Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicated the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #201-202

Malcolm Dragon has female trouble… lots and lots of female trouble.

Following on from the events of Savage Dragon #200 from Image Comics, Malcolm is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s had a threesome with his girlfriend Maxine and his stepsister Angel.  As the next two issues unfold Malcolm realizes that Maxine, having recently moved out of her ultra-traditional parents’ house, is going more than a little crazy exploring her newfound independence.

Savage Dragon 201 cover

In issue #201, Malcolm learns that Maxine secretly videotaped their kinky tryst.  Then, while Malcolm is MIA after a battle with the Vicious Circle, his ex-girlfriend Tierra comes by looking for a place to crash and Maxine decides to let her stay over.  Malcolm, meanwhile, gets a phone call from Angel, who is having second thoughts about her relationship with Daredevil, and is hoping she can stay over at her stepbrother’s apartment for the holidays.  And, well, by the time the issue comes to a close, I pretty much figured out where Erik Larsen was going with this.

Yep, as expected, issue #202 sees Maxine convincing Malcolm, Tierra and Angel to have a go at a four-way.  And, honestly, for a few pages there, I really felt like Larsen had dragged Savage Dragon into cheesy porno territory.  However he then actually turned things around pretty quickly.  Right after their romp in the sack, Angel started to remember that, hey, she doesn’t actually like Tierra all that much.  Then Maxine was alarmed to find out that her stunt has gotten Tierra interested in Malcolm again, and jealousy began to rear its ugly head.  Well, jealousy and a knuckle sandwich.

By the time the #202 comes to a close Malcolm is really is not happy with any of this.  He told Maxine “I can’t have anybody else in my bed and I don’t want you inviting anybody else into it. I don’t want to share you ever again. I can’t take it. It drives me up the wall.”  Maxine realized just how much Malcolm cares for her, and she agreed that they’ll be monogamous going forward.

Savage Dragon 202 pg 19

Thinking it over, all of this is actually believable.  All four of these characters are teenagers.  They’re still maturing, and of course they’re going to be interested in experimenting sexually.  I’m sure most of us were like that in our teens and twenties.  You hang out, have a few too many to drink, impulsively hook with someone, and do all sorts of crazy stuff.  Then, come the next morning, in the light of day, when you’re doing the walk of shame, trying to shake off a honking big hangover, you’re left thinking to yourself “Why the hell did I sleep with that person?!?”

So even though there was no booze involved in Larsen’s story, he has Malcolm and Maxine going through pretty much that sort of thing.  They acted impulsively, and then afterwards realized that while it can sometimes be fun to experiment and try different stuff, at the end of the day what they both really want is a committed relationship based on genuine feelings.

Paralleling Malcolm’s sexual travails is his continuing struggle with the Vicious Circle.  The crime cartel’s leader Dart has broken out of prison.  From the remnants of the Circle’s ranks she has organized an all-female cadre of followers.  They embark on a raid of Bellco Chemicals, hoping to seize the mutagenic substances created by the corporation in order to enhance their powers.  And once Malcolm comes charging in to stop them, he finds he once again has his hands full with feisty ladies.  Of course, these women don’t want to hop into bed with him; they want to kill him.

Malcolm’s fights with Dart and her lieutenants in these two issues were certainly fun.  Larsen does a great job illustrating superhero action.  But truthfully I was more interested in how he developed the relationship between Malcolm and Maxine.  That’s one of the qualities of Savage Dragon that I have always appreciated, that Larsen gives his characters personal lives.  It’s not just a bunch of costumed characters punching each other in the face… although there is, of course, plenty of that!

Larsen also continues to experiment artistically and to utilize different types of storytelling.  Issue #202 was an interesting undertaking.  Larsen drew every single page to have nine panels, with a different layout on each page.  He was inspired to undertake this after seeing one of those myriad Batman slapping Robin memes.  This particular one claimed “There are no big shots on a nine panel page!”

Batman nine panel meme

This prompted Larsen to respond “Well, that’s bullshit — of course there can be a big panel — just draw the other panels smaller.”  And he set out to prove exactly that.

This is one of the major reasons why I really admire Larsen.  After working on Savage Dragon for more than two decades, rather than being satisfied settling into a comfortable rhythm, he continually stretches his boundaries, both as an artist and a writer.  He’ll enthusiastically embrace something like the challenge of drawing nine panels on every single page of an issue.  And he’ll be ready to upend the status quo at the drop of a hat, to throw in all sorts of unexpected plot twists, if he believes it will lead to more interesting stories.

Savage Dragon 201 pg 24

Savage Dragon #s 201 & 202 also includes the final two chapters of the Vanguard back-up serial written by Gary Carlson and drawn by Frank Fosco.  Carlson appears to be bringing to a close a number of plotlines that he has been spinning through various miniseries and back-up stories over the past twenty plus years.  He seems to have pretty well wrapped up the story arcs of his extended cast of characters, while at the same time leaving open the possibility of future adventures for Vanguard, Roxanne, Wally and Lurch.  The art by Fosco is very good.  He’s a talented artist, so I’m always happy to see his work.

With the Vanguard serial concluded, I hope that future issues of Savage Dragon will include short stories featuring other characters from the book’s gigantic supporting cast.  Editor Gavin Higginbotham has previously written some cool back-ups and I’d be glad to see him come back for more fun.

Valentine’s Day artwork: Captain America and Sharon Carter

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the flu.  Yeah, I’ve been stuck at home most of the week with a fever, congestion and coughing.  I am so sick of being sick.

Anyway, with all this time on my hands, and with Valentine’s Day coming up on Saturday, I decided to do a follow-up to my piece from last year on Captain America and Diamondback.

