Laura Ellen Anderson
The Phoenix Presents, David Fickling Books
The Phoenix weekly comic is published at a size comparable with the average magazine-shelf fare. David Fickling Books’ collected editions of Phoenix strips are put out at a smaller size, more like a single-issue comic. On the whole, this is greatly to their benefit.
Something I didn’t mention in the Corpse Talk review I did last October was that, while everything is readable, the reduced size does demand close attention. It’s smaller than it needs to be. Evil Emperor Penguin, on the other hand is—like baby bear’s porridge—just right. Corpse Talk tends to fit five layers of panel to a page; Evil Emperor Penguin stacks up four on the vertical, leaving a satisfying read at A4 a definitely satisfying one at 8×10.
Laura Ellen Anderson produces Evil Emperor Penguin entirely, and the format doesn’t waver. Four pages per chapter, which in this volume (and I would assume it’s the same in the weekly comic) begins with a single page, turns to a double, and then ends on a final single page before the next week’s strip begins again on the plane opposite. The composition of each chapter suits this layout; a page for set-up, a page for things to Really Go Wrong, and a final page for the twisty, wonky, well-how-about-that-then. Evil Emperor Penguin is about a talking penguin with dreams of world domination, his octopus butler, and super-sweet abominable snowman minion Eugene (one of many (clones), which may or may not suffer in this minion-saturated entertainment world, depending on your/your child’s personal feelings on the matter). Obviously, in a children’s strip, dreams of world domination can never go entirely straight, friendship will win the day whether our protagonist admits it or not, and the order of the day is essentially hijinks ending in somebody’s comeuppance. Evil Emperor Penguin is very much in the tradition of the British Children’s Comic. Ooh, you naughty rascal, EEP!
How I'll feel when I finish these deadlines. pic.twitter.com/c8UZSosEO0
— Laura Ellen Anderson (@Lillustrator) November 2, 2015
There are other, more and less overt references to cultural input to spot, if spotting’s your bag. The above tweet gratifies my intention to compare this pair of panels to Batman Animated specifically—
—and for example a scene in which a scary-toothed giant plant chases Evil Emperor Penguin and Eugene around a shiny, stainless steel kitchen in the dead of night comes from a place that many audience members will recognise. Fellow Phoenix character Troy Trailblazer’s first volume, Troy Trailblazer and the Horde Queen, similarly borrows from or harkens to (some are more one than the other, but your opinion on specifics may differ) a lot of 80s and early 90s action-adventure blockbusters. I’m not sure how I feel about it in Evil Emperor Penguin. It feels a little bit lazy? I recognise all of the motifs in use, I know where they come from, and my response is: Why? Rather than being creative and adding new layers, it feels like the cartoonists are simply using tools that somebody else left lying about. “Well, in this sort of situation, one expects this sequence. So here you go.”
The Phoenix audience may or may not recognise these films, and if they don’t, will they feel retroactively let down once they’re older and they do see Jurassic Park, or Alien, or …? I think that I would have. To be fair, the book begins with a layout of the Top Secret Evil Underground Headquarters and a Kitchen of Evil is labelled, complete with grey-toned cupboards and kitchen units (although this environment is seen only once during the events of this volume, and that is during the pastiche), and the kitchen sequence is foreshadowed by a trembling glass of water in the previous strip. Foreshadowed for audience members who know Jurassic Park really well, anyway, and who haven’t itemised these two scenes down into memory GIF form, quite apart from each other. I’m sorry, I’m labouring the point, but I just don’t see the point. I am labouring to find it!
On the upside, there is a lot of creative integrity in Evil Emperor Penguin. It’s funny! It commits to its ridiculousness! It uses farts and bumholes for jokes and “gross-out humour” without actually being repulsive, which is a fine balance to strike and very important for gender equity amongst child readers, in my opinion. It’s important to be able to laugh at stink and bumcheeks without feeling uncomfortable at extreme inferred proximity, either to other people’s bodies or to disease. This panel (right) in which EEP is appalled to be next to a stranger’s bottom on the train is “funny because it’s true,” but it’s not actually degrading or sidling towards perverse like I found some children’s comics art to be in my youth (Steve Bright and Peter Gray, for example, are certainly fine draughtsman, but they produced some horrors).
The character designs are deceptively simple, lump-based, allowing Anderson to complete a weekly strip, as well as other illustration duties, whilst providing time to concentrate on facial movement and full-body expression. I was inclined to give Evil Emperor Penguin short shrift when reading weekly Phoenix issues, but taking the time to consider EEP apart from other stories, which more easily grab my attention, I must confess that was my mistake. There are a great many angles sketched into each drawing of our penguin’s mouth, and suggesting shape to the flesh around his white, empty eyes puts a lot of emotion and pantomime into what first appears to be a nubbin with a triangle and two circles on it. The cartooning here is deft, and I’m sorry to have missed that for so long.