Neill Cameron is one of the best creatores working today. The Phoenix is one of the best anthology comics being published today. So Neill doing work for The Phoenix, as he frequently does, is a match made in heaven. And one that, gloriously, involves robotic dinosaurs and London based mayhem.
Any comic that features the line ‘Taia! We’re being attacked by the entire evolutionary history of humanity!’ Is on a winner with me. Brilliantly that’s not even the best moment in this first set of adventures featuring Alex and Freddy. Alex, the older brother, is studious, funny and sensitive. Freddy?
Picture a sugar rush with vocal chords. And the power of flight.
The two brothers go to school in London in the future. They study, do homework, bicker and live as normal a life as a pair of robot boys can. They’re bullied, they struggle to fit in and, with their parents, they’re part of a secret government project.
Cameron’s world building is lovely, simultaneously grounding the book in real adolescent concerns and peppering his wonderfully diverse London with futuristic touches. The aerial Underground is my personal favorite although the New Canary Wharf tower comes a close second, right ahead of the hover buses. The world feels real and lived in, Cameron trusting us to fit in rather than spelling everything out. It’s a gutsy play and it works, especially as the book kicks into high gear in the second half. The questions the reader has become the questions Alex in particular has and Cameron leads you and his characters alike into a darker side of this bright future than the first pages suggest.
By itself that would be fun. However, Cameron never looses sight of the fact he’s writing about kids. Alex is a sensible, sensitive kid starting to worry about who and what he is and what the future holds for him. The moment where he wakes up from a nightmare and his parents hold their sobbing boy as he puts himself back together is a familiar one and hits all the harder for that. Likewise the subtle, gentle romance that’s hinted at here is sweetly written and observed. Alex is a robot, but he’s also a teenager and a troubled one at that. Those two factors are far more important than the fact he can fly.
Except for Freddy, who thinks the fact he can fly is AMAZING. Freddy is Gir with no impulse control, a glorious tornado of energy who simultaneously manages to be bratty and utterly endearing. He handles the broad jokes where Alex handles the subtle stuff but, again, Cameron takes him to some very interesting places. A late development separates the two brothers and Freddy’s reaction is one of the most nuanced, subtle pieces of emotional character writing I’ve seen in British comics. He does, frequently, act up so badly Alex wants to murder him. But they’re brothers and neither boy, or Cameron, ever forget that,
That rock solid emotional and inventive core is what makes the book work but Cameron’s wonderful clean lines and visual invention make it shine. He has an incredible eye for futuristic, grounded design and each page feels clean and fast. The characters are expressive, the action is always clear and easy to follow and the gear changes between serious and comedic are always perfectly timed.
I say this about every Phoenix collection I review because it’s always true; this is wonderful comics, jam packed with energy, invention, humor and love. SF has rarely been this fun and sibling rivalry has rarely involved this many jet packs or existential penguins. Just brilliant, from start to finish.