Best Shots Advance Reviews: PHONOGRAM: THE IMMATERIAL GIRL #1, THIS DAMNED BAND #1, THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #13

"The Wicked + The Divine #13" cover
Credit: Jamie McKelvie (Image Comics)
Credit: Jamie McKelvie (Image Comics)

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, Sarah Gordon and Kelly Fitzpatrick
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Oscar Maltby
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

As far as concepts go, Phonogram is as simple as they come. Music is magic. Kieron Gillen deftfully takes that flurry of emotion that comes with everyone's personal soundtrack to youth and liberally daubs it in nightlife culture and indie musical elitism. Gillen doesn't shy away from the abstract here, offering up a young woman who gives up half of her living soul to music video and a group of magic users planning an Electroclash revival as a means to rejuvenate the world-at-large. Needless to say, when people call bits and pieces of mass media “hipster-ish”, Phonogram is exactly what they have in mind. At its heart, Phonogram is a slick and modern drama steeped in fantastical realism. Despite its quality, it is also wholly inaccessible to new readers.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 is a book steeped in teenage angst and pretension. Gillen speaks with the fierce conviction of a young Pitchfork reader, fondly poking fun at musical tribalism while throwing the reader into an odd mash-up of witchcraft and fandom. Thankfully for those not entirely immersed in the intracacies of modern pop music, Gillen and McKelvie have wisely included a glossary.

Jamie McKelvie's artwork is the pinnacle of cleanliness. His characters seem to be created out of porcelain, and Matthew Wilson carefully colors the flat expanse between McKelvie's lines with lively flesh tones, while Wilson and McKelvie work together to ensure depth of image is achieved through lighting. They dynamically cast shadows across each character's face, lending them emotions that would otherwise be achieved through a furrowed brow or wrinkled mouth.

At its worst, Gillen's world of characters ruled by impulse and rebellion, each one embued with a razor-sharp wit, comes across as author-inserting wish fulfillment. Gillen is nothing if not self-aware though, addressing such concerns in the post-issue letter. The depth of the subject matter is another worry. For a reader who understands the references, Phonogram is intelligent and filled with humor. To a reader with basically zero interest in music? Maybe they'd find more to enjoy in Gillen's and McKelvie's equally solid The Wicked + The Divine.

Rounding out the issue is two short stories, both written by Gillen. “Everything and Nothing” is a fun little tale about the haunting powers of Taylor Swift, whilst “Blurred” is a single page story about music appreciation across the generation gap. Both stories are little more than one-note jokes, but they're solid jokes. Artwise, Sarah Gordon's pitch-black artwork accompanies “Everything or Nothing” perfectly, but Clayton Cowles and Kelly Fitzpatrick's work on “Blurred” is a bit too rough for an otherwise a slick-looking issue.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 is a welcome return for Gillen and McKelvie's high-concept baby, fleshing out an already compelling world with a haunting back-story for one of its most intriguing characters, Emily Aster. For new readers, it's more than a little overwhelming, and even moreso for the less musically inclined. Challenging and alienating it may be, but Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #1 is an impressively distinctive comic book all the same.

Credit: Dark Horse Comics

This Damned Band #1
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Tony Parker and Lovern Kindzierski
Lettering by Michael Heisler
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Richard Gray
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

We all remember Motherfather, the British rock band that stormed the charts in the 1960s before diving headlong into psychedelia and straight-up rock, right? Writer Paul Cornell certainly does, in this mockumentary-style comic book that could very readily be called Their Satanic Majesties Third Request, assuming the Rolling Stones and Brian Jonestown Massacre have dibs on the first two. Blending the direct-to-‘camera’ absurdity of This Is Spinal Tap with the groupies of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Cornell and artist Tony Parker’s This Damned Band takes a familiar track and spins it backwards, literally eliciting an unexpected Satanic message.

Motherfather is introduced by way of their sell-out show at Japan’s infamous Budokan, touted by Creem Magazine as the “least depressing feature of the modern ruins.” Through a series of documentary-style vignettes, we learn of their music, their many girlfriends, groupies, and wives, and barrage of behind-the-scenes people that make the band run like a well-oiled machine. Rock god Justin Parish, lead vocals, runs with the story that it is actually the fact that they’ve sold their souls to the dark lords for a slice of success. After a mushroom trip that goes a little astray, he may be more on the money than he knows.

This Damned Band is not an alarming new idea, but it wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. Apart from the obvious cinematic influences, Cornell’s knowledge of the cultural pastiche that makes up Motherfather is at times cheeky, and at others slyly knowing. These might be rock ‘n’ roll cliches, but they mostly come to the page fully realized, complete with their own motivations, families, and complex interrelationships. Alice, the lead guitarist Kev’s wife, is a perfect example of this, incongruous amongst the harem of groupies, but foreshadowing some of the psychadelia of the final pages. Where the twist to this tail comes is in the devilish ending, one that completely shifts the tone of the book into something entirely different.

