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 comic book 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 super-hero 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.
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 deus 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.
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.
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.