Phonogram vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this volume since it was announced back in 2012 as we’re helpfully reminded by its backmatter.  I won’t begrudge creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie for taking so long to get back to it, particularly since we got “Young Avengers” and “The Wicked + The Divine” in the meantime.  As those series showed, they remain one of the best creative teams in comics and there was every expectation on my part that this third volume of “Phonogram” wouldn’t disappoint.  Spoiler Warning:  It didn’t.  “The Immaterial Girl” may not hit the sheer heights of fun that “The Singles Club” did, but it winds up being an immensely satisfying conclusion for this series.

The narrative will take you through several different time periods and some lovingly twisted homages to many music videos.  May 2009 is when the majority of this story takes place as we find the responsibilities of managing a coven of Phonomancers is starting to wear on one Emily Aster.  Readers of the first two volumes will remember her as David Kohl’s bitchy confidant and as someone who gave up half of her personality to become the person she is today.  We learn that the specifics of this deal were made to an entity known as the King Behind the Screen and that it was never specified which half would remain in his realm.  So, when Emily laments in a moment of weakness that maybe she gave up the wrong half, guess who seizes the opportunity to wreak some havoc in the real world?  Now all of Emily’s gloomy, dark, and self-destructive impulses are running her life, while the version of the character we’ve known has to find her way out of her own personal hell.  Which resembles several famous music videos.

At its core, “The Immaterial Girl” is a story about growing old and learning to let go of the drama that has weighed you down for most of your life.  Even if it’s only to find new drama.  In Emily’s case, it’s an imaginatively rendered trip through the ruins of what she gave up to become the woman she is today.  We get clever riffs on music videos, with A-Ha’s “Take on Me” being the most prominent, platforming segments based on what albums and artists she used to have featured on her wall, and both sides of her personality having a shouting match in front of her thirteen-year-old self.

Even at its most esoteric the story still remains firmly grounded in personal stakes.  So while Emily may break down at one point into shards of smoke in order to escape her pursuers, you’re still able to relate to her journey.  Yes, her default personality is “rhymes with witch” but she remains sympathetic because of the nature of how her deal goes bad and she’s effectively powerless to prevent the dismantling of the life she’s created.  The story eventually hinges on her being able to seize control of the elements of her life she forsook and determine the real nature of the King Behind the Screen.  It does sound pretty conventional when I lay it out like that.  Yet it’s the experience crafted by McKelvie’s experimental art style in these sections and Gillen’s always cutting, always clever dialogue that makes it into a uniquely compelling experience.

The creators also manage to wring loving tribute to the memory of Michael Jackson at the end of all this.  It’s not something I was expecting to experience when I started reading this volume, but I wound up being glad that I did.

While Emily’s story may be the focus here, it’s not the only one being told.  Protagonist of “Rue Britannia” David Kohl has a fairly substantial role that effectively has him trying to find out what his purpose is here.  That may sound like a fancy way of saying that he’s superfluous to the plot, but his personal journey winds up being just as involving as Emily’s.  While he’s initially used in flashback and the present as a means to showcase Emily’s change in personalities (and provide deliciously snarky dialogue as always), it isn’t until the fifth issue that we start to see what he’s really doing here.

In a normal story, the point at which the story starts focusing on David would be when the protagonist’s supporting cast starts getting their act together to give their leader the support they need.  David desperately wants to play the hero in this case, until the story hammers home the point that he’s not needed here.  Even if he has the power to tip the scales here, it eventually becomes clear to him that the fight here is not his to participate in.  What’s left to him is to simply do right by his friends — which he does in spectacular fashion for Kid With Knife — and move on with his life.  The latter of which involves embracing monogamy and taking a new job with the hated “The Adversary.”  (I’ve been told that the name is a pun and that it’s not necessary that I get it.  I’m still bothered by it, regardless.)  Again, this may sound horribly predictable and/or contrived but the creators treat David’s plight with the amount of sympathy it deserves, which is none at all, and the character’s newfound maturity winds up wearing on him quite well.  It also helps that McKelvie’s “aging” of the character with his receding hairline and paunch fit right in with his arc here.

Last but not least are Lloyd “Mr. Logos” and “Black” Laura, two phonomancers introduced in “The Singles Club” who get an issue and epilogue to themselves as the future for their group.  For anyone who remembers them, that may seem like I’m damning with faint praise.  Lloyd’s pretentiousness knows no bounds while Laura was grasping at everything to forge some kind of identity for herself.  Their issue starts off by showcasing their deep hatred of each other before they’re forced to work together for a Never on a Sunday gathering.  The bickering between the two is great between the incisive dialogue served up by Gillen and the over-the-top metaphorical fighting rendered by McKelvie.  Colorist Matthew Wilson also demonstrates how essential he is to the process here with the issue being mostly in sharp black-and-white before bursting into vivid color at key points.  Essentially, Lloyd and Laura are here to show that the phonomancy scene isn’t dependent on the involvement of Emily and David.  They’re here and ready to do their own thing, and make some new and different mistakes along the way.

Though this is a series about magic, it is also one that flaunts establishing the rules by which it is meant to work.  Magic in “Phonogram” effectively works as the plot dictates that it does.  That’s normally a reason for me to dislike a series, yet I’ve never felt that way towards this one.  Part of it’s because the stories have always focused on the characters and magic has always been a secondary concern.  Another is that the writing and art have always been strong enough to compensate.  I don’t care how the King Behind the Screen is able to do what he does, I want to know how Emily is going to deal with it while saying Gillen’s words and being drawn by McKelvie.  On that level, “The Immaterial Girl” delivers magnificently and provides a good amount of closure for “Phonogram” as a whole.  Yeah, I wish we lived in a world where this series took the world by storm and had a nice 60+ issue run.  As it is, I’ll take what we got with these three great volumes, and continue to enjoy whatever its creators have in store for us next.

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