You Were Expecting Someone Else 7 (Doctor Who Weekly Comics)

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When talking about the British comics industry in the 1980s it is key to note that despite the vast number of important creators coming out of it there were only a handful of actual significant British comics magazines. IPC had other publications beside 2000 AD, but most could be counted on to fold after a few issues and be folded into 2000 AD. Humor publications like The Beano and The Dandy existed, but in their own almost wholly parallel dimension. Dez Skinn had 26 issues of Warrior out that were hugely influential and high-quality but that were, after all, only 26 issues. And Marvel UK had a motley of titles that combined repackaged US comics with original UK-market material. But that was about it. It was a very small industry into which a very large amount of talent was packed.

As a result, when Dez Skinn created Doctor Who Weekly for Marvel UK it was almost inevitable that it would attract some A-list creators. And so it is that Doctor Who comics have been created by Pat Mills and John Wagner (creators of Judge Dredd), Steve Moore, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Bryan Hitch, John Ridgway, David Lloyd, Dave Gibbons, and Alan Moore. We’ll deal with the latter of these on Wednesday in his very own feature because, well, duh. And those that didn’t work on the Fourth Doctor strips will obviously wait as well. But that still leaves us plenty to look at here.

The story that gets most of the attention is the first one, The Iron Legion, and the third, The Star Beast. Both are penned by Wagner and Mills, with art by Dave Gibbons (who handled the overwhelming majority of the Fourth Doctor strips). This is actually a bit unfortunate. Neither is actually very good. I mean, they’re fine comic stories - Wagner and Mills are competent plotters, and Gibbons is obviously a fantastic artist. But the tone is all wrong. Wagner and Mills are action writers who belong on 2000 AD and their attempts to fuse Doctor Who to a straightforward sci-fi action sort of space militarism make Eric Saward’s efforts of the mid-80s look positively coherent by comparison.

It’s not that they make any of the obvious mistakes. Their characterization of the Doctor is imperfect, certainly, but far from disastrous. He gets a couple of good moments throughout the strips. But for the most part he feels like a passenger in Mills/Wagner strips, generally tagging along with some anti-authoritarian rebels with lots of guns as they blow things up and have elaborate chase scenes. It’s obvious that the writers are enjoying their cyborgs, alien chariot races, and bizarre alien parasites more than they’re enjoying the actual star of the strips. Combined with a clear commitment to violent action (there’s a cheeky yet revealing panel in the first installment of The Iron Legion in which a shopkeeper is gunned down and several cans of baked beans are shown exploding in front of him in lieu of actual blood and gore) this just... is off tone for Doctor Who.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great moments across the four Wagner/Mills stories. If nothing else there’s Beep the Meep, an adorably cute little creature that happens to also be a galactic tyrant with some serious self-image issues. It’s both a brilliant use of comics (where cute cartoony creatures thrive) and a great concept in general - an irony-fueled updating of the classic Robert Holmes villain. But these moments of grandeur are few and far between, and while The Star Beast, which debuts Beep the Meep, is clever, it’s a better comic than it is Doctor Who.

Better Doctor Who, in the early issues of Doctor Who Weekly, comes in the backup strips by Steve Moore and Steve Dillon. Steve Moore is doomed forever to be better known as Alan Moore’s best friend than he is for his own work, which is a mighty pity. He’s not as good a writer as Alan Moore (they are not, as every piece on the two of them has to state by some sort of contractual obligation, related), but that’s true of practically every comics writer and so hardly seems worth making a fuss about. In many ways he suffers from the same problems that Terrance Dicks does. He is an immensely functional writer whose stories have an unfussy zip to them. Unlike Alan Moore, Steve Moore has no particular fondness for lengthy captions or narrative voice. He tells entertaining and pacey stories and gets on with it.

