Friday, 23 November 2012

On "The Phoenix: The Weekly Story Comic"

James Turner's Star-Cat

In which the blogger, taking it for granted that you're well aware of how splendid the contents of The Phoenix are, digresses a touch to discuss a little of what makes it unique in today's market;

The Phoenix is so purposefully targeted at such a specific audience that it can be hard for the rest of us to remember that it exists. Outside of a relatively small number of branches of Waitrose and a sprinkling of eclectically-minded specialist shops, it's rarely seen on the shelves in the company of its comicbook peers. I can't even recall ever seeing a single advert for it. Instead, it depends in large part upon individual subscriptions in order to reach its readers, which allows it a significant degree of independence when it comes to how it presents itself to its audience. It doesn't have to both largely conform to and yet subtly stand out from the broad mass of children's comics dedicated to licensed TV product and the regrettable blokeishness of repackaged superhero books. Instead, it has to appeal to the parents who'll be stumping up the subscription fees while beguiling the core audience of literate and inquisitive 8 to 11 year olds who it'll be bought for. As such, it's a comic that's not only rarely seen in the mass market, but one which immediately stands out from its peers when it is. In short, The Phoenix doesn't particularly look or read like other comics because there are no other comics that it's directly in competition with.

From John & Patrice Aggs' "Zara's Crown"

Despite featuring an ambitiously wide variety of strips and editorial content, there's a clear - and perhaps deeply unfashionable  - theme which runs through and binds everything in The Phoenix. Unlike so much else in comics that's supposedly targeted at younger readers, nothing in its pages relies at all on the glorification of brute force or the kneejerk pleasures of opposing authority for opposition's sake. Conflicts in its pages aren't closed through the convenient cheats offered by the likes of indomitable fist-fighters or convenient dei ex machina. Instead, the comic's creators seem convinced that their mission to entertain comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity to encourage independent thinking in their young audience. Even in what might deceptively appear to be the most invigoratingly absurd of parodies, such as James Turner's quite wonderful Space-Cat, the reader's faced with the likes of smartly-plotted time-loops and alternate futures which constantly encourage the audience to wonder what could possibly come next. It's a mixture of a fundamental respect for the consumer's intelligence matched with idiosyncratic, ambitious and transparently clear storytelling, and it's used to emphasis the virtues of bright-mindedness over violence. Whether it's Zara and her friends being shown planning and executing the theft of the Crown Jewels, or Cogg and Sprockett's showdown with the Sun Emperor, there's always a smartly judged array of plot-elements in play which encourage the second-guessing of the story. At its most obvious, this fundamentally Reithian philosophy shows itself in the presence of playfully-framed maths problems, code-breaking exercises, and a checklist to be completed after studying a double-page spread full of the zombies of famous historical figures.

But wherever you turn to in The Phoenix, the content's designed to encourage the reader to think for themselves rather than passively waiting for the closing punch-ups to occur, and that's done in a way which takes it for granted that the audience wants to be challenged as well as entertained.

From Adam Murphy's "Corpse Talk", in which the dead Guy Fawkes is interrogated on the lack of professionalism inherent in his famous attempt upon the life of King James and Parliament.

