Still Creating A Thirst For Adventure
♦ British kids adventure comic anthology The Phoenix celebrated its fifth anniversary last year but it has no intentions of sitting on its laurels as Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows found out when he went to meet its editor and managing director Tom Fickling earlier this summer…
Oxford is a slightly unlikely place to find a UK children’s comic publisher. Admittedly, Rebellion, who puts out 2000AD is based in the city, but you would expect them to be located in London or even Dundee, where DC Thomson, who publish The Beano, are based. The Phoenix is published from an office that could be described as either bijou or tiny, depending on how honest you are being. Its editor and managing director, Tom Fickling, opens the door to the office and we head out down the road to conduct our chat in the café of the Oxford Playhouse.
Fickling is a fairly young man to be in such a position of authority but publishing obviously runs in the veins: his father is David Fickling, who founded The Phoenix as well as children’s book publisher David Fickling Books AND The Phoenix’s predecessor The DFC.
Settling at the café at the Playhouse, Fickling seems to be happy with the way that the American collected editions are selling for The Phoenix:
“We’re quite pleased with them. They’ve only really just started publishing. We’re on a three, four or five year plan to see how they go but we’re really pleased with the early sales. The print runs weren’t massive, and we don’t want to take big risks at this stage in our life. But I think they’re pleased with how they’ve done too. Some titles have done fantastically well in the school system. We’re really at the beginning of our journey with Scholastic. We’ve got so many books to publish and we’ve only published a few of them. Though Mostly what we’d love to do is get the paper comic going over there,” he admits, sipping his tea.
In fact, unsurprisingly, there are plans afoot to make the weekly comic available in print to US readers although he is a little bit vague as to when this would happen:
“[Rather than do it through Scholastic] I think we’ll probably do it ourselves. [As to when it would start] watch this space. It’s not that it’s a really complicated thing to do. We’ll publish the same Phoenix that we publish over here but we want to Americanise it,” he explains.
In fact, they would follow the same model they utilise for the UK, he elaborates.
“Same model as the UK, like 95% of the UK readership are subscribers and we will publish the same comic but we want to make sure that it’s Americanised our content is… still quite British and we don’t mind having some British stuff. However I think if we’re going to try and make the Phoenix work for an international market, then the comic needs to have a more international flavour.”
The idea of including US creators is one that appeals to Fickling but he is realistic about this, he tells me.
“Probably not to start with but I love the thought of us launching and if we are successful, then perhaps. Obviously we believe it will be successful otherwise we wouldn’t try it but who knows? So there’s all of those amazing creators who live in America, although we couldn’t afford any of them at the moment, but if we could make it successful, then maybe one day we can. I do love the idea. Though there are so many amazing people over here too!”
In the short term however, The Phoenix has made a decision to create some of their own characters and strips in-house. Fickling explains their current plans to me: “The big thing we’re focusing on now is creating our own content. You saw that in the office just now. That’s why we’ve got a number of writers and artists working together. Just before you arrived, we had a big pitching meeting.”
The summer has already seen a number of strips created in-house, Fickling tells me.
“So starting the second half of July is one of our first in-house created stories called Legacy which is written by me and illustrated by Zak Simmonds-Hurn and is a fantasy series, a bit like Final Fantasy, with wizards and goblins. You have an empire falling into disrepair, beset by evil forces. It’s cheesy but I love that stuff. So that’s an epic fantasy saga beginning the middle of July and it runs for about 15 weeks. We’ve also just launched a strip called Izzy Newton, Kid Billionaire who is like a 12-year-old version of Elon Musk. She has this company called Horizon and she goes around the world having adventures.”
Fickling takes a break and continues to fill me in on what they will be doing with Izzy Newton.
“She’s like a superhero but her power is that she’s really clever and she’s also a billionaire. The first story was about one of her clean water power plants being sabotaged by an oil tycoon and in the next one, she goes into space to solve a problem. So there will be more of that.”
The Phoenix will also be doing more with a choose your own adventure fantasy series which has already appeared in the comic:
“There will be more of this thing we started called Fates and Fortunes which is a little like a choose your own adventure story. This runs as a double page spread in a choose your own adventure format. This fits into in the comic because we’re all massive Dungeons and Dragons fans, as well as being Fighting Fantasy book fans and board game players so we’re trying to bring a bit more of that into the Phoenix. So Fates and Fortune is our attempt at doing that,” he explains.
Fickling is actually developing a new strip with with Patrice Aggs (Phoenix contributor John Agg’s mother), and a very talented artist in her own right, he explains.
“So we’ve been in touch with John [Aggs] recently but haven’t published him for a while. I think he’s absolutely amazing and actually we’re trying to find a project to work with him on. We’re actually developing something with Patrice at the moment. She’s doing the artwork on a project, which is a refugee story but in a way, it’s a reverse refugee story. Britain sits on the brink of a war torn country and it’s about a family who have to travel across Britain and when they try and get into a safe country, they’re not allowed in. It’s an exciting story but if we are able to show what it means to have your country torn apart by political forces which are completely beyond your control, then maybe for our readers it will really bring these sorts of issues home. Because when you’re nine, ten or eleven, you are interested in stories with content like this. You’re asking those questions and you’re hearingabout Syria and stuff like that. So we just wanted to do something that brings a little bit of what that might be like home. Obviously we’re not going to get anywhere near the actual horror of it but we’re really excited about it because it’s a personal story about two sisters and their younger brother and a chance for us to shine a light on things going on in the world that are easy to ignore. Currently it is penciled in for later this year but it may end up coming out next year. The artwork looks absolutely fantastic,” Fickling says excitedly.
