Friday, 13 December 2013

Six Reasons - Amongst Many More - To Celebrate The Phoenix #101

In which the blogger, after Wednesday's distastefulness, looks to The Phoenix #101 to raise his spirits, and chooses just a single moment from each strip in it to do so. Gentle reader, be be aware that spoilers await;

A truly great anthology title generates a host of cherishable moments and talking points, and every single feature within its covers contributes to each. In Dan Boultwood's 3 & A Dog, there's the invigorating and inspiring sight of Mrs Scott threatening bodily harm upon the treasure hunters who are trying to intimidate her children. The set-up for her assumption of hostilities is beautifully worked, with the previous panel closing on a light-hearted "Avast there, me hearties!". Because of that, her seizing of the  megaphone surprises the reader as much as the member of the Coast Guard beside her; though the game is very much up, she's trusting nothing to common sense or fate. s such, what might have been a too gentle conclusion to events becomes cathartically lively. In lesser hands, the punchline might have been an implicitly misogynistic one, with the joke being Mr Scott's emasculating inability to compete with his wife's aggressiveness.  But Boultwood presents a situation is which Mrs Scott is simply the better suited of the two to hurl the first threat, with her husband shown to be as determined and outraged as she is; neither falls into a solely dominant or submissive role, and both remain people rather than stereotypes.  
For those of us who are more often than not wearied by the superhero comic's refusal to live up to its potential, Jamie Smart's Bunny vs Monkey offers both a droll new heroic team and a comment or two upon the absurdities of the costumed crimefighter genre. Joining the exalted company of Al Ewing's Mighty Avengers and Gillen/McKelvie's Young Avengers as one of the recent past's few totally welcome superteams, the Rather Good Squad inevitably cause far more damage through their activities than good. Several of the givens of the cape'n'chest-insignia tradition are heartily mocked here, while Smart's vigorous, panel-dominating characters even suggests something of the dynamic and direct appeal of dear Jack Kirby himself. Different genres, different styles, different traditions, of course, and it's not in any way the most obvious of comparisons. Yet seeing Smart's sharp parody of super-people did bring it to mind, and if nothing else, both men's work share a rare mix of dynamism, directness and joy.  
There's an enchanting double-page depiction of the workings of a bee hive in Adam Murphy's Hey, Dr. Smarty Pants, of which I've taken just this tiny detail. Murphy's work excels in retaining the complexity of his subjects while ensuring that the work is entirely accessible and comprehensible. Peppered with gags as well as facts, the strip avoids the worthiness of a Look And Learn cutaway through Murphy's refusal to pretend that learning and liveliness, good humour and curiosity, are incompatible each with the other.( I do, of course, retain my fondness for those charmingly worthy Look And Learn cutaways too.)
Readers who've popped into the blog before, or who followed Q Comics during its existence, might well recall how highly I thought of  Jim Medway's fine graphic novel Playing Out. Medway's Sgt Chip Charlton & Mr Woofles is a similarly smart and enjoyable strip, although it's also far more farcical and explicitly political too. The initially rather despicable Sgt is a reactionary Mountie and an agent provocateur too whose only two saving graces are his beguiling stupidity and his love for Mr Woofles, the Dachshund police dog. My favourite sequence from TP#101 is too long for me to print here, and involves Charlton's guitar-wielding solution to maintaining his cover with a group of environmental protesters. Extra marks have of course been awarded for Medway's astute appropriation of Pointillism for the issue's cover, which can be seen at the bottom of this post.
What could be more terrible for Laura Ellen Anderson's Evil Emperor Penguin than to have to endure a fond hug from his adoring and affection-starved minion Eugene? The terrible, hilarious sense of futility and powerlessness that Anderson gives to the Emperor as he surrenders to the horrors of being physically cherished is exquisitely done. That he's being forced to do so after Eugene has just shared a particularly unpleasant moment of ... intimacy with him only intensifies the pleasures of the Evil Emperor Penguin's momentary capitulation.
Nothing accentuates how all-consuming their screwball-comedy quarrel has become so much as Troy and Jessica's refusal to interupt their sniping for the arrival of a "ferocious snow beast". Creator Robert Deas knows exactly how to maximise both the humour and the meance in the situation; the creature is lent frame-dominating fierceness, the blizzard is presented as a clearly life-threatening business, and yet all the two leads in Troy Trailblazer & The Horde Queen can focus on is tearing verbal strips off one another. Though the purveyors of tales characterised by deeply furrowed-brows and the very darkest of  angst might not care to note, the humour in Deas' work actually serves to increase the sense of jeopardy. After all, we don't just want the two to survive what might be a fearsome fight with a frightful creature. Far more importantly, we want them to survive so that we can see how their bickering plays out.

And even as I finish typing this out, the next edition of The Phoenix appears in the comics rack ....


