Saturday, 2 January 2010

"Pah! Your puny blows are like love taps!"

Collection of comics originally published 1987-89

I fully appreciate how miraculous it is that these strips are being cleaned up and reissued as trade paperbacks, so it pains me to say this… But only completism should compel you to buy this particular collection.

Comics are, I think, the most underrated medium of Doctor Who – but they’re one of my favourite formats because they’re the only other visually-oriented one, beside the series proper. I guess the novels are ultimately ideal, because there is the potential for so much more nuance and detail – but nothing beats being able to see a story unfold.

However, whereas the Tides of Time and Voyager collections make me want to rave (see my review of the latter), the most you could say of this is that it’s quite fun, if you’re in the right mood – but entirely disposable. In the introduction, the strip editor of the time, Richard Starkings, talks about making the strip more diverse, with self-contained and varied stories to mirror the series itself. Unfortunately, as his editorship followed Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgway’s magnificent, fantastical opuses, this is total idiocy.

By some distance the most throwaway phase of the strip (most recently rivalled by the uncertain period coinciding with series one in 2005, where DWM struggled to find a voice or tone), this collection even fails in being particularly like the series as was. Unpopular it might be, but the bold, borderline-deranged concepts of season twenty-four would lend themselves very well to the strip format; instead we get an endless juvenile obsession with robots, spaceships, and Star Trek-dull aliens (a trait continuing from the first predominantly disappointing collection, the preceding World Shapers). It’s just so dreary and flat. (And, yes, I appreciate that the series itself has its share of these things, but, at best, there’s always been more to it; this incarnation of the strip doesn’t even seem to appreciate this multilayering is possible.) I mean, robot-suited mercenaries – who ever though that’d be interesting, unless given some unique spin. Which it isn’t. It’s so very lazy and unoriginal.

I always consider the Fourth Doctor strips to be fairly basic, playing as they do with quite pulpy and often clichéd B-movie ideas (emotionally-oppressed populaces and a sci-fi Roman empire) – but, by comparison to this, they’re assured, confident, well-paced and stunningly drawn (incidentally, it’s very odd – but welcome – seeing Dave Gibbons’ recognisable Watchmen style applied to Doctor Who). They feel like proper stories, written by people who understand how to construct effective tales. Those in A Cold Day in Hell!, by contrast, are barely stories at all; more like inept, weedy vignettes, which lack enough interesting ideas to go round, even despite their brevity.

Okay, we can’t always expect the fairytale sophistication and variety of arcs like The Tides of Time or Voyager, but come on. Those were possibly the most perfect statement of what DW can be; grand, whimsical, magical… The fact that that approach was deliberately ousted for this makes it all the more tragic! Also, that Starkings specifies he wanted artists to make monsters look like rubber-suited extras absolutely beggars belief; comics effectively provide an unlimited budget for every single frame: why restrict that?!

As I said earlier, if you’re in the right mood, some of these stories have a likeably silly goofiness… I just can’t help contextualising them against their superior predecessors. These are pretty much what I imagine Doctor Who Battles or Adventures’ strips must be like; basic, pedestrian, and undemanding even to a child audience.

The incompleteness of this collection’s approach is exemplified by Planet of the Dead (no relation) – and let’s not even start on the imaginatively-barren tediousness of cramming as many past companions and Doctors into a story as possible. In fact, there isn’t even a story; those appearances are its entire raison d’être. (Compare to the later Ground Zero, where the appearance of Susan, Sarah, and Peri was gradually foreshadowed, and who warrant actual characterisation…) However, it is good to see Jamie punch Adric in the face, in any context, even in spite of Lee Sullivan’s empty backgrounds and nondescript style.

As for the art in general, though I appreciate the attempted variety, the diversity isn’t really extreme enough to be effective (instead it seems desperate; like they had to scrape each strip together with whoever they could find). (This inconsistency reminds me of The Flood, the least successful Eighth Doctor collection; a companionless Doctor jumping between unevenly varied tones and styles.)

Without a key artist holding it together, this collection ends up feeling bitty and incoherent. By contrast, the current Tenth Doctor stories get away with a diverse array of artists working in idiosyncratic styles – recently Adrian Salmon (Universal Monsters), Sean Longcroft (Mortal Beloved), Roger Langridge (Death to the Doctor!), Paul Grist (Ghosts of the Northern Line), and writer/artists Dan McDaid (Hotel Historia) and Rob Davis (The Deep Hereafter’s Dick Tracy stylings). All of these are more extreme variations from the general norm than allowed here, but they work precisely because the strip is underpinned by the incumbency of Martin Geraghty and Mike Collins as the main artists. This way there is variation, but within an overarching coherency (something helped in part by consistent lettering).

(I’m cheered whenever Geraghty appears; though he may not be groundbreaking, he is fab because of his impressive consistency and good likenesses – and is, obviously, excellent really. The DWM strip is lucky to have him, as he pisses over all of these weaker earlier images. Very noticeable, by comparison, is his stronger use of solid areas of black ink. Also, he makes me miss the complexity, sophistication and invention of the Eighth Doctor arcs: the mock regeneration and seemingly new Doctor; the Dallas-style ‘It was all a dream’ moment of the Doctor waking up in bed with Grace, and the ‘Omniversal’ varients of his life; Izzy’s transformation. Having said that, it’s really pleasing seeing a return to the arc format that characterised the Eighth Doctor’s strips, in the use of the gap year to pair the Tenth Doctor up with strip companion Majenta Pryce, in the ‘Crimson Hand’ arc.

Collins, on the other hand, is completely mediocre, with a bland, cartoonish lack of detail or good likenesses, and none of the stylistic rigour of, say, Salmon. And how many times: the Tenth Doctor wears high-top Cons, not shell-toed sneakers, goddammit!)

