Phonogram has consisted of three miniseries. Rue Britannia, The Singles Club, and this, The Immaterial Girl. This is the penultimate issue of The Immaterial Girl. This is therefore also the penultimate issue of Phonogram. That’s important.
David Kohl was the indisputable protagonist of Rue Britannia. This means there was a time when Phonogram was a story about David Kohl. Had the project just been one miniseries, or if that miniseries had only managed one issue, then Phonogram would have been a story about David Kohl. The Singles Club centres a moment. The Immaterial Girl centres Claire/Emily. But Kohl is the only character who could ever have been the centre of Phonogram, and during his time at the centre did the series’ showiest thing. They say he killed a god. That’s the sort of thing that a certain sort of fan community would list as a ‘feat’ for the sake of debates about whether or not he would win in a fight with Doctor Fate. Having done that, having been the first centre, and having a certain relationship to the comic’s writer gives the character a weight.
“Some people think I matter, so I do.” He says this seven times in this issue. Once he even says it on panel. Who’s he trying to convince?
This is a desperate comic. Last issue we saw Lloyd and Laura overcome the greatest failings of Kohl’s generation of Phonomancers. We saw them do that, saw them understand that they’d just done that, and saw them say it out loud to make sure we all knew that was what had just happened. So issue five of Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl is set in a moral universe we’ve never seen before; one where it is unambiguously understood that these characters’ failings are failings. Their cruelty and emotional distance aren’t impressive anymore. These are people who can’t get by without being dicks to each other and, with only two issues of their fictional lives left to live, that’s suddenly stopped being good enough.
This is an explicit comic. Now appearing in actual dialogue are truths about these characters we’ve previously been told in writer’s notes. Words glimpsed in trade paperback bonus features are now in their mouths. It’s all on the table now. No more secrets and very little subtext. This is their last chance to be kind.
It’s also their last chance to be relevant. Kohl and the others spent the first three issues of this story not noticing that the story was happening, present at the moments of maximum drama and completely oblivious to what that drama was. They spent issue four off panel as another generation superceed them and avoided their mistakes. This issue joins those dots. They’ve not noticed what was happening because they’ve been bad friends. They’ve been irrelevant because they’ve been unkind.
No wonder that this is the issue where Gillen needs to apologise to the real people these characters are based on, assure us that he really does like them, and make it clear that they were okay with him doing this. The Coven have never looked more monstrous than here. McKelvie’s lines grow crueller as they do, and his command of body language is utterly unforgiving as they sneer and leer. Never more monstrous or more diminished. Indie Dave looks like, if he released the grip with which he’s hugging himself in shame, he might slither up the wall and start hissing. Kid-With-Knife looks bored to death with the “Did you shag her?” routine he clings to to avoid following the conversation or generating an idea. Seth’s T-Shirt is down to the terminal Sugababe. These men are exhausted.
They can’t afford to be. Within their world then Lloyd and Laura are waiting to get right what they got wrong. Within our world then the Wicked + the Divine is waiting for its estranged parent series to sod off out of the way so it can get back on with being the Gillen and McKelvie magic-music comic like it was doing perfectly well before this weird relic lurched from its grave. Only two issues of Phonogram left and the finale’s spoken for. For Kohl and the gang this issue is their last chance to be something other than ugly. To do something pretty while they can.
This is a story about Emily Aster. So what’s left for them to do? What is there for Seth Bingo to do in a world where Silent Girl has a boyfriend? What is there for anyone to do in a world where Vox is about to “shit out a kid like it’s a cannonball”? What space does Phonogram have left in which its first generation can have their last hoorah?
Kohl’s plan is to retake the centre. This is a story about Emily Aster? Fine. Then he’ll save Emily Aster. You see, he killed a god in Phonogram, volume one. If he uses the power he aquired from that to save Emily Aster in Phonogram, volume three then Phonogram gets to have been a story about David Kohl. It will have had a beginning, a middle and an end and he’ll have been two out of three. All will be contained within David Kohl.
When Seth says that they’re all crazed solipsists, he might be onto something.
Of course, criticism does well on a bit of crazed solipsism. The best bits of my reviews of this series, for example, have all been moments where I’ve centred my own experiences of this fiction, and of the media adjacent to this fiction, with an extreme and thrilling disregard for the possibility of other conscious minds. While the review you’re reading right now isn’t solipsistic at all and is consequently really boring.
But there comes a point when you have to acknowledge that your favourite song and your favourite comic isn’t just about you. “I’ve been listening to New York joints since I was four, man, and I’ve never even been there,” says Kid-With-Knife. He’s realising a lot of different things in that scene, but one of them is that the music that he’s built a life out, that has been his life, has never just been about him. It’s also been about New York, a concept external to him.
Kohl eventually gets the logic of this and abandons his plan to make himself the protagonist of a nineteen-issue Phonogram maxiseries. It wasn’t going anywhere anyway. The punchiest scene in this issue is Emily leaving the safehaus (amazing!) and reclaiming the centre of the narrative, but the but everything turns on David abandoning that centre, on him giving away his “I killed a god in volume one” story token. Not trading it up to resolve his narrative significance, but giving it away to do something kind.
Music is magic, but it’s not enough. The things and the people that music are about are magic too. Kid-With-Knife has always been the quickest to step into the music, but here he steps through it and into the things it speaks of. They matter too. New York is magic. You are now, at long last, leaving Britianna.
Written by Kieron Gillen
Drawn by Jamie McKelvie with colors by Matthew Wilson
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
RICHARD JONES is an anxious, Welsh, bisexual dad and dances accordingly.