Honestly, I'm really not a betting man, but I'd happily invest a not inconsiderable amount of money on the proposition that most folks who finish "Phonogram: Rue Britannia" then suffer a barely controllable urge to blather about their favourite records, and of the youth cults that they belonged to, and of the pleasures and agonies of their own often exceptionally-protracted adolescence.
I'd also further risk that stake on a double which also predicts that just about everyone who's read the first Phonogram collection would testify as to how thoroughly enjoyable and, yes, moving "Rue Britannia" is.
It really is a tremendous achievement on the part of Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie. They've created a comic about an often unpleasant individual experiencing a distinct and distant period of pop music's evolution, and made the whole business compelling. And, I'd strongly imagine, they've also simultaneously succeeded in evoking the youth of just about everyone who ever fell in love with a particular type of music and a way of life which seemed inseparable from it.
That fusion of the detail of Brit-Pop, as experienced from the periphery of the West Country rather than supposed heartland of the Good Mixer in Camden Town, combined with a skillful representation of what it feels like to belong to a sub-culture which is already moving on and changing just as it's being discovered and defined, helps protect Phonogram from seeming too local and autobiographical, or too broad and patronisingly inclusive. Instead, the progression of our old and always reliable narrative friend the hero's journey is grounded and invigorated by a comic book structure that's informed both by the exotic detail of local youth cults and the emotional resonances of the reader's own experience of trying to, and trying not to, grow up.
And so, for all that I find myself really wanting to prattle on about the details of my own experiences, who really needs to know? We've got Phonogram, and Phonogram deals with a great deal of what feels so compelling about those stray fragments of everyone's personal experience , and it does so while telling a damn solid story too.
It strikes me that I can't think of another comic where the traditional hero's journey has been so convincingly cast in a recognisably modern context. The threat that Dave Kohl has to face up to, overcome, and learn from isn't, for example, one that can be dealt with by muscle power and physical bravery, as if the world were still a place where testosterone-balled fists can be relied upon to solve every problem. Indeed, where most every other adventure comic this side of Sandman would resolve at least some of its conflict through punch-ups supposedly standing for less specifically brawny values, Phonogram's showdowns are constantly closed through discussion and debate, through the development of self-awareness and the application of a benevolent cunning.
And for all that Phonogram is studded with the tropes of fantasy, from sorcery to goddesses and other-wordly realms, the central dilemma of Dave's protracted and selfish adolescence is a profoundly contemporary one. How is he to create a sense of self living as he does within a culture lacking set traditional roles and yet awash with far more ways of experiencing reality, some substantial, most very much not, than he can ever start to process? Dave fears that if he doesn't fix his own identity in terms of the experiences he's treasured, he'll be swept away, lost in a never-beaching tsunami of information and options. If he lets go of Britpop, not only will he loose his ability to justify doing whatever he likes to whoever he chooses to do it too, but he fears he'll loose himself as well. He'll be nothing but a man defined by the outside world, ever-shifting without autonomy, lacking freedom but subject to responsibility, a reflection of other people rather than himself; a bloke called "Dave Kohl" rather than Dave Kohl.
Now, falling for a comic, just like falling for a song or a novel, can leave you misty-minded, and so I've no idea of the accuracy of what I'm saying. Still, if I'm wrong, it's a wrongheadedness inspired by enthusiasm and enjoyment, and perhaps such a measure of over-reaction is entirely appropriate when writing about a book that's concerned with how our thoughts and feelings can be transformed for good and ill by the sheer bloody joyousness of pop culture.
But it seems to me that until Dave grasps that he can't impose a fixed order upon his own life through the manipulation of the objects of his past, and until he grasps that he shouldn't ever try, there's no possibility for anything more than the odd mood of quickly-passing triumphalism on his part. He can win this and beat away that, but he can't ever belong. For culture inevitably mutates, time inevitably passes, people inevitably change, but there's a character-fixing constancy to the business of being gentle and kind to others that Dave can only discover as he chooses to abandon the past. That still point of being a human being, a mensch, never changes even as everything else does, and that's what Dave eventually learns.
