Doctor Who reviews: Time Heist

The recent Doctor Who episode “Time Heist” written by Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat reminded me, both structurally and stylistically, of the preceding installment, “Listen.” Both were very unconventional, with non-linear plot structures.  Both involved some wibbly wobbly timey wimey paradoxes.  And on each episode, early on, my thoughts alternated between “this really makes no sense” and “this isn’t very good,” yet by the end of each I was saying to myself, “Wow! That came together brilliantly! What a great episode!”

Doctor Who Time Heist poster

“Time Heist” opens as Clara (Jenna Coleman) is getting ready to go out on a date with fellow Coal Hill teacher, and new boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson)… cue a flashback as they sneak a quick snog in the classroom! The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is vainly attempting to convince Clara to take a trip with him instead, when suddenly the TARDIS phone rings.  Despite Clara warning him not to answer, the Doctor picks it up… and suddenly the two of them find themselves in a strange room, accompanied by the cyborg hacker Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and the shape-shifter Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner).  All four of them have had their memories of the immediate past erased.  But via a pre-recorded video message from a shadowy figure calling himself “The Architect” they learn that, somehow or another, they have agreed to break into the Bank of Karabraxos, the largest bank in the galaxy.

Not surprisingly, the Bank of Karabraxos possesses an incredibly formidable security system, making the task of the Doctor & Co extremely difficult. One of the Bank’s most remarkable & dangerous deterrents against theft and fraud is “The Teller.”  A strange alien who is kept in a straightjacket & chains by the Bank staff, The Teller is a telepath who can detect “guilty” thought patterns, and who can feed on a person’s mind, literally sucking their skull dry.  The Doctor realized that this is the reason why The Architect arranged for them to have their memories wiped, to lessen their chances of being sensed by The Teller.

“Time Heist” is simultaneously a bank heist story with multiple sci-fi twists and a mystery, as the Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra each attempt to figure out why exactly they would have volunteered to commit this dangerous crime. In the process, the viewers learn quite a bit about Psi and Saibra.  Psi, when he was previously arrested, deliberately erased all his memories of his friends & family to protect the authorities from learning about them.  Now that he is once again free, Psi very much wants to recover those memories so that he will no longer be alone.  Saiba is also seeking to overcome her solitude.  Her shape-shifting power hinges upon physical contact, meaning that she will transform into a duplicate of anyone she touches.  Understandably enough, that prevents her from ever becoming close to anyone, to having any sort of romantic relationship with another being.  Jonathan Bailey and Pippa Bennett-Warner both do excellent work playing these two characters, and you do feel like you get to know them quite well before the end of the episode.

Doctor Who Time Heist cast

So, spoilers… we eventually learn that The Architect is none other than the Doctor himself. He has used his knowledge of time to determine the exact point in history when the heist will succeed, and to set the groundwork for himself, Clara, Psi and Saibra to break in.  And the reason why he has arranged all this is that the person who is calling him is none other than the Bank president Ms. Karabraxos (Keeley Hawes) many years in the future, dying and full of regrets about the myriad crimes she committed during her life.  She asks the Doctor to go back along her timeline and rescue The Teller and its mate, which she holds hostage, from her captivity.  The Doctor does just that, in the process handing the much younger Ms. Karabraxos a note with the TARDIS phone number written down on it.  He tells her to give him a call some time, and Karabraxos responds “You’ll be dead.”  To which the Doctor replies “Yeah, and you’ll be old. We’ll get on famously. You’ll be old and full of regret for the things you can’t change.”  This episode was an interesting twist on the notion of the Doctor as a manipulative figure, as this time he is even influencing his own actions from behind the scenes.

Certainly the most compelling aspect of “Time Heist” is Peter Capaldi. Even early on, when I wasn’t sure about the writing, his performance was superb.  I love watching his Doctor working on a mystery.  You can almost literally see the wheels in his head turning.  And his irreverent eccentricity is just brilliantly mad.  When everything begins to come together at the end, his Doctor has this manic “A-hah!” quality about him, and we see him almost literally bouncing about the room as he connects the dots.  Yep, I love his Doctor.  It was just brilliant casting Capaldi in the role.

It was certainly intriguing that the Doctor’s anger at The Architect turned out to be a projection of his own self-loathing for his worst qualities.   And it is that which leads the Doctor to finally figure out exactly what was going on.  “I hate him!  He’s overbearing, he’s manipulative, likes to think that he’s very clever. I hate him! Clara, don’t you see? I hate the Architect!”  It is a very well written, revealing piece of dialogue that is expertly performed by Capaldi.

I also continue to enjoy the Doctor’s oddball interactions with Clara. At the beginning of the episode, when she’s getting ready for her date, the Doctor asks “Are you taller?”  Clara shows him that she’s wearing a pair of heels, to which the Doctor obliviously inquires “What, do you have to reach a high shelf?”  At the episode’s conclusion, the Doctor drops Clara off right after their departure, just in time for her date with Danny.  After she’s left the TARDIS, the Doctor smugly comments to himself “Robbin’ a bank. Robbin’ a whole bank. Beat that for a date.”

Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat did good work on this episode. Certainly this is a significant improvement over the two previous Doctor Who stories that Thompson wrote on his own, “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.”  As with the previous week’s episode, “Listen,” I think that “Time Heist” is a story that will gain much from successive viewings, so that you can more clearly see the twists & turns of the plot unfolding.

Doctor Who Time Heist Abslon Daak mug shot

Easter egg time: at one point when Clara is being pursued by The Teller, it is lured away from her by Psi.  He accesses his data banks and brings up all of the criminals he has on file.  “Come and find me. Every thief and villain in one big cocktail. I am so guilty! Every famous burglar in history is hiding in this bank right now in one body.”  A number of “mug shot” images rapidly flicker across the screen.  Among them I spotted a Sensorite, a Terileptil, the Gunslinger from “A Town Called Mercy,” a Slitheen… and, very surprisingly, Abslom Daak: Dalek-Killer.  Yes, that’s right, the infamous chain-sword wielding anti-hero created by Steve Moore & Steve Dillon in pages of the Doctor Who Weekly.  That’s Dillon’s artwork from the comic strip on display.  The whole of Doctor Who fandom must now be pondering whether Daak will ever appear on the show in person and, if so, who will play him.

I know that some viewers were no doubt turned off by the unconventional nature of both “Listen” and “Time Heist.” But, honestly, one of the major strengths of Doctor Who has been its flexibility.  Having the Doctor regenerate every few years, revealing his background as a Time Lord, exiling the Doctor to Earth for several years, sending him on a season-long quest for the Key To Time, destroying Gallifrey, making Doctor-lite episodes like “Blink” and “Turn Left,” having the Doctor in a non-chronological romance with River Song, revealing the existence of the War Doctor… the series has repeatedly experimented with different story structures and made significant changes to its main character.  Really, the only two constants in Doctor Who are change, and that fans of the show will never manage to agree with one another about those changes!

