The power of fandom: Phonogram by Gillen and McKelvie

I’m currently more excited about comics than I’ve been in months, and it all comes down to one release – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. It’s everything you’d expect from this talented team – beautiful illustrations, characterful dialogue, an intriguing mix of modern culture and fantasy. It’s the second best comic I’ve ever read about pop music as magic.

So naturally I’m going to talk about another comic – Phonogram.

Phonogram

Memories of music past

The first volume of Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie’s previous collaboration, came out in 2006. Collected as Rue Britannia, this was the story of phonomancer David Kohl, a man with the power to make magic through music. Not playing his own tunes, but channeling the power of other people’s records. Ten years on from the phenomenon of Britpop, Kohl took a stroll down musical memory lane, digging into that era’s music, a mixture of daring and disappointment, in an attempt to solve a curse falling on him in the present.

Rue Britannia was unique and fascinating, and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. You didn’t have to have listened to a Shed Seven record to enjoy it, but if you remembered Menswear or had leapt around a nightclub to the sound of Elastica then it was going to be much more personal for you.

I don’t remember when I discovered Rue Britannia, but I was fascinated by its flawed and daring mishmash of subjects, as well as nostalgic for a musical era I’d experienced slightly differently from Kohl. It was enough for me to buy the second collected volume, The Singles Club, and…

Best. Comic. Ever.

There are comic series that I love as much as Phonogram, if not more. The jagged science fiction poetry of Transmetropolitan. The surreal humour and world building of Chew. The noire grandeur of 100 Bullets. But for a single impeccable volume, consisting of seven spectacular individual issues, nothing beats The Singles Club.

The Singles Club consists of seven short character studies, all set around the same night out in the same club. Each one contains a complete character and story arc, intersecting with the others to add depth to the whole. Each one grounds its fantasy and character elements in a passion for pop music that connects the story to familiar early adult lives. The art and writing are both clearer and more characterful than the previous volume. It is a thing of beauty that should appeal to anyone who enjoys both music and comics, or anyone looking for an offbeat approach to fantasy and magic, or frankly anyone with good taste (OK, maybe I’m getting a bit subjective there, is it still subjective when I’m clearly right?).

This is literature as a presentation of character, of growth, of the joys and challenges of life.

The Singles Club is the only book in my house that I read several times a year. I love it.

A magic about empowerment

The Wicked + The Divine is about musicians as people with magical power. Their ability to craft songs is clearly central to their ability to do something more potent. That’s all well and good, but it restricts power to the hands of those who can strike up a tune. There’s an implied message here – ‘if you’re creative then you’re special’. It’s a familiar message, and not a bad one, but it has a certain elitism to it.

Phonogram carries a message that is more egalitarian. For all the snide elitism of characters like David Kohl, the underlying message is that culture isn’t just about creativity, it’s about appreciating and being empowered by what others have created. It’s fandom as empowerment. It says that your love of music, or any other cultural form, is as valid and as powerful an act of empowerment and self-creation as anything else. And I think that that is a fabulous message.

Listening to music, loving music, discussing music, sharing your passion, these are actually incredible things. The same applies to the fandom of TV, of books, of films, of any other form. Being an engaged audience makes us come alive. It creates bonds between us. It is as vital to a thriving culture as the acts of creation that it revolves around. Appreciating that, making it central to a story, that’s a great thing.

Go forth and listen

The Wicked + The Divine is currently coming out month by month via Comixology and comic shops. If you’re into comics you should give it a go – the first issue certainly promises good things.

But Phonogram, and The Singles Club in particular, that is a truly great thing.

And in the spirit of that book I give you a mission today. Go forth and find a song that you loved in your formative years. Or if you’re still in those formative years then just a song you loved recently. Sit down and listen to it, doing nothing else with the time (OK, you can dance, though personally I’ll be leaning against a wall trying to look nonchalant, because that’s how sixteen-year-old Andrew rolled). Then come back here and tell us all why that song is so damn awesome, or why it seemed that way to you at the time.