To make a long story short, because one of these days I might want to devote another post to the subject… Captain America’s first major romantic interest of the Silver Age was Sharon Carter aka Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D.  She was introduced in Tales of Suspense #75 (March 1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Unfortunately, like many other female characters in the 1960s and 70s, Sharon was sometimes not especially well-written.  Reading some of those stories today, they are very sexist.

Also, from 1977 to 1979 there was a definite problem of “musical chairs” on the Captain America series, with writers coming and going faster than you could keep count.  The book abruptly changed directions several times.  Along the way, Sharon was shunted off-stage and then brought back just long enough to die a rather unconvincing death in the pages of issue #237 (Sept 1979).

Sharon actually stayed dead for quite some time until she was finally brought back by Mark Waid & Ron Garney in Captain America #445 (Nov 1995) where it was revealed that someone had faked her death and she had gone missing behind enemy lines.  We never got any sort of coherent, detailed explanation because Waid & Garney’s run was brutally cut short by “Heroes Reborn.”  Thank you sooooo much, Rob Liefeld!

Whatever it was that actually happened, when Cap was reunited with his lost love she was now angry, cynical and suffering from PTSD.  Quite obviously she and Cap did not simply pick up where they left off years before.

After the “Heroes Reborn” fiasco, Waid came back to write Captain America for a couple of years, and then left again due to disagreements with editorial.  His replacement was Dan Jurgens, who several issues later also became the penciler.  For most of his run he was paired with the talented Bob Layton on inks.  The artwork by them was high quality.

Captain America v3 50 pg 48 original art

I will readily acknowledge that I found Jurgens’ writing on Captain America to be hit or miss.  Nevertheless, among the positive aspects of his time on the series, he mellowed Sharon Carter out.  She was still a much stronger, confident, independent character than she had been for much of the 1960s and 70s, but without the bitterness that Waid had given her.

Waid started a subplot with Steve Rogers becoming romantically involved with an attorney named Connie Ferrari, and Jurgens continued that.  Of course, under Jurgens’ pen, Connie became (with apologies to Dean Haspiel) a total “freak magnet.”  She was a perfectly normal, everyday woman who just kept attracting strange people.  Connie was already dating Steve Rogers without realizing he was Captain America.  Jurgens then unmasked one of Connie’s major clients as the leader of a faction of the techno-terrorist group A.I.M.  Jurgens also revealed that Connie’s brother David, who she believed had died years before in a military hazing, was actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who went missing on a covert op, and who had now resurfaced as the criminal mastermind “The Answer” who planned to blackmail the world with the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

(And what is up with S.H.I.E.L.D. losing all of these agents behind enemy lines?  For the world’s top intelligence agency they seem to misplace a lot of personnel.)

Connie finally had enough with all this weirdness and moved out of NYC to start fresh, breaking up with Steve in the process.  This left the field clear for Steve and Sharon, who had discovered they still had feelings for one another, to have another go at a relationship.

The scanned page of original artwork above is from Captain America volume 3 #50 (Feb 2002).  It’s actually the very last page by Jurgens & Layton on the series.  The story “To the Core” is really something of an excuse to have guest artists such as John Romita, Sal Buscema and Mike Zeck contribute pin-up pages that look back at various points on Cap’s eventful life.  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it looks nice.  And that final page by Jurgens & Layton is beautiful, a very romantic image of Cap and Sharon on a cliff by the sea looking at the sun rise.

I purchased this page of art from Spencer Beck of The Artist’s Choice who represents both Jurgens and Layton, along with numerous other talented artists.  Thanks again, Spencer.

The rest of Captain America #50 was, well, just weird.  In stories by other creators Cap is apparently killed fighting a cult of geriatric Nazi war criminals and there’s a big funeral held for him.  That was it for volume three.

A few months later the series re-started under the Marvel Knights banner, with Steve Rogers visiting Ground Zero in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, with no explanation for how he had come back, or even an acknowledgment that he had been dead in the first place.  And from that awkward start the Marvel Knight run stumbled along for the next two and a half years, telling some barely-comprehensible stories.  But, again, that’s a subject for another time.

Captain America v3 40 pg 20

In any case, a lasting impact of Jurgens’ run on Captain America was that Sharon Carter was once more fully active in S.H.I.E.L.D., and she and Steve Rogers were again romantically involved.  That was how things stood in late 2004 when Ed Brubaker came onboard as the series’ new writer.  Working from that he and his artistic collaborators told some of the best stories to ever feature the characters.

So this Valentine’s Day, let us think fondly of Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter.  After numerous deaths, resurrections, manipulations by mind control, times stranded in other dimensions, losses of powers, and assorted bizarre developments for both of them they’re still together.  At least, I think they are.  Okay, if they aren’t, just give it another reboot or two by Marvel Comics and I’m sure they’ll be a couple once again!

By the way, for those who missed it the first time, Dan Jurgens’ run on Captain America was collected into three trade paperbacks a few years ago.  They’re worth picking up.  They may not be the all-time greatest Cap stories ever, but they’re still fun, and the artwork is fantastic.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #7

Ever since Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez switched to the annual New Stories format, every issue has come out around September… until now.  September 2014 came and went, with no Love and Rockets.  Well we finally have a new issue, with Fantagraphics releasing New Stories #7 this month.  Was it worth the wait?  Yep!

Love and Rockets: New Stories #7 features a Jaime Hernandez cover.  That is such a typical Maggie Chascarillo image.  Ever since she started to become curvy in her 20s, Maggie has often stressed over her appearance, worrying that she was fat.  Jaime has always been brilliant at investing his characters with personality & emotion, and his illustration of Maggie speaks volumes.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 cover

The cover ties in very well with the interior stories.  Maggie and her long-time best friend Hopey Glass are meeting up for the first time in a number of years.  Back in the day the two were inseparable, and on several occasions they tried to have a romantic relationship.  But inevitably those attempts would implode, and leave both of them hurt & angry.

