Magic men operating in and around London is nothing new in comic books. Magical music men on the other hand – well, there was that one time Constantine was in a punk band – it’s happened before, but never to the extent where the music is the source of the magic. Such is the world of Phonogram: Rue Britannia where goddesses are musical movements that stalk through our collective subconscious, and Phonomancers (magicians, witches, wizards – what have you) work magic through runes, lyrics and dressing up in some very dodgy outfits.

Tunes for the soul

Dressing up for a night out, we’re introduced to David Kohl. And he’s about to run into a big, big problem that goes well beyond trying to pick women up at pro-feminist music festivals. Kohl, our protagonist, is actually quite an arsehole. He’s not a very nice guy. Like – he really is a bit of a d**k who, while he’s “grown up”, hasn’t matured as much as he could have. So when he’s called upon to stop the usual kind of dimension altering stuff – you’re kind of hoping that the guy will fail and die a rather agonising death. Not that I believe that Gillen wanted us to have a love affair with Kohl – he’s too much hard work by the looks of things.

It’s never made quite clear that Kohl’s success or failure will lead to the end of the world or the history of Britpop. The main story does appear to be one of a personal quest more than anything else and certainly in the case of a subplot involving the apparition of a girl who isn’t dead (don’t ask).

Perhaps the reason for this genuine confusion is that exposition is a little thin on the ground. Because while it may feel like you’ve got your head around the idea of music = magic, it’s all far more complicated than that and so any magical acts end up feeling all rather Doctor Who and McGuffiny. Conversely, the relationship between Phonmancers and musical movements is at least identified and explained a bit. The implications the relationship has for characters like Kohl is intriguing. But it takes awhile for this to be established.

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There’s a hint that if Phonomancers and their godly counterparts detest a musical movement it will not go well for them in some circumstances when they encounter these opposing genres. During a tense moment in a club toilet, Kohl starts reciting a line from an Afghan Whigs song and the higher being he’s wrestling with is all like, “Don’t you dare invoke that here. He can’t reach you or protect you or…” this is after thoroughly smashing Kohl’s face into a mirror. All this happens after Kohl is made to remember picking up a girl for a one night stand. It’s just not made clear enough though if this is a taste issue or a magical one.

You’re never quite sure where the music stops and the magic starts. And perhaps that’s the effect that Gillen wanted here, but it does make the volume harder to read while at the same time pairing up well with the mis-mash of reality that being a Phonomancer can bring.

Under equipped

Throughout we’ve got Jamie McKelvie’s art style. It’s quite a heavy style that he chose for the comic – it’s like there was no time for subtly except when reality is in question, though the character designs are distinct. We’re talking thick lines and texturing that reminds me of a few webcomics from before 2006, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as it gives a slight immature appearance to the pages.

An unintended consequence of reading the first volume of Phonomancer now (2013) is the elapse of time between the music, events mentioned and the reader (if you’re under 30). We’re at least seven years removed from the present of the story and even more removed from the mythical, probably simulacrum, vision it has of music from the 90s to the 00s. While there’s a glossary at the back that explains a lot of the bands and terms used in the story, and the claim that you don’t need to know any of it in order to enjoy it – as someone who was quite young in the ‘90s I felt a tad under equipped in understanding a lot of the references and why they should evoke such fervour.

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I’ll admit that the overall feeling with this first volume of Phonomancer is one of Gillen and McKelvie finding their feet, which isn’t surprising as this is one of their first forays into comics. The inability to quite explain (without giving too much away) what’s happening and the clunky artstyle shouldn’t put you off from reading this. It’s not an awful graphic – just a bit rough around the edges.

It should be possible to track down  Phonogram: Rue Britannia  via any good comics retailer, it’s also available for digital download on Comixology.