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.