The Thursday Agitation: Kieron Gillen

Phonogram, the collaboration of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, is both a surreal urban fantasy with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and a detailed critique of the same. Its first volume, Rue Britannia, covered Britpop with side trips into the music of Scout Niblett and the Afghan Whigs. The Singles Club, currently in progress, encompasses an even wider scope of music. One of the shorter pieces in The Singles Club, “She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment” (with artist Laurenn McCubbin), critiques male indie rock fans’ fondness for songs in which women die; that it wraps its critique in an atmospheric horror story makes it that much more memorable. And it’s ultimately the dual nature of the series that makes it both fascinating and compelling. Gillen and I discussed this duality, alongside other topics, via email.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Besides being a compelling story in its own right, Rue Britannia also works on the level of examining a genre of music — essentially, the narrative work as work of criticism. Was this something that was planned from the outset, or did that aspect evolve as you wrote it?
Planned from the outset. In fact, it’s its backbone. When I sat down to write the first demo Phonogram script – which was basically the Beth subplot from Rue Britannia, but done in a single issue – the question wasn’t “Can I work pop music criticism into a fantasy story?” but “Can I work this pop music criticism into a fantasy story?”. While the demo script had loads of problems, it proved to my satisfaction that it seemed to work – and when it was showing it to McKelvie that made him agree to joining me on this foolish endeavour. Depending on which story I write, we lean heavier towards the fiction or the theory, but fundamentally, for all the magical effects, if it isn’t a metaphor for what music really does to and for human beings, we can’t use it. It has to be true, y’know? When we’re occasionally reviewed in the music press, it does please me that they review Rue Britannia for its critical component as much as its more traditional narrative gubbins.

In your essay accompanying the first issue of The Singles Club, you talk about using each issue to discuss a different aspect of pop music. Do you generally begin with the story or the music — or are the two essentially inseparable?
Yeah, you may as well ask which atrium in my heart is more essential. I need them both. It… well, it varies. With The Singles Club it’s more character driven than Rue Britannia, so a lot of the plot beats are prompted solely by these characters I’ve crammed into a nightclub. But the vast majority of those characters were inspired directly by whatever I was listening to in 2006. Laura comes from the Long Blondes and Penny the Pipettes, for example. All about the alliteration, me.

Sometimes it’s the other way around, where I get inspired by my own personal response to some music… but I decide not to actually use that song, and work it in another way. Occasionally a story I have is totally derailed by musical inspiration. I wanted issue 6 to by my fanzine-tribute issue, and had a complete structure and plot for Lloyd to go through… but I found myself listening to Los Campesinos late one night and had a moment of clarity of what had to happen to Lloyd. In other words, it’s a big mash of my responses to pop music, how pop music responds to me and rambling silly formalist pretensions.

Thinking specifically of She Who Bleeds for Your Entertainment — do the backups relate specifically to the same aspect of pop handled in that issue’s lead story, or are they ways to cover additional facets of music that might not lend themselves to a longer piece?

The latter. Occasionally an idea can only support a page… but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worthwhile. I wrote the B-sides before deciding which issue they’d be attached to, though there’s some rudimentary DJ-style set-building after the fact. So for issue 1, I knew the main story was pop and flirty, so I dropped Laurenn’s She Who Bleeds… for a little of the obvious-criticism approach of Rue Britannia, with Marc’s Power of Love rounding off the set by being openly silly – something we hadn’t actually shown in PG before. I’d agree that you can link She Who Bleeds… to the main story though – ideally, we’re trying to create a thematic whole from what material we’ve created. Alternatively, sometimes we just go for counterpoint – issue 5 has a really tongue in cheek and playful piece after Laura’s seething white-hot mass of angst.

