The first Phonogram mini landed and people weren’t sure what to believe. Here was a comic about music that talked about lyrics and music instead of writing and art. It didn’t feature a cape in sight and it was black and white. It sat as almost the definition of an independent comic on the stands. All any was sure of, after reading it, was that it was bringing forth two very strong talents into the field, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
They managed to get Image on board with a second mini, but The Singles Club would be different to the original series. Instead of being a story told over a few issues in a linear fashion this tale would be about one night, and many people, and multiple points of view. A BritPop Rashomon, if you wanted to be completely lazy. Each issue not only gave us the night from a different character but it brought out a new style from these nascent creators. Each month, a new way to reinvent the scene. Aspects intertwined and the final issue, “Wolf Like Me”, is one of those rare clinics in how to tell a story so simply and enjoyably that you should go check it out, but first you must read my essay on issue 4, “Konichiwa Bitches”. It centres on the DJs of the club that everyone has congregated at for the night. And it is pretty damn good, so let’s start at the start.
The cover sets it up just right, all you really need to know about our two leads is right there. To summate, Seth Bingo is an arrogant snob who will work extremely hard to not only think he is better than you but actually, in his mind, be better than you. You hate him but he’s the DJ so you also rely on him. For every time he’s wrong he is also mostly right, and that’s annoying but it’s just a fact of life. He’s the social equivalent of a balancing out force like fire stick farming, he destroys as he creates. As for Silent Girl, well, there’s lots to know about her but you won’t ever find out and she’ll never tell.
It also states that Seth Bingo hates you, and it can afford to be that personal because no matter who you are, or what you do, he will find the reason he needs to hate you. But he loves Silent Girl so you know he has some taste.
The issue opens on an empty panel, it is 9:29pm and without the DJs having set up yet there is no story to tell. The world might as well be empty for all the importance it holds before they arrive. They bring with them life and joy and most importantly music. Music that Silent Girl carries up in a small box and Seth follows with a very large and heavy box. Chivalry isn’t dead, Silent Girl is its enforcer. They exchange quick pleasantries and within the first page we see Silent Girl knows how to make a noise. Her name comes from her choice not lack of ability.
The mood is set, the lame green walls illuminated into a party of red to pink and Seth is excited. Never one to contain himself he expresses his excitement. In as many words as he can. He’s a very excitable guy, he smells the promise of every night, even though he’ll eventually succumb to the drudgery of much of it. But to start, he’s a man brimming with life’s enthusiasm. He’s even excited that Kohl, the protagonist of the first series, is deigning the night worthy enough of his attendance.
Within the opening credits, we are given the rules of Seth and Silent Girl, and thus the rules of the entire affair. You must dance, you must only hear female vocalists, and there is to absolutely be no magic. I guess you could say this is because Seth likes to see people move, and he loves to hear as many women as he can, and he wants to be the only person providing any of the magic of the evening. And we can see that, at least, at the start of the night he is smiling and expecting a good time. Hopes can always exceed expectations.
We then cut into the night. This issue is all about snippets, tiny slices of vignettes, and you, the dear reader, must place the context. It’s staccato in motion and almost like a good song mixed by a DJ. Because the DJs are the constants of the night, they have the opportunity to interact with all characters from the entire story. Gillen doesn’t spell out exactly when, or with whom, each interacting moment takes place. He assumes his audience is smart enough to work it out. Sadly, this leap of faith in their audience is an unusual occurrence in comics today.
Much like the initial series of Phonogram, it helps if you have a working knowledge of the current BritPop music scene but if you don’t you aren’t completely left out in the cold. Most jokes and lines work through context alone but they are just that slight bit sharper if you really get it. It helps that trades and issues ran with glossaries for easy reference. Gillen is a smart enough writer that he makes you enjoy it all anyway.
Within a few pages, you start to notice the rhythm to the issue and the pages. Six panel grids, even spaced and sized panels, the same camera angle in each one. We only see our two DJs. The world around them, the people they speak to, the dancing they provide the beat for is all superfluous to what we really need. We need these two individuals. We need this dynamic and we need it in brutally honest panels. This is their world, this is their lives, and both are equally important.
It helps that Jamie McKelvie is able to draw these figures so expressively because it is an arched brow or a defeated shoulder slump that carries this issue. It’s all acting, even when words aren’t spoken. This is the sort of script that completely sings, but when paired with art becomes something sublime. This issue is a pure definition of what comics can be and so often are. It’s brilliance that can only be brought forward in panels.