Maggie has been in a relationship with Ray Dominguez for the last several years, helping him recover from a severe brain injury.  Hopey married her girlfriend Sadaf, and the two of them had a child together.  Even though Maggie and Hopey have been on their separate paths for some time, now that they’ve met up for a reunion of their friends in Hoppers inevitably the old attraction between the two begins to simmer beneath the surface.

When Love and Rockets started out over 30 years ago, Maggie and Hopey were teens, which would make them now both in their late 40s, I should guess.  Jaime does excellent work is this issue showing how the two of them react to at the various changes to each other’s lives, and to their old home town.  Maggie and Hopey both begin to realize that sometimes you can’t go home again, both literally and figuratively.

Jaime peeks in on Ray from time to time.  It’s a measure of how much Jaime is able to make his readers care about his characters that I was genuinely relieved to see Ray on the mend from his injuries. Likewise, the anxiety that Ray feels is palpable.  As much as he knows that he and Maggie love each other, he also recognizes the feelings that Maggie and Hopey have.  It is understandable that he is genuinely worried he could lose Maggie.

We also check back in with Tonta.  Her and her dysfunctional siblings are still dealing with the fallout of her mother going on trial for killing her husband.  Even though their mother was acquitted, the rest of the family realizes that she actually did do it, and are struggling with how to cope with this.  Tonta’s sister Violet is very ineffectually trying to shield Tonta from it.  Fed up with the drama at home, Tonta keeps running away to hang out with her friends.

Finally, Jaime gives us an all-too-brief update on Angel Rivera, who is both Maggie’s friend and Tonta’s former high school coach.  Hopefully we will see more of Angel in the next installment.  She is a fun character, and I want to find out how her current difficulties resolve themselves.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 15

In his half of New Stories #7, Gilbert Hernandez once again looks at the various members of his extended cast, taking a multi-generational journey through the decades.  Gilbert, like Jaime, touches upon the passing of time, of how people and places change.

Anchoring the story in the present day is Killer.  Through her latest trip to Palomar, we see how that community has both stayed the same and change.  On the one hand, there is the now-adult Theo, still gathering buckets of slugs to sell in the village, much as he did many years past with the late Tonantzín.  Theo even alludes to her, and seeing Killer in his company you are struck by the similarities between the two.

On the other, cell phones and iPads are now commonplace in Palomar, a place that only a decade or so in the past didn’t even have telephone land lines.  Witnessing one of the town’s teens watching a move on a handheld device, Killer wistfully observes “My grandma used to have a movie theater here. Now you all watch movies that way.”  This she states while holding hammer in hand, standing in a manner very much like her grandmother Luba.

It is interesting that the character of Killer sees Gilbert moving his stories forward towards the future, chronicling the latest generation.  Yet aspects of Killer invariably evoke Luba, Gilbert’s iconic protagonist from Love and Rockets series one.  Killer appears to embody one of the central themes of Gilbert’s writing, the idea that while time inevitably marches on the events of the past will still continue to influence the present.

Inspired by her great-grandmother Maria and her great-aunt Fritz, Killer is still doing work as an actress, although for her it is just a hobby, something that is fun.  She really just wants to lead an ordinary life.  Consequently, Killer is very alarmed when, much like Fritz before her, she finds that she has gained a few extremely obsessive fans.

I wonder if Gilbert was influenced by his own experiences as an acclaimed comic book creator.  Obviously something like 99.9% of Love and Rockets fans are relatively sane, reasonable, well-adjusted people who understand & respect boundaries.  But then there’s that 0.1% you have to watch out for, the ones who probably lurk about eBay trying to find an auction for one of Gilbert’s half-eaten sandwiches that someone retrieved from the garbage at the San Diego Comic Con!

In my review of New Stories #6 I wrote “I never had too much sympathy for Maria in the past.  But thinking it over, I realize that Maria was a flawed woman who led a difficult life, and who did change over time.”  Gilbert returns to his examination of Maria, examining her gradual development over time via a series of moments set through the years entitled “Daughters and Mothers and Daughters.”

As we see Maria with Fritz, first when she was an infant and then a teenager, it is apparent that her Maria really did love her.  Maria made many mistakes, including when it came to how she raised Fritz.  But underneath it all, for all her stumbles, Maria did at least try with Fritz and Petra to be the mother she never was to Luba.

There is a brief scene, some years in the past, where we see Luba’s daughter Doralis, after moving to the United States, discovered Maria.  Doralis asks “Grandma, why don’t you want me to tell anybody in the family about you? My mama and my sisters and brother would love to know that I found you.”  With resignation, Maria responds “No, Doralis. I’m happy that you and I happened upon each other, but… no… it’s too late Doralis. Promise me you won’t tell anybody that we’ve met.”

This is a sad moment.  Maria genuinely believes that she can never repair the damage between her and Luba, make up for the hurt she caused by abandoning her daughter as an infant, and that the past is best left in the past.

Love and Rockets New Stories 7 pg 24

Gilbert also devotes part of the issue to one of his movies-within-the-comic-book.  “The Magic Voyage of Aladdin” is one of Fritz’s B-movies, this one co-starring Mila, one of the women who married motivational speaker / con artist Mark Herrera after Fritz divorced him.  As always, I’m left wondering if there is some sort of hidden meaning and subtle subtext to Gilbert’s “movies” or if he’s just having fun sending up genre conventions.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

(For the full details of Fritz’s relationship with Mark, and Mark’s subsequent other disastrous marriages, I recommend picking up the High Soft Lisp trade paperback published by Fantagraphics in 2010.)

