|Alphabet Soup logo by Paul Morton
Phoenix logo © David Fickling Comics Ltd
As soon as a children’s comics strand was proposed for Alphabet Soup, the number one publication on my hit list was The Phoenix. Published weekly by David Fickling Comics in Oxford, The Phoenix has recently celebrated 200 issues.
This would be an achievement for any publication, but it’s especially notable because The Phoenix is of such high quality (both in content and presentation), boasting regular contributions from UK illustrators and writers such as Neill Cameron, Kate Brown, Jamie Smart, Laura Ellen Anderson and Adam Murphy, with no less a personage than Philip Pullman contributing a new 30 part series this year. And did I mention that the comic is completely free of advertising too?!
(Full disclosure – I live in Oxford and have been a Phoenix subscriber since issue 6, so may be ever-so-slightly biased)
I’m pleased to be joined today by "Chief Human Assistant" Tom Fickling, who will be tackling my tricky questions. Welcome Tom!
Thanks for having me!
Can you sum up the ethos of The Phoenix in a single sentence?
To publish stories that fill our readers with excitement and delight every single week.
Sounds good to me! One of the many delightful things you’ve done at The Phoenix is to create a fictional editorial team who appear in the comic and often get mixed up in the adventures. But can you introduce us to the real people at Phoenix HQ who create the comic?
I’m not sure how to answer this. Tabs Inkspot is the editor, Chops Piggerton is the deputy editor and the stories are extracted from the inbetweeniverse in the storylabs, which are overseen by chief scientist Quincy Trowell. What do you mean ‘real people?’ If you mean the humans, then we’re just assistants...
|The real Phoenix editorial team|
The Phoenix was born out of the ashes of the DFC, which was an earlier weekly comic that ran for 43 issues between 2008 and 2009. How did the experience of publishing the DFC help to shape The Phoenix? Were there things that you did differently to make sure that the new comic would be more successful?
Well, the main thing is that we are independent so we can operate more freely. This has its own pressures of course, but is better for the comic I think.
If I could pick out one thing I think we’ve improved a lot, it would be the overall tone and balance of The Phoenix. The tone of the DFC was a bit inconsistent and while we do still publish a broad range of stuff, I think we’re better at getting that right than we were before.
But we still feel like we’re learning all the time. We are constantly striving to improve The Phoenix, whether it be the comic itself, the experience of receiving it, the experience of giving it and so on.
We’re particularly excited this year as we have two really stonking stories that start in April/May. The next series of Tamsin from Kate Brown and Neill Cameron, and John Blake by Fred Fordham and Philip Pullman.
I grew up in a world where children’s comics were plentiful, with new titles launching from publishers like IPC and DC Thompson every few months. Nowadays, the market feels very different, with a plethora of licensed titles on the shelves that seem only to exist to sell the toy hanging off the cover. Coupled with this are the many digital distractions making demands on children’s time. How is The Phoenix reacting to these shifts in the market?
I don’t think we’re reacting to a shift in the market. We’re reacting to there not being a comic like The Phoenix in the UK. It seems it’s only us who have this weird gap in the market. Asia? Massive comic sales. America? Massive comic sales. Europe? Massive comic sales. Are UK kids different? We don’t think so.
Something that marks out The Phoenix for me is your commitment to serialised storytelling. The run up to issue 200 was a good example of that - you ran a complex multi-issue campaign centred around the hunt for five golden keys, enlisting your readers in a interactive battle against the “antifun” that was slowly enveloping the comic. How difficult was it to co-ordinate that campaign, and did you see a big rise in reader engagement as a result?
We had such an amazing response to the Golden Key saga. It ended last October and we’re still getting sent fan art of the keys and the key bearers. It was somewhat tricky to pull together but also a massive amount of fun. It had the side effect of making our production of the comic much more organised and systematic. So it was fun and practical! Hooray! We learned a lot of lessons and have many more plans for similar things. I also just did an event at a school where I met this girl who had made her own key called the key of honour. She had this whole backstory and everything. It was awesome.