“Time Heist” is certainly an interesting installment of Doctor Who. I look forward to re-visiting it in the near future and seeing what I make of it the second time around.

Super Blog Team-Up 4: Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane

Hello, everyone. For those who are visiting this blog for the first time as part of Super Blog Team-Up 4, welcome.  My name is Ben Herman, and this is In My Not So Humble Opinion.  Here’s where I ramble on about comic books, movies, television and science fiction, while occasionally venturing into the dual minefields of religion and politics.  Yeah, I just cannot leave well enough alone!

The theme of this edition of Super Blog Team-Up is “Team-Up Tear Down.” I decided to take a look at one of my favorite odd-but-cool comic book team-ups.  It’s one of those things that when it was published fans were probably wondering “Wow, why didn’t I think of that?”  Courtesy of writer Roy Thomas, artist Colin MacNeil and editor Richard Ashford, from the pages of Savage Sword of Conan #219-220, is “Death’s Dark Riders” featuring the time-twisting team-up of Robert E. Howard’s two iconic sword & sorcery heroes, Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane.

Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936), born and raised in Texas, was a prolific writer of pulp fiction who specialized in two-fisted action delivered with a helping of philosophical contemplation.  He is best known as the creator of Conan, the hot-tempered warrior who lived during the Hyborian Age, a fictional era of pre-history.  Although REH only penned twenty Conan stories during his lifetime, in the years after his death the character became wildly popular, with numerous other writers continuing the character’s adventures in prose, comic books, movies, and television.

Less well-known than Conan is REH’s grim Puritan avenger, the man known as Solomon Kane. Unlike Conan, Kane occupied a genuine historical period, the mid to late 16th Century.  A dour, brooding, black-clad figure, Kane was one of the finest swordsmen in the world, possessing nerves of steel.  He was cursed with an insatiable wanderlust, and he crisscrossed the globe encountering numerous foes, both human and otherworldly.  The deeply religious Kane reconciled his craving for adventure by regarding himself as “a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance,” an agent of God against the forces of evil.  “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives,” Kane somberly proclaims in REH’s story “Blades of the Brotherhood.”  One could certainly characterize Kane as single-minded, even monomaniacal, a figure who would hunt an adversary to the ends of the Earth in the pursuit of justice.

“The Moon of Skulls,” published in 1930 in Weird Tales, sees Solomon Kane at the end of a years-long quest to locate Marylin Taferal, a young Englishwoman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Kane finally tracks Marylin to Africa, to the ancient, lost city of Negari.  Founded countless thousands of years before by colonists from Atlantis, Negari became the last outpost of that civilization after the mythical continent sank into the seas.  The people of Negari worshiped dark gods and engaged in human sacrifice.  As the millennia passed, though, their numbers dwindled, until a thousand years before Kane’s arrival they were finally slain by their African slaves, aided by the renegade priest Nakura.

Kane discovers that the inhabitants of Negari have devolved into brutal savages. They are led by the bloodthirsty Queen Nakari, whose ambition is to lead her subjects in the conquest of the African continent.  Practitioners of their former masters’ dark religion, the Negarai plan to sacrifice Marylin to the skull of Nakura, which they worship.  Kane must find a way to rescue her and escape from the city’s insane inhabitants.

Savage Sword of Conan 219 cover

Howard does good work on “The Moon of Skulls.” It is a thrilling adventure with rich descriptions and poetic language.  Although not nearly as refined or sophisticated as the writing he would be doing in a few short years, it is still a solid yarn.  However it does have certain problems.  Howard does rely a bit too much on lengthy exposition.  The resolution is also somewhat dependent upon convenient coincidence.

More of a problem, though, is the blatant racism on display. The Africans in “The Moon of Skulls” are depicted by Howard as savage, grotesque sub-humans.  I am sure that an argument could be made that Howard was a product of his time and upbringing, that institutionalized racism was the norm in early 20th Century America, particularly in the South.  Nevertheless this aspect of the story, as well as other works by REH, has undoubtedly aged poorly and now stands out as offensive.  It mars what is otherwise an entertaining tale.

Having said all that, REH was still a talented writer. If you can get past the unfortunate racism that occasionally appeared in his stories then there is much to admire in his works.  I am certainly a fan of Solomon Kane, who I find to be an intriguing protagonist.

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 13

Okay, end digression! Getting back to our team-up… how would you bring together Conan and Solomon Kane, who lived approximately twelve millennia apart?  Well, if anyone was going to find a way to have the Barbarian and the Puritan in one story, it was going to be Roy Thomas.

Back in 1970, Thomas was instrumental in convincing Marvel Comics to publish the Conan the Barbarian series (for a nice rundown on how that took place, I recommend picking up Alter Ego #70, which features a lengthy interview of Thomas by Jim Amash, and Back Issue #11, which contains Tom Stewart’s in-depth look at Marvel’s Conan comics, both of which are available from TwoMorrows Publishing). In the past four decades Thomas has written several hundred comic book stories featuring the character of Conan, as well as various other REH-inspired tales.  He is definitely an authority on the works of REH, and I think he’s played a significant role in the character of Conan becoming such a cultural icon.  (Comic book artist Richard Howell, who worked with Thomas on All-Star Squadron, recently commented “I think the entire Conan franchise is entirely due to Roy.  Conan, as a property, might have wandered into fringe culture, and not the everybody-knows-it powerhouse that it is, if not for Roy. That’s my take on it, and I’m sticking to it.”)

As explained in a text piece in Savage Sword #219, Thomas was inspired to write a sequel to “The Moon of Skulls” for the Conan / Kane team-up by the fact that Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, were descendants of the ancient Atlanteans, the same civilization that had established the city of Negari. The two adventurers are thus brought together via time travel generated by the mystical powers of the sorcerer Nakura’s skull.

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 7

The prologue of “Death’s Dark Riders” is set at the end of the 16th Century, as the now-elderly, but still very dangerous, Solomon Kane is riding through a mist-shrouded forest near Devon, England. He is set upon by a trio of ghostly horsemen who after a fierce struggle manage to subdue the Puritan.  This sequence is adapted from a story fragment with the similar title of “Death’s Black Riders” that REH penned, the opening of a Solomon Kane tale that he never finished writing.  I e-mailed Thomas and asked him where the idea of utilizing “Death’s Black Riders” had come from.  He responded “It was a way to make the starting point some actual Robert E. Howard prose.”