And like Terrance Dicks, the ease with which he bashes out entertaining scripts obscures the fact that he’s a tremendously inventive writer. In fields in which people who are both brilliant and flashy about it exist those who are brilliant and just get the job done too often get overlooked, and Steve Moore, like Dicks, is a prime example. For all that is made of Wagner and Mills creating “the villainous Beep the Meep” and of Alan Moore’s clever ideas in his handful of stories (Davies went out of his way to namecheck the Deathsmiths of Goth, an obscure Moore creation, in his hilariously over the top and fannish account of the Time War) nobody ever gives Steve Moore credit for inventing two of the most enduring concepts in the Doctor Who comics within a thirteen week period - Kroton the Cyberman and Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer.

Kroton the Cyberman is one of those searingly obvious concepts that it’s a wonder took until 1979 for anyone to do: a Cyberman who retains his emotions. But unlike the latter renditions on the part of Marc Platt or Chris Chibnall, Kroton is not primarily defined by a sort of excruciating agony at his own body horror. Instead he displays a quieter and more existential sort of angst, brooding and philosophizing his way through life. The result is in many ways the first story since The Tenth Planet to actually feature the Cybermen as they were originally designed - as philosophical challenges to the nature of humanity instead of clanking robots. Kroton is, to Steve Moore’s credit, a proper star monk.

Abslom Daak, on the other hand, is just hilarious. A flagrant parody of the standard issue 2000 AD hero, Daak is an over the top action hero with a chain sword (a chainsaw/sword hybrid) who slaughters Daleks out of overt pathology. The two Moore-penned Abslom Daak stories consist of Daak casually cutting through Daleks and emoting excessively, and are flatly hilarious parodies of the Terry Nation-style Dalek Annual stories. Daak has just enough depth to be a usable character that avoids being a one-note joke (at least as Moore conceived him - later writers cheerily removed that depth in favor of the one-note joke), but remains utterly absurd at his core. Although his strips don’t particularly feel like Doctor Who, in an era where programmatic parodies like Duggan appeared regularly in the series they at least feel like an idea that could be merged in with the parent series.

In both cases we see what the real appeal of the backup stories were. They took existing Doctor Who concepts - typically classic villains - and expanded cleverly on the concepts. And early on they were by and large better than the main stories. Then, for whatever reason, Pat Mills and John Wagner moved on. This had two main results. First, the backup strip opened up and Alan Moore came onboard, but again, more on this Wednesday. Second, Steve Moore got promoted to the lead writer.

The ensuing seven stories are in many ways the high point of Doctor Who in comics. For one thing, Steve Moore demonstrated, both here and in his backups, a remarkable and almost unheard of trait for the writer of a Doctor Who comic, namely that he had clearly actually watched the series. He’s said in interviews that he really only watched while working on the comic, but it’s equally clear that he actually bothered to think about how the series worked. The Doctor actually resolves situations in ways that closely resemble the sorts of things he does on television. This is actually staggeringly innovative for Doctor Who comics, which generally fall miles from that goal.

But equally, Steve Moore’s features tell stories that generally could only work in the comics (which, after all, ought to be the point of doing comics). In some cases this is just a matter of scope. His first main feature, The Time Witch, is a clever little story of a mental duel between the Doctor and the eponymous Time Witch, but makes little effort to do more than set up a situation where the Doctor and the villain can both create anything they imagine and then work through the battle. It’s full of entertaining moments - most obviously when the Doctor and the Witch each create identical big hulking guards who then go at each other, the Witch’s repeating her instruction to “kill them” while the Doctor’s repeats “make a cup of tea.” But it’s a slender little story that doesn’t have nearly enough depth to sustain a four-week serial. In other words, it’s exactly what a Doctor Who comic is for.

Other times Moore’s ideas are untranslatable for budgetary reasons. His longest feature, The Dragon’s Claw, throws the Doctor into a kung-fu movie in which the mysterious “Eighteen Bronze Men” turn out to be the Sontarans. It’s a raucous little piece that behaves exactly how a genre fusion like “Doctor Who does kung-fu” should, helped by the fact that Steve Moore is in fact an avid fan of both the genre and of Chinese culture at large (he’s produced several books of commentary on the I Ching from reputable publishers and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society) and captures the tone of it in a way that both captures the manic glee of a bad kung fu movie and the tone of Chinese mythology and culture. But it would be unfilmably expensive with several colossal battle sequences. It’d make a glorious four-parter, but even in today’s glossy series would be impossible on a television budget. Instead it's a comic, and we're lucky to have it.

