Those of you who read the first Phonogram trade and missed those thoroughly despicable yet compelling characters in the series’ second incarnation will be thrilled to know that “We Share Our Mother’s Health” is indeed the story of Emily Aster. A story of Emily Aster, really, because Emily strikes me as a woman with many, many stories. It’s part of her charm, if charm was something that she could be bothered to have.
I relate to her, though she’s nasty and frightened and working as hard as she can to keep up with something shallow and silly to leave behind the person she was, the person who hurt. I want to know just how Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie got into the head of a woman stuck trying to stay as pretty as the pretty young things around her, clinging to a rock’n'roll youth that she’s losing fast because she cannot relate to the adult world she’s supposed to be part of.
The comic starts with pieces of Emily on a blank background, devoid of context, reduced to parts—the way she sees herself, the way she likes herself. The rest of the story is Emily fighting to pull herself out of context, refusing her surroundings and her past.
David Kohl is the only one safe for Emily to be around, so naturally he’s here, but only to drag Emily out of her perfect world and into a messy one where people recognize her and where she recognizes herself in the haircuts and hip ensembles around her, in the music she pretends she doesn’t like anymore. Where Penny, in Phonogram 2.1, danced and you could feel the motion in each panel, Emily and David string together poses and pretend they’re not looking to see who’s looking at them.
Emily successfully deflates a few attempts to pin her past on her, but she can’t escape her old self completely, seeing everything she hates about herself in the mirror and taking it out on a poor girl who happens to recognize that girl. Pages of what are essentially talking heads hold interest through slight shifts in perspective, both in pictures and in the dialogue, as the violent words spill from Emily’s perfectly glossed lips hit like be-ringed fists.
To save herself from having to face the past, she has to find a way out of the present, without strings attached. It doesn’t take her long to get what she wants, yet there’s no real desire in her other than a desire to keep defining her identity, both with newer and better pop songs and with every step she puts between herself and the old her. A moment that should be imbued with passion, in the last panel, is instead soulless, empty–and an image that will haunt you long after you close the book.
Phonogram 2.1 was about the magic of dancing and the salvation of the right song, but 2.2 and 2.3 are both, in their ways, about the hell the wrong song can put you through. Emily’s story is about defining yourself by music and then doing your best to get rid of that definition–but the music never really goes away. It shows up when you least expect it, and you catch yourself dancing and singing along.
Emily’s so self-absorbed that even the B-sides in her book couldn’t really be about anyone but her, so she quietly steals both the re-telling, in short, hilarious form, of the story of Phonogram: Rue Britannia in Leigh Gallagher’s hand, and the experience of poor Indie Dave when he finds out who was allowed to cover his precious Joy Division.
In the end, I’m glad I’m not Emily Aster, glad I don’t have to be cruel to myself in the form of every girl who crosses my path just to maintain distance from a past I’m scared will catch up to me. And yet I’ve got enough of her inside me to feel for her even though it’s the last thing she wants. Some readers won’t like this issue, won’t be cruel enough to enjoy watching people get hurt and won’t want to admit that they’ve got some of Emily inside them, too.
But we all do.
Phonogram hits the better comic shops this Wednesday.