By Lorenzo Etherington (David Fickling Books)
These days, young kids are far more likely to find their formative strip narrative experiences online or between the card-covers of specially tailored graphic novels rather than the comics and periodicals of my long-dead youth.
Once upon a time, however, the comics industry was a commercial colossus which thrived by producing copious amounts of gaudy, flimsy pamphlets covering a multitude of themes, subjects and sub-genres, all further subdivided into a range of successful, self-propagating, seamlessly self-perpetuating age-specific publications.
Such eye-catching items once generated innumerable tales, delights (and cherished memories) intended to entertain, inform and educate such well-defined target demographics as Toddler/Pre-school, Younger and Older Juvenile, General, Girls, Boys and even Young Teens. Today, sadly, Britain seems only capable of maintain a few paltry out-industry, licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for a dwindling younger readership.
Where once cheap and prolific, strip magazines in the 21st century are extremely cost-intensive and manufactured for a highly specific â€“ and dying â€“ niche market, whilst the beguiling and bombastic genres that originally fed and nurtured comics are more immediately disseminated via TV, movies and assorted interactive media.
There are one or two venerable, long-lived holdouts such as The Beano and 2000AD but overall the trend has been downwards for decades.
That maxim was happily turned on its head back in January 2012 when Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched The Phoenix: a traditional-seeming anthology comic weekly aimed at girls and boys between 6 and 12 which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment Intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and Content.
Still going strong, each issue offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only ones who really count â€“ the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read itâ€¦
The Phoenix was voted No. 2 in Time Magazineâ€™s global list of Top Comics and Graphic Novels and is the only strip publication started in the UK in the last forty years to have reached issue #100. It is now rapidly approaching its double-century. The magazine celebrated its first anniversary by developing a digital edition available globally as a tablet app and is continually expanding its horizons.
It is, most importantly, big and bold and tremendous fun.
On the other hand, whilst comics companies all seem to have given up the ghost, in this country at least, old-school prose publishers and the newborn graphic novel industry have evolved to fill their vacated niche. With a less volatile business model and far more sustainable long-term goals, book sellers have prospered from magazine makersâ€™ surrender, and there have never been so many and varied cartoon and comics chronicles, compilations and tomes for readers to enjoy.
Naturally The Phoenix is part of that growing market, with a superb line of graphic albums repackaging and re-presenting their Greatest Bits.
The one weâ€™re looking at today is The Phoenix Presentsâ€¦ Von Doogan and the Great Air Race: a dazzling display of cartoon virtuosity and mind-mangling comic challenges composed by Lorenzo Etherington, originally seen as captivating, addictively challenging weekly instalments of The Dangerous Adventures of Von Doogan.
The serial combined captivating cartoon narrative with observational tests, logic puzzles and other kidsâ€™ favourite brain-teasers, craftily taking readers and participants on a magnificently constructed progressive voyage of adventure and discovery in 37 clue, game, maze and mystery-packed episodes.
Our hero is a brilliant and intrepid young explorer with a keen sense of justice and an insatiable thirst for action. Here, following his previous exploit, Von Doogan is in the World Adventurersâ€™ Club with the profits of the Golden Monkey caper burning a hole in pocket. Realising he is incredibly bored, he seeks out a fresh a challenge and is soon off and awayâ€¦
Recovering, decoding and accepting an invitation to a global Great Air Race, our hero sets out in a hurry, gathering on the way supplies, a plane and a pilot in the form of very bad waitress Abby â€œAceâ€ Poontoon.
Then itâ€™s a mad dash to decipher routes, maps and clues en route from one clandestine destination to the next; perpetually tackling – with your help – all manner of conundra (each with a daunting icon reckoning its â€œimpossibility levelâ€) as our heroes zero in on the goal.
As if puzzles such as â€˜Secret Sandwichâ€™, â€˜The Big Chokeâ€™, â€˜Cockpit Lockoutâ€™ and â€˜Blazing Mazeâ€™ arenâ€™t enough to challenge the keenest intellectual daredevil, thereâ€™s also the knotty problem of a saboteur amongst the intrepid contestants slowing and winnowing out the competition at every stageâ€¦
â€˜Dooganâ€™s Discoveryâ€™ â€¦
Naturally we arenâ€™t all as smart as Von Doogan or a six-year old so this spectacular colourful cornucopia comes with a page explaining â€˜How the Book Worksâ€™, an expansive â€˜Equipment Checklistâ€™ and a fulsome secret section offering extra help with â€˜The Cluesâ€™ and – thankfully – it all wraps up with graphically glitzy explanations in â€˜The Solutionsâ€™.
Thereâ€™s even a free printable download page providing your own handy dandy copy of â€˜Dooganâ€™s Danger Kitâ€™ to stop you cutting up the one in this mesmerising manuscript of mystery.
Story! Games! Action! â€¦ and all there in the irresistible form of entertaining narrative pictures. How much cooler can a book get?
Text and illustrations Â© Lorenzo Etherington 2016. All rights reserved.
To find out more about The Phoenix or subscribe, visit: www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk
Von Doogan and the Great Air Race will be released on April 7th 2016.