All in all, I can’t wait for the increased Andrew Cartmel influence on the Seventh Doctor strips; I’ve had the old, horribly-colourised Mark of Mandragora collection for years; overall, it’s possibly even more pathetically shallow than Cold Day (a sobering thought), but Cartmel’s own Fellow Travellers is brilliant. It’s still slight, plot-wise – let’s say low-key – but with enough interest, depth, and characterisation to work; a simple (but adult) concept effectively realised. I can’t wait to see Arthur Ranson’s fantastically near-photorealist art without the felt-tip all over it!

Where Fellow Travellers has an authenticity perhaps due to Ace’s presence, the continuity-twisting presence of Frobisher and continued referencing of Peri in Cold Day seems misplaced. (Personally, I’d rather the strip either disassociated itself from televisual partnerships altogether, as per the Fourth to Sixth Doctor runs, or actually adhered to the televisual companions; a weird halfway-house mishmash just doesn’t work.) The New Adventure-based strips featuring New Ace and Bernice will be interesting, in that regard (though I’d rather see Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester in a visual medium, myself… Just me then? Chris’d probably never be as hot as he is in my head anyway.) Incidentally, I wonder if the completed Evening’s Empire’ll get published too.

I’m not, however, looking forward to the arrival of Absalom Daak – the concept of Doctor Who having its very own irony-free musclebound action hero is like slipping hardcore porn into CITV programming (well, probably only a matter of time). The character shows how massively the editor of this period fundamentally misapprehended DW. And it’s just so eighties. Ick.

In terms of individual Cold Day stories, The Crossroads of Time is probably my favourite story here, being visually most solid, stylish and consistent (and, coincidentally, probably the closest to Gibbons’ style, and with an almost acceptable McCoy likeness!), as well as having a fun silliness which – crucially – seems to derive from an awareness of its own absurdity (“Hmm… Roomy, yes?”). I know nothing of Death’s Head (I freely admit to not really knowing much at all about comics outside of DW), but it was nevertheless the most satisfactorily fun, with its lack of depth not feeling like a massive problem.

A Cold Day and Redemption! are depressingly blah, while the period setting of Claws of the Klathi! should be welcome – but even when venturing into the Victorian era, we still get aliens, a spaceship, and a robot! The art is quite good, but a bit sketchy and unconfident, with no real solidity or depth.

Culture Shock! is simple, but, like Crossroads of Time, works because it’s set up as a slight idea, not just an imaginatively-lacking story proper. The messy scratchiness of the art works, but once again the McCoy likeness is dreadful. Keepsake, on the other hand, boasts possibly the best art, with a good use of shadow and ‘lighting,’ and rugged, detailed faces – but the story is forgettable. Similarly, Echoes of the Mogor! includes some lovely Ridgway panels, but is still a tame Aliens rip-off; Ridgway just doesn’t seem suited here – he rose to Parkhouse’s big ideas, but comes over a bit banal when faced with mundane stories, and is crap at McCoy, who’s started to look like David Lynch regular Michael J Anderson (The Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks)...

Time and Tide is bright and bold and that’s about it (but just who is this man in the question mark jumper?!); Follow that TARDIS! isn’t quite cartoony enough to work as a comedic ‘madcap runaround’ – a style akin to the later occasional Roger Langridge-drawn light-relief stories might have worked (not that this collection really needs light relief). Finally, in Invaders from Gantac!, it appears the most underwhelmingly banal story really was saved til last.

Even the titles show up this period’s naive, dated approach. The juvenile overuse of both exclamation marks and embarrassingly crap made-up SF words like Klathi and Gantac really grates, while needlessly hyperbolic titles like ‘Crossroads of Time’ seem absurd, and just make me think of Eddie Izzard’s “Room With a View… OF HELL!” routine.

Given my appreciation of the strip in general, the underwhelmingness of these stories made me try to decide my favourite strips from the whole DWM run. Though I am affectionate about a lot (for example, nearly all those comprising the Endgame collection), bona fide favourites are relatively few and far between – and also quite predictable, I suppose. (Incidentally, I can’t help thinking what a shame it is that apart from a couple of strips in the nineties, the first three Doctors are unrepresented in strip format, apart from in wildly apocryphal TV Action strips (were they even available).)

Voyager and Once Upon a Time-Lord for their hallucinatory richness; The Curse of the Scarab (straightforward, but enlivened by Geraghty’s art and the thirties Hollywood studio setting); Endgame for its exploitation of the surreal potential of the Toymaker’s domain, and Tooth and Claw (again, no relation) for Fey and the decadence of its island setting and monkey servants; the recent Thinktwice for its technicolour excess; the inevitable Tides of Time (and Stars Fell on Stockbridge); Fellow Travellers; Happy Deathday; the Fey-only Me and My Shadow; Land of Happy Endings; Target Practise; and, inevitably, the wonderfully mythological The Cybermen.

(And, yes, there’s no IDW there; from what I’ve seen, their output embraces a distressingly gleeful approach to fanwank, and awful fan-art styles – encapsulated by the ten-Doctor spread in The Forgotten, where each incarnation looks like a 16-year-old twink version drawn by someone entirely unfamiliar with the actual actors’ appearances.)

Unfortunately, none of A Cold Day’s overarchingly simplistic and unsophisticated stories match the invention, imagination, beauty or humour of the best of the above strips. The consistently atrocious Seventh Doctor likenesses really don’t help matters either. It’s like no-one really cared enough to try that much. And, no, I refuse to believe that reflects the show at the time.

Ah, well. I think I’m just going to have to wait for the Threshold arc to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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