The idea of a children's comic with a specific educational mission is hardly something new. Even in my lifetime, there's been the likes of the Eagle, with its distinctly Christian ethos, and Look & Learn, with its fundamentally conservative agenda. Yet no matter how dubious such driving purposes might seem now, both comics were of course massively successful and spawned undeniably classic strips such as Dan Dare and the Trigan Empire. To want a comic to be pedagogically productive isn't necessarily something's that antithetical to it being innovative and enjoyable too. Even the famously free-spirited 2000AD, which has always been associated with a determined reaction against the establishment-friendly comics of the Seventies, quite deliberately represented a radically left-wing way of seeing the world.
From Jamie Smart's "Bunny vs Monkey", in which the challenges of cloning drives the conflict in this splendidly farcical strip.
Where The Phoenix steps away from its forebears is in the accent it places not on the virtues of either conformity or resistance, elite values or mass culture, tradition or radicalism, but instead upon the central worth of independent-mindedness. And so, in Paul Duffield's The Heart Tree, the boy who's seeking to save his King learns that "no single man should be as important as an entire nation". (*1) In the Eagle, the saving of a beloved monarch would have probably been presented as a very fine thing indeed. In 2000AD, his death might well have been seen as a blow against privilege and tyranny. But here, the strip's meaning is a far more complicated one. What is a nation if it's not, as the traditions of fairy tales suggest, the extension of its ruler, and how has assuming that's so harmed both the powerful and the powerless? Duffield doesn't answer the question directly, and it'd be against the whole point of The Phoenix for him to do so. (In fact, he suggests that his youthful protagonist will spend the rest of his time alive without ever truly coming to grips with the problem.) For what's here isn't life reduced to them vs us, or to fight or be forced to grovel! For all that there's some rip-snorting adventures in The Phoenix, it's very much a 21st century approach to the idea of what it means to be an individual, and its strips brings with them no definitive answers beyond a gently enthusiastic exhortation to think more and think harder. In that, the comic's all about encouraging imagination and curiosity through the use of smart-framed enigmas embedded in bright-minded, good-humoured storytelling.

By which I mean, if I did have a kid or two of my own, I'd be buying them The Phoenix on a weekly basis. In the absence of any such a worthy excuse, I suppose I'll just have to keep buying it for myself instead.

From Robert Deas' "Troy Trailblazer", a sequence chosen just to emphasise that The Phoenix is first and foremost a comic designed to be a great deal of fun.

*1:- I wish I could've referenced the various strips in The Phoenix. It's hard not to give credit where credit's so obviously due, and from Simon Swift to Emperor Penguin, from Good Dog, Bad Dog to Gary's Garden, the comic's full of very good things. 

Find The Phoenix Comic here.

Next; back to the world of superheroes, where chance, muscle and stubbornness all too often drives and closes the plot. And yet, not always ....      


  1. Isn't star cat written by James Turner, not Jamie Smart?

    1. Hello Jenny:- Great sub, thank you. Of course it is.

  2. Just the kind of thing I want to read, and tailor-made for me to further indoctrinate younger relatives to the joys of reading comics. And I can't bloody find it anywhere.

    /rant: There's probably a book to be written about the disintegration of the print media market that doesn't just throw its hands up and say "well it's the videogames and the phones and the internet, isn't it?"(1) and then call it a day much as many publishers do(2), and instead that hypothetical book focuses on the corporate culture of the likes of the Mirror Group and IPC that fired those further down the ladder responsible for the "handshakes and an understanding" working-class relationships between publishers and distributors, a move that caused the 1990s contraction of the UK market, or upon the borderline-gangsterism of chain stores who charge thousands of pounds just to agree to carry a new title, then thousands per issue, then thousands more on top of that just to "classify" the magazine correctly so it doesn't get misfiled in a different section of the news-stand (out of the reach of children, for instance, or behind pornographic tomes) wink wink nudge nudge all above board guvnor just how the game is played.
    Until that book is written, I daresay we'll still suffer the unproven argument that the internet and iPads are stealing custom from the magazine market rather than the laziness and greed of publishers and larger stores.

    I bought a few collections from the Phoenix's precursor - the late, lamented DFC - and they were brilliant comics head and shoulders above similar collections of (admittedly poorly-translated) material from Europe, so I really want to give the Phoenix a go, but like a lot of people I come to my comics lazily - even accidentally - and not because I have obsessively sought them out - that's the route of the collector or the completist, not the casual reader with disposable income. Something like The phoenix should ideally be on shelves everywhere.

    (1) as ever, I point to the technologically-obsessed Japan and its manga sales figures in the millions and call bullpoop.
    (2) And again, if you really believe you can't compete with phones and PS3s, why are you even bothering with your endevour in the first place? Shouldn't you step aside for someone full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the competition and not just call it a day before the fight's even started?