  1. Eanother fine look at an exceptionally good anthology. More and more I find myself only reading those articles where you're writing from a position of joy rather then from the pit of misery that is the New 52 and it's ilk. You provide a valuable service pointing out the soul destroying dross tha makes up some 99% of the superhero market but I much prefer when you signpost the superior nature of well written comics that recognise the existence of consequences, logic and even humour. The Pheonix doesnt hold the same appeal to me as the DFC, Sardine, or Tiny Tyrant, but each time I return to it on your recommendation I find it easier to appreciate and find myself more willing to take another chance on it.

    1. Hello Peter:- I take your point about posts which express enthusiasm, and those which don't. I'm currently trying to remember to post 1 entirely enthusiastic piece for every 1 or 2 which deal with things in a less optimistic manner. By that, I don't mean that I'm skirting over problems or faking enthusiasm, but just that I do recognise that a variety of posts helps :)

      And it helps me too, in that much of my comics reading time is marked by the pleasure of the experience. It's heartening to express that for me, I will admit.

      I find myself enjoying The Phoenix more and more. Whether I'm changing or whatever, it seems to me to be an ever-improving comic. If I may, I would recommend the issue discussed above and the following one, which is also a real gem.

  2. Chip Charlton's "Russian Doll" barf gag in this week's issue (102) had me laughing like a drain, especially after coming at the end of a lengthy chase sequence - which I am a sucker for - begun in the preceding issue. I was wary of the cutesy style of Sgt Chip, but it camoflages a healthily subversive attitude.
    Being a cynical sort, I could sort of see the people behind Clint looking at The Phoenix two years ago and laughing at the very idea of being accessible and printing on a regular schedule, but of the two, I know which I actively look forward to reading and attempt to emulate, and which I stopped reading over a year before it was cancelled but continued to buy out of a probably-misplaced loyalty to comics of the UK marketplace even if they amounted to little more than 100 pages of violent man-children screaming obscenities. Clint was, in retrospect, deeply flawed in that it was aimed at adults who were already comics readers, yet was slightly ashamed of being a comic and so tried to disguise this with crude content and stunt writers, the delays and lack of cohesive identity or editorial direction only compounding things further until the book imploded. The Phoenix, by comparison, is unashamedly for children who haven't yet formed pretensions to live their lives by, making the occasional dips into subversive content* hit home all the more effectively. I don't know who it was that said "children can smell bullshit", but it seems the makers of Clint were mistaken in assuming that adults cannot.

    102 issues old and long may it continue!

    * The most subversive element - practically blasphemous, in fact - is probably that so many of the strips feature central and non-sexualised female protagonists.

    1. Hello Brigonos:- Always good to be cheering on The Phoenix with you, Mr B. I was similarly laughing out loud at Jim Medway's storytelling, and yet I too had my doubts at first sight about the strip. But the very fact that it seems such a straight - such an-over straight - approach only makes Chip Charlton's satire all the funnier. (Mind you, calling it 'satire' might obscure the fact that it's a top-notch romp in its own rght.)

      The Phoenix was always the most appealling prospect between it and Clint. The former has created a niche in the marketplace for itself. There was no recognised demand for a smart, radical, funny children's comic aimed at 8-13 year olds, with an edge that appeals to all ages. The Phoenix CREATED that demand through, as you say, high quality work and the utmost professionalism. Clint, by contrast, aimed low and quite missed the target. Rather than creating a niche based on professionalism and ambition, it tried to hoover in several species of laddishness. The Phoenix has developed the centrifugal pull of excellance, Clint ended up doing the opposite. The shame is that Clint had (some) good material and the change to really grow an audience. But it was quite frankly embarressing in places to anyone who wasn't already a fan of Millar's work and willing to buy into his faux-laddishness. (Liking - some of - his work and wanting to read page after page of blokeish features are two qualities which don't necessarily overlap.) Or to put it another way, I agree with all that you said except that I'm not sure Clint was attempting to disguise its comics-ness. I think - hypothesis warning - that Millar was attempting to create one kind of comic that his teenage self would have adored. Abit of Viz and Loaded from the late 80s and 90s, the air of the early Mighty World Of Marvel, a selection of alt comedy and big screen movies; it's all Millar's tastes. You can note what wasn't in Clint too often; music and sport, which you might have thought in one way or another would have fitted. (There was rarely a more unconvincing satire than Millar and Morrison's Big Dave strip featuring the 1994 world cup. If Millar knows his pop and alt-rock, he appears to share Millar's lack of interest in blokes kicking balls around.)

      The way that The Phoenix cleverly and radically plays with geneder roles is one of its great strengths. Similarly, its insistence that the readers are smart and open-minded always inspires me. I suspect that with patience and investment, a comic for the UK aimed at adults could succeed. But like The Phoenix, it would have to look beyond comics tradition and the hard-core audience and build the project from scratch.

      Not Clint then.

  3. Hi Colin -- Great to see your love for The Phoenix! For your readers abroad who can't easily get the print edition, the iPad version is available:

    1. Hi Russell:- A good and welcome idea, to post that link. I'm an unabashed fan of Panel Nine and Sequential as well as The Phoenix Comic. Folks should check all of them out :)