Share that passion.

Geek music 2

No sooner had I posted last Saturday’s geek music selection than I remembered some great songs I’d forgotten. To remedy that situation, and to include some tracks other people have recommended, here’s a second batch of geek music.

I’m sure there’s plenty more great stuff that I’m missing, so if you’ve got any suggestions please pop them in the comments below.

In the Garage by Weezer – the ultimate homage to having your own geek space:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWymbWBpqsg&w=420&h=315]

 

Twelve Sided Dice by Dream Warriors – from the people who brought you the classic ‘Wash Your Face In My Sink’, a tribute to the joys of tabletop roleplay:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0C_qrKaSso&w=420&h=315]

 

Game Store Girl by Beefy – as recommended by Dizz, a nerdy romance song:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mi_ftK7bWxM&w=420&h=315]

 

Geekquilibrium by Dr Awkward – another recommendation from Dizz, jammed full of geek culture references and with some clever rhymes:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20-txQdOo4Q&w=560&h=315]

 

Lannista’s Paradise by The Sons of Mim – shown to me by fellow author Charlotte Bond, Coolio meets Game of Thrones with amusing results:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXJMB2nhjZM&w=420&h=315]

 

Cup Of Brown Joy by Professor Elemental – slightly off topic, but I couldn’t resist including this impeccable tribute to the joys of tea:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eELH0ivexKA&w=420&h=315]

 

Geek music

There’s a lot of nerdily-themed music out there. Whether it’s songs about steampunk, sci-fi rapping, or a hymn to the joys of board games, if you’ve got a hobby you can bet someone’s made a tune about it.

And sure, a lot of it isn’t great. But have you listened to the radio recently? I’ll take something amateurish but interesting rather than over-produced pop six days out of seven (on that seventh day I’ll be leaping around the house to Take That and Taylor Swift, because even over-produced pop has some great talents).

Neither am I saying that nerdy music is all amateurish. Any genre in any medium has a lot of amateurs and a few skilled or lucky pros. Here, for your weekend listening, are some of my favourites.

The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth by I Fight Dragons – geek rock with computer game bleeps, wonderfully exuberant:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV0YPfJ_EoU&w=560&h=315]

 

Drawings With Words by Wordburglar – the joys of comic collecting as expressed by a Canadian rapper with a talent for unexpected rhymes (contains swears and obscure superhero references):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JK93xfHZug&w=560&h=315]

 

Fire Fire by Steam Powered Giraffe – steampunk robots sing about a space disaster:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLNgD5vsZsM&w=560&h=315]

 

We Do Not Sow by Adam WarRock – the latest in a string of Game of Thrones raps from an incredibly prolific artist (again, it’s hip-hop, do not play this language around young children):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU6HAc1K4Go&w=560&h=315]

 

One future for stories – DEVICE 6

If you want to see where the future of storytelling might lie then you should step away from the books and have a go at DEVICE 6.

Playing The Prisoner

DEVICE 6 is a mobile app game that combines textual storytelling with unusual design and problem solving. Extra Credits sold me on the joys of this game, so I’ll pop their video here so you can see why I was intrigued:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AqiPoHU4Fk&w=560&h=315]

I agree with James from Extra Credits on the strange and engrossing nature of the app, which is part game, part short story, part work of visual art. It is a bit on the short side, but for only a few quid you’re getting several hours of entertainment – more than you’d get from a trip to the cinema and at less than half the price.

But the real reason to try this is to see what they’ve done. DEVICE 6 is a fascinating combination of different media. They mostly mix well together and actually interconnect rather than just sitting alongside each other. It’s an atmospheric story akin to the old The Prisoner TV show, and the unusual design adds to the disconcerting atmosphere.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tra3Zi5ZWa0&w=560&h=315]

The story side

So why should this interest people who read and write books?