The trade paperbacks, are still in print and are doing pretty decently in the market, Fickling reveals.
The Bunny vs Monkey book one sales have been the same every year since we launched the book. Sales are steady and that’s actually quite rare in publishing to find something that sells consistently. Almost all the titles sell consistently. We’ve published 27 so far and we’re trying to build up the market. It’s a long way to go but we’ve sold over 140,000 books now over the last four or five years,” Fickling says proudly.
The people behind The Phoenix would like it to be around for many years to come, Fickling states.
“The idea behind the Phoenix is that we want to be around for a long time. We want to have our 75th anniversary and we want to start those comic franchises that become part of the industry. So it was always intended to be a long-term plan.”
They do offer a digital version of the comic but not for the UK, and he explains the reasoning behind this.
“Yep we do but that’s in North and South America only. It was a way to have the content available without the costs of physical production. If you have a Comixology account, then you can probably find it and we produce that in conjunction with Scholastic. But ultimately we like the idea of a physical magazine because everyone wants to go digital. I’m a massive gamer and I play games on every device I own but I’ve just been on holiday and I really enjoy reading books too. If my books were only on my devices I’m not sure I would read so much. I think parents do want children to have access to something physical. So it could sit on an iPad in competition with everything else on there but we think there’s space for something physical. They’re all playing Fortnite on mobile so why would they want to read the Phoenix? I doubt I would have when I was 10. We think and hopethat if we are a physical thing, we can sit alongside all the latest crazes that take the world by storm. That might be completely wrong but we’ll see,” he replies slightly nervously.
Unlike many other kids comics in the UK, The Phoenix isn’t a licensed comic but originates its own material. He sees it as occupying a very specific niche in the market.
“Us and the Beano are fulfilling those two different strands. The Beano is focused on the humour whereas we are a bit more about adventure. There’s space for both of us. I was a Beano fanatic growing up. The origin of the Beano is fascinating because it used to be the case before the Beano that everything was adventure and the Beano came along and they said ‘Come on let’s have some humour.’ So everyone tried to copy them. We are trying to do the opposite, the same thing that the Beano did but bring adventure to the market..”
Fickling would like to see the comic in more supermarkets but it is a little bit of a risk for them, he admits.
“Obviously we’d like the Phoenix to be available in every magazine shop in the country like in Waitrose, but you have to pay the supermarkets to be stocked on their shelves. It is getting to the point now where we can afford a few more tests so I think we are going to have a go in Tescos and Sainsburys again and see if we can make it stick. Even though we really we want people to subscribe, nothing beats just walking past something, seeing it and picking it up. But it’s got to be affordable for us because we’re a tiny company.”
He would like to have characters who are strongly associated with The Phoenix the way that titles like 2000AD and The Beano do but he doesn’t feel that they are there just yet.
“Yes there are strips like Bunny vs Monkey and Looskin which we hope do that for us. There is also Mega Robo Bros and Corpse Talk. We’d really like Gorebrah, to become a lead character. I really love that strip. I am hoping that in-house things we’ve done recently like Izzy Newton will capture the reader’s imagination too. The other recent series with a lot of potential is Claire, Justice Ninja: Ninja of Justice which is a big office favourite. The readers also seem to really really like it and that’s one of those strips that we hope will become really associated with the comic. I don’t think it will ever be like Judge Dredd to 2000AD or Dennis The Menace to The Beano level unless we actually invent that character. And I don’t think we have as yet,” Fickling states honestly.
Wrapping up our chat, he admits that the comic isn’t averse to licensing characters to TV, animation or film but on their own terms.
“We’d all be interested in that andwe’re having conversations about those kind of things. there’s lots of opportunity out there for content and platform providers. However there’s lots of people creating content, so you’re always going to battle against that licensed property thing. It hasn’t clicked yet and it’s got to be the right time.”
Fickling takes a final sip of tea and continues.
“We’ve had interest in different things and the contributors have got different conversations with different people going. My view is that I think we really should hold and not really get into that quite yet. I feel like we can grow a lot more. I feel that we can grow in America. Our print run is constantly growing and I don’t see why we can’t get to four or five times the size. With the streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, when they buy it, they buy everything. So the bigger we are the better price we will get for our contributors. And we don’t neccessarilywant to sell everything outright to a big American company. I am a bit more interested in these rumored conversations with BBC, ITV and Channel 5 joining up to create a streaming service. So we could be a British content creator working with home grown channels. But At this point all that is a pipe dream right now we’re focused making comics and trucking along to Christmas.”
The Phoenix rose out of the ashes of other UK kids comic The DFC. But with plans to expand the comic into America and build on what they have in the UK, it doesn’t look like the comic is going anywhere soon. Six years into publishing weekly, The Phoenix continues to be one of the more unique UK comic periodicals out there with a very savvy man at its helm.