Steve Morris wants to know "What's so funny about funny books?" So each week in Killing Jokes he'll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
I’m in a room with five or six other people. My back is turned to them, and I’ve got headphones in — playing songs from Annie’s second album, Don’t Stop. No matter what they might want to say to me, they’re drowned out by the sounds of a husky sugar princess bouncing around and creating chime-music about sex. That puts me in a similar position to Seth Bingo, a minor character in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram: The Singles Club who can’t hear anybody through the music,
Issue #4 of the mini is called “Konichiwa Bitches.” It’s the best of the six. Set in a nightclub, The Singles Club as a whole plays out as a series of inter-connected one-shot stories which jump perspective to a different part of the club with each issue. So while part #1 deals with life-of-the-party Penny, issue #2 focuses on the boy she has a crush on, issue #3 is about a different character (formidable Emily Aster) she has a small-run-in with and so on. Issue #4 chooses to focus solely on the two DJs for this club night.
Seth is one of them, backed up by his partner in all things but not sex, Silent Girl. The issue sets each page into six static panels, with the reader looking directly at the booth where Seth and SG are playing records. Sometime people come up to ask for requests, but mostly we’re looking at these two for six panels a page, for every page of the issue.
While each part of Gillen’s story has a different distinct ‘moral’ of sorts at the end, issue #4 is the one which most taps into the central premise of the series: Music is magic. When you listen to a good song, more than anything else, you get lost in it and the world it creates. That’s the magic. And people who give that music to you? They are the “Phonomancers,” and they are generally irritated by your requests. Well, that’s your fault for liking Fall Out Boy, really.
The reason why Phonogram works is not just because it successfully posits the correct theory that Girls Aloud are better than the Stereophonics. It works because Gillen’s uses humor to trick readers into agreeing with his ideas. Seth Bingo comes across in this issue as an arch, overly hip music snob. And yet he’s snobbish in such a way that readers are drawn to his theories. The six-panel layout forces each page into becoming its own storyline, with a set-up at the start and gag at the end. And Gillen isn’t afraid to pace that out if he needs to. The jokes in this issue are the lynchpin to the ideas and narrative.
Even on the second page, the six panels play around with comedic timing. Instead of a six-panel setup like the first page, the creative team blank out three to act as their title page. The first panel introduces the characters, the second panel actually shows them, the third panel continues their conversation. Then the fourth and fifth panels are a continuation of the credits, leaving a gap before the third panel of actual action is shown. And, just as the reader has spent a few seconds reading the credits, so the characters have spent a little time to prepare their reaction shots.
The beat between panels three and six cuts out a little bit of time from existence, and we are only allowed to see the bookends. Seth’s non sequitur final line of the page was going to be a little abrupt anyway, but by ruthlessly taking away focus from him, Gillen/McKelvie brings all the repressed momentum of the page into a crashing stop.
The willingness to jump around in time pays off with several different punchlines, all of which come from different places. While it’s fun to see snap-shots of Seth dismissing several requests one after another, McKelvie at one point draws a two-page, twelve-panel sequence of the pair putting on a Blondie record. It should be established that pop music — female singers only — is the only music accepted in this nightclub. So Blondie is a big deal, because Debbie Harry is one of the greatest people ever.
In a club, which plays mostly contemporary music, the decision to put on a Blondie record speaks to the power of music/Gillen’s childhood playlists. Page one shows them reverently pulling out the vinyl with protective goggles and gloves then page two shows their awestruck celebration as they dance to the chorus.
There aren’t many comics willing to use two pages for something like that. The weird pomposity of the sequence — which could only work with somebody as expressive and deft as Jamie McKelvie when it comes to facial expression — elevates the joke into a sincere seriousness. Then the pair hi-five each other and we start to realise how drawn-in to the moment we all were. Again, through compression and decompression of the six-panel page layout, the creative team are able to build up the atmosphere of the club and get readers involved in the characters. We’re as gleeful as they are – and if we aren’t, then Gillen works hard to try and make us into Blondie fans.
That in and of itself is another joke Phonogram subtly reinforces. Whereas Grant Morrison is trying to make you believe that holy auras and zen worship can make you into a goddamn Batman or something, or Brian K. Vaughan wants to reassess politic, Phonogram simply wants people to celebrate music a bit more than they do. The difference in ambition between Phonogram and, say, Watchmen, is part of the enjoyment of the book. The series itself is in on the gag of itself (what the hell did I just write?) and readers can sit back and enjoy, letting the message wash over them instead of have it hammered into their wrists.
The tight focus of the script and artwork on this six-panel format bursts open towards the end. I won’t explain why because it’s the joy of the issue, but when it does we see how the creative team are using humour to set up a rather more dramatic punch line. Instead of drama serving the humour, the humour sets up the drama. That’s something both Gillen and McKelvie have gone on to repeat in their various other works, and a style of writing you can now see stretching over to influence people like Matt Fraction. Books like Phonogram have taken the purpose of humor and changed it to serve a different need. It’s a fascinating thing to delve into, although it does also mean that explaining the jokes deconstructs rather more of the narrative than I’d like to.< /p>
I’m going to go listen to Diana Vickers for a bit.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favourite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, where he unleashes might on a regular basis. His favourite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favourite DC character is, also, Darkstar. I'm on Team X-Men, you guys.