Basically because it covers so many of the points China Miéville raised in the video I posted yesterday. It’s made up mostly of text, but it explores new ways of telling stories. By involving the audience it makes an interactive experience in which the audience becomes author of their fate. It’s a collaboration, not a lone ‘genius’ spitting out stories for a distant audience. It shows how we can do things differently.

This isn’t a perfect creation. There’s a pattern to the interaction between puzzles and text that starts to feel repetitive by the end, and though this means they cut the game short at the right point it does still feel short. But it’s a fascinating experiment, and if you’re interested in the possible futures made available by the e-reading revolution then I recommend giving it a go.

And in case you were in any doubt, here’s a song from the soundtrack, because this story really does use all media – Anna by Jonathan Eng:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oYY-KkoDAk&w=420&h=315]

Some Saturday listening – folk I know

It’s Saturday! You don’t want to be reading my opinions on literature or how best to drink a cup of tea. You want to be listening to awesome tunes and chilling out with a good book.

To help you achieve that weekend nirvana, and to publicise the creativity of others instead of just myself, here’s some music by people I know. Most of it’s folk, all of it’s excellent. Enjoy!

Old Worlds by The Patient Wild – the folk rock stylings of blog commenter Glenatron and others, combining passion and stringed instruments to awesome effect:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/25146938″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

 

Yan Tan Tether, my sister-in-law Rosie’s folk trio, singing beautiful songs live at Otley Courthouse:

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/149119880″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

 

Steampunk trio Pocketwatch covering Tonight Tonight by Smashing Pumpkins. Will of Pocketwatch is a mad creative genius and inventor of the blunderbow:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2kesQ-exzc&w=560&h=315]

 

Accidental Crimes by Driven Serious, from my old geeking grounds in north-east England. Their bassist Tim has the facial hair of an angry pagan god, yet is one of the most lovely blokes I know:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE2dqoalbP4&w=560&h=315]

Doc Brown raps an urban fantasy tale

Well, here’s an exciting surprise sitting in my YouTube list – Doc Brown has made a rap video based on Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London. A musician I admire rapping about a book I enjoyed? Sounds good to me. And Doc Brown seems a perfect choice to portray Aaronovitch’s supernatural cop Peter Grant. Lets give it a go.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXW2-qbSKpA&w=560&h=315]

 

Alright, I admit, I thought that was only OK. The best rap evokes powerful emotions, and that didn’t. The best story songs either evoke a strong sense of atmosphere or tell a condensed tale from beginning to end, and that sat uncomfortably somewhere in between, not really achieving either. Brown’s direct lyrical style is better suited to comedy than to this. Exhibit A, My Proper Tea:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtK_vfp8po8&w=560&h=315]

 

But.

I am still very glad that this track exists. I love when artists in one medium respond to a work in another. I think it’s fantastic that we’re now hearing really good music on nerdy themes. And much as I love Steam Powered Giraffe or listening to Christopher Lee doing heavy metal history songs, I don’t want the music of the fantastical to all be created by white guys with guitars.*

Having said that, lets take a moment for one of those Christopher Lee tracks:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvKRbi2ovDY&w=560&h=315]

 

I would rather live in a world full of exciting and varied failures than one where everything succeeds in the same way. I would rather listen to something flawed but unusual like this than anything Kanye West or Oasis have ever produced. I’ll take the experiments that don’t quite work if it makes the world more interesting.

And hey, maybe if they do a sequel I’ll like it more.

So thanks for this Aaronovitch and Brown. Please keep at it.

 

* Confession time – the majority of my music collection probably consists of white guys with guitars. What can I say, I’m a white guy who grew up listening to guitar music. But I like to have variety too.

