Note: Phonogram: The Singles Club #4 is released on Wednesday 22nd July.
Of course, I made the mistake of assuming that The Singles Club had reached its peak with issue #2 – that it would be impossible to top that tale of love, lust, loss and longing. But I hadn’t reckoned on Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl. Alright, so any issue that thrusts this brilliant pair to the foreground was always going to be great, but the surprise here is that Gillen actually sidesteps away (eventually) from the pure, bitter cynicism that you might expect, and instead provides yet another absolutely compelling deconstruction of the way that music, in its different forms, affects people.
Not that it doesn’t have fun for a while first, of course. We’ve got the entire evening at our fingertips, and this leaves many, many pages in which Gillen cuts loose and auditions for the sitcom that he clearly wants for Bingo, perhaps the finest comedic creation in comics since Wallace Wells. As the two DJs take (or, rather reject) requests, grumble about others’ tastes and haircuts and ruminate on which members of Girls Aloud they’d be friends with, the whole thing is simply an unadulterated joy of one-liner after epithet after scathing put-down. It’s not just that the lines are funny, either, but the care and construction that goes into Bingo’s speech patterns (“It is inconceivable that we will play this ‘The Pixies’ pop combo”) – and it makes for a machine-gun-esque barrage of scenes that you simply don’t want to end.
But with the end of the night comes Gillen’s unquenchable desire for there to be a point to it all, and it’s with this that the issue veers dangerously close to perfection yet again. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but particularly considering the short shrift given to the “retromancer” in Rue Britannia, it’s nice to see a little credit given to the role of the humble record-spinner (I’d use the term “DJ”, but that has a wider meaning far removed from what I’m referring to – I’m talking about DJs that transmit, not create), and an exploration of the simultaneous self-gratification and selfless attuning to the needs of the populace (after all, nothing that occurs in The Singles Club would do so without the DJs’ choice of records). And it’s a deconstruction of the series itself, to the extent that you almost wonder why it’s not the final issue – in Greek chorus fashion, our hosts comment on stories both that we’ve seen play out, and that we’ve yet to encounter. Perhaps it’s deliberate that it should come at the halfway point, a chance to stop and breathe and consider what the series is all about (after all, while every other issue pushes the “magic” angle, Seth and Silent take the opposing view – it’s not magic, it’s simply music), but in many ways it can’t help but feel like a beautiful capstone.
Using the word “beautiful”, of course, makes for an entirely accidental segue into discussing the art, and it has to be said that given his limited opportunity to explore a variety of gorgeous characters interacting with one-another, this is somehow McKelvie’s finest hour on the series so far. Of the sixteen pages of “main” story, every single one – with the exception of a double-page spread – is given over to exactly the same six-panel grid, with exactly the same angled shot of the DJ booth. And yet, from a storytelling point of view, it’s a masterpiece – from the pacing (and there’s as much wit in some of the moment-to-moment storytelling as there is in the dialogue) to the expressive character work. Bound by what is essentially an issue of talking heads, McKelvie breaks free and explores nuance to a breathtaking degree. It’s not just in facial expression, either, but in little details, such as Seth tapping a beer bottle on the glass while sulking, or the exquisite timing of the “Atomic” sequence (incidentally, that might be the one occasion in the series so far where you’ll need to know the song in order to get the true joy of the moment. But it’s “Atomic”, so every bugger will know it anyway). And then there’s that aforementioned double-pager, a truly breathtaking sequence that somehow sums up an entire series in two pages – and which, thanks to yet more magnificent work from Matt Wilson, positively glows off the page.
Away from the bright lights of Bristol, meanwhile, another of Gillen’s longtime collaborators, Charity Larrison, makes an appearance for what is becoming known as “the Indie Dave section” of backup strip land. With the possible exception of Marc Ellerby’s strip, this story has an art style that is perhaps the least characteristic of the series so far; but while I’m not sure it’s entirely right for the character, the design work on “Theory” and “Practice” is superb – and the story itself is a nice little progression of the loose “arc” Indie has found himself in the middle of. Elsewhere, colouring comes to the fore once again with David Lafuente’s pages effectively rendering the jarring, brain-hammering terror of an earworm (in this case, Outkast’s “Roses”), and the way the song’s lyrics “bleed” into the artwork is inspired.
As Phonogram rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear (even when its cast aren’t saying it explicitly) that when it talks of “magic”, it’s a far more ethereal and symbolic concept than you’d expect from the Constantineisms that first brought us into the book’s world. But more than that, the word “magical” doesn’t just refer to the purported antics of Kohl and Aster and Lloyd and Indie and the rest – but the very series itself. It’s an experience for the reader, triggering the same emotions and memories and experiences that the characters in its pages feel when they hear the Pipettes, or CSS, or Kenickie. “No magic”? Stuff yer rules, Seth.