Review by Frank Plowright
The Phoenix continues to be an innovative children’s comic, nurturing newcomers and presenting new ideas, and it seems there’s no end to the roll call of innovative talents they unearth. Six feature here, some like Jamie Smart with a long track record over several features, and others who’ve yet to see their strip collected as an individual graphic novel. As in volume one, chapters of a longer, more adventure-oriented feature, in this case Faz Choudhury’s ‘The Pie Thief’, are separated by shorter strips.
Of those Smart’s ‘Bunny vs Monkey’ is the real proven commodity, with six collections of its energetic slapstick already available. Smart’s work is best as a sugar rush between other features, and however good he is, variety isn’t his strongpoint, so packing 32 consecutive pages of the combative pair consecutively distils their effectiveness. He takes much the same approach with mad cat Looshkin later, whose life has even more surreal turns. However, conceptually, Smart is amazing, constantly coming up with great evil plans and machinery for Skunky to torment the woodland creatures with. James Turner is also conceptually strong, the wonderfully daft ‘Star Cat’ actually a cat-shaped spaceship under the charge of the incompetent Captain Spacington and his equally incompetent crew. An indication of Turner’s whimsy is the first of two strips having Spacington appointed as head of Interstellar Custard Security. From there we move to treacherous thought detectors and the Starmadillo. They’re hilarious, although unless you also have the Star Cat collection the coded dialogue will be confusing.
Niall Cameron’s ‘Mega-Robo Bros’ also have their own collections, three of them to date, about the robot brothers attempting to fit in with normal kids. Cameron draws some amazing dinosaurs and other threats that might be found if activated during a trip to the museum. It’s charming adventure with a point to make about inclusivity.
‘The Pie Thief’ is a meandering Victorian-era extravaganza split into four parts, very much influenced by classic European comedy adventures for children, in which Choudhury introduces an underground society as seen through the eyes of newcomer Zeke. It’s clever, joyous and twisting, really something deserving of being issued separately. The period is well captured, the terrors are scary (although toned down a little for the audience), the illustration’s nice, the mystery and adventure are kept simmering, the cast are endearing and the comedy timing is skilled. Sixdinners’ shrinking hat is a marvel.
Jess Bradley’s ‘Squid Bits’ are the comic equivalent of Tim Vine’s jokes, with one line set-ups and a punchline, packed pages of quick laughs. They alternate with strange pages combining a four panel Mega-Robo Bros strip with a guide to assorted moustaches. ‘Daniel Crisp and his Amazing Imagination’ is restricted to eight pages by Benedict and Dominica Tomczyk-Bowen. Their ability to compress his flights of daydreaming fantasy into eleven panels is admirable, but it’s the slightest strip here.
At a cover price of £9.99 you can’t go wrong with this sampler. ‘The Pie Thief’ alone repays the investment and there’s some great bonus content. If there is to be a third volume (and let’s hope so), perhaps some consideration could be given to splitting the strips up more to give the feeling of an annual, as packaging them together by creator diminishes the spontaneity of Smart especially.