Thursday, 3 December 2009

"Leviathans there were, with dinner plate eyes..."

Collection of comics originally published 1984-85

I’m not generally into comic books/graphic novels, at all, really, although I am intrigued by their potential. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has its charms, but mainly the ones I have dipped into, I’ve found hugely unsatisfying. The potential of ‘a novel… with pictures!’ never seems completely realised. In fact, when I was younger, reading the Eighth Doctor DWM strips, I regarded them with a certain amount of contempt (‘how immature,’ etc – I was a bit precocious as a kid) – although I did still closely follow them, and was probably far more involved than I told myself. However, my reintroduction into the world of Doctor Who, in all its forms, has allowed my a bit of distance to realise what a great medium the strips are. Since then I’ve been dying for the Panini strip reprints, but none of them have, or are likely to best the Voyager graphic novel.

The artwork is immaculate, and looks absolutely stunning in crisp black and white – so much more atmospheric than the horrible colour job from the eighties. (Much as I (now) love Martin Geraghty’s Eighth Doctor stuff, it comes across as much more ‘by numbers’ than John Ridgway’s, here.) And the Voyager arc itself is an absolute masterpiece – grand, mythic, and dare I say illusorily dreamlike, it really puts to shame all the people who’ve praised the imaginative scope of Gridlock, for example. Well bollocks to that, and more besides! This is the real deal.

If only more of Doctor Who, in all its varied media, could be brave enough to embrace stories so huge and strange and fairytale. (And particularly nice it is too for such a story to feature the still-overlooked Sixth Doctor!)

In a way, the brilliance of the Parkhouse/Ridgway partnership has become a cliché, so no-one actually gives it any thought anymore. But, equally, that reputation is utterly deserved. The Tides of Time is clearly fabulous – all big, bold ideas (although, when grouped as a graphic novel by Panini, it is hampered by the changeable and varied quality of the art). The stories making up the Voyager saga (The Shape Shifter, Voyager, Polly the Glot, Once Upon a Time-Lord) on the other hand, stray into altogether darker, more mysterious waters (and are arguably even more inventive), helped no end by the idiosyncratic scratchy detail of Ridgway’s pencils.

It’s such an enormous shame that the comics always seem to be overlooked – I suppose partly because they so wilfully blaze their own trail, continuity-wise. If you can get over this though (and come on, lighten up; in fact, the sense that the strips have decided to do their own thing is one of their biggest assets as far as I’m concerned - these stories are like an intriguing sidestep), Voyager really does take the TARDIS into new realms – everything here is grounded in a magical, unpredictable reality, where events and situations are fluid and unpredictable. Nothing is literal; in a sense, it’s somewhat like the Victoriana dream-logic of The Ultimate Foe, but pushed much further.

Here we get a baroque automaton "inhabited by a living soul"; a corkscrew "Da Vinci original" helicopter; a metatextual Rupert the Bear/Tarzan-style sequence in Astrolabus’ domain; and the absolutely spine-tingling dream sequence where the Doctor is tied to the wheel of a galleon heading over the edge of the world… These bold visual conceits are matched by the mythic style of the text and dialogue. There’s a real grandeur to a lot of the text, which really elevates the stories; I particularly love the Doctor’s "'I am a lord of time!' I screamed. 'And I am a lord of LIFE!' he thundered in reply… And his words soared aloft and were one with the wind."

All in all, the Voyager stories are something else. Voyager itself is probably the best of the lot, combining the most beautiful images with fairytale text and Astrolabus’ nonsense-banter. This really is breathtaking; even just flicking through, the audaciousness not only of the images but of the sense of scale these stories have is completely captivating. It’s like when, as a kid, you can completely invest yourself in a story, become totally immersed (but without having to resort to Uncle Terrance’s old Targets).

However – I say all this, but unfortunately it’s not the full story; I can only echo the DWM review of this reprinting when I say the last third of this book is utter shite. Once Parkhouse departs at the end of Once Upon a Time-Lord, boy, do you feel the difference…

I can’t even be bothered to go into it, frankly: it’s all depressing superhero nobodies and plotless run-arounds. It also overuses the ‘cocktail bar… with aliens!’ approach; ie, recognisable human situations with exotic aliens thrown in - something the TV series’ budget fortunately couldn’t stretch to (witness the wannabe Star Wars cantina scene in Dragonfire). (Somehow, Parkhouse makes this approach work, arguably by approaching these situations in a largely whimsical way.) In addition, there’s a cack-handed re-introduction of Peri, which is at odds with and shows a lack of faith in the strip pursuing its own tangential approach. And on top of that, there are a few broad and severely unimaginative continuity references that had me cringing: for example, Davros and the ‘CyberEmperor’ (!) being invited to a galactic summit to defeat some Skeletor-type stormtroopers.


This unpleasantness is more than balanced out by the uncommon quality of the Voyager stories proper though.

It baffles me that the comics are so under-appreciated within fandom; I whole-heartedly recommend this compilation as a brilliant place to start. I suppose comics still have that slightly derogatory ‘for kids’ prejudice attached, but the very literary quality of the writing here, coupled with the stunningly memorable art, create something very special indeed (and of arguably a much higher quality than we’re used to in the majority of Doctor Who fiction, of whatever form). This is something special.

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