Abigail Brady will get the sole power to decide if you ever get to see me play Soldeed. She is also responsible for starting the entire Chelsea Manning feud on Wikipedia by moving the article to its correct title. Beyond that, she's invaluable for checking random facts about London for various projects and is an Iron Man villain. She also happily stepped in for a guest post on short notice. She is, in short, one of the five greatest people never to be Verity Lambert.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what’s the connection between Phonogram and Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf other than on November 17th, 2013 I went straight from seeing a panel discussion containing the writer of the first to a performance of the second? After all, one is a comic taking an adult perspective on the someone from the middle of nowhere in the West Midlands’ teenage obsession, whereas the other... is the exact same thing but in plural.
Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf is a one-man standup show by Toby Hadoke, C-list Doctor Who celebrity, actor, writer and comic. It debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, and did a West End run in 2008. If you never saw it live, you're now officially out of luck, as that performance I saw was supposedly the last (I speak as someone who went to two of Pitchshifter’s last tours) - an audio CD version released in 2007 by the BBC is your best bet. It’s a picture of the role that Doctor Who played in his life from his early childhood up to about 2005. There’s nothing massively unexpected: he is obsessed with it as a youngun, and eventually starts to lose hope about a return, then the new series is announced, which is quite good, and he bonds with his son over it. It’s quite funny: he does angry very well, with a nice sideline in self-mockery. The performance was double-billed with his new show My Stepson Stole My Sonic Screwdriver, not entirely to the latter’s benefit. The biggest laugh that Sonic Screwdriver got was in the opening, just after a 15-minute interval, when he kept to his usual script and said “you may have seen my other show, Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf”... Well, yes.
Phonogram is a comic, as well, but the other kind. This one is by Kieron Gillen (writing) and Jamie McKelvie (arting), and was published from 2006 to 2010 by Image Comics. Its topic is neatly summarised by the identity equation that Gillen scrawls when signing copies: “MUSIC = MAGIC”. It has an almost Mooreish take on matters, with the magic of music simultaneously being wholly metaphoric and completely literal. Thus far there are thirteen issues over two volumes. In the first, Rue Britannia, protagonist David Kohl, one of the few practitioners of music-magic (phonomancers) still rooted in the British guitar music scene of the 1990s, is tempted by the goddess Britannia into accepting a revival of Britpop. He rejects it, natch. His key realisation is that Britpop was already a nostalgic recreation of something: the 1960s music scene that was the origin of the British invasion. A subplot concerns his non-ex, Beth, and her inability to integrate her past as a teen Manic Street Preachers fan with an adult life. By the end, Kohl has grown up a bit and is able to hold his tongue about what are still deeply-felt opinions about Peter Doherty’s self-destruction, while Beth smiles to the Manic’s 1992 single “Motorcycle Emptiness”.
The second, The Singles Club is seven intersecting tales set at an indie club night, each told in a single issue, with Kohl appearing as an attendee but not a main character per se. The club night has three simple rules: “No Boy Singers”, “You Must Dance”, and “No Magic.” It’s usually the one they recommend new readers start with (sickeningly, Rue Britannia was their first major work). It’s a very tightly-plotted, structurally complex, and a passionate celebration of spontaneity.
The obvious connection is the one I already hinted at: they are both very personal stories about fannish activities in the tradition of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. David Kohl has been alleged to be a Gillen self-insert - although I personally don't see the resemblance. If we accept that reading, then he reflects Gillen’s almost painful level of self-awareness. The first issue is about Kohl’s own inappropriate intrusion into a predominantly a female space. Indeed, this is what gets him in trouble with the Goddess. But Kohl is aware of the problem, and even makes a point of it.
Hadoke doesn’t really seem to have that awareness. He makes a few jokes about how weird it is that he’s straight given how big of a Doctor Who fan he is, and he does the mandatory racist-bashing, but there’s almost a sense that this is pro forma stuff that he doesn’t really think about too much. In the second show, the arc ends with his not with him dealing with his refusal to watch the show with the subtitles that are necessary for his stepson’s enjoyment, but with his stepson watching Classic Who with him. There’s a bit of material about him not understanding girls, but his fandom is very detached and anti-social, so it’s more the him and the not-him rather than the we and the not-we. He’s self-deprecating, but only inasmuch as he’s willing to get laughs at his encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who. A casual or crossover audience (which Moths is aimed at - he says there are only two jokes in it that only Doctor Who fans will get) might assume that’s a comedic exaggeration, but this is a case of hiding in plain sight. Toby Hadoke is really like that. It’s like he has the Internet British Rep Database in his head or something. And the basic joke worked: Hadoke had successful Edinburgh and West End runs with Moths, playing to audiences that had probably never heard of a Myrka, but could understand Hadoke’s embarrassment at a monster played by Dobbin, the pantomime horse out of Rentaghost.