But Steve Moore’s best strip, a single-issue eight-pager called The Spider-God, combines both of these tricks. Its concept is full of visuals that take advantage of the fact that the budget for comics is the same no matter what you make the artist draw. Spaceships, giant spiders, people hatching from eggs, massive webs, and huge numbers of cocooned people all show up in an eight-page stretch. It’s the Web Planet gone overboard. But on the other hand, it’s a mere eight-pager. There’s not enough story here to make 25 minutes, little yet 100.

But in this story, that’s an advantage. Moore efficiently sets up a mystery around what the giant spiders are doing, then has a bunch of human colonists freak out in misunderstanding what’s going on and begin gunning down the spiders. The Doctor explodes in rage before we finally get it adequately explained that the spiders and the humanoid creatures on the planet live in a symbiotic and peaceful relationship. The strip ends with a single panel of the human commander’s arm dropping his gun in horror at what he’s done as the Doctor, back turned to the reader, stalks away in anger. It’s the pro-environment story Barry Letts always wanted to do in the Pertwee era, only done with efficient grace and epic scale in an eight page comic. It is frankly better than 80% of the actual televised Tom Baker era.

It’s also, unfortunately, Steve Moore’s last strip - a dispute with the editor of the magazine over the writing of an Abslom Daak story led to both Moores ditching the magazine, Alan in solidarity with his friend. The next writer, Steve Parkhouse, is perfectly fine but lacks the sense of the tone and approach to Doctor Who that Steve Moore instinctively had. A strip like “End of the Line” is interesting, and it's got an emotional sucker punch of an ending, but it’s so bleak that it would make John Wiles sit in a dark room and listen to Radiohead while cutting himself. Again, a fine enough comic, but not a great Doctor Who comic.

And shortly thereafter Dave Gibbons would depart. The comic would enjoy good artists and good writers a couple of times over the remainder of its run, and we’ll deal with them as they crop up, but the pinnacle of Doctor Who in comic form had passed. It never again had a writer of Steve Moore’s quality or an artist of Dave Gibbons’s for an extended run. Still, IDW in the US has the entire runs of both Steve Moore and Wagner and Mills in one handy omnibus (along with half of Parkhouse’s Tom Baker strips and three Grant Morrison ones featuring the 6th and 7th Doctors). And it’s good enough stuff that even without functioning Amazon Affiliates links anymore I’ll link them at both Amazon US and Amazon UK. The Steve Moore strips really are phenomenal stuff that not nearly enough Doctor Who fans have read.

And this is all before we deal with the brief but compelling intersection of the best comics writer of his generation with Doctor Who.

Comments

Iain Coleman 5 years ago

Of the stories you've mentioned, The End of the Line is the one I most vividly remember. The ending had a big impact.

I can't agree with your assessment of Steve Parkhouse. Through the Fifth and Sixth Doctor eras, I felt that the comic strips were doing Doctor Who far better, on the whole, than the TV show, to the extent that I avidly followed the comics and saw the TV version as a bit of a pale imitation.

In particular, Parkhouse had a strong sense of the strengths of the leading characters, and was able to deploy them far more effectively than Saward could do on-screen. The Parkhouse Fifth Doctor had a polite but steely courage and determination that could never be confused with weakness, and his Sixth Doctor's intelligence, flamboyance and compassion in a world of playful grotesquery are everything season 23 should have been. If Colin Baker had been given some scripts like Voyager, his time on the show might be more warmly remembered.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Well, we'll see about his Davison and Baker scripts when we get to those posts, I suppose. That said, End of the Line, while memorable - the ending stands out for me better than most of the block of comics I read - is also very, very weak storytelling. I was so struck by the ending I went back and reread it, because I felt like I must have been only half paying attention to see such a kick in the teeth ending come after such a flaccid story. But no, it's pages of cod-2000 AD rubbish with no pacing or plotting that happens to culminate in a sharp scene. I can find very, very little good before the last page.

