So, let’s talk comics.
Phonogram: The Singles Club #2
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie & Others
“You were in love with the world like no-one I’ve ever met. I never told you.”
Once upon a time, when I was younger and had more hair, I met a young woman. She had the cutest dimples, and the biggest eyes, and when she looked at me I thought I could see infinity in them. She was magic. We had a night that was special, a night that I never, ever want to forget, and if I could live in that moment forever I would, because it was the one perfect moment in time. I liked her, and I fell hard for her in ways I had never fallen before and maybe never will again. She liked me, too, which was the best feeling in the world. But it didn’t work, and when it ended she broke my heart, and though she never said it, I think I broke her heart, too.
I found myself thinking of her this afternoon when I read Phonogram: The Singles Club #2. I reviewed the first issue back in December; this is the sequel to a series from a few years ago, Phonogram: Rue Britannia, which I’ve described as a cross between Hellblazer and High Fidelity, exploring the magic in music. The Singles Club is not that, however. The Singles Club takes place on a single night in a Bristol club, Never on a Sunday, with each issue an individual story. Last issue was Penny. This issue is Marc.
What brought this failed romance to mind? I’ll quote the backmatter.
[A] curse record is a different thing to the true angry break-up obsessive record. Putting on Gentlemen or early Nick Cave and drinking a lot of whiskey while scowling is actually a healing thing. Not nice for anyone else to be around as you coat yourself with blood and sin, but actually a utilitarian thing for self-repair, an aesthetically-inversed version of white wine, smeared mascara and bawling “I Will Survive.” A curse record is the opposite. A curse song will, in a real way, open old wounds, tearing the stitches you’re trying to make hold. A curse song should be avoided at all costs. I have friends who, suffering through the most violent stages of the curse, abandon entire bands or even genres of music due to the associated person.
My best friend, who died about a year and a half ago, said to me many years ago that Third Eye Blind’s debut album was, and I’m quoting from memory, “the ultimate break-up album.” I never agreed with that; the truth is, I thought that album only made me feel worse. I like the album, don’t get me wrong, and I associate it with some times and places in my life, but those are times and places a decade past. It’s just music to me.
The problem with Jason’s formulation is that he was speaking to a universal truth — there is music that heals — but he was generalizing his experience — 3EB’s Third Eye Blind salves the emotional wounds — as being the universal truth. For someone else, a different album would be the right album. A different song would offer the way forward.
I know what my “ultimate break-up album” (Jason’s words) or “true angry break-up obsessive record” (Kieron Gillen’s words) is. No, I’m not going to share.
That’s the other thing about music. Music is private.
There are songs and there are bands that I have associated with women that I have loved in my life. And some of those songs I cannot listen to. I have curse songs. There’s a Carbon Leaf song that it took a few years to recover, and only through forcing myself to listen it was I able to do so. And there are cursed bands as well. It took the trailer for Watchmen last July to get me to willingly listen to the Smashing Pumpkins again, for the first time in a decade. Other bands have not been so fortunate. (There’s the strange case of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, but I’ll leave that for another time. Maybe.)
I have no curse songs with this failed romance that I thought of today. There are no cursed albums. She introduced me to bands and singers, and they’re fab. I still listen to them. I still enjoy them. I introduced her to bands and singers, and I hope she still thinks they’re fab. I don’t really know. I miss talking music with her; she has fantastic taste. We were both Anglophiles.
Let’s consider Marc, from Phonogram: The Singles Club.
Marc appeared briefly in the first issue. If you read the first issue, Marc was a douchebag asshole to Penny, who nicknamed him “Marquis” because she thought he was awesome.
Now, in issue #2, we learn Marc’s story. And that brief moment of asshattery is placed in context. We learn the background.
And it has to do with music. And cursed songs. And doomed romances. And the way that some people live in the past and wallow in their regrets. It has to do with a girl and her fractured English and a brief moment of intensity that, for Marc, blots out everything else in his life. Even the seventeen year-old girl who thinks he’s awesome and calls him “Marquis.”
Is it magic that Marc experiences? He wants to think it’s magic, because magic is easy. It’s living that’s hard. Does the conversation happen, or is it just in his head? There’s an ambiguity to the issue that, now that I’ve read it twice, I’m still wrestling with. It doesn’t matter if the conversation is real or not; what follows is fantastic dialogue:
“If you weren’t the way you were…”
“You’d have not felt. It’s not a crime to feel. It’s a crime not to.”
What I found so remarkable about this second issue of The Singles Club is that it doesn’t go for a conventional ending. There’s an epiphany — but it doesn’t lead to anything, because epiphanies, even when they happen in real life, don’t always effect real change. Marc, even though he understands, isn’t healed of his torments. Life is messy, and it doesn’t have neat endings.
I’m glad this series is back. I don’t think you need to know anything about music to read Phonogram: The Singles Club. You certainly don’t need to believe in magic. What you do have to believe in is the capacity of the human heart to love and to hurt. This second issue is heartrending, especially the ending, and I cannot imagine there’s a person who would read it that hasn’t regreted the way a relationship ended, that can’t relate to the anguish Marc feels, deserved or not. I’ll be honest — I teared up at the end. The final page is that affecting.
As for that failed romance, I saw a bit of myself in Marc. Or maybe I saw a bit of Marc in me. I have regrets — for things I did, for things I didn’t do, for things she said, for things she didn’t say. Sometimes things just don’t work, no matter how vibrant and full of promise they are. Sometimes all you’re left with is memories. What matters is which memories you dwell upon. Do you dwell upon the memories of the end, when things are broken and you can’t fix them anymore, either because you don’t know how or you don’t have the chance or because you’ve tried everything and nothing works? Or do you dwell upon the memories of the beginning, when everything is fun and exhiliarating and an adrendaline rush? I don’t have a universal truth to offer, my advice is next to meaningless. For myself, I can say this — I have that perfect moment in time, I have memories that I would not trade the world for. The conversation is gone, but the memories remain.
If you haven’t read the first issue, there’s something wrong with you. You can read the second issue anyway, even if you haven’t read the first.
Go. Find a comic shop. Buy Phonogram: The Singles Club #2. Do it.
And Kieron Gillen, if you’re reading this? I’ve decided I owe you a beer. This issue was that good and that important and that meaningful. A beer only seems fair.