    1. Hello Mr B:- It's hard to get hold of The Phoenix even with a Waitrose down the road. It actually hides the few copies it has at the back of other comics, fails to put issues out for several weeks, and even puts editions out in an ... artistic order. (My last 4 weekly visits led to nothing, 43 and 45, nothing and then 44, with 46 appearing in the middle of the week.) I'm tremendously pleased that The Phoenix appears to have a productive business plan with the subscriptions, although that doesn't help folks who want to try a single issue out, who can't afford the monthly fee, or who just respond to casual impulses. Hopefully that'll keep the comic publishing even if the likes of my local supermarket have their eyes on other things.

      Comics have always been the easiest target when it came to folks at all parts of the food chain wanting to use them for this advantage or that. Whether in America or the UK, as far as I know, they've been the low-return product which is relatively helpless to control how and where its sold. Much of what you're relating has ... come to my ears before. And alot more too. It strikes me that there's been few folks who've both cared about comics and known how to advance their best interests, both inside and outside the publishers themselves. It makes the job that's been done with the likes of 2000AD and The Phoenix all the more admirable, and precious.

      And no, I don't accept the digital-trumps-print argument either. Some digital product under some specific conditions is irresistable. But then the same is true for print. It's the product, isn't it, not the medium. And even huge digital sales don't necessarily need to involve a corresponding decline in print numbers.

      Should The Phoenix be on sale everywhere? I think so. I'd be more comfortable with that than the scrape-of-a-supervillain's-face-to-thrill-the-fan-blokes reprint titles. As an ex-teacher, I certainly know I'd have been keen to recommend it to parents of a fair number of the students I taught. If the comic could find an "in" there, perhaps greater sales, and a higher visibility, would follow.

      The DFC was a fine magazine. I have a suspicion that The Phoenix is even better.

    2. I just now took out a subscription and got a confirmation email with "order #923" on it, so I would either hope that they're getting many more people than that number suggests to subscribe, or that so relatively low a number is enough to keep the book in production when the costs of distribution and marketing are taken off the table. Hopefully a combination of both.

    3. Hello Brigonos:- And you've inspired me to take that final step from buying it weekly - as best I can - to taking out the sub myself. I hope I don't get #924. There should more subscribers than that.

      But hey, that's two more in the pot. Good stuff. Thanks for the nudge :)

    4. Cary Drust - formerly Timothy Rogers*25 November 2012 at 15:56

      Hi Colin, great to great to see you reviewing The Phoenix. I always have an odd time understanding just why it seems so much better than than the rest of the competition and I think your highlighting of just how it doesn't really have any competition goes a long way to answering that.

      I always feel the other way about subscribing - sure it's useful to the publisher to have the guarantee of the income but without people buying it regularly from the shops there's always the chance of the shop dropping the title. Six of one and half a dozen of the other I suppose.

      I'm a bit luckier than yourself though - my preferred comic shop has been carrying it from the beginning with only very minor distribution issues right at launch. Being bizarre and psychic they even put in on my pull order before I asked for it.

      *A mostly irrelevant detail - I always prefer to post with my real name but having changed it recently I feel awkward doing so without drawing your attention to the fact that we've exchanged views in the past.

    5. Hello Cary:- Thanks for letting me that we have, as you say, exchanged views in the past. It's always been a pleasure.

      Thanks for saying that about the Phoenix and its lack of competition. It really does lie out side those two pop-culture traditions of the early/mid 60s onwards. Neither traditionalist or rebellious, it focuses on methods - how to think - rather than ideology - who's in the right. It's a brave move which reactionaries of all sides might regard as being reactionary and/or middle class, and the Waitrose connection can - as I once heard - feed into that. Yet what can be more radical than lending folks the tools to make their own decisions and empowering them to do so. And, of course, doing so in a form that's primarily a good hoot?

      I am going to go for the sub option - I meant to today, but its been a chasing deadlines day. And yet, you're right, now I'm going to find someone to pick up that extra copy I've been buying these past few months.

      That's a splendid comics shop you're associating yourself with. Three cheers for bizarre, psychic comic shops :)