Interestingly, Jaime follows Gilbert’s lead with his own movie-within-the-comic-book.  “Princess Animus” is a pulpy, sexy space opera that turns out to be the movie that Maggie and Hopey have been attempting to catch a screening of in the early pages of the issue.

Once again clocking in at 100 pages, the latest edition of Love and Rockets: New Stories has a wealth of material from both of the Hernandez brothers.  Jaime and Gilbert continue to develop their large casts of characters and unfold numerous plotlines in an intriguing manner.  And the artwork from both of them is gorgeous.

Super Blog Team-Up 5: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 5!  The theme this quarter is “Parallel Worlds and Alternate Realities.”  My fellow bloggers and I will be looking at stories that make use of the concept of the “Multiverse.”  You will find links to the other contributors at the end of this piece.

Before proceeding any further, I want to offer a big “thank you” to Karen Williams of Between the Pages.  Karen has been doing all the crucial heavy lifting involved in organizing this installment of Super Blog Team-Up.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 1

One of my favorite comic book tales of parallel universes is The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, published in 2003 by America’s Best Comics / Wildstorm, and starring characters created by Alan Moore & Chris Sprouse in the Tom Strong ongoing series.  Published between June 1999 and May 2006, Tom Strong featured really great work by Moore, Sprouse and various other talented creators.

I cannot help thinking that the ABC line was crafted by Moore in response to the runaway success of Watchmen, which he co-created with Dave Gibbons.  Yes, Watchmen was brilliant and thought-provoking and groundbreaking.  But it unfortunately inspired an avalanche of imitators, series that embraced the “grim & gritty” trappings and that tried to replicate the “superheroes in the real world” premise.  The majority of these were ultra-violent, humorless retreads which contained little of the genuine creative spark that was abundant in Moore & Gibbons’ work.

Moore’s writing on the ABC titles a decade later seemed to be a concerted effort by him to demonstrate that comic books could be intelligent and sophisticated without sacrificing fun.  Certainly that was the case with Tom Strong.  Moore very deftly blended the archetypes of pulp adventures magazines, Silver Age whimsy, and high concept scientific theories.  The characters of Tom, his wife Dhalua, their daughter Tesla, and their extended supporting cast were expertly crafted, and their adventures were exciting & thought-provoking.

Tom Strong 10 pg 12

The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong grew out of the events of Tom Strong #10 (November 2000) by Moore, Sprouse & Al Gordon.  Tom invented the “Searchboard,” a surfboard-like device which would enable its user to travel into parallel worlds.  On his first journey Tom ended up in a “funny animal” alternate Earth.  There he met a counterpart, “the bunny of bravery” known as Warren Strong, who protected the woodland folk from “science predator” Basil Saveen, a fox analogue to Tom’s arch-foe Paul Saveen.

After Tom returned to his home Earth, Tesla snuck into her father’s lab and decided to give the Searchboard a go.  This resulted in numerous other-dimensional versions of herself materializing.  The various Teslas were soon at each other’s throats, until their accompanying alternate reality fathers showed up to haul them home.  Accordingly, “our” Tom grounded his daughter for her role in the cross-continuum shenanigans.

Tom Strong 10 pg 17

That brings us to The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, written by Peter Hogan, with a plot assist by Moore.  Sprouse and inker Karl Story illustrated the prologue and epilogue, with an all-star line-up of artists contributing to the different chapters.

The story opens as Tesla, the talking intelligent ape King Solomon and the steam-powered robot Pneuman are cleaning up the Stronghold.  Solomon impulsively leaps onto the Searchboard and pretends he is surfing.  Unfortunately he accidentally activates the Board and vanishes into another dimension.

A moment later the Board returns without Solomon.  Its destination log has been wiped clean.  Tesla realizes that she must go searching for the super simian, who is like a brother to her.  Activating the board, Tesla glides out into the Multiverse.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 8

The first alternate Earth that Tesla arrives at is a post-apocalyptic radioactive nightmare where nearly all of humanity has been wiped out in World War III.  She is met by the gun-toting potty-mouthed Tekla Strong, a counterpart she previously encountered in Tom Strong #10.  Fighting off a horde of giant bugs, Tesla and Tekla duck into an immense underground shelter where most of humanity’s survivors have sought refuge.  Tesla tells her other self of her quest, and Tekla informs her that she has also lost her gorilla-friend, Archimedes the Atomic Ape, who likewise vanished into another dimension.  Tesla departs, continuing her search.

This segment is illustrated by Michael Golden, a talented artist who does extremely detailed work.  Golden is not super-fast, and so he mostly works illustrating covers.  But occasionally an anthology book such as this will come along and he will have the opportunity to contribute a few interior pages.  His style is definitely very well-suited to rendering Tekla’s hi-tech, bombed-out world.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 15

The next alternate Earth that Tesla arrives on is one where global warming occurred decades earlier, the polar ice caps melted, and most of the surface world was submerged.  Tesla encounters a mermaid version of herself named Tori, who explains that her father was able to transform humanity into mer-people via gene splicing, enabling them to survive the catastrophe.  Tesla is introduced to Tori’s father, a merman Tom Strong.  He hasn’t seen Solomon, but his own gorilla, Poseidon the Sea Monkey, vanished an hour earlier.  Tesla begins to see a pattern.  “I wonder if Solomon disappearing set off some kind of quantum monkey wave.”  Tesla hops on the Searchboard again and continues her journey.

Penciling this chapter is Adam Hughes, with inks by Story.  Hughes is another one of those incredibly talented but not especially fast artists who mostly works on covers.  This special gives him a chance to pencil some interior art, and to show off his storytelling abilities.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 22

As Tesla’s trans-dimensional journey proceeds, the story briefly checks in on Solomon.  He awakens to find himself imprisoned with numerous other-dimensional analogues.  Of the gathering Solomon astutely observes, “There’s more than a barrelful of us.”

