The Phoenix rose on 7th January this year after issue zero floated around Waitrose supermarkets in December 2011. In the weekend prior to launch there were also preview pages featured in the Sunday Times. I know this now, but didn’t know much about it at the time.
I’m not much of a newspaper reader, nor do I regularly frequent Waitrose. That left me with only one place where I would’ve heard anything about The Phoenix: comickers on Twitter. There was some understandable excitement from those involved—dare I mention Jamie Smart again?—and a minor buzz in the periphery, but I’ll stick my neck out and say there wasn’t a bang accompanying the debut issue’s arrival.
As previously discussed, the British children’s comics landscape lives in interesting times. The Phoenix joins the fray as what could be mistaken as an anachronism, but should actually be seen as an encouraging display of backbone. The Phoenix wants to bring stories back to comics, told in weekly segments amongst regular humour strips and puzzles. It’s a noble approach amongst the dearth of content-shovelling magazines, and one worthy of praise and attention. Is the relatively soft launch an attempt to under promise and over deliver, hoping a readership will organically grow?
While selling in stores for £2.99 it’s primarily subscription-funded with six-month or annual plans as well as a 12-issue and 5-issue “taster” subscription. I went for the taster option. Subscriptions are handled on the website and issues arrive in their own custom envelope every Friday. It’s a nice extra touch to welcome home readers after a hard week at school (or work).
Each issue opens with a letter from the editors, Tabatha and Chops, on page two. Tabatha Inkspot, Editor in Chief is a cat and co-Editor Chops Piggerton is a pig—and possibly a kleptomaniac if issue seven is anything to go by. The comic is curated by animals from Phoenix HQ somewhere in Oxford, and the team appear throughout the comic with the week’s news, fan-submitted art and interviews with characters and creators. There are five missing magical phoenix feathers which are set to appear in the comic and one has already been found. That the fictional team have their own little story developing through the issues is a smart step, stopping them from being one-note gimmicks and helping draw the reader further into the comic.
The issues currently lead with four pages of The Pirates of Panagea by Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron. In what I imagine as a galaxy far, far away this is a tale from long ago, taking the reader to where ships sail on the backs of super-huge Apatosaurus-like creatures traversing seas of dangerous land shark infested grass. Pirates of Jurassic Park, I guess you could call it. It hits several high-notes for children: dinosaurs, pirates and wild adventures. The ambition of the idea is admirable and many of the details in the Cameron’s art hold up very well, which makes it all the more vexing when the faces over-act or proportions shift from panel to panel. The story moves forward at a brisk pace and isn’t afraid of putting the characters in serious danger and making the reader fearful for them. There’s a particular moment in issue four where an invading pirate takes the bosun’s life by sword, and I found myself genuinely surprised to see the sword stained with blood and poking through the slain bosun. It isn’t gratuitous in the slightest but it is right to portray these moments of peril without rounding the edges. In text, children’s stories deliver such gruesome moments without challenge but somehow it’s seen as more corruptible portraying them in pictures. I think we can credit the active imaginations of children for more than that.
The Etherington Brothers’ Long Gone Don is another regular, three page story. Through strange circumstances titular character Don Skelton moves to the afterlife finding himself lost in Broilerdoom, with a talking, wiseass crow as an unlikely companion. After stumbling into a suspicious election, Don becomes a fugitive adding to an already confounding conundrum. This story is wonderfully written with plenty of sassy dialogue and humour, and definitely to be filed under romp. It is handsomely supported by breathtaking artwork. The backgrounds are highly detailed and invite you to jump into every panel while the characters are expressive and easily identifiable, and the whole thing is vividly coloured. There’s a hint of franco-belgian influence throughout and certain beats and details point straight to Asterix. A real highlight.
Kate Brown’s charming The Lost Boy two-pager rounds off the regular stories, following a young lad, shipwrecked in a lush new land. The golden-hour tinged, manga influenced art is cute but the page count and large panels are drip-feeding the story along in a way that suits reading it a few episodes at a time.
Every issue also carries prose, often as an excerpt from children’s novels such as Dave Shelton’s charmingly illustrated A Boy And A Bear In A Boat appeared in issue three or Barry Hutchison’s The 13th Horseman in issue six. In issues four and five there featured an exclusive adventure by Simon Rae called Theseus and the Minotaur, with illustrations by John Aggs, and was another instance of a surprisingly dark tale.
These were always the sort of thing I’d skip right past because I was all about the strips when I was younger, but I support the move to share adventures in the written form.
Humour plays a big part in The Phoenix as well as adventure. Jamie Smart’s two-page Bunny vs Monkey strips leads the charge, setting up and then wrapping up crazy scheme after bonkers plan for Monkey to rule the forest and get on Bunny’s nerves.
Another regular, and personal favourite, is James Turner’s Star Cat. Star Cat is half-cat, half-spaceship and wanders the universe helmed by Captain Spaceington and an unlikely crew, joined by Space Mayor, a hen in a robot suit. The stories run over several weeks, two pages at a time, and are packed with silliness.
Adam Murphy’s single-page Corpse Talk has an interest take on history by reanimating famous corpses to recount their achievements. Such legends as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Joan of Arc and Marie Cure (interviewed by Adam in a Hazmat suit) have already appeared.
Political cartoonist Chris Riddell has a regular single-panel cartoon on the inside back page and the issues are also dotted with puzzles, small strips and one-off stories from artists such as Adam Murphy, Gary Northfield, Dave Shelton.
Neill Cameron also produces How To Make (Awesome) Comics, which week by week gives lessons on how to draw characters, come up with ideas and build stories. It’s a great addition to The Phoenix, bringing children into the cartooning process and encouraging those who like to draw to try new things out and keep the art alive.
That’s The Phoenix. It’s a colourful, vibrant weekly comic with a lot of promise that hopefully has a strong future ahead of it. You have to admire its dedication to long-form, serialised storytelling, attempting to engage the readers with deeper characters and stories. It’s entirely funded by the readership; there are no advertisements and any promotion that does appear is for the writers and artists. My only concern is its currently limited distribution along with its subscription backbone reduces the comic’s reach and ability to delight children and parents alike. However, if the figures add up and The Phoenix can cultivate a small, dedicated audience without making a loss then it has succeeded. Competing with the toy-peddling distraction mags doesn’t matter.