100th post, 100th Phoenix!

This week (well, actually issue 101 is on sale tomorrow), the best (only!) British weekly adventure comic reached it’s 100th issue! So, for the 100th ‘proper’ post on my blog (though there’s many other hidden ones which I keep half-written stories in XD) I thought I’d take a look back over it, and talk about what I have liked so far.

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The Phoenix was, of course, the successor to the DFC, which was cancelled after 43 issues. The DFC worked on a subscription-only formula, but The Phoenix is also (theoretically!) available in Waitrose shops. When that was first announced, I thought it was great, as I’d be able to go into Ely once a week on my way home and get it. Around about the time issue 3 was supposed to have been released, I’d not seen a single physical copy anywhere. Other people around the internet reported similar problems, with many staff (up to shop managers) not having the faintest clue what it was.

The problem has now been mostly solved, and the Little Waitrose in the centre of Cambridge now has it fairly reliably (they ‘only’ miss about one issue in every five, when I go in on Saturdays anyway. They probably have it out on other days). Ely Waitrose still rarely has it at all, then randomly puts out a few assorted old issues (still, I did get one I’d missed when my subscription ended there, by pure LUCK).

Subscribers also encountered problems. When I found myself unable to buy it, I subscribed “from issue 1” (as a lot of people did). Only to recieve issue 2 and onwards instead. I later phoned up and specifically ordered issue 1, but never recieved it (Waitrose eventually put the first 3 issues on the shelves at once, so I was able to get it that way). Still, my yearly subscription did come with a nice binder and 52 issues for £99. As the individual issues are £2.99, that’s not too shabby. Still, when I tried to renew my subscription in January 2013 it didn’t work at all, the money never left my account. I decided to keep buying it in Cambridge, as it would encourage the shop to keep stocking it, and then other people might find it too!

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The two binder designs

But on to the subject of the stories. One of my favourite items in The Phoenix is Corpse Talk, partly because it’s a short, one-off story (so I can read it in the qeue at Waitrose) and partly because it has loads of tiny panels packed onto the page but quite a few funny details, just like classic Jonah! In early issues it was one page, though it averages two now.

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However, the hilarious epic of Henry VIII’s wives was a whole four! Mind you, It rarely, if ever, gives specific dates for things, it’s also not entirely clear about what country the events are taking place in, either. Today I know that Rasputin and Catherine the Great were Russians, but when I was a kid anywhere between Germany and China might as well have been one huge country. (Oh wait, it was!). For some reason the characters all talk like modern Americans, too. Perhaps we’re supposed to see it as a sort of Jerry Springer show? (The Henry VIII’s wives episode even had security guards holding them apart XD).

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“I married my dead husband’s brother!”

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Pirates of Pangaea

The first “lead” story in The Phoenix was Pirates of Pangaea. This takes the advice of the “How to draw AWESOME comics” section and features pirates… riding on dinosaurs! Some of them ‘sail’ ships mounted on the back of big four-legged Diplodicus-like herbivores, whilst others ride velociraptors as if they were horses. Some have even mounted flying pteradactyl-type beasts!

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The story is set in 1717, and the main character is Sophie, a 12-13 year old girl who inadvertently tames a Tyrannosaur! She and Kelsey, a young cabin boy (who helped her escape from the first batch of pirates she encountered) are adventuring around the ‘sea of green’, the grasslands that cover much of the giant island of Pangaea. Sophie is supposedly trying to get back to her father, the British governor of the island, but they don’t seem to be in any great hurry XD. They run into several different pirate crews (many of whom end up being eaten) and go on quests for valuable treasure.

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At one point a blue-skinned native tribe think Sophie is a god, and give her pet tyrannosaur (named Cornflower… obviously) some golden armour!

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Another of the launch stories was Long Gone Don, by the Etherington Brothers. If you ask me, these guys are some of the best working in comics today, the writing and characterisation are great, with plenty of quick-fire gags and funny details. The art, though, is out of this world, there’s so much detail, and they love to cram loads of characters into sprawling top-down scenes.

