Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 2

phonogram 2Today, Spencer and Shane are discussing Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 2, originally released September 9th, 2015.

Spencer: Quite a few people who know me in real life think that I’m very quiet and shy. I suppose that’s closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, but the reality is that if you get me talking about the right subject, I’ll never shut up. Sometimes, it actually scares me how I can only seem to relate to people if we can chat about comics or music or pop culture — especially as I grow older and my friends and family turn their attention more and more to falling in love and raising families. I have to wonder if there’s something wrong with me, if my hyper-intense focus on my hobbies makes me a lesser, “two-dimensional” person. The cast of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl seem to be dealing with the same kind of worries in issue 2, even if they’re not quite self-aware enough to articulate them yet.

Of course, this isn’t really a new problem for these characters. Even if we look back to the first volume of Phonogram, David Kohl’s dilemma was that he was defined solely by his relationship with Britpop, to the point where he’d lose both his identity and his magical prowess without it. His slaying of Britannia at first seemed to represent his escaping its grip, but Claire seems to think that it was just Kohl finding something new to define himself by.

You didn't kill Britannia

Kohl storms out in a huff — as is his right when he’s being publicly insulted — but it’s clear that Claire has struck a nerve and no doubt at least a little bit of truth. Of course, Kohl may not have all that much of a choice in the matter; no matter what he does, he’ll always be known as “the man who killed Britannia.” Emily/Claire’s identity crisis is much more self-inflicted.

Emily says that she’s “nothing but the sum of [her] influences,” but in a way, we all are; Emily clearly means that she’s come to be made up by the media she’s consumed. It’s probably the only trait Emily and Claire share — Claire’s goth look is inspired by Madonna in “Lucky Star,” while Emily’s pop-influenced persona is modeled around Madonna’s “Material Girl,” showing how they’re literally different sides of the same coin. This isn’t always a bad thing; probably the only thing keeping Emily alive inside the void she’s been banished to, for example, is her knowledge of “Take On Me” or “Material Girl,” which allows her to predict what’s coming and use it to her advantage.

Yet the downsides easily outnumber the advantages. On the first page the Myth finds it difficult to have a conversation with Emily because she can only reply with flippant, clever comebacks; the “Emily Aster” persona makes it impossible for her to to open up and have genuine moments with people. That’s probably by design — when planning her ritual Emily fantasized about being hated by many, because being hated is easier than being loved.

Somebody had to love me

With McKelvie’s focus on Kohl as Emily’s primary attacker, at first I thought that maybe he was the one who would never love Emily, but it seems more likely that it’s Emily herself. If Emily can’t love herself, than how can anybody else? So if Emily’s not going to be loved, if she’s going to be hated, then she’ll take control of that. She’ll give people a reason to despise her, and enjoy every second of it.

It’s a strategy that empowered Emily, but she’s also left quite a bit of resentment in her wake over the years. It seems notable to me that, when Claire starts purposely ripping into every member of her coven, nobody even questions if there’s something wrong with her. It’s just Emily “being a bitch again.” Even Kohl, who has met both sides of Emily’s personality, is aware of the deal she’s made, and notices Emily’s return to her old goth persona, doesn’t find her behavior strange; he’s been hurt enough by Emily in the past that this is just par for the course.

So what’s Emily to do?

Romance will save you

Emily believed in “image” more than anything. Her scene and her persona was everything to her. But now she’s starting to realize that discarding half of her personality wasn’t a solution to her problems, and that if she’s going to escape the world behind the screen and reclaim her life, she’ll have to put her faith in a higher power. Maybe romance isn’t the ultimate answer, but it’s a step in the right direction, as it represents her being willing to make a genuine connection with another human being again. At the end of her “Material Girl” vision Emily is relying on someone unseen to save her, and that’s a kind of faith and reliance on others that’s most untypical for her. She’s already growing.

Just like with issue one, I appreciate that these conclusions aren’t a rejection of Emily’s hobbies, scenes, or passions, or even her desire to reinvent herself. None of those things are bad in and of themselves; Emily’s problem is that she’s used them to cut away her problems instead of confronting and dealing with them, and that’s not a healthy coping strategy. There’s a balance in life, and it’s one we all (including myself) would probably do well to keep in mind.

Shane! Last month we talked a lot about how strongly you identify with Emily Aster, so I’m very curious to see what you thought of this issue and/or any conclusions I may have drawn about Emily’s predicament. Beyond that, we also have Gillen and Jamaica Dyer’s gorgeous B-Side to discuss, as well as the phenomenal experimental art of McKelvie and Matthew Wilson (Honestly, I’m a little jealous that you get to cover that last one and not me). What say you?

Shane: I’m happy for many reasons to dive into the artistic side of this issue, not the least of which is that it lets me avoid facing perhaps a few truths about myself. But yes, let’s put that off and focus on the art, because damn, McKelvie and Wilson are on fire here. I’ve praised McKelvie for awhile on how crisp and clean his art is, every line placed with purpose, and Wilson remains his perfect colorist, because they both seem to have similar mentalities: it’s best to stay simple, until it’s not. Sticking to “traditional” page layout and style means that whenever you break from the mold, it has even more punch, and in the scenes where Emily comes face to face (sort of) with the king behind the screen, character model and borders bend the rules to become one and the same.