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Iain Coleman 5 years ago

You may well be quite right about The End of the Line. I don't think I've read it since I was eight years old.

But no love for Junkyard Demon? That's a charming little tale, with splendid artwork. And I guess The Freefall Warriors is probably tosh, but to eight-year-old me it was fantastic.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Junkyard Demon is pretty good. Though I'll still take any of the Cybermen stories penned by someone with the surname Moore from the same general period over it.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Actually, it just occurred to me to look at Junkyard Demon in a scan of the original instead of the colorized version made by IDW. Part of what had irritated me about the original was the art, but as I compare the pages the problem is that I really dislike the coloring job done on IDW, which excessively exaggerates McMahon's angular tendencies with very sharp, geometrically drawn shadows that make the art look much more like stained glass than the original. Where Gibbons's art is usually improved by the color, McMahon's suffered badly. So yeah, I'll grant that one as pretty good.

I still think, by and large, the Steve Moore strips are wildly under-appreciated, however.

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elvwood 5 years ago

I've not read many of the Fourth Doctor comics. Although I'm British my first exposure was a coloured reprint of The Spider God in the back of an American comic - Starlord, IIRC - and I remember thinking it was an effective little story.

Now you're making me want to go out and find some more...

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Stephen 5 years ago

Calling this "the pinnacle of Doctor Who in comic form" is somewhat brave. The two eras where the DWM strip really developed its own identity (the sixth and eighth Doctor eras) probably have a stronger claim to that title. I wouldn't rate Steve Moore's strips higher than Voyager (to pick the first example that comes to mind.)

Oh, and you really should read the black and white strips in black and white. They were intended to be read that way, and if the colourist isn't in tune with the penciller's/inker's intentions, it really can sour your opinion. Heck, sometimes even stuff that was intended to be in colour looks better in black and white.

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occono 5 years ago

Sorry to ask, but what happened to your Amazon Affialite Links?

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Connecticut changed its tax law to require sales tax on Affiliate links on the grounds that they were now doing business in Connecticut. Amazon's usual hardline anti-tax position played in and they disabled the affiliate accounts of anyone in Connecticut.

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Martin Porter 5 years ago

Whenever I see comedy cybermen exploding 'because of love' or whatever, I always think - why not just do Kroton's story?

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John Callaghan 5 years ago

I like the version of the fourth Doctor portrayed in the DWW comics - a goofy intergalactic tourist, "just having fun", who inadvertently gets dragged into bizarre peril on the way to a holiday in Benidorm with his robot dog.

The I-thought-it-was-quite-good-actually-but-what-do-I-know City Of The Damned was re-titled City Of The Cursed in the US. That reminds of the story about the US radio announcer who called the city "Amsterdarn" and 'titbits' becoming 'tidbits' etc.

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Dan 5 years ago

I liked City of the Damned too. Of course the way ideas play when you're eight is different from now, but it's still very cool I think.

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years ago

What, even Watchmen?

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

John Callaghan,

'titbits' becoming 'tidbits' etc.

But "tidbits" is the older spelling, at least according to the OED.

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

Philip,

The title for your "Keeper of Traken" post still says "Jackanape" instead of "Jackanapes."

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years ago

I too would agree that the comics never got the Tom Baker version. They just didn't get stories that met with Baker's personality. Now Davison's doctor, thats a different story. Gibbons' the Stars fell over Stockbridge and the longer one with the Shade... those were better than anything on TV with Davison other than Kinda and Snakedance and Caves.

The best comics, however, are the the Voyager issues with Colin drawn by the esteemed John Ridgeway. Grant Morrison also has a great two parter that ties the Cybermen up with Voord and even fills a great continuity hole from the Invasion. Nicely done! By far better than anything Colin got until Big Finish.

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John Callaghan 5 years ago

Oh, really? Fair enough. I can't help thinking that prudishness turned 'cockerel' into 'rooster' though. But what do I know? I liked City Of The Damned. And Wonderful Christmas Time'.