Arthur Adams illustrated this two page interlude.  He is definitely the go-to guy in the comic book biz when it comes to illustrating monkey-related mayhem.  Adams’ hyper-detailed rendering of Solomon and his numerous alternate selves is an amazing, imaginative, and humorous grouping.

Tesla continues her tour of the Multiverse, encountering different variations of herself and her family along the way, all of them very odd indeed.  And on each alternate Earth, the story is the same: that world’s version of Solomon has also gone missing.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 26

I was definitely thrilled that one of the segments was illustrated by legendary DC artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  I’ve mentioned on a few occasions in the past that I am a huge fan of his work.  He depicts Tesla’s reunion with her super-powered counterpart Tesla Terrific.  Garcia-Lopez is definitely the ideal choice to depict such an “old school” vignette.  He possesses a style that is both traditional and extremely dynamic.  His layouts on this seven page chapter are very effective, and he puts a great deal of detail into his finished art.  Really, I am in awe of Garcia-Lopez’s work.  It’s just so fun and brilliant.

The Searchboard eventually brings Tesla to one of the 2,057 alternate Earths that comprise the pan-dimensional “Aztech Empire” introduced in Tom Strong #3.  On this particular Earth, everything is scaled to giant-sized, and Tesla meets towering duplicates of herself and her father.  She is brought before the Empire’s ruler, the computer program / deity Quetzalcoatl-9, a literal deus ex machina.  The serpent god recognizes Tesla to be the daughter of Tom Strong, who previously assisted him.  Tesla explains what has been going on.  Examining the Searchboard, Quetzalcoatl-9 is able to restore its destination log, allowing Tesla to finally learn which reality Solomon ended up in.  Thanking god, so to speak, Tesla heads out to find her gorilla friend.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 42

In an extended chapter illustrated by Jason Pearson, Tesla arrives on “Earth-B.”  She is immediately knocked out in a gas attack by her malevolent counterpart Twyla Strong, Twyla’s equally diabolical father Tiberius Strong, and their cigarette-smoking gorilla Nero.  Taken prisoner by the sadistic Twyla, Tesla is informed that after learning of his numerous counterparts back in Tom Strong #10, Tiberius plotted to murder them all by sending bombs to their various realities.  Unfortunately the plan has backfired, and instead they ended up capturing Solomon and several dozen of his equivalents.

Incidentally, despite the fact that he is an evil other-dimensional counterpart, Tiberius Strong does not have a beard or an eye patch.  However he does dress in black.

Left chained in Twyla’s dungeon, with the imminent threat of torture hanging over her, Tesla is close to despair.  Then surprisingly, who should sneak in to rescue her but “gentleman adventurer and occasional science hero” Peter Saveen, a heroic counterpart to Tom Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen.  As if that isn’t weird enough, Peter Saveen takes Tesla to meet his ally Ilsa Weiss, an alternate version of another of Tom’s old foes, the psycho Nazi dominatrix Ingrid Weiss…

Saveen: May I introduce my associate, Fraulein…

Tesla: Ingrid Weis?! But she’s a Nazi.

Ilsa Weiss: Ilsa Weiss, actually. And I do not know how things transpired on your world, but here National Socialism saved the lives of millions. It is a tragedy we were defeated.

Yes, that is how completely upside-down this version of Earth is; the Nazis were actually the good guys!

Tesla Strong 1 pg 48

Saveen and Weiss reveal that Solomon and the other gorillas have been imprisoned in an abandoned typewriter factory, obviously a nod by Hogan to the idea of an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters.  And, appropriately enough, the sign of the factory reads “Sprang Typewriters,” an affectionate homage to Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, who often populated his stories with all matter of oversized props, including giant typewriters.

Tesla finds the Searchboards used by Solomon’s counterparts to bring them to Earth-B.  She takes one, and Saveen uses a stolen time machine to transport them back several hours, to before Tiberius dispatched a bomb through the dimensional gate.  Hiding behind a stack of crates, Tesla sees her past unconscious self being hauled off by Tiberius, Twyla and Nero.  This leads to a humorous exchange between her and Saveen…

Tesla: That’s impossible, isn’t it? For two of me to be in the same place at the same time?

Saveen: Well, you’re not, are you? She’s way over there.

Tesla hops on the Searchboard and arrives back home to find Tom and Dhalua constructing a replacement two-seater Board to go in search of their daughter.  Before Tom can give his daughter one of his patented stern lectures, she alerts him to the incoming bomb.  He is able to divert it to the skies above the already-radioactive world of Tekla who witnessing the explosion lets off her usual stream of expletives.

Tesla and her parents quickly return to Earth-B, where Saveen and Weiss have freed all of the imprisoned gorillas.  Tiberius, Twyla and Nero are in a free-for-all with the escaped prisoners, and Tom takes the opportunity to engage his counterpart.  Asking his evil duplicate why he wants him dead, Tiberius snarls “Because I am a genius… I deserve to be unique. And because… because…”  At which point the villain’s rant is abruptly interrupted by a titanic paw slamming down on him.  As Tesla comments, “You know, I was kind of wondering if a giant Aztec gorilla was going to show up.”

Tesla Strong 1 pg 58

I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I’ve got to say that any comic book featuring a giant Aztec gorilla is pretty darn cool!

In the epilogue we see Quetzalcoatl-9, at Tesla’s request, has located an empty, radiation-free Earth in his empire to which Tekla and her people can relocate.  In exchange, they are given custody of the defeated Tiberius and Twyla.  Despite the fact that Tiberius is psychotic, Tom promises to see he is treated humanely and to try to rehabilitate him.  Tiberius and Twyla both scoff at this, vowing revenge, to which Tesla resignedly states “I guess some people, you just can’t help.”

