How Phonogram Taught Me to Listen

I tend to consider myself an open-minded music listener.  Some call me a harsh critic.  Others stoop to label me a hater.

Nevertheless, I am what I am.  But I owe quite a bit of what I am as a music fan to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram.

For those who haven’t read Phonogram, the series’ conceit is that music is magic.  That metaphor manifests itself literally in the book as the main cast of characters are phonomancers—folks able to manipulate magic using music.

It’s really cool.  And really fun.  But it puts the impetus on readers to go about researching the music referenced therein for a better and more complete reading experience.

So, here’s me about the time I picked up the first volume of Phonogram when it came to my musical palette:  “Is it fast?  Is it aggressive?  Can I thrash about to it?  No?  Then [EXPLETIVE DELETED] it.”

There were exceptions to my tastes, of course.  But not many.

My appreciation for comics, however, wasn’t nearly as limited.  I read the book, loved it, became a bit obsessed by it, and needed more.  Much more.

So I read it again.  And again.  And then I scoured iTunes and Amazon for all of the songs and albums mentioned and actively used in the book.  It was Manic Street Preachers, and PULP, and ElasticaSuede and Blur.  Even Oasis—in my younger years I based my opinions of friends and family on their thoughts on Oasis.  Care to take a gander at what I thought about those who were digging on the band?

“Singles Club,” Phonogram’s second volume included the Pipettes, Robyn, and TV on the Radio.  I was reading the issues while listening to specified tracks on repeat.  I was drawing parallels between the media.  I even caught the Pipettes live in Philadelphia just to dance like Penny B in the first issue of the volume.

Mind: Blown.  Experience: Enhanced.  Eyes: Open.

No such eclectic smattering of work was ever presented to me in such a way.  It wasn’t a mundane list of recommendations any doofus with a blog could cook up.  It was a set of tools with which to dig into my brain and reevaluate my standards and tastes.

While Gillen and McKelvie may not have intended to teach with their work, Phonogram taught me a valuable lesson:  music is magic.  It’s a moment and a feeling, stamped into a physical object that can be released at any time so that someone, somewhere can experience that self-same emotion.  It’s a transference and transformation of energy.

I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of magic.

If it’s not it should be.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still blast Kid Dynamite records with the windows down on nice sun-shiney days.  I still stomp around in circle pits at punk shows.  I still prefer my old tastes.  But Phonogram has aided me in creating new ones.  It has carved new pathways into my brain that allowed me to approach listening to music from a new direction.

Really, all Phonogram set out to do was tell a great story with one assertion:  music is magic.  Once the third volume is finally released this summer readers can relearn that valuable lesson…and I can have several more reasons to buy imported seven-inches from bands I previously talked heaps of trash on.

Jeff Lemire’s Trillium: Stretching the Limits of Comics with Purpose and Precision

Discussing comics has a typical trajectory.

Plot, art, script, layout, and, ultimately, entertainment value.

That isn’t so much an indictment of the medium’s criticism as it is a reminder that occasionally a comic will come along and force us to break our usual structure of analysis.  Creators pull apart the tried and true comics format in order to build something wholly their own, and to realize their individual creative vision.  As such, we as readers not only have to adapt, but retool our standard modes of discussion.

Jeff Lemire’s Trillium, a monthly Vertigo limited series that ran from July 2013 to April 2014, and collected in trade August of that year, is one of these books.  It is a love story at its core.  A love story wrapped in a massive, high-concept science fiction blanket.

But that’s not what makes this book special.

Lemire goes to great lengths to match the reading experience with the content.  In the first issue alone the reader is asked to physically flip the book over half-way through to show a shift in both perspective and setting.  The act in and of itself forces a reorientation of sorts for the reader, but also shows the disparity between the year 3797, in which Nika, the first protagonist is introduced, and 1921, where readers meet William, the story’s second protagonist.

But we’ve all seen books like this before, haven’t we?  Books that are all gimmick and no substance?

Lemire refuses to let his work sink to that sorry state.

In fact, he uses in-story cues to justify the physicality of the reading experience.  In the second issue the reader is taught to read the page-by-page shifts in perspective by only being able to understand the featured character’s language—character-themed page borders cue in the reader further.

In issue five, Nika’s self-programed A.I. asks readers to read the top halves of the pages first so Nika’s side of the story is told in full.  It then requests that the book be flipped over in order to read the inverted, bottom-half of the pages that feature William’s story.

In the sixth issue, readers have to turn the book over and back again several times as a convergence of the protagonists’ lives occurs.

With all of the story’s odd requests, and all the seemingly random goings-on, Lemire could have stopped there and sold plenty of books.  But he didn’t.  A black hole has been looming over the piece the entire time allowing for all of the space-time jumps and timeline melds.  This not only creates a purpose for the twisting up and flip-flopping of reality in the story, but it allows the reader the opportunity to experience those sensations by following the book’s rules.

Trillium’s reading experience is directly linked to the in-story logic.  Its emotional elements are fortified through a literal melding of the protagonists’ lives.  Lemire never once relies on his built-in reading enhancements, however.  Cut up and read in a more traditional manner, Trillium would still be the mind-bending, emotional romp through space-time it already is.  And that point speaks volumes for the work as a whole.  Lemire created a comic that utilizes all of the art form’s available possibilities without compromising the integrity of the story or its characters.

Comics can create unique opportunities for us as readers.  We’re invited to think a bit differently.  Feel a bit differently.  Delve more deeply into a story’s potential.  And as Lemire’s creative vision is fully realized in Trillium, we’re given the privilege of unpacking a work in all of its many complex and expertly conceived layers.

We’ll return to our usual discussions soon enough.

But Trillium is a unique and stunning diversion.