When no one is dancing, Seth and Silent Girl decide to drop Blondie’s Atomic. They pull the glowing vinyl out (using protective gloves and eye covers) and set the track to play. They’re not doing this for themselves, no, they are making the greater decision for the good of the people. They know this will kick start good times, and everything else that comes will flow on from that moment, that song. And all because of them. Ultimately, that’s what’s it’s all about, them.
Sometimes, it’s a selfish game to want to help others.
Seth summarises his ego and perceived place in the world when he states, “If aliens landed on the dancefloor, they wouldn’t as to be taken to our leaders. / Because at a glance they’d know they were here, in the DJ booth, ignored by idiots.” Seth sets the tone of the night and he controls how it progresses. He knows that on a dancefloor love can be kindled and hearts can be dashed, and if he controls that environment then he might just control those people. It’s logical in his mind and he only cares what passes through his mind so it is a sound premise to live by.
It’s a strong façade that Seth keeps up until challenged, this time by Kohl. He returns and grumbles and then Silent Girl changes the mood of the page. She produces a track that Seth can’t stand (and can’t stand that Kohl likes) and though he hates trivialities about the song he can’t argue it infinitely because Silent Girl likes it. You can only presume the crowd would like it, and Seth would hate plenty that a crowd of people would deem good enough. He’s a conflicted individual in the way that his job requires he play music people will like so as to dance to yet once those people embrace a song, and demand it, he hates it purely because of their love.
As the songs of the night fly by, Seth and Silent Girl chat. The conversation generally paints Seth as an inconsiderate dick, and yet we also see two things. We see that Silent Girl grounds him, keeps him level, and keeps the DJ booth connected to the people. We also see that Silent Girl really is in charge. She can make any final decision she likes and yet she doesn’t need to flaunt this power. She is all that is right with feminine power and while Seth worships at the altar he likes to pretend the power given actually comes from within. He’s happier being deluded.
Everything is going along perfectly. Seth would probably tell you it’s going along according to his plan, but then it all comes crashing down. The record starts to skip and Seth cannot fix it. It’s a disaster on an intergalactic scale, in Seth’s mind, but then Silent Girl fixes it by grounding Seth. She reminds him that above all else, above the pop snobbery, above the rivalries, above the other people, this is about the music. She tells him to stop breaking the rules, and it is right at that moment that the page breaks some self-imposed rules. The third and fourth panel merge into one mid-page spread and we are not facing the DJ booth, we are looking at the booth from the inside. We are looking at the turntables, the instruments of power, and we see it’s just music, just machinery.
Seth and Silent Girl peel back the panel, they are in control of their world. Not because of magic, just because of music. The following double page spread shows us the truth, in this world, their world, they are in control. They are the centre of the universe. Everyone in attendance is connected to them, through the music, in some way, and while it’s not an overt control there is still a necessity for the DJs. They make the night happen, they are its core.
If we read the other tales, which you most definitely should, we can see that music is at its core. The music is more than just the backdrop, it’s the heart, it’s the beat. Music is very important and therefore Seth and Silent Girl are just as important.
As the night has waned, and the music has stopped, Seth and Silent Girl prepare to leave. Even David Kohl doesn’t mind helping them out and carrying a box. Music has brought everyone together and nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Kohl mentions that it felt like a strange night. Seth disagrees, it seemed perfectly normal to him. This is what happens when you spend every fourth Saturday of the month controlling people, you become inured to the true power you wield. It all becomes natural and normal, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
This issue isn’t really about music, and it certainly isn’t about musicians. This issue is about society, how we control and let ourselves be controlled and how that is a normal state for thing to operate in. We don’t mind giving ourselves over to the beat, then we don’t have to make the hard choices.
But neither does Seth, Silent Girl makes them all for him. Every time.
This is a great, great article. You made me go and get out my Singles Club trade and go back through the issue for the 20th time. I’m still going to stay strong in my belief though that Seth is actually the hero of the whole of Phonogram and the overall theme is the emptiness at the heart of the indie dream.
Great article! It caused me to do a 180 on the piece I was in the middle of writing. This comic is thumping in my brain!
Hey, thanks for the kind words. It’s nice to have something so smart to write about, it makes your own writing smarter – I always feel. The crazy thing is, I vcould have chosen at least two other issues of this mini to spotlight, it’s just sheer brilliance.
@Errol – you have an interesting point, and one that’s quite probably easy to back up. I like that.
@Axechucker – I’d love to read your piece after you finish it. Let me know where I can find it.
Fantastic essay. “Konichiwa Bitches” wasn’t just my favourite issue of the series, but my favourite single issue in the last ten or so years, so it was nice to read someone else’s take on it.
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