Elsewhen, twelve thousand years in the past, we see Conan at a point relatively early in his life. He is still mourning the recent death of his first love, the pirate queen Belit (see either the REH story “Queen of the Black Coast” or Conan the Barbarian #100 from Marvel for all the details).  Seeking to evade pursuit by a hostile tribe stalking him through the wilderness of Kush (the ancient Africa of the Hyborean Age), Conan stumbles across Negari.  He is ambushed and taken captive by the city’s inhabitants.  Meanwhile, back in the early 1600s, Kane awakens to find he has been spirited away to the ruins of Negari, where the latest would-be ruler is seeking to restore the fallen empire.  Tendrils of energy snake out from the skull of Nakura towards Kane, enveloping him.  He finds himself transported to a mysterious black chamber, and face to face with a very angry Cimmerian.

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 32

Courtesy of a Mighty Marvel Misunderstanding, Conan and Kane quickly lock swords, each of them assuming that the other is an agent of Negari. Despite the Barbarian being in the prime of his life and the Puritan well past middle age, the later gives a good accounting of himself.  The two men fight to a standstill, all the while trading not just sword-thrusts but verbal barbs.  Gradually the pair comes to realize that they are not enemies.  At last Kane extends the hand of friendship, which Conan accepts.

Exiting the dark chamber, in fact an immense hollow skull, Conan and Kane find themselves facing the soldiers of Negari. Fighting them off and fleeing though the city, they gradually come to realize that somehow they have both been transported back in time, to a point even earlier than the Hyborean Age, when Nakura himself was still alive, and plotting to seize power.

I was curious as to why Thomas decided to move Nakura’s revolt backwards many thousands of years. I asked Thomas, who explained “Since ‘Atlantis’ was in Conan’s past in the stories, I suppose that made more sense to me than writing about Atlantean survivals of ‘only’ 1000 years ago.”

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 28

After witnessing the betrayal of the Atlanteans by Nakura and the rise to power by the former African slaves, Conan and Kane fight their way back through the city to the giant skull statue, hoping it will return them to their correct time periods. The two are catapulted forward to Kane’s time, where the spirit of Nakura now inhabits his preserved skull.   Nakura orders his phantom Black Riders and the Negari warriors to slay the pair.  The Cimmerian and the Englishman battle side by side against the forces of darkness, finally overcoming Nakura and his servants.

Their enemies defeated, Conan moves to clasp Kane’s hand, only for it to pass through insubstantial. The two realize that the spell that brought them together is fading, and Conan comments that “soon the ages will gape between us again, like a chasm beyond crossing” to which Kane responds “Except by friendship.”  And thus they are once again separated by the vast millennia, left to journey on their separate paths.

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 34

Thomas does excellent work scripting the interactions between Conan and Kane. Even after they realize that they are on the same side, there still a fair amount of verbal sparring.  Much of this banter revolves around Kane’s professions of deep faith in God, in contrast to Conan’s avowed self-reliance on his own abilities rather than upon the assistance of the disinterested deities of his era.  Even in the midst of hacking away at their adversaries, the Puritan and the Pagan cannot resist taking shots at one another for their particular approaches to the spiritual.  There is also the contrast of age, with Conan half-dismissing Kane as an “old man” and Kane regarding Conan as a “callow youth.”  Given that both of these men are strong-willed and stubborn it makes sense that Thomas shows a bit of rivalry between the two.

By the way, I did also ask Thomas a somewhat more general question about his utilization of REH’s characters and stories that relates to this particular tale.  I wondered how, when it came to adapting and expanding upon REH’s writings such as “The Moon of Skulls” or “Queen of the Black Coast” (the later of which Thomas famously expanded into a multi-year arc in Conan the Barbarian) he approached remaining faithful to the tone of the original stories while avoiding the racism that was present in them.  Thomas responded “I mostly tried to walk a tightrope.  The black kingdoms in Conan’s time were primitive in some ways, sophisticated in others… depending on which ones they were.  I simply tried to treat the black warriors as if they were no more savage or uncivilized, really, than Conan himself.”

Savage Sword of Conan 220 cover

“Death’s Dark Riders” is illustrated by British artist Colin MacNeil.  It was editor Richard Ashford who assigned MacNeil to the story, an excellent choice on his part.  Ashford was obviously someone who appreciated MacNeil’s work, as he also had him draw a number of covers for the bi-weekly anthology series Marvel Comics Presents and for the regular Conan the Barbarian comic.  MacNeil is regrettably not too well known here in the States, only having worked on a handful of American books.  But he is certainly well-regarded in his native Britain, where he has frequently contributed to 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine and Warhammer Monthly.

MacNeil’s highly detailed black & white interior work on Savage Sword #s 219-220 is breathtaking and macabre. Likewise, his painted covers for these two issues are striking, atmospheric pieces.  MacNeil does excellent work illustrating Conan and Kane, bringing the two men to life.  He makes them both strong, powerful individuals, but gives each a separate, distinctive personality and physical presence.

“Death’s Dark Riders” is well worth reading, both for Thomas’ excellent writing and MacNeil’s beautiful art. I’m not certain how easy it is to locate copies of these two issues of Savage Sword.  Fortunately “Death’s Dark Riders” was reprinted several years ago.  In 2009 Dark Horse, the current holder of the comic book licenses for both Conan and Solomon Kane, released the trade paperback The Saga of Solomon Kane.  The 400 page volume collects the entirety of black & white stories featuring Kane that was originally published by Marvel between 1973 and 1994.  This includes “Death’s Dark Riders,” as well as an adaptation of “The Moon of Skulls” by Don Glut, David Wenzel & Bill Wray that ran in Savage Sword back in 1979.  If you are a fan of the character, The Saga of Solomon Kane is recommended.