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I beleive a lot of this is done with enhanced computer models these days, though in thier old self-published work, Malcolm Magic, they produced scenes that were just as good, but fully drawn. Don has so far had two series, where he’s stuck in the insane world of Broilerdoom amongst giant worms, insane dictators, stupid soldiers, genius squid(s) and many green people. The first story revolved around a rebellion against General Spode, which was so cool I even made a “VOTE SPODE” T-shirt to wear at the first Camcon in 2012!

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You can just about see it here XD (photo credit: Alan Baptiste aka Temphuibis)

Another of the recurring adventure stories centres around Zara and her friends. They are also children of around 12, only they live in modern-day, realistic London. In both of the stories that have so far been printed (Zara’s Crown and Zara’s Masterpiece), criminals force them to steal important works of art, in order to show up the government and cause political instability. MI5 are on the case, and believe that Zara and her friends are “infiltration specialists”. As nobody will suspect children of pulling off these amazing robberies, they have the perfect cover! This strip is by John and Patrice Aggs (husband and wife, or brother and sister, team?), and the artwork is in a very interesting style. At first glance it seems “unfinished”, with black lines missing and blocks of colour to ‘suggest’ detail, but the more you read it, the more used to it you get. It’s amazing how they can conjure up a crowded, detailed scene with only a few lines and blobs, a bit like Eric Parker, in a way!

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The same team do the on-and-off series called What Will Happen Next? Which is best described as a sort of “Where’s Wally Comic”, each one is a detailed scene with lots of stuff happening, but the same scene is repeated over several weeks showing how events unfold (one sequence in the first one was actually running backwards in time! Something a certain Doctor ought to look at).

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Interestingly, the first Phoenix folders (available alongside issue 1) featured a What Will Happen Next? series called something like “Crazy cook-off”, which has not yet appeared in the comic!

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Another regular adventure strip is Troy Trailblazer, a sci-fi strip. Dan Dare this ain’t! The artwork is pretty good (it would no doubt be described as “manga style”, by people whose sole experience of “manga” has been a quick flick in a book shop seven or eight years ago), but the first stories were a bit naff. Troy, who is none too clever, flies around in space with Barrus (a big cat-like creature who grunts, but is still smarter than Troy) and Blip (an intelligent robot who tries to talk them out of crazy schemes). They are usually trying to find some lost treasure or artifact, such a sword that is hidden in a temple built on the surface of a star (even the robot couldn’t work that one out). The early stories were also pretty anti-climactic. Later on, a big evil empire called The Scourge appeared, along with Troy’s ex-girlfriend. After this the stories got a lot better, at one point they even help a princess escape from bounty hunters XD.

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A common strip in early issues was Cogg and Sprokit, about a boy and a cynical hippo who search for hidden treasure. The first stories were quite short, but later some longer ones appeared. One of the first long serial ones incorporated a puzzle page too, readers had to work out the password to an underground temple themselves! The artwork in this is pretty good, but for some reason I don’t like it all that much. The villains (usually tattooed wolves with razor-sharp fangs and custom motorbikes) are much cooler than the heroes XD.

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Another one I can’t seem to get into is Useleus, which is based on an idiot in Ancient Greece trying to have adventures like the legendary heroes. He meets loads of characters who are from those ancient legends, though I’m not particularly interested in them, I only barely remember them from primary school (are they taught at all in state schools these days?).

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Also the stories are scribbilily “narrated” by his minotaur friend.

There’s also Sky Drifters, which is just plain wierd. It’s about a bunch of puffins who live on top of the clouds. The main character gets to the “cloud giving ceremony” late, and the only one left is a soggy rain cloud. He then sets off for various adventures, mainly short one-parters, though there was also a serial. This strip seems to be aimed at a younger age than some of the other Phoenix stories, but as the comic market in Britain has all but collapsed, they have to try and cater for a wider range all in the one.