Tesla and Tom are due back on their own Earth for a read-through of Solomon’s new play, “The State of Denmark.”  Obviously those gorillas made use of those typewriters, after all!  Tom, however, suggests that he and Tesla “go for a spin around the Multiverse instead,” something to which she readily agrees.

Hogan’s scripting on this epilogue was nice.  One of the ongoing themes of the Tom Strong series was that, due to the cold, analytical manner in which Tom was raised by his father, he occasionally has difficulty expressing emotions or socializing in a normal manner.  However, we see through scenes such as this that underneath it all Tom is a much warmer, caring figure than his father.  He has a genuine relationship with his daughter.  He also wants to try to provide his adversaries with an opportunity to reform.

Tesla herself is a wonderfully fun character.  She was fantastic in the regular Tom Strong series and I very much enjoyed seeing her get the spotlight in this special.

Tesla Strong 1 pg 64

Some comic book editors and writers have argued that readers cannot relate to characters that are married and have children.  I definitely do not agree with this.  Neither apparently does Alan Moore.  He crafted an interesting, engaging family unit between Tom, Dhalua, Tesla, Solomon and Pheuman, gifting the characters with real chemistry, writing interesting stories about them.  Peter Hogan, both in The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong and in later issues of the regular Tom Strong series, effectively continued with this.

I really wish that there were more comics such as The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.  It is a enjoyable book, full of appealing characters, an exciting plot, and imaginative ideas.

If you have not read any of the Tom Strong stories, I encourage you to pick up the trade paperback collections.  The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong itself is collected in the volume titled Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics.

Super Blog Team-Up 5 banner

I hope that everyone enjoyed this one.  Here are links to the other great entries in Super Blog Team-Up 5:

  1. Between The Pages:  A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
  2. Bronze Age Babies:  Things Are a Little Different Around Here…
  3. Firestorm Fan:  Firestorm in Countdown Arena
  4. Flodo’s Page:  The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
  5. The Idol-Head of Diabolu Podcast:  Martian Manhunter Multiversity
  6. The Legion of Super-Bloggers:  Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
  7. Longbox Graveyard:  X-Men #141 & 142: Days of Future Past
  8. The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast (part of Rolled Spine Podcast):  Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
  9. Mystery Vlog:  Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover: Avengers #85–86 (1st Squadron Supreme)
  10. Superior Spider-Talk:  Spider-Man: Reign and Chasing Amazing:  The Case Against Spider-Man: Reign
  11. Superhero Satellite:  Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line: “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties”
  12. Ultraverse Network:  Parallel Worlds: The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
  13. The Unspoken Decade:  5 Batmen, 1 Superman, Zero Hour and The Ghost in the Machine: Robocop Versus Terminator

Happy birthday to John Romita

Here’s wishing a very happy 85th birthday to legendary comic book artist John Romita, who was born on January 24, 1930.  The prolific Romita has had a long association with Marvel Comics over the decades, at one time or another drawing many of the company’s major characters, as well as having a hand in designing a number of them.

Romita’s first regular assignment at Marvel was Daredevil.  He worked on issue #s 12-19 (cover dates Jan to Aug 1966).  It was while on Daredevil that Romita first drew the character of Spider-Man in a two-part guest appearance in #s 16-17.  This actually led to Romita becoming only the second artist to draw Amazing Spider-Man, after co-creator Steve Ditko departed from Marvel.  Romita’s first issue was #39 (Aug 1966), teamed up with writer & editor Stan Lee.

During his time working on Amazing Spider-Man Romita designed several new villains, most prominently the Rhino, the Shocker, and the Kingpin.  Romita also made his mark as an artist who was talented at rendering beautiful women.  He revealed what Mary Jane Watson actually looked like, and he gradually transformed Gwen Stacy from Ditko’s ice queen into more of a sweet girl-next-door type.  He also completely redesigned the look of the Black Widow, giving Natasha her now-iconic long red hair, leather jumpsuit and wrist-blasters in issue #86 (July 1970).

Before his time at Marvel, Romita had spent nearly a decade at DC Comics working on their romance titles.  This definitely made him very well-suited to working on Amazing Spider-Man.  During this time Stan Lee’s stories were as much soap opera as super-heroes.  Romita was the perfect artist to illustrate Peter Parker’s personal life and rocky romances with Mary Jane and Gwen.

Spider-Man Kingpin To The Death cover signed

Confession time: I am not an especially huge fan of Spider-Man, although there are certain runs and storylines featuring the web-slinger that I have enjoyed.  Consequently, I do not have all that many issues of his various comic titles and most of those that I do own are from the 1980s onward.  So sadly I don’t actually have many of the issues Romita worked on.  I really need to pick up some trade paperbacks!

One of the Spider-Man books by Romita that I do have, though, is from much later in his career.  Published in 1997, the Spider-Man/Kingpin: To the Death special was a reunion Romita in more than one way.  It was his first full-length Spider-Man story in a number of years.  It also saw him once again drawing the Kingpin and Daredevil.  The book also reunited him with Stan Lee, who scripted over a plot by another long-time Spider-Man writer, Tom DeFalco.  Romita’s pencils were effectively inked by Dan Green.  I thought it was a nice collaboration.  Green’s embellishment seemed to bring out the Milton Caniff influence in Romita’s style.

Although certainly not nearly as prominent as his association with Spider-Man, Romita also contributed a small but impressive body of work featuring another of Marvel’s iconic characters, Captain America.  Actually some of Romita’s earliest professional work was on the very short-lived revival of the Captain America title in 1954.