Super Blog Team Up 4 official header

That concludes my portion of Super Blog Team-Up 4. Please check out the other entries from our talented group of contributors.  Here is the complete SBTU4 line-up:

1. Super-Hero Satellite: Superman and The Masters Of the Universe

2. LongBox GraveYard: Thing / Thing

3. Superior Spider-talk: Spider-man and the Coming of RazorBack!??

4. The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents

5. The Middle Spaces: Super Hegemonic Team-up! Spider-Man, Daredevil & ‘The Death of Jean DeWolfe’

6. Chasing Amazing: Spider-man/Spider-man 2099 Across the Spider-Verse: A Once in a Timeline Team-Up

7. Vic Sage/Retroist: Doctor Doom/Doctor Strange: The Doctor Is In

8. Fantastiverse: Superman/Spider-Man

9. Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1

10. In My Not So Humble Opinion: Conan /Solomon Kane (that’s me!)

11. The Unspoken Decade: Two Wrongs Making a Right: Punisher Meets Archie

12. Flodos Page: Green Lantern and the Little Green Man

13. Between The Pages: World’s Finest Couple: Lois Lane and Bruce Wayne

14. BronzeAge Babies: FF/Doom, Batman/Joker, Warlock/Thanos, and Cap/Red Skull

Lets all give a big thank you to Charlton Hero for organizing Super Blog Team-Up 4, as well as for designing all of the awesome promo artwork! Also, thank you to Roy Thomas for taking the time to share his thoughts on the creation of “Death’s Dark Riders” as well as for writing so many fantastic comic books over the decades.

Paul Williams and Tracey Jackson at Barnes & Noble

This past Thursday evening my girlfriend Michele and I were at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway in Manhattan. Singer, songwriter & actor Paul Williams and author & screenwriter Tracey Jackson were at the store to do a reading, Q& A and signing of their new book Gratitude & Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life.

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and www.vanityfair.com

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and http://www.vanityfair.com

Michele and I are both fans of Paul Williams. He is an amazing songwriter and singer.  I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I do have a fondness for sappy, sad, wistful love songs.  Williams has penned many memorable tunes of that sort.  I always seem to get at least a little misty-eyed whenever I hear Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection,” co-written by Williams and Kenneth Ascher, for which they deservedly earned Ocsar nominations.  More recently, Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.

Williams also starred in, and wrote the music for, the superb cult classic movie Phantom of the Paradise which I’ve blogged about previously (here’s a link). Among his other acting credits that I’ve enjoyed were his portrayal of Virgil the scientist/philosopher orangutan from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, appearing as himself on The Odd Couple and The Muppet Show, voicing The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and playing an animated version of himself on Dexter’s Laboratory.  I’m probably forgetting a few other good ones.

For a number of years Williams struggled with alcohol & drug addiction. He has been sober since March 15, 1990.  Since then, he has been active in the recovery movement, working as a Certified Drug Rehabilitation Counselor.

Author Tracey Jackson is, on the other hand, not an addict, at least as far as substances such as booze or pills are concerned. But for many years she found herself trapped in a pattern of repeating a variety of self-destructive behaviors to compensate for and avoid dealing with her unhappiness.

I enjoyed hearing Williams and Jackson reading from Gratitude & Trust, and listening to their Q & A. I had a great deal of identification with both of them, and I felt they offered very helpful suggestions for people who are in recovery.

It is true that you do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be an addict. And once you put down those substances you can still end up not having a sober mindset if you merely substitute your addition to those for other things.  Even if you do not have a problem with mind-altering substances, there is so much out there to become addicted to: food, money, shopping, sex, work, gambling, fame, anger, the Internet, etc.  And, yes, that includes comic books and caffeine, I acknowledge with a definite self-awareness!

I do not know if it is a quality of Western society or of humanity in general, but we often cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction via outside remedies or distractions. We seek material possessions and the validation of others over addressing the defects of character that lie within us.  Instead of addressing our flaws and working to put behind us the traumas of our pasts, we look for ways to get out of our heads.  It is actually understandable, because it is far easier, at least in the short term, to grab hold of something that will give us momentary satisfaction, than to commence at the hard, unflinchingly honest work that is necessary to address our underlying unhappiness.

Perhaps there is also that impetus of self-reliance, the myth of pulling yourself up by your boot-straps, at play, upon which much of Western society is rooted. We are more likely to try to solve problems on our own than to turn to others for assistance, seeing that as a sign of weakness.  But often there are tasks and struggles we cannot overcome without the help or advice of others.

And then there is the issue of God. I can definitely understand why many people recoil at that word, and at the thought of praying to some nebulous deity for strength & assistance.  There are so many examples of organized religions acting in an imperious, oppressive manner throughout the world, movements and organizations rife with hypocrisy & corruption, so much so that we often wish to slam the door on God.  But it is a fact that some people do find great comfort in their faith.  I am a firm believer in the vital importance of individual spirituality.  What works for me may not work for you.  Each person should be free to work on developing their relationship with the Higher Power of their understanding.

Williams and Jackson definitely address these concepts within Gratitude & Trust. The book is their attempt to take the principals of recovery that have been utilized by alcoholics & drug addicts over the decades and demonstrate how these can also be utilized by others to improve their lives, to find serenity and peace of mind.  I certainly applaud their efforts.  I’m looking forward to reading their book.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put these suggestions into practice into my own life.

Photo by Michele Witchipoo

Photo by Michele Witchipoo

So, yes, it was definitely very cool meeting Paul Williams at Barnes & Noble. I’m afraid that I was terribly nervous, and I forgot to tell him how much I was a fan of his acting & music throughout the decades.  But I did let him know that I appreciated that he and Tracey Jackson penned this volume.  I hope he heard me, since I was probably mumbling a bit!

Anyway, I think that Gratitude & Trust is worth a look. Considering how many of us attempt to look for relief in a bottle of whiskey or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a shopping spree at Macy’s or whatever your particular vice is, this book offers a more constructive alternative to the very difficult task of living life on life’s terms.

Doctor Who reviews: Robot of Sherwood

The third episode of Doctor Who Series Eight, “Robot of Sherwood” written by Mark Gatiss, is something of a comedy. After the grim tone of the previous week’s “Into the Dalek” this makes for a nice change of pace. The episode further develops the character of the recently-regenerated Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his changed relationship with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).

Asked by the Doctor to choose a destination for the TARDIS, Clara decides that she wants to meet one of her childhood heroes, Robin Hood. The Doctor immediately dismisses Robin Hood as nothing but a legend. “He’s made up. There’s no such thing.” But Clara wears him down and he reluctantly sets the coordinates for Sherwood Forest in medieval times. Arriving, the Doctor is extremely surprised and annoyed to find that a very jolly fellow in green armed with a bow & arrow claiming to be Robin Hood is ready to steal the TARDIS.

“Robot of Sherwood” brought a big grin to my face on several occasions. Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, who even at bow-point adamantly refuses to acknowledge Robin Hood’s existence, instead floating all manner of outlandish theories to explain away the presence of the prince of thieves and his band of Merry Men. Clara, in contrast, is utterly charmed and thrilled. Wearing a beautiful red period dress, she is ready to dive right in, much to the Doctor’s disgust.