Nothing new under the sun

Today I was going to write about the commercialisation of art and the effect of economic markets on creativity. But I’m far too excited because I just booked tickets to see Postmodern Jukebox on the UK leg of their tour. So instead I’m going to enthuse about their music and then use it for a creative writing related lesson. Because, lets face it, drawing tenuous parallels to whatever’s drawn my attention is becoming my MO.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KzP4bC1Ypg?list=PLJZH8sevmMq6NvgD9_ucuptwBxaQnAGAw&w=560&h=315]

A painter’s pallet, but with notes

Postmodern Jukebox, like 2CELLOS, mostly perform covers of pop songs. But unlike 2CELLOS they don’t have a consistent musical style, instead playing around with different musical genres. The combination of styles is amusing, occasionally moving, and often better than the original version (depending on how you feel about the original, of course). I even enjoy their bluegrass version of Robin Thicke’s loathsome Blurred Lines (yes, I know it’s catchy, but that’s no excuse for misogyny).

Some people might argue that this isn’t really creativity – they aren’t writing new songs or creating new styles. But I totally disagree. Creativity is all about combining existing elements in new ways, like a painter mingling colours on her pallet.

Tolkien talks creativity

J R R Tolkien believed that the only acts of pure unadulterated creation came from God. In Tolkien’s view, what we humans do is a secondary act, using the elements that are already in place. As story tellers we create secondary worlds.

I don’t agree with a lot of Tolkien’s take on creativity,but I do think that he was onto something. In my view there is no pure, unadulterated creation, no bolt from the blue, flash of inspiration stuff, nothing completely novel and unprecedented. That’s a myth, a dream we’ve been sold that puts creativity beyond our reach, makes us feel like we can’t achieve it and so, in many cases, give up.

But creativity is about taking what’s already there and combining it in new ways. When you put together vampires and gangsters you get From Dusk Till Dawn. When you combine superpowers and food you get Chew. When you combine a pop song and a solemnly singing clown you get this:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmCJEehYtU&w=560&h=315]

 

These are all acts of creation, as pure and wonderful as any others. They all give us something new. They are all great.

Get creating

Idealising some pure form of creativity, over-using terms like ‘derivative’ as criticisms, these behaviours disempower us. No-one mocked the second cavewoman to bang two stones together and make fire. Hell, she probably used better stones than the first one. That’s creativity, a constant act of building on what’s come before.

Re-mixing, re-writing, copying a sketch, these are all acts of creativity. And that means we can all be creative, not because some secondary form of creativity is OK, but because this is the only form of creativity.*

This afternoon I’m finally going to watch the new Captain America film. Will it be uncreative because so many elements in it have been used many times before? I doubt it. And I can’t wait to see it.

In the meantime, here’s one more Postmodern Jukebox song to play us out. This one has a fantasy theme, and it makes me laugh every time:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDvt5q6bt1s&w=560&h=315]

 

*OK, if you believe in God then you might believe that he has another form of creativity. But humans don’t, and that’s what I’m concerned with here.

Stan – the perfect story song?

A friend and I were talking the other weekend about narrative songs. He writes and performs as part of the splendid steampunk trio Pocketwatch, whose songs are generally stories. One of the things he apparently finds difficult, and which I sometimes struggle with as a writer, is creating a satisfyingly structured story.

This reminded me of one of my favourite story songs, and to my mind one of the most concise and perfectly formed pieces of narrative of the last couple of decades – Eminem’s Stan. While Eminem has built a career out of playing with persona, Stan is unusual for him in being so story focussed. Over the course of a few rapped verses we see the development of two relationships, one existing almost entirely in someone’s head – the central plot of Stan’s obsession with Eminem and the subplot of his relationship with his girlfriend. There is a first act in which the central relationships, characters, and plot are established. A second act in which things become worse, Stan’s anger growing, his personality unravelling through conflicts which drive the story but are entirely rooted in character. And then, in the final act, comes the climax, subplot resolving before main plot, in the terrible drama of Stan and his girlfriend’s death, followed by the pathetic tragedy of how little he has meant to his idol, and a few kind words of intervention coming too late. There’s a distinct character voice, interesting themes of obsession and identity, and a real sense of change through conflict.

I’ve always found Stan moving. But it’s only now, as learning to write has taught me more about the art of story-telling, that I’ve come to admire how skillfully it’s put together. I don’t write song, but if I could craft something half so eloquent I’d be a happy man.