The Gap between Panels / Repetition Repetition Repetition

In the 2003 republication of his essay Writing For Comics, Alan Moore adds a postscript in which he turns from offering advice to newbies thinking about a career in comics, to suggestions for creators who have already established themselves. It’s couched in a partial rejection of some of the techniques he had recommended back in 1985 – most notably the idea that you needed to provide a kind of bridging device between pages to keep readers interested. Moore admits that he pretty much gave up on that as soon as he finished Watchmen, and he argues that he was right to do so. His central claim is that artists need to keep developing, for their own sake as well as for the sake of their audience. Creators should always be trying to challenge themselves, and avoid repetition like the plague.

One of the reasons why I find The Wicked + The Divine underwhelming is the feeling that it doesn’t live up to that advice. The comic, about pop music and fandom, is written by Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Jamie McKelvie and coloured by Matt Wilson. This team had previously collaborated together on Phonogram – another comic about pop music and fandom. They often describe WicDiv as a ‘victory lap’, utilising everything they have learned about comics (and their partnership) to date to deliver a big cult hit. This will be their 50-issue calling card, in the way that Preacher is for Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon or Transmetropolitan is for Warren Ellis and Darick Robinson. It’s consciously doing the smart thing and aiming for a big audience, rather than doing the niche, idiosyncratic semi-autobiographical stuff found in Phonogram.

 The second Phonogramseries is one of my all-time favourite comics, but I suspect I love it for reasons the creators may find a bit disappointing. Most of the people I’ve spoken to about it admit they find it difficult to get beyond the references to mid-2000s British indie pop bands. No matter how much the creators insist that a reader does not need to know about the music the characters talk about or obsess over, a reference is inevitably exclusionary if you don’t get it. The comic can feel cliquey and try hard, even if its sentiment is anything but. Reading it is a bit like eavesdropping on hypercool hipsters smirking over their private jokes. The fact that the tone spills over into the (actually quite useful) backpage glossary of songs and bands might be taken as a confirmation that the creators are fighting the character’s petty taste wars, even though overtly the theme is that the music you love doesn’t matter, so long as you love it.
phonogram
If that is a flaw, it’s one I embrace wholeheartedly. Phonogram for me is not so much a thesis about the different ways people can appreciate music, but music journalism in its purest form – telling you why you should care about this song, and how to go about trying to understand its appeal. Kieron Gillen used to be a games and music journalist (I picked up Phonogrampartly because I recognised his name from reading PC Gamer when I was 12), and he does describe “phonomancy” as a metaphor for pop criticism. But it’s worth emphasising that criticism is always situated within the taste war, and to its credit Phonogram isn’t shy about taking a stand.

Instead, it’s a comic that got me to listen to bands that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. In its own small way, it changed my tastes. And that is what it took to also change the way that I listened to and reacted to music. Paradoxically, given how smug the characters are, it got rid of a lot of my own musical posturing, while also teaching me that dancing is great even if you can’t do it, and that the idea of a guilty pleasure is (oxy)moronic when applied to pop music. That achievement was the result of me realising that despite their many issues, Phonogram’s characters were on the right side of the taste wars, and I was on the wrong one.

Phonogram may well be the most personal thing Gillen will ever write. WicDiv feels more aloof and controlled, but also more approachable. Rather than the steep barriers to entry created by Phonogram’s obscure indie references, here the pop deities are entirely fictional, and borrow signifiers from megastars like Prince and Rihanna. If Phonogram is a bit 6Music, WicDiv is like Radio 1 (my tastes have turned in a 1Xtra direction, but that’s by-the-by). WicDiv also has a more hooky conceit – fame and power for two years followed by death. In comparison, Phonogram’s ‘music is magic’ tagline is much harder to pin down.

The-Wicked-+-The-Divine-04-01

WicDiv is perfectly functional and effective comics. The second volume is a step up from the first, which takes its time setting up the mythology and characters. But it still feels relatively low risk, and I wonder whether it will manage to eclipse Phonogram as the more significant achievement. To be fair, the creators have vowed that this is to be their last big collaboration. They are having their day in the sun, and I don’t begrudge them that after the long and hard slog of doing Phonogramfor no money and little industry support.

The creators are also doing interesting work elsewhere. A case in point is Three, a meticulously researched thriller set in Sparta written by Keiron Gillen with art by Ryan Kelly and colours by Jordie Bellaire. Although Gillen suggests he’s not trying to pick a fight with Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300, the comparison is inevitable, and not entirely unwarranted. Instead of the 300 courageous Spartan warriors dying to defend Greece against the tyrannical Persians, we have three Helot slaves fleeing overweening Spartan oppression. The book’s fastidious historical awareness generates its own theme – suggesting a need to understand history in order to learn the right lessons from it, rather than to believe the myths the Greeks told about themselves. The book is extraordinarily layered – I needed the copious backpage material to work out a lot of its techniques and allusions. It is very far from the heart-on-sleeve honesty of Phonogram, but it is the most fiercely intelligent book Gillen has done, and shows that he is pushing himself, and providing new challenges for his readers. Alan Moore can’t say fairer than that.

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