One of my favorite moments came early on when Robin (Tom Riley) challenges the Doctor to a duel for the TARDIS. The Doctor accepts, but instead of utilizing a sword whips a large spoon out from his jacket. Capaldi’s enthusiasm and irreverence totally sells the scene. Of course the Doctor would be crazy enough to fight someone with a spoon!

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood promo

Much of the episode is devoted to the Doctor alternating between attempting to prove Robin is a fake and showing up the archer. Quite clearly the Doctor does not want to be proven wrong. Neither is he comfortable with Clara mooning over the outlaw lord of Locksley, as the Doctor hates to be outdone by anyone.

During the famous archery contest organized by the Sherriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) to trap Robin into revealing himself, the Doctor inevitably tries to grab the spotlight, attempting to out-shoot the legendary archer, and then finally resorting to blowing up the target with his sonic screwdriver. When the Sherriff orders his knights to attack them, in the resulting fight Robin hacks off one of their arms, revealing it to be a robot. Of course the Doctor is utterly jubilant, as this finally seems to confirm for him that everything that is taking place is a fake.

However, it does inevitably transpire that Robin Hood is the genuine article. Only the robots, and their spaceship hidden at the center of the Sherriff’s castle, are out of place. It takes Clara to figure this out, as she bluffs the besotted Sherriff into revealing how he plans to use these crash-landed automatons to seize control of the English throne. The Doctor and Robin finally agree to work together and, escaping from the dungeon, discover the control center of the robots’ ship. The Doctor is perturbed to learn that the ship had been en-route to “The Promised Land,” a destination that had also been sought out by the half-faced clockwork man in “Deep Breath.”

In a number of ways “Robot of Sherwood” is almost a love letter to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s costume has a more than passing resemblance to the Third’s. Capaldi’s performance certainly possesses some of the authoritative, bossy arrogance of Pertwee’s. There are parallels to the Third Doctor story “The Time Warrior,” with its spaceship crash-landing in medieval England, and a ruthless robber baron attempting to use alien weapons to expand his empire. “The Time Warrior” even had a robot knight, and “Robots of Sherwood” improves on that with a whole army of them.

Other instances that call back to the Pertwee era are the Doctor using a martial arts move to disarm Robin Hood, and his suggestion to Clara at the start of the episode that they take a trip to Mars to visit the Ice Warriors. At one point, trying to figure out the “truth” behind Robin Hood’s presence, the Doctor wildly guesses that they are actually in a Miniscope, a shout-out to the Third Doctor serial “Carnival of Monsters.” Miller’s theatrical performance as the black-clad, bearded Sherriff even brings to mind the Third Doctor’s constant adversary The Master, both in his physical appearance and in his propensity for wildly impractical schemes to conquer the world. I was left wondering if the Sheriff attended The Roger Delgado School of Villainy, as taught by head instructor Anthony Ainley.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Sheriff

Although “Robot of Sherwood” is a humorous tale, Gatiss’ script does also take a bit of time to reflect on the character of the Doctor. Concerning Clara’s fondness for Robin Hood, the Doctor asks “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” One suspects that this is as much directed at how Clara feels about Robin as she does in the Doctor himself, who seems to find her faith in him misplaced. At the end of the episode, when Robin, referring to Clara, says to the Doctor “You are her hero, I think.” The Doctor merely replies “I’m not a hero.”

It is actually very appropriate for the Doctor to have this self-perception, and to be dismissive of his accomplishments. It has sometimes been observed that real heroes do not think of themselves as heroes; rather, they are just people who are merely attempting to do the next right thing in a difficult, complicated world.   And that can certainly apply to the Doctor.

Some fans may have been put off by the whimsical tone of “Robot of Sherwood.” Myself, I liked it. One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that is can support episodes that are diverse in tone and style. This was humorous without being silly, a fun story that entertained while continuing to develop the character of the Twelfth Doctor.

The return of the Forever People

I was a bit surprised when DC Comics announced that one of their latest New 52 titles would be Infinity Man and the Forever People, a revival / revamp of the characters created by Jack Kirby.  Although I think the Forever People are cool, I will be the first to admit that they are probably among the lesser-known “Fourth World” characters devised by Kirby.  After their initial eleven issue run in the early 1970s, they were not seen again until a six issue miniseries published in 1988.  Subsequently they have not been featured in any other starring roles, only making guest appearances here and there.

However it is not entirely unexpected for the Forever People to receive a revival.  It is true that DC has actually attempted to launch a number of offbeat and experimental titles in the last three years.  The problem faced by many of those fringe books has been that DC put them out there with little in the way of promotion.  Most of them ended up falling below the radar, drowning in a sea of Batman related titles.  Based on that pattern, I honestly did not know how long Infinity Man and the Forever People would last.  But I figured I had might as well give the book a try while it was here.  After all, I am a fan of the characters, as witnessed by the Beautiful Dreamer tattoo on my left leg.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 cover

Co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People are Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen.  They’ve made revisions to the original set-up by Kirby, altering some of the characters.  I generally am not too keen on that, and was underwhelmed by the New 52 re-conception of both Darkseid and Highfather’s origins in Justice League #23.1 last year.  That said, I have to acknowledge that the Forever People were never developed in too much detail by Kirby during their all-too-short original series, and their sporadic appearances since then has left them somewhat blank slates.  So it is not as if DiDio & Giffen are upending decades of storylines & characterizations.

Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer so far appear to be pretty close to their original incarnations.  Vykin the Black has been renamed Vykin Baldaur and made into a more cynical figure (as much as I love Kirby, I really thought it was unfortunate that the only two non-Caucasian members of the Fourth World mythos were named Vykin the Black and the Black Racer).  Serifan has been given a change in gender & ethnicity, becoming Serafina, the younger sister of Vykin.  Big Bear is now the oldest member of the Forever People, as well as secretly from Apokolips, apparently having been given elements of Orion’s backstory.

Mark, Dreamer and Serafina are shown to be students on New Genesis who are about to embark on a study abroad type of assignment on the planet Earth, but they are unable to activate their Mother Box.  Vykin, who dislikes Mark and doesn’t want his sister going off-world with him, arrives to object, only to find that he is the only one Mother Box will respond to.  Reluctantly he accompanies the other three to Earth.  They are greeted by Big Bear, who has been on Earth for some time, working with human scientists in an attempt to advance the planet’s technology and bring about greater prosperity.

DiDio & Giffen appear to be focusing on the “rebellious youth” aspect of the Forever People.  Back in 1970, when he devised the characters, Kirby was inspired by the hippy / flower children counterculture.  Truthfully I do not know how much of that came through in his stories, though.  After their devastating cosmic war with Apokolips, the people of New Genesis mostly turned their backs on conflict, and the planet became close to a spiritual paradise.  Because of this, I never really understood precisely what the Forever People were rebelling against.  They merely seemed to be more impulsive and hotheaded, rushing off to Earth to fight the forces of Darkseid.