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Simon Swift is yer usual epic fantasy adventure strip. I wonder if it’s intended to be The Phoenix’s equivalent of Mirabilis? It’s even broken up into “books”, which will presumably come out as hardback annual-size publications at some point. (speaking of which, surely Christmas 2014 will see the first Phoenix Annual?). It’s about yer usual party of adventurers trekking across a fantasy land, all of them bought together by some wierd symbol tattooed on their bodies. I’ve missed several issues, and then bought them much later from the website, so I’ve not really read much of this #o_o#. But it kind of reminds me of Naruto… though I only read the first book of that rubbish before giving up on it. Maybe it just reminds me of Naruto because they both have a ‘fiesty’ pink-haired girl? Simon also has a voice in his head which advises him in battles, a bit like Nikolai Dante’s crest. Perhaps it will turn out that actually the story is a board game and the voice is the player using Simon’s character… wait, was that Naruto or Bleach? This shonen battle stuff is all the same!

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In addition to these, there’s been a few “one-off” serial adventure strips. The first, and longest, of them was The Lost Boy, which began in issue 1. I didn’t think much of it, a boy who can’t remember who he is strolls around on an island with a ferret-like thing and finds pieces of a map. There’s also some shadow monster things. In the end he gets brainwashed, wakes up on a beach and starts again o_O. Also he talks stupidly.

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When my brother used to talk like this I used to slowly form a fist then punch him if he hadn’t shut up in time.

Much better than that was Cora’s Breakfast, about a girl who finds an alien cereal which gives her superpowers (a different one each time, like flight and gigantism). It also gives her dog the power of speech. She later meets the alien who lost it.

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Returning from the DFC, 1940’s canine cops Good Dog, Bad Dog have to solve a mystery in Hollywood (or Hollywoof?) surrounding the feuding Weiner Brothers. This story is full of great scenes and funny dog-related puns. Interestingly, in these days of other comics not putting a packet of sugar-free Haribo’s on the cover, lest they be accused of “promoting obesity”, Good Dog, Bad Dog features characters smoking and gambling!

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Though for biscuits, not money XD

My favourite of the short serials so far has been Secret of the Samurai. Apparently the main character, Julius Chancer, has been in a book before now. Anyway, it’s a ligne claire (aka “The Tintin style”, but fans of it don’t like it being called that) mystery story set in the interwar period. A woman hires Julius Chancer and his boss to track down a secret of ancient samurai armour which was once sold to Dutch traders and is beleived to have found it’s way to Britain. They think they have found it, but various items on it appear  to actually be insulting, or challenging, them to track down the real suit. The artwork on this story is great, with plenty of detail on the fancy buildings of pre-war London, and on the armour of samurai in flashbacks. There’s also an amusing sequence in an army barracks with a shouty sergeant-major XD.

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Set in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which ‘recently’ had a display of Eagle and related comics in one of the stairways.

There was also The Bald Boy and the Dervish, another ligne claire story set in an Arab country, where a boy tries to make the king smile. He also has the ability to shape-shift and turns himself into a rope, which secures prize animals his mother can sell. Until the “Dervish” (they are an actual tribe, you know XD) realises somebody is stealing his magic…

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And as well as those, there’s been plenty of much shorter adventure stories of only one or two parts, including The Girl with the Amber Eyes, The Heart Tree and, of course, The One About Chickens That I Can’t Remember the Name Of. These short stories tend to have different art styles. I suppose, like 2000AD’s Future Shocks, they’re being used to ‘try out’ new writers and artists.

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“Crybaby” wouldn’t look out of place in Japan’s “Kowai Paper” XD.

There’s a few other adventure stories I haven’t covered, like Nico Bravo (who works in the shop where legendary heroes, several from Ancient Greece again, get their supplies) and Haggis and Quail, who adventure around the world for, er, stuff. But I’ve either not read them, or they just don’t interest me. But they are there!

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Onto the comedy stories now, and one of the most common ones (probably been in every issue, now that I think about it) is Bunny vs Monkey. It’s by Dandykiller Smart, which probably tells you all you need to know. Though he does seem to have upped his game for this one, compared to his DC Thomson work.

