There are several regards in which the IDW run of Doctor Who comics is an oddity. First and foremost, it is the only substantive body of Doctor Who material to receive no distribution in the UK. Panini, the Italian sticker company that bought Marvel UK’s operations in the mid-90s and, with it, Doctor Who Magazine, had the UK license for Doctor Who comics, and was disinclined to let an American upstart in. And so IDW ended up creating Doctor Who comics almost entirely for the American market.
Unrelatedly, IDW also ended up creating what was mostly a line of fairly crappy comics. They opened with a Tenth Doctor/Martha miniseries by longtime vanguard of mediocrity Gary Russell, continued with the damp and misguided squib of The Forgotten, and stopped off at their one UK-distributed series, and eventually did their Doctor Who/Star Trek crossover (distributed in the UK because they put Star Trek first in the title, meaning it was technically a Star Trek comic and thus not precluded by Panini’s license), skewered masterfully by Josh Marsfelder here, stopping off with various other mostly uninteresting comics along the way.
Of course, as we’ve seen over the years, Doctor Who comics are hardly the area of the series’ life where it has most regularly crowned itself in glory. There are moments of genuine charm, most often in the Doctor Who Magazine comics, and especially in those edited by Clayton Hickman. And there are moments that are interesting as objects of nostalgia – the weird alternate history of the John and Gillian period, the Frank Bellamy imitations of the Pertwee era, early career mediocrities from Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and Grant Morrison, the surreal John Ridgway dreamscapes of the Davison and Colin Baker years, and the criminally under-appreciated Steve Moore run. But for the most part Doctor Who comics have been historical curiosities. The IDW run is mostly the same, although, truth be told, most of it isn’t even that curious.
But on Christmas Eve 2013, the day before the end of the Matt Smith era, IDW released a one-shot that served as their farewell to the license before it passed on to Titan Comics. It’s been the norm for a few years for one of the Wednesdays around Christmas to get a heavily reduced slate of new release comics, quietly shipped to comic shops a week in advance, with all of the books being fairly high profile, major books. So in 2013, there were a total of eight new releases, with one of them being this – a $7.99 double-length issue to close out the run. Picked for the high profile assignment, in a notable departure from IDW’s usual somewhat uninspiring creators, was Paul Cornell, making what was, by 2013, a rare return to Doctor Who. The premise is a comics classic, and an homage to the “Earth Prime” days of the DC Multiverse – the Doctor falls through universes as he does sometimes, and finds himself in the real world, where his adventures are regularly chronicled in a TV show on the BBC.
It is, to be sure, an imperfect book. The art by Jimmy Broxton is idiosyncratic, combining heavy photoreference with a scratchy line and flat coloring in a manner that’s usually effective in terms of visual storytelling, but that’s a bit hard on the eyes. The result is a comic without any individually strong moments in the art, and even the things that are supposed to be big dramatic moments are kind of muddy and lackluster – in particular what’s supposed to be a big dramatic splash of a Cyberman bursting out of a closet that ends up falling sadly flat. And this isn’t helped by an occasionally idiosyncratic sense of framing, such as a sequence of stacked panels as the Doctor shows off the interior of the TARDIS. This is a major moment in the plot – the point where Ally, the eponymous girl who loves Doctor Who realizes that this isn’t Matt Smith playing some sort of elaborate prank on her, but is actually the Doctor. Broxton uses a page composition that helps the overall page, with the TARDIS moving slightly rightward in each panel to create a strong diagonal line from the top left to the bottom right. But a consequence of this is that the emotional beat in the third panel, where Ally hugs him and just says “Doctor” gets squashed into about 20% of a panel that’s well over 50% in shadow, swallowing the moment.