In contrast, in the New 52 (both in this title and in the pages of Wonder Woman by Azzarello & Chiang) it is shown that New Genesis is a highly organized, regimented society.  Highfather is now a more militant figure, closer to his Izaya the Inheritor days from the Kirby continuity.  The Forever People generally, and Mark Moonrider in particular, are rebelling against their world’s “control.”

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 4

When the Infinity Man finally makes himself known to the Forever People, he positions himself as an agent of chaos.  “The universe relies on chaos. It needs to expand, to grow, to learn. There is a corruption, a corruption brought on by a need for order that prevents the natural course of non-prescribed evolution. Both New Genesis and Apokolips are guilty of imposing their forms of order on the universe. This must stop. That is why I chose you.”

One can discern a state of affairs set up by DiDio & Giffen inspired by Cold War geopolitics.  Apokolips, with Darkseid at its helm, is a force of totalitarian order akin to the Soviet Union.  It brutally oppresses its citizens, forcing blind obedience & uniformity from them, and it seeks to expand its empire via conquest.  New Genesis is cast in the role of the United States, ostensibly working to preserve freedom & democracy.  But in the name of preserving its security and opposing Darkseid’s machinations, New Genesis interferes in the affairs of lesser worlds, resulting in unfortunate side effects for those planets and their inhabitants.  And while not an identity-crushing police state like Apokolips, the government of New Genesis encourages conformity and obedience lest individuality and the questioning of authority weaken the planet’s strength & resolve.

While I am a bit hesitant to embrace a version of New Genesis that appears to have such common ground with Apokolips, I have to acknowledge that this actually provides the Forever People a very clear-cut political system to rebel against, an ideology to oppose.  They are rejecting both Highfather and Darkseid’s paths.  They are seeking the freedom to guide their own destinies, and to enable other beings to do the same thing.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 pg 15

In addition to co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People, Giffen is also penciling the series, paired with the talented Scott Koblish on inking.  I very much enjoyed their work on the first issue.  Giffen has often had a rather Kirby-esque element to his art, and that very much suits this series.  This especially comes into play in a scene where Big Bear reveals his technology and explains “Kirby is my communal reconstruction bio engine. He’s responsible for building and maintaining this environment. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  That was a nice tip of the hat to the King of Comics.

Regrettably Giffen involvement in DC’s big Futures End crossover prevented him from penciling the next two issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  So, yep, we already have fill-in art teams on this book.  I hope that does not kill any sales momentum or reader interest.  At least the guest artists were mostly good.

On issue #2, the art is courtesy of penciler Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna.  I’m certainly a fan of both gentlemen.  Grummett has always been good at rendering Kirby’s characters, including the New Gods.  For instance, Grummett penciled an appearance by the Forever People in the pages of Adventures of Superman about twenty or so years ago.  I enjoyed seeing him now having an opportunity to depict the New 52 versions of the characters.  Offhand I don’t recall if Hanna has ever inked Grummett before.  They definitely go together very well here, creating some lovely art.  I was especially taken by their rendition of Beautiful Dreamer.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 2 pg 5

Everyone’s favorite cosmic comic book creator Jim Starlin is the guest penciler on Infinity Man and the Forever People #3.  He is paired with inker Rob Hunter.  Truthfully, I was not especially fond of their collaboration.  Hunter’s inking is in the vein of the house style of Top Cow, with flourishes reminiscent of Silvestri and Turner.  I did not feel this fit Starlin’s penciling.   I would rather have seen him inking himself, or by longtime inking partner Al Milgrom, who always does a good job finishing Starlin’s pencils.

That said, the sequence towards the end of the issue, when Dreamer is inside her subconscious, conversing with Anti-Life, is very well done.  Perhaps for this surreal tableau Hunter’s inks were somewhat better suited, as they give Starlin’s nightmarish imagery an extra punch.  (It appears that DiDio & Giffen are drawing inspiration from the long-ago declaration by Kirby in the pages of Forever People #1 that Dreamer “is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation.”)

Nice coloring work on these issues by the gang at Hi-Fi.  I’ve always found it to be a good sign when that name pops up in the credits.  They are definitely one of the better groups of computer colorists in the biz.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 12

On the whole I did enjoy the first three issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  DiDio & Giffen did a good job introducing the characters and establishing the premise.  I just wish that the comics were a little bit longer.  Twenty pages just did not seem like sufficient space.  The book really needs an extra two or three pages to enable the story to breath a bit.

I am very interested in seeing what happens with the Forever People next.  I know that this month’s installment is a special crossover with the aforementioned Futures End storyline.  And then there are going to be a couple of issues tying in with the “Godhead” storyline running through the various Green Lantern titles.  Perhaps that will inspire some GL fans to check out this series.  Oh, yes, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, there’s going to be an appearance by Bat-Cow!  That sounds like just the sort of delightfully offbeat, bizarre humor the Giffen specializes in, and I’m looking forward to it.

Doctor Who reviews: Deep Breath and Into the Dalek

After months of waiting, the eighth series of Doctor Who is here, featuring the full debut of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with Jenna Coleman returning as Clara Oswald.  I canceled cable television several months ago, and I was concerned I’d end up missing the new episodes.  Fortunately I was able to purchase the entire season on iTunes to watch on my laptop.  Here is a quick look at the first two episodes, “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.”

Doctor Who Deep Breath poster

When a tyrannosaurus shows up in Victorian London, it transpires that the newly-regenerated Doctor had landed the TARDIS in prehistoric times, where it got swallowed by a dinosaur, which then got transported to the late 19th Century along with its would-be meal.  Fortunately the t-rex coughs up the TARDIS on the banks of the Thames, where the Paternoster Gang is investigating the presence of the dinosaur.  And so Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are reunited with Clara, and introduced to the Twelfth Doctor.

Following on from his transformation at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” our resident Time Lord is understandably discombobulated.  He is quickly put to bed in Vastra & Jenny’s house, while Clara attempts to process what, exactly has occurred.

To be honest, of all the people in the universe, you would expect that Clara would have the easiest time accepting the Doctor regenerating.  Perhaps she doesn’t really remember her experiences as “the Impossible Girl” whose consciousness was fragmented and scattered about myriad points in the Doctor’s timeline.  However, she quite recently met both the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor during the events of “The Day of the Doctor.”  So she knows he can regenerate, and that even though he looked young he was really a couple of thousand years old.  This makes it very surprising that Clara is seemingly in shock that the Doctor is suddenly completely different and older-looking.  Perhaps it is a case of the difference between knowing something is possible and actually seeing it occur before your eyes?