You run a yearly comics festival in Oxford called Phoenix Fest, as well as making appearances at music and literary festivals. Do you think it’s important to connect face-to-face with readers of the comic?
Yes, because that’s pretty much the only time we get to actually see kids enjoying The Phoenix. And it’s a real boost for everyone on the team to feel the passion and love from our fans and their families.
This year we’re taking it on the road and bringing The Phoenix to other places around the UK. It’s time to share the love!
You’re great champions of diversity, with retellings of traditional ethnic folk tales, and series such as Mega Robo Bros, Cora’s Breakfast and The Rocket of Rawangadalli featuring diverse characters. However, when I’ve been to your events, the kids there mostly seem to be white and middle class! Is that a fair categorisation of your core readership, and if so, are there any plans to broaden your reach among other social and ethnic groups?
Yeah that’s fair. But The Phoenix is definitely not just for middle class white kids. And I’m pleased that there is a sense out there that we care about issues like diversity, but I still think we need to do more in this area.
|This image comes from the programme for Phoenix Fest on the comic's own
website, in case you think I'm being deliberately unfair or provocative!
Thanks for your honesty, Tom. Let’s move on to a subject that I’m sure will be of great interest to our SCBWI members – submissions! You have a very comprehensive submissions page on The Phoenix website, so I won’t ask you to repeat that information. But are there any types of features you’re specifically looking for at the moment?
Just cool ideas that are nothing like the things we already publish! We’ll make space for anything we love. We are faced with many tough choices these days as we have far too much great content for the number of pages we have. But this is the best situation to be in.
As ever though, shorter things are easier to factor in than long things. And to be honest, for long running serials we’re probably good for a number of years. BUT… if you’ve got a great idea don’t let that stop you sending it in!
|Fourteen-year-old comic creator Jordan Vigay featured in Phoenix issue 200|
I note that you prioritise submissions from writer/illustrators, or writer and illustrator teams. Do you have any advice for writers who have an amazing comic idea but don’t have illustration skills? Would you pair up a writer and illustrator if there was a story that just had to be told?
We’ll look at anything. But on a practical level, something from a writer that requires pairing with an artist just takes more thought and therefore more time. And the simple fact is that we’re a tiny team and making The Phoenix each week, every week of the year is a massive amount of work.
But we always look at everything. Even if we take too long to get back to people. Sorry about that, anyone who has been waiting! We’re trying to get better at that too.
But if you have a script and you want it to be a comic, then at some point you need an artist. If you just don’t know anyone, fair enough, but it can’t hurt to make the effort to hook up with someone you like.
Would you consider content for inclusion in the comic that had already appeared online, e.g. as a webcomic? Or are you only looking for totally new and exclusive material?
If we think our readers will love it and they haven’t seen it before, then we’d consider anything.
My favourite regular strip is Star Cat – it’s consistently weird and hilarious, even if James Turner sometimes keeps us waiting for ages between instalments! Obviously, you love everything in The Phoenix, but do you have any secret personal favourites?
I think we’re very lucky to work with a very talented group of creators and there is no way I could pick out a favourite! Star Cat is ace though
Thanks very much to Tom and all the other human assistants who help to bring us a fresh instalment of Phoenix goodness every single week! You can read Star Cat's finest hour below, in the form of a free digital version of meta-marvellous Phoenix issue 180:
If you like what you see and want to sample The Phoenix for yourself, you can buy a copy in WHSmith, Waitrose or selected book shops. Or even better, you can click below to:
Go on, you know you want to!
All Phoenix artwork and properties © David Fickling Comics Ltd
Nick Cross is an experienced word juggler, Undiscovered Voices winner and 2015 honours recipient of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.
Nick's most recent children's short story Todd Tempest Investigates can be found in issue 11 of Stew Magazine. He also blogs regularly for Notes from the Slushpile.