After Romita became firmly established at Marvel in the mid-1960s, he illustrated Captain America on a few occasions.  He drew the Cap stories in Tales of Suspense #76-77 (April-May 1966).  The second of those tales, on which Romita penciled over Jack Kirby’s layouts, introduced Cap’s wartime love interest & ally Peggy Carter, the older sister (later retconned into the aunt) of his current girlfriend, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

Captain America 145 cover signed

Tales of Suspense was re-titled Captain America with issue #100.  Romita guest-penciled issue #114 (June 1969) and a couple of years later briefly became the book’s regular artist, working on #s 138-145 (June 1971 to Jan 1972).  Although the writing on some of these issues was a bit underwhelming, particularly the ones featuring the Grey Gargoyle, the art by Romita was nevertheless very good.

Towards the end of this brief run, under writer Gary Friedrich, the stories got a bit better.  Africa-American social activist Leila Taylor was introduced as a love interest for the Falcon who would frequently challenge his political views.  Cap’s arch-foe the racist Red Skull was unmasked as an agent provocateur who was attempting to discredit Leila’s militant civil rights group by inciting them to violence.  Romita’s final issue of Captain America was the first chapter of an exciting story arc that saw Cap, Sharon Carter and the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. pitted against the hordes of Hydra.  His cover to #145 was incredibly striking, with a rage-filled Cap standing over the fallen Sharon, swearing vengeance against Hydra.  He worked on a number of additional covers for Captain America throughout the 1970s.

I mentioned before how adept John Romita is at drawing beautiful women.  This was very well encapsulated on the cover to Marvel Age #111.  Romita drew himself day-dreaming, surrounded by a bevy of the lovely ladies he had rendered over the decades, among them Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, and the Black Widow.  In a humorous, self-deprecating touch, in the upper right hand corner Romita draws his wife Virginia popping in to his studio to ask him if he’s finished drawing the cover yet!

Marvel Age 111 cover

Romita’s son John Romita Jr also went into the comic book biz, himself becoming an equally prolific artist who worked on numerous titles.  There are similarities between the styles of father and son, although I would describe John Jr’s work as more gritty.  The two have worked together on occasion, with Romita occasionally inking his son’s pencils.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Romita on a couple of times at comic book conventions, where I was able to get a few of the books he worked on autographed.  I didn’t have much of an opportunity to speak with him, but he seemed to be a polite, pleasant individual.

Although mostly retired nowadays, Romita does from time-to-time dip his toe back into the waters of the biz, drawing the occasional cover here and there.  It’s always nice to see new work from such a talented legend.

Doctor Who: Let’s do the Time War again

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.” – The Tenth Doctor, “The End of Time”

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, viewers were informed that the Doctor was apparently the last of the Time Lords.  All the other members of his race had apparently died fighting the Daleks in a vast, apocalyptic, realty-rending conflict known as the Time War.

Truthfully, the basic function of the Time War was to sweep the decks of the mountains of continuity that had accumulated during the original run of Doctor Who on television from 1963 to 1989.  It enabled showrunner Russell T Davies to start with a clean slate.  He was able to streamline things without having to resort to rebooting the series from scratch.  It worked elegantly in that regard.

The Time War also allowed Davies and his collaborators to offer a new perspective on the character of the Doctor.  The time traveler was now a haunted, battle-scarred figure suffering from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that in order to save existence he had been the one to finally bring an end to the carnage of the War.

Of course inevitably viewers were curious to know what exactly had taken place during this infamous Time War.  Hints and allusions to the events were peppered throughout various episodes over the next several years, but we never actually saw any part of the conflict itself.  I believe that at one point Davies humorously joked that he’d have needed a one hundred million dollars budget to bring the Time War to television screens.

Besides, much of what the Doctor mentioned, such as his recitation of the myriad horrors of the Time War to the Master at “The End of Time,” sounded like the sort of abstract, surrealist nightmares that would probably have been impossible to convincingly depict on TV.  When we were finally granted a glimpse of the War by Steven Moffat in “The Day of the Doctor” it was presented as a more straightforward conflict, with a billion Dalek spaceships laying siege to Gallifrey.  Which, of course, was still pretty damn dramatic.

We eventually learned that a previously unrevealed incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by John Hurt, the so-called “War Doctor,” was the one who fought in the Time War.  The conflict had apparently spanned centuries, during which the War Doctor became a weary old man.  Barring the use of archival footage of Hurt as a younger man, it would be impossible to show most of the War Doctor’s experiences.

Having said all that, I’ve often thought that the Time War would be perfect to present in comic book form.  After all, the only limit on what can be shown in comic books is the imaginations of the writers & artists.  I even thought of the perfect creative team: Grant Morrison and Richard Case, the writer and penciler who crafted many bizarre, nightmarish, reality-twisting stories during their run on Doom Patrol from 1989 to 1992.  Just imagine the creators who brought us such peculiar menaces as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, the Scissormen and the Candlemaker depicting the freakish, horrifying events of the Time War.

Engines of War

However, it never did occur to me that prose fiction would also be another medium in which to recount the events of the Time War, at least not until I spotted the novel Engines of War by George Mann for sale at Forbidden Planet.  I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, bought it, and started reading it.

Engines of War is told from the point of view of Cinder, a 21 year old freedom fighter from the human colony of Moldox.  Her name comes from the color of her hair, and from the fact that she was found among the burning embers of her home 14 years earlier after her entire family was wiped up by the Daleks, a fate she escaped purely by chance.  Moldox and the other worlds in the Tantalus Spiral have been conquered by the Daleks, the majority of the colonists either exterminated or captured to serve as slave labor or experimental subjects.  Cinder is one of the few humans to have remained free, eking out a hard-scrabble existence among the ruins, fighting a hopeless guerilla war against their conquerors.