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Anyway, it started off being about a monkey who thinks he has flown to another planet (he’s actually just been catapaulted over a hill) and wants to conquer it, so he fights Bunny, the “leader” (most intelligent) of the other animals. More characters have appeared over time, namely Skunky (who invents various huge machines to help Monkey) and Weenie (a very funny pig). The whole “conquering the planet” thing has kind of been forgotten now, and they just do stupid stuff. Another strip by the same artist, called Looshkin, has recently appeared. It’s like Simon’s Cat crossed with Maru on steroids.

My favourite comedy strip is Star Cat. This one also has characters made up of simple, brightly-coloured shapes. But instead of them going “I ate some PIE and then did a POO out of my BUM!”, it’s actually well-written and hilarious. It’s about Captain Spacington (a stupid hero), Plixx (a blob) and Robot_01 (just plain hilarious) attempting to do the simplest things, messing them up, then succeeding by pure luck XD. The Star Cat itself is piloted by a blue cat, who talks in random letters.

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One of the funniest-ever scenes in The Phoenix

Another common comedy strip is Gary’s Garden, about insects (and sometimes other animals) who live in a guy’s garden. This also reminds me of Simon’s Cat a bit, only with no cats, and the characters talk! There’s a fairly regular series about “the mimicry club”, for animals who look like other things. The first one of these had a leaf bug and a butterfly with ‘eyes’ on it’s wings talking, while sitting on a stick insect XD.

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More recent is Evil Emperor Penguin, about a penguin who wants to take over the world (he also ‘encourages’ people to subscribe on the back page, now and then). He is assisted by a posh octopus and many small furry minions. In one story he decides to impress people by becoming a hero instead, it doesn’t go well…

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There’s also Kit and Clay. The characters in this look very simple too, but some of the backgrounds are well-drawn and detailed (look at this museum!). These range in length from 1-4 pages, and only appear infrequently.

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Of course, one of the main selling points of The Phoenix for me (and only me, no doubt), is the fcact it contains text stories! Though they are usually only two page previews of children’s books. Occasionally an original story will be seralised. Both the previews and new stories are illustrated, though I doubt the illustrations appear in the books, when they come out.

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A lot of the originals seem to be on a ghost or monster theme.

More recently, the “Tale Feathers” section has been taken over by Charlie Small, a boy who keeos getting into wierd situations and escaping them. These are original stories, perhaps being serialised for book publication? I’m not really a fan – give us some Edwardian detectives! “Tone down” and serialise some Holmes if you have to XD.

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Several of the Charlie Small stories also come with cutaways of the machine featured in the story:

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Which brings us neatly into the educational part of The Phoenix. Of course, I’d much prefer if the cutaways were of real things, especially modern things that were not cut-awayed in either Eagle – like the Javelin train, Airbus A380, iThings and so on. Mind you, Eagle did do some cutaways of things from Dan Dare, and The Phoenix has done the same with Troy Trailblazer’s ship:

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One of the regular educational features of The Phoenix is Starborn. The first part of it was promoted as an epic adventure serial, but when it arrived it was just a one-part story about the first human to be born in space. She is found by advanced aliens to reveal “the secrets of the universe” to “the first starborn” of every intelligent species.

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It then became a series of ‘posters’ about space – including current space technology and possibilities for the future. It also features sections about speculative other planets, and the life forms that might live on them. Readers were encouraged to think of what conditions might be like on a planet, and the adaptions a creature would need to survive there.

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One of the more “grounded” ones.

The other main feature of the phoenix is the editorial, which also contains gag cartoons and short strips such as Planet of the Shapes. The editors themselves are characters, who occasionally show you around the “story labs”, and battle the villainous Barnaby Knowles, who wants to re-name the comic The Owl.

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A common feature early on was Elsewhere…, which has several funny ideas. Not all of them involving elephants called Nellie…

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I’m glad The Phoenix has raced past the milestone set by it’s older brother, and I hope that it lives long into the future. It’s not exactly the British adventure comic I’d make, given the chance (I’d have Zara in every issue, for a start XD), but it’s pretty good. You can subscribe (well, try to!) on www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk, or else try your nearest Waitrose, you might be lucky!

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