Similarly, Gillen and McKelvie's work on Phonogram was designed to be accessible from outside the scene. It didn’t top the sales lists, but worked well enough to open doors in New York - Gillen is now a high-profile Marvel writer who has written the Uncanny X-Men, and recently took on Iron Man, while McKelvie has drawn X-Men Season One and worked on Defenders and Secret Avengers. McKelvie’s women are particularly praised, and he has become Marvel’s go-to guy for superheroine designs. The pair have subsequently collaborated on Siege: Loki, a couple of issues of Generation Hope and a year-long run on Young Avengers, and are planning on uniting again for the third volume of Phonogram, to be called The Immaterial Girl, in late 2014.
Phonogram displays detailed knowledge of an aspect of pop culture. The particular music involved is at once completely essential and totally irrelevant. What’s important is what the characters think about the music. But it only works because the music is real. I know the scene it’s set in well, even if I’ve never been to that particular night at that particular venue. I love me some Kenickie (a band responsible for my first single, my first album, and my first gig - at least in the version I remember, which is the only one that counts), so those bits have a special significance. But there’s also stuff I didn’t know that was just as powerful. In The Singles Club, one of the viewpoint characters, Laura, speaks almost entirely in quotes from songs, mostly from the Long Blondes catalogue (and particularly their first LP “Someone To Drive You Home.") Here, Laura couldn’t just be quoting lyrics from a fictional band, because what matters isn't what she's saying - it's the bits of lyrics she's not saying, and the band she's choosing to quote.
Hadoke’s love for Doctor Who is equally grounded in the reality of the show, warts and all. He won’t get much argument about that on this blog. He cites the usual reasons. It’s a show that can do anything, go anywhere and be anywhen. The Doctor is a different protagonist from your standard action hero. And there’s his oft-quoted line that the show makes us feel bigger on the inside. But this feels a bit spurious - looked at from the outside obviously Hadoke was quite a bookish kid and if it hadn’t been for Doctor Who he’d have probably found something else instead.
His love for the show isn’t left entirely unchallenged: as I noted before a good portion of the laughs come at his own expense. But it’s all on his terms. No other character is allowed to emerge in the story - his ex and his wife remain exasperated ciphers. A lot of his logic is “at least it isn’t X”, where X is something he’s less interested in and thus deems less worthy. He makes jokes about Star Trek fans learning Klingon (as if that wasn’t a fascinating conlang in its own right that combines all sorts of features not traditionally found in Western languages). Football is associated with the thuggish bully of his childhood (now a BNP councillor), and its fans imagined to be an entirely alien species (and never mind that the current Doctor was very nearly a professional footballer). Reality TV also comes in for a kicking, with Big Brother 2002 winner Kate Lawler denied the prospect of work for the sin of saying that Doctor Who is rubbish without having seen it (Big Brother having had no influence on the series whatsoever).
For Hadoke, the problem is the popularity of what he sees as undesirable low culture - stuff that’s dumbed-down for the masses (he didn’t actually use that term, but the meaning was clear). The fantasy adventures (i.e. Harry Potter) the kids are into these days are rubbish. He complains about soap operas: Hollyoaks is the butt of several jokes, and not only is Coronation Street blamed for Doctor Who’s cancellation, its fans are looked down upon and treated, again, as mysterious outsiders. Vince Tyler’s dilemma (that he wanted to watch both) isn’t really considered, nor is Phil Collinson’s career trajectory. He takes issue with the way other people watch television, complaining about their inattentiveness during the Doctor Who Christmas special, while separately objecting to television made for that style of viewing. Not only do you have to be interested in the same stuff he is, you have to share his obsessive focus on it.
It’s not that Hadoke’s routine is not entirely without a sense of irony. He skewers his own reaction to Billie Piper’s casting - initially skepticism turning to a declaration that he “always loved Billie” after she has proven herself. And he is thoroughly aware that his son’s fascination with Harry Potter is analogous to own with Doctor Who. But he can’t quite let go of what was so awesome about Doctor Who. But… what was that, exactly?
Something about “material social progress” has been mentioned. It’s the cynically optimistic show. The one with a belief in the innate goodness of humanity, although it distrusts authority. The one in which things can be better and frequently are. And yet, Hadoke (or rather Toby Hadoke’s Comedy Persona, ‘cos perhaps attributing all this to him personally isn’t any more fair than treating Kohl as Gillen) hasn’t internalised all that stuff about how wonderful humans are, in all their messy gloriness. He thinks Tom Baker saying “indomitable” was a good line, rather than a truth worthy of celebration.
It’s telling that he starts with the same gag I did here, using the exact same words to describe Girls Aloud and the Autons. On the Phonogram flyer (and what would be more Phonogram than including the flyers as an integral part of the text?), a chibi Seth Bingo - one half of the DJ pair in The Singles Club - says, after outlining the three rules of Never On A Sunday that “if you say Girls Aloud aren’t a real band, I will destroy every thought you’d ever had.” Poor Toby. Do we imagine Toby Hadoke has ever listened to a Girls Aloud album? I’m guessing not.
