Having made occasional favourable references to The Phoenix comic, I now feel that it deserves some more critical attention. Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong places, but even though it's clearly appreciated by the kids who send in their drawings each week, there's not much writing about it beyond Down The Tubes and Lew Stringer.
However, part of the fun is opening what, were it stuck in a plastic bag with some toy tat, could pass for any other children's comic, only to find a significant minority of jokes that only the most obsessive nostalgia enthusiasts under the age of thirty could recognise. Rest assured, my own critical attention will at most let a few more people in on the secret.
Now, as much as I like the idea of The Phoenix being smart, funny, and occasionally challenging for all ages, that's only a distillation of the best moments. In reality, I stopped subscribing lately because such moments stretched thinner, until it was no longer worth paying for the year of weekly deliveries.
This was going to be the positive paragraph, where I would have instead recommended that potential new readers buy any of three excellent comic collections, each containing 200 pages of most of the best bits. My recommendation stands, but The Phoenix are no longer selling these books on their own website. They are in stock at the usual suspects, but still, that's not a good sign at all.
So here's the revised positive paragraph. Potential subscribers: buy some of the following books, and if you like them, be only slightly disappointed when you subscribe to the comic!
Then, let your subscription lapse and be rewarded for disloyalty, like you were paying for car insurance rather than a comic. Here's a radical thought - why not, for example, send those five free books to regular subscribers instead? I'm still cross, but not so cross that I won't take your back issues once you're done with them. Thanks.
The emerging format for the Colossal Collections is one big story, broken up by collections of smaller, self-contained comics. Trail Blazers is the big story, and for my money, about as good as The Phoenix gets in that department.
It's a space adventure, focusing on a crew of misfits with a somewhat predictable disregard for inconvenient legalities. Familiar, but fun, with snappy action and dialogue, and then it takes the main character apart. Well, more allows them to self-destruct, but I won't spoil too many details. Certain crowd scenes, for example, and something that, considering my fluency in undead teletext speak, I should have spotted much sooner.
Weighing in at ten pages each, Squid Squad and Doug Slugman P.I. are the slimmest of refreshers between the main story. The former is fine, for what it is, if you find the latter more impenetrably weird than wonderfully absurd. Evil Emperor Penguin is largely self-explanatory. The execution is cute, fluffy, and a touch dry and sarcastic - it's no Pinky and the Brain, but all the better for having its own approach to world domination whimsy.
There's a fair chunk of Bunny Vs Monkey, which fluctuates between ongoing stories and self-contained woodland supremacy. You'll understand it better in the context of Looshkin, also by Jamie Smart, a revival of one of his alternative comics but without the swearing, the detailed violence, and air of despair. Is what remains satirical, or merely an excuse for impulse mayhem? Yes.
That leaves a taste of Squid Bits, though not enough to show that it's a little more than random collections of jokes, and a few single-panel cartoons. In all, this is the best book of the three to start with, unless you really, really, only want the funnies.
The lead story here is The Pie Thief. It's a step down from Trail Blazers, but due to some strong supporting strips, this collection is a mostly worthy companion for the first volume.
Expectations duly lowered, the pie is a starting point for capers in Victorian London. There are no huge surprises, but a few subtle gags and some agreeably creepy moments. The style initially seems a bit neat for historical squalor, though I do like the bold use of darkness later. In all, interesting, rather than compelling, but worth reading at least twice.
Star Cat is my highlight of this collection, puncturing its own escalating wordy surrealism with simple solutions that only the highly educated could miss. The best of its two stories here is Orwell in Space, with custard. I'll explain the unrelated comics invasion special, involving years of advance planning and only possible in a periodical, on another occasion.
Mega Robo Bros suffers from needing more than one episode to shine, but this one gives the general idea. One of the brothers captures the joyful innocence of childhood with laser cannons, while the other is a vessel for introspection and social commentary. Both of them punch other robots, with light digressions on the nature of consciousness, light enough that the serious parts are eventually hard to take seriously.
When it's not trying to be important, though, it can often entertain and provoke on the level of Calvin and Hobbes. For example, it's the little Bargain Basement Bots spin-off that most effectively cuts through artificial intelligence hype.
The remaining fillers are Daniel Crisp and his overt flights of fancy, and the subtler improvisation in more Squid Bits. Which leaves more Bunny Vs Monkey, not quite as freewheeling as the first volume, and more Looshkin, similarly less essential. Overall, expect mildly diminished returns and you won't be disappointed.
It's not. However, it is rarely less than gently amusing, and occasionally very funny indeed. The format here is seven strips of roughly equal billing, now divided by an inconsequential host, rather than single-page fillers.
The gently amusing category includes more Evil Emperor Penguin, and Gary's Garden, where the residents talk, steal food, take art classes, and so on. Though in a different style to Bunny Vs Monkey, which is back, and again, not quite as good as in the first collection. Squid Bits also feels a touch off, even allowing that it wasn't designed to be read this way.
Star Cat is the most steadily entertaining, with a rogue computer and inventive pop culture riffs. Gorebrah! is a barbarian chef, which seems like an idea that should run out of steam after a few episodes. It probably does, but then makes dramatic recoveries such as, demographics be damned, one for the cult 80s horror fans.
That leaves more Looshkin, and now I'm wondering if I should have got his two dedicated collections instead, even though they cost almost as much for less than half the pages. You see, the catch with these bumper collections is reprints, most noticeable between this book and volume two.
Reprints have now started infecting the weekly comic. Admittedly, reprints from several years ago, but still, financial reality is squeezing creativity, per the earlier introduction of adverts. If I was in charge, then this comic would go bust within weeks, but there must be some way to send the message that some affluent readers are old enough to dig a hippo named Chambourcy. Postcards from Croydon?
Fans of Mr Biffo's Found Footage may remember CG wizard AJ Jefferies, who here contributes to a special episode of Looshkin. It's a fine example of how tirelessly Mr Smart pushes comics forward. However, I do prefer the episode reminiscent of another one of his alternative comics, Corporate Skull. Which is still not as excellent as the monkey abduction love story, sadly absent from these books.
In conclusion, buy the first Colossal Collection, then decide if you want more. If you have time to read this right now, then you probably weren't going out for the next few weeks anyway.
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