Still, Clara’s uncertainty and difficulty accepting the new incarnation of the Doctor does lead to an interesting scene between her and Vastra (Neve McIntosh).  Often the Paternoster Gang is written with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, and they are typically depicted as moving about very comfortably within Victorian England, accepted by the authorities as experts on strange phenomenon.  Given that, it is easy to forget that Vastra is an outsider, a Silurian who was born millions of years ago, now living in a completely alien world.  Writer Steven Moffat addresses this in “Deep Breath,” showing how she copes with her new existence among humans who are often unable to accept anyone or anything that is strange or different.  It makes sense that Vastra would feel a certain kinship to the Doctor, who is also an outsider.

Truthfully, I did not fine the plot of body-snatching clockwork robots especially compelling.  I was actually wondering at what appeared to be an apparent plot hole.  These mechanical beings supposedly crashed on Earth centuries before and have been harvesting humans to rebuild themselves all this time, but their activities have only been noticed for the last few months, with the London newspapers reporting various instances of supposed spontaneous combustion (they were burning their victims to disguise the stolen body parts).  Maybe this is something that Moffat is going to address later on in the eighth series, that some outside force work them up.  Perhaps it ties in with that enigmatic woman in black named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who has popped up twice so far?

Probably the best part of “Deep Breath” was Capaldi.  Early on, his post-regeneration instability gives him an opportunity to engage in some humorously odd observations.  Looking in the mirror at his new face for the first time, he wonders why he now looks this way, if for some subconscious reason he chose this appearance.  He also has a bit of criticism concerning one particular feature:

“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.  They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”

Even in this confused state, the Doctor still wants to help return the tyrannosaur to its own time period, recognizing that it is an innocent being that was plucked into a strange place through no fault of its own.  And he is distraught when the dinosaur is killed by the clockwork robots.  We also see the Doctor is genuinely hurt and disappointed at Clara’s difficulty in accepting that he has changed.

Towards the end of “Deep Breath,” Capaldi really comes into his own.  Confronting the leader of the robots aboard its makeshift dirigible floating over London, the Doctor boldly declares “Those people down there. They’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.”

In the next scene, following on from the Doctor’s warning, we discover that the robot has been destroyed, having fallen out of the blimp and become impaled upon a metal steeple.  You are left wondering if the clockwork man committed suicide once it became convinced it would never reach the mythical paradise it believed in, or if the Doctor was forced to kill it.

“Deep Breath” was a somewhat uneven episode.  There were a number of good scenes, character moments and performances that perhaps were not connected together as well as they could.  I was a bit underwhelmed, although Capaldi definitely impressed as the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who Into The Dalek poster

I was definitely much more impressed with this week’s episode, “Into the Dalek” co-written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat.  Sometime in the far future when humanity is engaged in a massive space war with the Daleks, the Doctor rescues Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) when her fighter ship is destroyed.  Returning her to her home spaceship, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers that the humans have taken a Dalek prisoner.

Strangely, this captured Dalek seems to have “turned good” and is expressing a desire to fight against its own kind.  Although suspicious and extremely skeptical that Daleks are capable of any sort of change from the conformity that is genetically programmed into them, the Doctor nevertheless reluctantly agrees to help the humans repair it, in the hopes it will aid them in their fight, and show a way in which to grant empathy and creative thinking to the rest of its species.

The Doctor pops back to 2014 to collect Clara from Coal Hill School, where she is still teaching, and returns with her to the future.  Together with Journey Blue and two other human soldiers, the Doctor and Clara are shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, which the Doctor has nicknamed “Rusty,” to locate & repair its internal damage, as well as determine the source of its personality change.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Voyage with a Dalek, something that the Doctor sardonically lampshades when he comments “Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.”

This episode really showed of the unsettling, darker side of the Doctor.  He wonders aloud if he is a good man or not, a question he asks Clara.  Once miniaturized inside Rusty’s form, when attacked by Dalek antibodies, the Doctor more or less sacrifices one of the human soldiers, harshly justifying his action by stating “He was dead already! I was saving us!”

The Doctor locates a radiation leak inside Rusty and seals it.  This saves the Dalek, but it also causes its internal computer to begin functioning normally, and it’s conditioning to be restored.  Rusty breaks loose on the Aristotle and begins attacking the humans, as well as summoning the Dalek mothership.  Soon the Daleks are assaulting the Aristotle in force.  Still shrunk inside Rusty, the Doctor is ready to give up, convinced that Daleks really can never change.  But Clara forces him to reconsider, and the two of them, with Journey Blue’s assistance, manage to reboot Rusty’s computers, once again giving the Dalek access to its full memories.  The Doctor mentally taps into Rusty, hoping that what the Dalek sees in his own memories & experiences will convince it to once again reject its programmed ideology…

Rusty: I see in to your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I… see… hatred!

The Doctor: Hatred?

Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks and it is good!

The Doctor: No no no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!

Unfortunately Rusty is unable or unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s pleas.  Rusty ambushes the Dalek boarding party, wiping them out.  Afterwards, the Doctor, Clara and Blue have returned to normal size.  Even though they have won, the Doctor is disappointed, and Rusty is unable to understand why.

Rusty: Victory is yours, but it does not please you?

The Doctor: You looked inside me and you saw hatred. That’s no victory. Victory would’ve been a good Dalek.

The Doctor really had hoped to change the Daleks, to get them to grow, to put aside hatred, enable them to appreciate the beauty of the universe, to understand that other beings had a right to existence.  Instead, all he was able to do was to cause Rusty to embrace a different form of hate, to turn its destructive abilities upon a different target, namely its own species.  And, worse yet, this experience has once more reminded the Doctor of his own hatred, his own capacity for violence and destruction.

Throughout the episode, it is shown that the Doctor has a great dislike for soldiers and war.  At the end, when Journey Blue asks to join him and Clara on the TARDIS, the Doctor refuses.  “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

The Doctor is undoubtedly reminded of his own experiences during the Time War, when he was the War Doctor, fighting against the Daleks.  The dislike for the military he shows here is at least partially due to his own self-loathing for the person he once was.  As much as he likes Blue, the Doctor will not take her with him.  Humans such as Clara have helped to awaken the best qualities in him, often serving as his conscience.  And so he is undoubtedly afraid that someone like Blue will bring out his worst aspects.