Thankfully, Cornell’s script is packed with moments of warmth and charm that largely make up for the occasional unevenness of the art. Cornell is a big comics fan who knows what the key plot beats of the “fictional character in the real world” subgenre are, and a big Doctor Who fan capable of tuning those moments to the specific charms of the series. A particular highlight is when Ally shows the Doctor an episode of the series (The Twin Dilemma, in a particularly charming choice). “This is exactly how it was,” he marvels, to which Ally asks, “with the monsters looking that rubbish?” “They looked exactly like that,” the Doctor pouts. “And they were terrifying.” But the issue is absolutely packed with moments like that. (The Doctor noting that he’s always thought Peter Capaldi would make a great him, and idly noting that he saved him from a Mandrel once is another highlight.)
The real pleasure, however, comes in the issue’s basic conception. Underneath the gags and the quick Cybermen runaround is a story about the Doctor helping Ally confront the bullies that torment her. Not, crucially, directly – the Doctor never even offers to do that. His role is what it always is in our world – one of inspiration, helping her figure out how to handle them on her own. This is imperfect in some ways. Parts of his advice are lovely – the admonition not to play by the rules of the bullies, and the statement “in your world there are just problems that need sorting. There are no monsters” are both beautiful statements. The advice to tell someone is… not bad advice, certainly, but the reality is that plenty of bullying goes on with authority figures knowing about it, and declining to do anything, or being unable to because the bully is smart enough not to get caught in the act, or to engage in microaggressions that defy punishment.
But then, this isn’t really a comic aimed at kids, and so the nature of its advice regarding bullying is hardly the point. The American comics industry is not, these days, largely aimed at a child audience, and though this is certainly a comic that can be read by kids, a lot of the content is clearly aimed at a more adult audience. The conversation between the Doctor and Ally’s mother, where she talks about how Peter Davison was her Doctor (he saved him him from a Krynoid, apparently) and about raising Ally as a single mother, for instance, is a beautiful moment, but one that’s definitely going to resonate more for adult fans. And the frequency and mild obscurity of the continuity jokes (a big Krotons joke, for instance) is similarly something one imagines is going to play better for demographics other than Ally’s.
What’s more important and more powerful is simply the existence of the plot. And yes, this is one of personal resonance to me. But it’s also what Paul Cornell has been doing with Doctor Who for nearly a quarter-century now. His first New Adventure, Timewyrm: Revelation, was in a large part about confronting bullies. And it’s always been a theme Doctor Who is good at. Even if you strip away the politics – and as we’ve discussed in other entries, Cornell’s have somewhat drifted away from mine over the course of his writing Doctor Who – the basic ideology of Doctor Who has always been one of nothing short of seething, furious rage at the petty authoritarianism that characterizes bullies.
But it’s also always been one of fighting them with something else. And in many ways, that’s the thing Cornell has always been among the best at when it comes to Doctor Who. He captures the uncompromising outrage at injustice and cruelty that animates, for instance, Robert Holmes. But he also captures the fact that Doctor Who, at its best, is about being motivated by that outrage and yet using an altogether different set of tactics. That’s where the bit about no monsters, just problems really comes from. The world isn’t full of things that “must be stopped.” It’s full of problems to figure out how to solve. And so the story ends with Ally running from the bullies. (“Go on, run away! Run away to Doctor Who,” they taunt. “Every time,” she replies.) But she doesn’t just run. She runs until she’s “taken this battle to where I want it to be,” and then provokes her bullies by trying to offer them peace and a way out. And when they spurn it and clock her in the face, it turns out that she’s led them right to the headmaster’s house and gotten them caught red-handed.
We’ve talked a lot in the last few entries about what Doctor Who is for. And no wonder, both because we’re wrapping up the blog, and because we’re around the 50th Anniversary, where that’s a real and present question. And there are a lot of answers to give to that. But Cornell’s, and really the entire era of Doctor Who that Cornell came from and represents, has always been a very good one. It’s about finding ways to sort out bullies by being more clever and more kind than they are. It’s about more frocks, and less guns. And it’s about giving the awkward kids who don’t quite fit in a story that’s theirs.