Bar having a bit too much fun and bullying our friends, the larger point of the B-sides was trying to populate the universe a bit. With Rue Britannia, people had a really strict idea about what we were about – Britpop and David Kohl, basically. As much as that’s part of us, Phonogram‘s a world book about music and magic. The fact the lead stories all feature different characters is a big step before that, but the B-sides are continuing the theme. I mean, I’ve just written one inspired by Mastodon. The ones in issue 2 come from Kate Bush and Diamanda Galas respectively. There’s one about bad pub-singers in rural England. It mixes it up and hopefully will make people’s conceptions of how the universe works. Plus, the B-sides let us make some stuff clear about our philosophy about this stuff. There’s a subsection of responses to PG who are making some assumptions about PG which are actually the total opposite of what we’re saying. I mean, PG is fundamentally an anti-elitist comic in any way which matters. If people read some of the B-sides and still don’t get that, I’ll feel better about shrugging and just moving on. But I have to try. Communication is the whole point.

For She Who Bleeds.., Jamie McKelvie is credited with “Production” — what does that translate to? Has the selection of the artists for the backups been a collaborative process?
Lettering and general pre-print stuff on the files, really. We can’t help playing with that kind of stuff.

And, yes, we collaborated. As in, collaborated in twisting people’s arms until they said yes. We approached some people and asked if they’d be up for it. Some people approached us and asked. Some people who we thought would be too busy to say yes stomped up and wanted to know why we didn’t ask them. Some people said they’d do it whilst drunk, and we held it to them. Really, it’s just a cross-section of people who we dig. In terms of what story they do… well, it’s about 50:50 whether I already have a story written which needs an artist or whether it’s me trying to think of something that’ll suit the artist who says they’ll do something for us. Whenever I give someone a script, I ask if it’s something they’d like to do – and if it isn’t their thing, I’ll find something else. For it to be fun is totally key, especially when we’re asking for so much time for from these talents. Sometimes an artist even has a core idea for a story – maybe just an observation about music – which I spin out into something else. For example, Laurenn with She Who Bleeds or Charity Larrison in her B-side in issue 4.

You’ve done an extensive amount of promoting Phonogram online, and have made equally compelling reasons for purchasing the single issues and the collected edition. Where do you find that most people are being exposed to it? Have you noted a significant difference between how people are reading The Singles Club in comparison with Rue Britannia?
We’re big ol’ sluts with our internet whoredom.

Er… I honestly dunno, regarding where people are exposed to it. In terms of pure numbers, sales of the singles are pretty much identical between the two series. And, yeah, that’s been somewhat disheartening to put that much effort into the singles and not get even a tiny uptick. Hell, going colour alone normally adds 2k – we were hoping for similar sales to Jamie’s Suburban Glamour, whose pre-orders of issue 1 were that much more than PG1. We’ve got a big old string of theories on why, but I suspect it’s as simple as the retailers just ordering exactly the same numbers of this series as the last. Oh – plus the economic collapse thing. It’s even possible that if we hadn’t done all we did with the singles, our sales would have come in much lower. And more than most demi-mainstream comics, I suspect there’s a split between the shops which support us – and do it fantastically – and those who don’t. There’s certainly many of shops who ordered the second series much higher than the first, which means I have to assume that other shops didn’t order it at all.

But, yeah, it’s doubly annoying when the orders came in as low as they were and we immediately sell out of the print run from re-orders. Which also happened with the first series of Phonogram.

In terms of whether more people are exposed in singles or trades, I’d assume the latter. Looking at Rue Britannia, we’ve sold twice as many trades as we did the individual issues of the series (And, yeah, shifting over 10K of trades would be another thing which would make you hope orders on the next series would be up. As Kirby said, Comics will break your heart). I do suspect that our best efforts with the singles are just railing against the light. A considerable portion of PG readers are non-traditional comic readers who just won’t go inside most comic shops, and will pick it up off an online retailer when it hits trade.

Putting the horrible business head away, it really doesn’t matter. The singles are worth doing for art’s sake. If they’re a waste of our time, they’re a glorious waste of our time.

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