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John Callaghan 5 years ago

For me, the comics fourth Doctor is exactly how he *should* be.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

I thought City of the Damned was one of the better Wagner/Mills stories. I think The Star Beast was probably slightly better, but City of the Damned has some charming moments, particularly the ending.

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John Callaghan 5 years ago

Sombrero and all! It's only a matter of time before Matt Smith gets his head in one...

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

Although "tidbits" is older, it's still possible that its prevalence over "titbits" in the u.s. is due to prudishness rather than historical continuity.

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Stephen 5 years ago

You mean that Watchmen was intended as a black and white strip? That's something I didn't know.

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Stephen 5 years ago

Voyager's good, but there are definitely some sixth Doctor novels from before the Big Finish era that are in the same ballpark quality-wise. I'm particularly thinking of Millennial Rites and Killing Ground. One's a brilliant epic that's the only really effective use of the Valeyard. The other's the best Cyberman story that isn't Spare Parts.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Not to be overly puckish, but both are also from the Virgin era, not the Big Finish era. :)

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BerserkRL 5 years ago

both are also from the Virgin era, not the Big Finish era

Isn't that what Stephen said? He referred to "some sixth Doctor novels from BEFORE the Big Finish era ...."

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Philip Sandifer 5 years ago

Bah. Apparently not to be literate either.

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Adam Riggio 5 years ago

Iain, you make an interesting point about what kind of aesthetic the Colin Baker era was going for, which I'm not sure that I really understood until recently. The AV Club (whose post on The Mind Robber first led me here) just did a writeup on Vengeance on Varos, and complained of two major problems with the story.

1) It was an entire world of irredeemable assholes. 2) The Doctor and Peri didn't even really do anything to save the day in a broad sense; they just bought time for the least corrupt Varosians to survive until the deus ex machina arrived in the form of Sil's offscreen bosses with the corporate battle fleet.

I recently started to have serious doubts about my favourite of Colin Baker's audios, The Holy Terror, in the light of what I've read at the Eruditorum. The Doctor doesn't save anyone there. He just has a chilling adventure while he and Frobisher learn a few ethical lessons.

But the plots of Vengeance on Varos, The Holy Terror, and Revelation of the Daleks are all making sense now that I understand them through Iain's interpretation. The Doctor lands in a grotesque world, whose madness is a varying combination of humour and terror, and is a beacon of dignified hope in an otherwise hopeless dystopia.

I wonder how Phil thinks this fits into the narrative of Doctor Who he's building? Does it work for the character/show, or is it another thematic violation like the John Wiles season? I will patiently wait for what I estimate will be early summer to find out.

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John Toon 5 years ago

Another vote here for Steve Parkhouse. It's the Parkhouse/Ridgway Sixth Doctor strips all the way for me - for pretty much exactly the reasons already given - followed by the Barnes/Gray/Geraghty Eighth Doctors and the Parkhouse/Gibbons Fifths. Moore/Gibbons, less so.

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Matthew Kilburn 5 years ago

You are a little too dismissive of the UK comics scene in 1979. Alongside 2000AD at this point, IPC were publishing Battle Action, which amalgamated the mid-1970s revisionist war title Battle Picture Weekly with what was left of Action (about which much has been written) after the Mills-Wagner team lost one round of the boys' culture wars inside IPC's youth division, with their enemies riding the crest of Mary Whitehouse's puritan wave... IPC's traditional boys' title Tiger, launched in the 1950s, was still selling too, and IPC launched as many short-lived weeklies (like Speed) which ended up being incorporated into Tiger as were folded into 2000AD. To the British 9-year-old picking up Doctor Who Weekly for the first time, it seemed triangulated between 2000AD, Star Wars Weekly (Marvel UK's black-and-white reprint of US material led by the licensed Star Wars strip) and Look-In, which Independent Television Publications had been publishing since 1970 as a combination of one- and two-page picture strips and features derived from ITV programmes. As someone who had been doggedly following the last eighteen months of the Doctor's adventures in TV Comic until they petered out in May 1979, Doctor Who Weekly's treatment of the strip was a revelation, and the integrity of the Mills-Wagner-Gibbons vision of the character was one which I don't think was equalled until the eighth Doctor strips.

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