Do you hear a synth line?

Team Phonogram has toyed with this sort of page structure before, notably during their Young Avengers run, but here it feels bonded more to the subject matter, in no small part due to the utilized static effect. Its presence across multiple music video scenes suggests strongly towards its underlying nature, and if the king is portrayed as the same “material”, what does that imply? Is he, as indicated earlier, on par with other musical deities seen in this franchise…or, perhaps, is he just another pawn?

The monster

It’s quite a passive statement, and unless I’m missing some terribly obvious reference, it suggests to me that perhaps the king isn’t quite as in control as he may have suggested to Emily when he first proposed their deal. Is this a case of devils creating devils, or is there even more to the story? Similarly, I must admit that I went back to rewatch numerous music videos in preparation for this article, and something struck me: in “Take On Me,” the protagonist is drawn into a rotoscoped reality by her comic-book boyfriend’s beckoning hand that extends from the page into the real world. Similarly, last issue we saw a hand extend from the television to invite Claire/Emily to his two-dimensional world, and although it’s stated that the hand in that scenario belongs to the king behind the screen, the resemblance remains. Given this issue’s emphasis on “Take On Me” (and the fact that Claire/Emily was watching that music video in that scene just before the offer), it can’t be a complete coincidence, but what is it trying to suggest? I’m waiting for answers here, Gillen. Bring on the next act twist.

You mentioned how I’d identified with Emily, Spencer, and proceeded to make a lot of analysis about her development in this issue, and I guess it’s time to face the music: you drew what appear to be some seriously accurate conclusions about Emily Aster, and, I must admit, that means some pretty pointed insights into my own life. From Claire’s casual statement of never feeling at home, even in her own skin, to Emily literally embodying Madonna’s “Material Girl,” I had to grit my teeth with this issue to keep from looking too far inward. The contrast between “Lucky Star” and “Material Girl” is pretty telling: with her first album (on which “Lucky Star” made its debut), Madonna was new, bursting onto the scene like a breath of fresh air, ready to break rules and redefine the industry. Her goth-persona in the video represents a troubled and emotional girl, full of raw passion. She’s unfiltered, early Madonna. Meanwhile, by her second album (Like a Virgin) Madonna had been processed and defined by her label. Her early successes had shocked the world, and now it was time to capitalize on that, and although “Material Girl” is one of the tamer videos from that era, it’s arguably the most telling: from then on, everything in her career was carefully constructed. And that, right there, is the contrast between Claire and Emily: one is troubled, raw, complete and dangerous, while the other is polished, developed and in control. And I’ve been in both of their roles at one point or another.

You touched on Emily leaning towards romance as an attempt to reach beyond her limits and grow past where she’d fallen stagnant, but I read the scene in a bit of a different way, placing the emphasis on “As long as you believe its lies.” Yes, it can be empowering to shield yourself in a persona you’ve constructed that may even be slightly self-delusional, and yes, you’re ultimately going to need to let down those shields to let some truth back in. I don’t know if romance is what you need, though. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I read the scene more as Emily letting the notion of romance reinforce her own life views. After all, if you build yourself up as something you’re not, and somebody falls for the lie you’re telling the world, it may feel like validation…but unless it’s a romance based on a genuine connection, you’re only going to end up crashing even further than before. To me, that’s what the Material Girl scene symbolized: she’s trying to find refuge in the lie, only to see everything crash around her.

But maybe I’m reading too much of my own life in here, eh? Let’s switch focus and address something more pure: that backup story. This is Phonogram, plain and simple. A woman so deeply involved with a song only she can hear, so intwined with the magic of the music, that nothing else matters. Not the cold, and not the man watching her. She’s in heaven, she’s empowered, and she’s alive.

music is magic, ferreal

Look at the sheer joy on her face: I swear, if I was female, I’d suspect Jamaica Dyer was drawing me in this scene. I’ve caught myself in public many times so immersed in the song I was listening to that I was dancing or otherwise just oblivious towards anything but the music. When somebody asks me why I care so much about Phonogram, it’s always been a little difficult to explain. I’ve never cared that much about Britpop, or even a lot of the music referenced in this series, but that’s irrelevant: the specifics don’t matter, only the generalities, and I’d try to explain it as “Well, have you ever felt so connected to a song that you just felt alive? Like it was magic? That’s Phonogram.” It wasn’t always an explanation that hit home…but perhaps this backup will do the trick in the future.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

2 comments on “Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 2

  1. Yeah Shane, I actually watched all three of the music videos we discuss in this write-up as well. I’d seen (and enjoyed) Take On Me before, but this was my first experience with Madonna. I’m not a pop fan, but I do think it was important context to have haha.

    And I was planning on including that first image you posted in your half of the article myself if I had the room to talk about the art (I hit my word count first); it’s the perfect example of everything McKelvie and Wilson do so wonderfully in this issue.

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