Parker’s art dips wholesale into the 1970s setting, aping some of the hyper-realistic body types and facial expressions of the Bronze Age of comic books. It’s not just the people either, with cups, bento boxes of food, and Budokan architecture lovingly recreated. Then, with the swiftness of a chord change, comes a six-page acid trip (or more accurately, a mushroom-induced hallucination) that is a swirling morass of color, elongated figures, and cartoon physics. It works seamlessly with the other art, and it’s a testament that upon putting the book down, you could absolutely swear that you were hit with the band’s sweat from the front row of the audience.

The initial mockumentary conceit of This Damned Band doesn’t always work, and in fact holds the reader at arm’s length. Yet it’s also a fun way to introduce a large ensemble in rapid order. The bigger issue might be that it conveniently forgets its own mock form, so that when it returns to a “to camera” interview it is jarring and once again takes us out of the story. It could also be said that much of the future of the series relies on buy-in of the final panel, which will presumably set the course of the next issue. However, as a jet-fueled piece of art rock, it captures an era well, and that alone gives this grounds for further exploration.

Credit: Jamie McKelvie (Image Comics)

The Wicked + The Divine #13
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Tula Lotay, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by C.K. Stewart
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

Pop culture immortality with an expiration date is an ominous premise from the get-go, but this month’s The Wicked + The Divine #13 takes an especially dark turn as Kieron Gillen exposes a gruesome edge to supernatural fame and fortune. This issue deals with suicide and violent, highly sexualized misogyny, and may be difficult to read.

The Wicked + The Divine #13 focuses on that Tara, she of dubious mythological origin who has been name-dropped but never seen. Given most references to her so far have been Laura’s fanart and “f-cking Tara,” I suspected the bar for her emotional depth was low. Considering everything about Woden and Baphomet, what unspeakable things would someone have to do to seem so universally disliked?

But this month’s issue is one of Gillen’s most poignant The Wicked + The Divine tales to date. Tara’s biggest sin is that she is insufficiently grateful for her elevation to godhood, using it to try and further her own artistic career rather than simply revelling in her new abilities. In the opening pages, we see one of her concerts go dangerously wrong when she attempts to perform her own songs rather than use her power to lull the crowd. As soon as the tide turns, one of her own back-up performers snidely tells her to “do your thing, you selfish b-tch” - a motif that carries throughout the story as Gillen explores the often violently sexualized misogyny Tara has faced since her days as a mortal.

This thread is what makes The Wicked + The Divine #13 a touching but painful read from start to finish. Gillen’s biggest sin with Tara’s tale is perhaps making her appearance so central to the treatment she receives at the hands of others both as a mortal and as a part of the Pantheon. The choice to portray her in a mask, cast as her effort to shift the focus to her talent and personality rather than her looks, reads at times as if the real tragedy is that she is too pretty to be appreciated rather than that she is subjected to this treatment for any reason at all.

While the lives of the Pantheon have not been easy, particularly those lives ended before their two year stint as gods was up, Tara’s is the most unsettling perspective we’ve seen so far. For the first time Gillen suggests members of the Pantheon don’t always go willingly, and that they are not always happy to be chosen by Ananke even after their transformation is complete.

So far, Ananke has been written as a mother figure to the Pantheon; there to protect them and guide them through the last two years of their lives. Though she seems to accept Tara’s choices, Ananke’s callous destruction of Tara’s farewell note feels like a betrayal of the relationship Tara seemed to believe they shared, and suggests a more nefarious edge to her relationship with the rest of the Pantheon that will hopefully be explored in future issues.

Tula Lotay joins Gillen on this issue as the second guest artist of the "Commercial Suicide" arc, and her soft, classic style is a perfect fit for this issue. Her rendition of Tara is glamorous and elegant, with skillfully drawn expressions that perfectly capture her tumultuous emotional state. Though Tara spends much of the issue in a mask, Lotay gives special care to her eyes to ensure we never miss an emotional beat in the story. It’s hard to imagine that the final pages of this issue would have been as heartbreaking as they are in the hands of another artist, even Jamie McKelvie.

Longtime readers of The Wicked + Divine will likely find Tara’s tale a surprisingly dark read given the comedic undertones of her references so far. But The Wicked + The Divine #13 drives at the heart of the tragic world Gillen has been building for these young gods since the beginning, and provides a much-needed perspective on those gods who do not go willingly through the looking glass. While a challenging and emotionally fraught read, this month’s issue is the most poignant yet, and fans won’t be disappointed.

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