All of which is a rather endearingly sweet and life-affirming core to find in a book whose surface is often so knowing and arch and sharp-edged.
It's impossible not to be impressed by how the events of the mid-Nineties are woven into the narrative of "Phonogram". A great deal of the time, they're referred to in passing or touched upon rather than specified, unpretentiously left to lie in front of the reader so that anyone who recognises their value can benefit from their presence without the need for any story-slowing info-dumping. At other moments, of course, real-world events stand as symbols for major turning points in Dave Kohl's life, rather than merely marking the passing of time and the rise and decay of the goddesses reign.
Perhaps my favourite such use of a historical event being put to use is that placed in Book 6, where we're presented with Dave's sad diatribe against Richey Manic's decision to kill himself without ever informing his loved ones of the fact of his passing. It's a scene that marks Dave's first few steps on the path to a socially-hearted redemption, for he's been deeply moved by the confusion and grief of Beth's ghost and he's learning to think in terms of the consequences that our individual choices have for the well-being of others. Yet it's so cleverly marked that Dave's still got a long way to go, because even now he can't stop himself judging Richey Edwards in terms of his life as the pop star Richey Manic, in the context of his existence as a mass-medium player of meaning, rather than simply as a human being who suffered so that he couldn't bear to go on. For Dave defines Richey as "a shit" because he never left even a note to tell his loved ones that he really did intend to die rather than merely disappear, to save them those agonies of waiting and never knowing. And Dave interprets the symbols of Richey's death and decides that the whole process of the suicide was at least in part a singularity-sized egoistic design to create a myth of Richey Manic the self-slain and yet never-dying rock star.
That Dave should grieve for the appalling suffering of those Edwards left behind is a marker of the exceptional progress he's made. And perhaps Dave's distaste for Edward's behaviour is fuelled in part by his own shame at his own previous conviction that life should be experienced according to an archetypally callow music critic's code of what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour. But that Dave should still be unable to empathetically grasp that any man who kills himself is already beyond the degree of clear thinking and warmhearted social-mindedness that we'd hope for in an undisordered mind skillfully illustrates how Dave is viewing Richey's demise in terms of rock mythology and not individual suffering. Dave hasn't yet learn to always separate image from reality, legend from actuality. Edwards capacity to think and behave rationally had clearly been substantially if not entirely annihilated by the time of the death. In the weeks of his long passing, no matter what his mental processes led him to do or not do, Richey Edwards was a profoundly disordered and vulnerable young man, and already so close to if not completely beyond the event horizon of reason that any judgement of him surely needs to be supplanted by sympathy.
It's such a clever way of marking how Dave Kohl is growing up without presenting us with an all-knowing, completely empathetic ex-pop cult casualty born again as a paragon. Nobody changes that quickly, and Dave, for all that he's learning how relationships are marked by responsibility, is still carrying a mind that's all too full of the semiology of rock and not quite full enough as yet of kindness.
The use of Britpop as a symbol for Dave's life-defining and soul-constraining desire to lock himself into an irresponsible and eternal adolescence is a similarly sharp and self-aware choice, since Britpop itself can be understood as a fundamentally conservative reaction against an avalanche of cultural change combined with the fear of the decay of secure, informing and yet invidiously constraining traditional social roles.
That Britpop could also be very much more than that parallels the fact that so can Dave Kohl. But first, a fair degree of digging underneath the surface is, "Rue: Britannia" informs us, a necessary beginning to a healthier understanding of what was really going on, and why.
I'll be honest. My low-level cynicism about Britpop and its fellow travellers has quite evaporated since reading the first volume of Phonogram in the past few days. Britpop all seems to have been a far more democratic and empowering and enjoyable business than it did from the other side of 30, where I stood at the time.
Interlude - "Sing This Song To Your Children" - 10 Much-Loved Songs From The Britpop Era
- Save Me I'm Yours (live) - Gene
- Common People - Pulp
- Chinese Bakery - The Auteurs
- Stay Together - Suede
- Live Forever - Oasis
- Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead
- Time - Supergrass
- This Is A Low - Blur
- This Is Yesterday - Manic Street Preachers
- Kelly's Heroes - Black Grape