So what is Hadoke’s objection to Girls Aloud? It seems like he picked them simply because they’re a highly prominent and well-regarded “manufactured” group. In comparing them to plastic, he is attacking their authenticity. Yes, they were the winners of a reality show, grouped together almost arbitrarily. But vocal groups rarely form organically, so unless he’s saying that a popular genre of music shouldn’t exist at all what is the problem? (And if he is saying that, he’s missing the point of Doctor Who.) We accept the worth of plenty of collaborative arts. Television, for example. To pick a random example, how many people would Doctor Who need on its “created by” credit? I’m counting half a dozen, without even including anyone after 1963.
Hadoke does this whole bit about wobbly sets in one of the shows. Or rather, he does a bit about the sets only wobbled twice, and how unfair it is that everyone keeps going on about them. I believe his counting. He is, after all, Toby Hadoke. And I remember people using that as a canard. Oh ho ho ho, Doctor Who, it was a bit rubbish, wasn’t it. Dodgy acting. Bubblewrap! Wobbly sets. The idea of wobbly sets was an oral tradition (even if it was sometimes written down), and Hadoke complains that people weren’t fact-checking. But his attitude to Girls Aloud is every bit as lazy and facile as that.
In the end, Toby Hadoke doesn’t like other people’s low culture, and isn’t afraid to let them know. To be fair, Kohl is a bit like Hadoke, at least to begin with. But by the end of Rue Britannia, well, he’s still never going to fall in love with the Libertines or the Arctic Monkeys, but he can respect their fans, and this is presented as personal growth. He can see simultaneously that Kenickie are the best band ever in the history of the universe, and also that it’s quite ridiculous for a grown man of his age to hold that opinion. He appreciates the arbitrariness of it all. Similarly, Seth Bingo’s attitude to Girls Aloud is a little defensive, and I wonder if he’s been persuaded that they are a real band, rather than having decided saying otherwise is a rockist fallacy. His attitude to that particular group may have changed, but he is similarly snobby about the Pipettes, and by the end of the evening Silent Girl (the other DJ) has to call him out for it.
The thing is, it’s not about being superior or clever. It’s about the music, about the dancing, and the sheer impassioned love of it all. My first brush with rockism was at a disco in Cape Town in 1997 full of young people from different countries. A Spice Girls song came on, the dance floor filled, and a fellow member of the British delegation went around apologising to people, ashamed to be associated with the group that everyone was enjoying. The what now? And yes, you DJ because you want to share music you love, but you have to avoid being too self-indulgent (unless it’s a night like Nowhere or Phasers on Random where self-indulgence is part of the premise). Being a television commissioner is a lot like being a DJ. It will sometimes involve things you don’t appreciate yourself, not because you are cynically shovelling shit at people too stupid to know better, but because you understand that your personal tastes are not the only thing that matters. That Michael Grade forgot that back in the 1980s was the direct cause of much of Hadoke’s anguish.
Gillen has said that one of the harder parts writing Phonogram stories is the villains, because he doesn’t want to cast fans (even Placebo ones, apparently) as being actively evil. The threat in Rue Britannia is impersonal: an embodiment of a second BritPop revival, rejected by Kohl as a bridge too far that would remove all life from the thing that he had loved. In The Singles Club the closest thing to a bad guy is Lloyd, whose a cynical plan to subvert nostalgia is foiled by nobody else caring about it. Even quite judgemental fans can come out fairly well in Phonogram, because their hatred is borne out of love. But if he were in that particular Avon club on that particular Saturday evening, I reckon Toby Hadoke would be pestering Seth and Silent all night. In fact, I bet he was the one who requested Fall Out Boy. On the other hand, imagine the Doctor there: he’d have been dancing to everything he liked, and, if he was being played by Matt Smith, most of the stuff he didn’t.
Music is magic, and Phonogram shows why. Music is about dancing in tiny little nightclubs with your mates, and passing a spliff around a circle of friends that includes a police officer (off-duty, so it’s fine). It’s about staying at a friend's way too late at night listening to dodgy tapes of albums and getting angry about philosophy. It’s about going to gigs at shitty little venues and finding out that you prefer the support band you’d never heard of to the headliner you were ostensibly there for. It’s about getting into gigs you’d never had gone to for free because you had to drop off a mic stand that got lost earlier in the tour. It's about finding bad cover versions and bizarre mixes, and inflicting them upon your friends. The only thing it’s not about is the music, except for the fact that it’s the most important thing.
Can Doctor Who be like that? Of course it can. Even if you don’t accept that Phil’s blog has shown that, look at something like Love & Monsters and you’ll see Doctor Who being portrayed as exactly that magical. But Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf doesn’t come close. It’s a celebration of a mid-2000s revival of an important legacy of British pop culture from the 1960s. Phonogram is, in part, a warning of how terrible that could be. That’s the difference between them: one helped me rediscover an important part of my life; the other made me feel a little embarrassed about another.