Ford & Moffat did an excellent job writing “Into the Dalek.”  The script really is top-notch, the ideas it touches upon complicated and thought-provoking.  The direction by Ben Wheatley is fantastic.  The sets, costumes, and special effects look great.  Capaldi does a superb job working with this material, giving a very compelling performance.  Regular Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs turned in a nuanced performance as Rusty, really bringing to life the creature’s emotional turmoil.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi close up

While not perfect, series eight of Doctor Who is off to a good start.  Peter Capaldi has definitely hit the ground running as the Twelfth Doctor.  I am very much looking forward to seeing more from him in the coming weeks.

Oh, yes, one other thing… I love the new opening title sequence.  As I understand it, it was inspired by a sequence created by series fan Billy Hanshaw that was posted online.  It looks very cool, with a rather steampunk style to it.  Definitely suits the new Doctor.

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #1

The past week was insane.  I’ve been dealing with personal stuff and not getting enough sleep.  So naturally enough I didn’t have a chance to blog about various items that I wanted to.  Well, here’s a three day weekend, so let’s see what I get around to covering.  First up is Sensation Comics #1, featuring Wonder Woman.

While I would not say that I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman, she is a character who I like, and whose monthly title I have followed on and off throughout the years.  That and I have all three DVD box sets of the television show starring Lynda Carter (I eventually got Michele incredibly annoyed at having to listen to that opening theme song over and over again).  When it was announced that DC Comics would be publishing a Wonder Woman anthology series with work by a number talented creators I was naturally intrigued.

A bit of reference: after making her debut in All Star Comics #8, cover-dated December 1941, Wonder Woman received an ongoing starring role in Sensation Comics #1, which came out the very next month.  Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics for nearly its entire run.  Her final appearance was in issue #106, dated Nov-Dec 1951, with the series ending three issues later (credit goes to the Grand Comics Database for that info).  Wonder Woman also received her own solo series in mid-1942, which meant that for nearly a decade the character had two regular titles.

I could be wrong (and if I am then I am certain someone will let me know) but I believe that with this new Sensation Comics book it is the first time since 1951 that Wonder Woman will be starring in two ongoing titles.  That is pretty darn cool!

Sensation Comics 1 cover

Sensation Comics is one of DC’s “digital first” books, which means that the material is offered for sale online before it appears in print.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite since I prefer having a comic book in hand, rather than reading it from a computer screen, so I’ve decided to wait for the material to hit the comic shops.  But that’s just me, and Tim Hanley, author of the excellent Wonder Woman blog Straightened Circumstances, is going the online route.

This first print issue of Sensation Comics was pretty good.  The main story is “Gothamazon,” penned by former Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and illustrated by the talented Ethan Van Sciver, with Marcelo Di Chiara pitching in to help out on a page.

After the various costumed criminals of Gotham City team up and ambush Batman, temporarily putting him out of action.  Barbara Gordon aka Oracle calls Wonder Woman in to pinch hit as Gotham’s protector to restore peace & order.

It was nice to have Simone back writing Wonder Woman, as well as Oracle, the latter of whom she always did a superb job scripting in Birds of Prey.  By thrusting Wonder Woman into the urban warfare of Gotham, the writer examines the various, sometimes conflicting, aspects of Princess Diana.  On the one hand, she is a warrior, a soldier who has fought on myriad battlefields, who will countenance tactics and solutions that other crime-fighters such as Batman would never approve.  On the other, Diana is also a force for love and peace, who hopes to find the best in all individuals.  Simone demonstrates that while such qualities may appear contradictory, in fact they complement one another.  Faced with the absolute ruthless insanity of such adversaries as the Joker and Two-Face, she comes to realize that facing them head on would require fighting them with their own methods, the utilization of lethal force.  But because of her nature, Diana is able to perceive an alternate path.  She recognizes that when brute strength fails, understanding and compassion may succeed.

Simone’s story highlights how Wonder Woman and Batman are such different individuals.  The Dark Knight’s rigid methodology of fighting fear with fear may work in the short term, but Diana, who is more interested in finding permanent, constructive solutions, perceives that openness towards alternative approaches can be more helpful in enacting lasting changes.  We even have Diana recruiting Catwoman and Harley Quinn as honorary Amazons to assist her in this mission.  It was fun to see the three of them side by side.

That said, sometimes punching the bad guy in the face does work wonders.  As Simone writes, “the closed fist has its charms, as well.”

Van Sciver’s art was quite good.  It was definitely stronger on the first several pages of “Gothamazon.”  In the middle of the story it did get somewhat looser and sketchier, losing some of the artist’s trademark hyper-detail.  Perhaps there were some deadline problems?  Still, putting that aside, on the whole Van Sciver does solid work, rendering some really dynamic layouts.  His characters are very expressive, both in their facial features and body language.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 14

I was not nearly as impressed with the back-up tale, “Defender of Truth,” written by Amanda Deibert, with artwork by Cat Staggs.  At ten pages, this one seemed too rushed.  Diana has a fight with Circe, who is doing something in Washington DC.  It is never explained what the mythical sorceress is up to, just that for some reason or another she’s animating statues at the National Cathedral and turning men into animals.

The strongest part of the story was its final two pages, where Diana shows up to tell a group of young boys that there is nothing wrong with liking “girl stuff.”  As she explains, “Being true to yourself is never wrong.”  One of the character’s central themes has always been empowerment, be it female empowerment, individual empowerment, or any other struggle to break free of marginalization by the greater part of society.

Cat Staggs is an artist I know from her cover artwork, as well as from Comic Art Fans where a variety of beautiful commissions and convention sketches that she’s created have been posted.  This must be the first time I’ve seen any interior art done by her.  Her work on “Defender of Truth” is pretty good, but I do think that her storytelling might need some improvement.  And some of her figures appear too photo-referenced.

Staggs’ best work was, interestingly enough, on those final two pages.  You can really tell that an artist is good at sequential illustration when they are able to make a “talking heads” scene, with characters conversing, compelling and dramatic.

I was also wondering why her rendition of Circe looked nothing like the character has in the past.  The sorceress has typically been depicted as having purple hair and wearing green outfits, at least ever since Perez revamped her post-Crisis.  Here, however, Circe is a blonde clad in a lavender costume.  That might be down to the colorist rather than Staggs, though.  And I don’t recall the character previously using a magic wand.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 30

While I would certainly not consider it an unqualified success, I still enjoyed Sensation Comics #1.  I definitely like the idea of a Wonder Woman anthology series with a laissez faire approach to continuity.  There is a lot of potential to the character of Princess Diana.  She is a great character with a rich history, and she lends herself to different interpretations & incarnations.  Among the creators who will be working on upcoming issues are Chris Sprouse, Gilbert Hernandez, and Dean Haspiel.  It sounds like there’s plenty to look forward to.