut-crunching moment we’ve all experienced.


Music Lit 101:  The artwork is terrific.  Is that all the work of Jamie McKelvie?

KG:  In the first series, yes. In the second, he was joined by Matt Wilson – who Jamie worked on his own Suburban Glamour with – as colourist. Colour adds so much to it, y’know? As well as the main story, we also have back up strips in each single issue, where we’ve bullied as many of our friends and peers as we can to provide. It’s just a big cross-section of everything we love in comics.


Music Lit 101:  In keeping with the theme, the cover art for Phonogram’s first series Rue Britannia is all based on real album artwork from Brit-pop bands of the 90’s.  For the second series, The Singles Club, each issue was influence by a single from more current bands like The Pipettes , TV on the Radio  and The Long Blondes .  Was that part of the plan right from the beginning and were the bands involved at all?

Phonogram first six covers

KG:  The plan we have is cheerfully rough, and normally conceptually re-jigged from series to series. For the first, we wanted to have a deconstruction of all these album covers, which tied into the whole story being a deconstruction of Britpop. For the second, set in a single club night, we were inspired by club-flyers for each, highlighting each member – and the story itself was normally inspired of one single by a band in the year the story’s set (2006). Sometimes it’s a very tangential inspiration, admittedly.


Music Lit 101:  Your second Phonogram mini-series The Singles Club is seven single-issue stories, each following a single Phonomancers experiences in the same club on the same night.  What was it like combining all of these interlocking stories?

KG:  Hard work, in short. Bloody hard work, in less short, but more rude.  Basically, it involved a lot of flow-charts. Who’s in the toilet right now? Who’s on the dance floor? What’s playing? Since it’s quite intricate, what I actually did was hold most of it in my head – like a hologram of a story – and write it all as quickly as I could. And then when it was all done, I hammered it until it actually stuck to a time-line. There’s some subtle subjective cheats in there to help it too.

Jamie does a lot of work too – as he’s got the pages done, he’s forming an enormous chart of each scene in time order:


So yeah: bloody hard work.

Music Lit 101:  You have a background as a music journalist.  How useful was that past experience when creating Phonogram?

KG:  It provided the thinking. When I said I didn’t become a music journalist earlier, what I meant was a full-time day job. As it was, I stayed in the zines and underground mags like Plan B, so it was just practicing analysing and thinking and obsession: all the things which power Phonogram.

I really consider Phonogram as music journalism in narrative form. The inspiration coming from a set band or song is at the key part of it. I mean, the last short story I wrote is just inspired by a conversation with a mate when dancing to Once In A Lifetime . Music is easy inspiration for me.

Music Lit 101:  You also work as a gaming journalist.  Was working as a comic book writer something you always wanted to do, but journalism paid the bills?  Or was it just a natural extension of your work as a journalist.

KG:  I’m a bit mental. All the writing sort of forms a whole in my head. It’s all about processing reality. If you’re looking for a theme across my work, the obvious one is about humans’ subjective relationship with art. That’s always been there.


Music Lit 101:  You’ve now bridged out to work-for-hire for Marvel.  How does that differ from creating a book on your own?  And is working with some of the classic characters of comic books harder than creating your own?

KG:  Phonogram’s ludicrously hard, so almost anything is actually easier than doing it. It’s a great thing to have done first, because it steels me for even the most strenuous of tasks. Getting to play with all these splendid Marvel characters is a joy.

Music Lit 101:  What’s the best way to create an imaginary musical character?

KG:  I used to play fantasy bands a lot. You can see a bit of that in Lloyd, in the second series, who spends most of the time trying to recruit people for his post-Pipettes/Spankrock concept piece.

I’d always looked at the world of music, and see what’s missing. What combinations make sense, but don’t exist. The final time I played bands, our concept was the – still awesome, sez I – Mogwai/Wu-Tang cross. That still sounds fun. Someone do it.

Music Lit 101:  Clearly music influences your work on Phonogram, but is it also an inspiration for your work for Marvel?  And if so, what bands are currently influencing you?

KG:  I tend to root around for an album to fit the mood of the piece. The Thor stuff has a certain epic melodrama heart-on-sleeve-ism to it, so I’ve dug back to the Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” .

Ares is this snarly, acerbic brutally smart aggression, so I dug out the Sisters of Mercy Vision Thing.

S.W.O.R.D. Is a lot of The Go! Team’s  first album.

Music Lit 101:  You’ve also created comics purely for the web.  How does that differ from creating a book and do you think that’s where everything is moving?

KG:  Interesting and huge question. I think it’s certainly part of the future. I also think with the web, the fetishistic power of objects become more important. People are less interested in just the thing, and more the totemic object. You start creating physical comics as art objects. Stuff like the Asterios Polyp which came out is a fantastic thing. The physicality counts. Writing for the web, you start thinking about the lack of physicality, and what that means. And I’m not giving an answer to that, because there’s so many.

Music Lit 101:  How big a part do you play in working with Jamie on the artwork that goes into Phonogram?

KG:  We love the covers. They’re probably the single element of Phonogram which we’re most satisfied with.  We’re proud of huge chunks of it but the covers are…well, they’re the closest to actually what we want things to be.  The britpop deconstructions of the first series set the fairly dark, critical tone of the first series.  The Club-Flyer/portrait approach of the second focuses in on the importance of each lead.  And by having two totally different approaches, we’re trying to show that we’re about trying new stuff and pushing.  There’s been an increase in record-derived covers since the first Phonogram series – which some people, complimentarily, have said was due to us.  For the second, there was no way we were going to do that again.  Culture has to move forward, and covers are the first attempt to contextualise the art it contains.

Music Lit 101:  What advice would you give someone who has an interest in creating comics but has never done it before?

KG:  Do it. It’s the cheapest visual medium on the planet. You go from where you’re sitting now and publishing your first web-comic in a handful of clicks. And it’s best to start as soon as possible, because the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll get good.


If you’d like to find out more about what Kieron and Jamie have planned for Phonogram check out their blog by clicking here.

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