Then, very unexpectedly, the Doctor comes into Cinder’s life, his TARDIS shot down during a space battle.  Much like Cass from “The Night of the Doctor,” Cinder is initially angry at and frightened by him, believing the Time Lords to be just as bad as the Daleks.  However, her desperation to escape the desolation of Moldox is so great that she tentatively lowers her guard when the Doctor offers to take her out of the warzone and to safety.

Mann does excellent work developing the character of Cinder, and writing her interactions with the Doctor.  Contemplating the idea of something other than the day-to-day struggle for survival against the Daleks that has consumed much of her existence, Cinder starts to recognize the possibilities that life might offer.

For the War Doctor, so long involved in the war against the Daleks, Cinder is apparently his first extended interaction with humanity since his regeneration.  At first he is hesitant to take upon himself the responsibility for her well-being.  Like Cinder, the Doctor had resigned himself to the role of a warrior in a seemingly-endless conflict.  Now, once again traveling with a companion, however reluctantly, he begins to let down his guard, to care.  Cinder offers him an opportunity to reconsider his conviction that he no longer has the right to call himself “Doctor.”

The style of Mann’s prose reminded me of Terrance Dick’s work on the numerous Doctor Who novelizations.  Mann’s writing seems directed at the teenage reader, but it is certainly sophisticated enough that adults will also appreciate it.  Early on he succinctly describes the awesome, incomprehensible scope of the conflict:

Cinder had heard that in simple, linear terms, the war had been going on for over four hundred years. This, of course, was an untruth, or at least an irrelevance; the temporal war zones had permeated so far and so deep into the very structure of the universe that the conflict had – quite literally – been raging for eternity. There was no epoch that remained unscathed, uncontested, no history that had not been rewritten.

Of course, considering that it is set amidst the Time War, the book offers up plenty of examples of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 once described as “good old fashioned nightmare fuel.”  There is some really dark stuff between these covers.

A War Doctor's Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges  / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

A War Doctor’s Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

Before the Doctor can take Cinder to safety, he needs to learn what the Daleks are up to on Moldox and the other worlds in the Spiral.  Reluctantly the young human guides him to the nearest occupied city.  The Doctor is horrified to discover that the Daleks have harnessed the energy of the Eye of Tantalus, a vast temporal anomaly contained within the Spiral, and used it to create weapons that erase their victims from history.  Not only will an army of Daleks be equipped with the dematerialization guns, but the Eye itself is to be turned into a single massive weapon which will be used to wipe the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey from existence.

The Doctor travels to Gallifrey to alert the High Council to the Daleks’ plans, bringing Cinder with him.  Through her eyes, we see just how much the conflict has affected them.  The Time Lords had always been aloof, arrogant figures.  Now, driven to desperation by their war with the Daleks, the Doctor’s people have become utterly ruthless.  When the Lord President Rassilon is informed of the danger in the Tantalus Spiral, he immediately decides to utilize a stellar engineering device known as the Tear of Isha to neutralize the Eye.  The Doctor, however, realizes that this will wipe out all life in the Spiral, including the billions of humans imprisoned by the Daleks.

Cinder felt her heart lurch in her chest. She felt suddenly nauseous. They were going to do it. They were really going to murder every single living thing on a dozen worlds.

“Rassilon,” said the Doctor, clearly exacerbated. “You’re condemning a billion souls to a terrible death. More. How can you even consider it?”

“What are a billion human lives to us, Doctor?” said Rassilon. “They are but motes of sand on the breeze. They breed like a virus, infesting every corner of the universe. Where some die, others will take their place.”

There are several scenes in the novel featuring the Doctor and Rassilon sparring verbally.  Reading them, I was left longing for an actual live-action version of Engines of War.  It would be brilliant to have John Hurt and Timothy Dalton acting opposite one another, reciting all of this wonderfully dramatic dialogue.

Doctor Who Rassilon

The Doctor and Cinder realize that not only must they stop the Daleks, but also the Time Lords.  With both sides of the conflict in opposition to them, the odds seem near-insurmountable.

There are a number of excellent moments throughout Engines of War.  Even though the hierarchy of the Time Lords has become inured to the violence, to the cataclysmic loss of life, Mann indicates that the citizens of Gallifrey are genuinely frightened by the War.  At one point, looking over the landscape of the Time Lord capital, Cinder observes hundreds of tiny lights drifting up into the night sky.

“What are they?” said Cinder. “Paper lanterns?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, although the principle is the same. Those are memory lanterns.”

“Memory lanterns?” echoed Cinder.

The Doctor glanced at her. “They all think they’re going to die,” he said. “All those people down there think the Daleks are coming for them, and that they’re going to be exterminated.” He sighed, and the weariness in his expression spoke volumes. “So they’re recording all of their thoughts and memories into those lanterns, and scattering them through time and space. It’s the last act of a desperate people. They’re terrified that they’re going to be forgotten, so they’re seeding themselves into all the distant corners of the universe to be remembered.”

I am curious about how much knowledge Mann had of the work that Moffat and his co-writers were doing on Series Eight when he was penning this novel.  There are certain parallels.  In “The Caretaker” the Doctor expressed his disdain for soldiers.  In response, Danny Pink declared “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!”  Indeed, when we first see the Doctor in Engines of War, he is piloting his unarmed TARDIS, leading a large assembly of heavily-armed Battle TARDISes in an engagement with a Dalek fleet, organizing strategy, calling out orders to his fellow Time Lords; he is very much an officer.

At the end of Series Eight, in “Death in Heaven” Danny bitterly commented of the Doctor, “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”   That is a theme that also runs throughout Engines of War.  Despite the fact that he has ostensibly embraced the role of warrior, the Doctor carries no weapons, only his sonic screwdriver.  On both Moldox and Gallifrey he relies on Cinder to destroy Daleks and knock out Time Lord security guards.  At one point, Rassilon’s obsequious lackey Karlax subjects Cinder to brutal interrogation by the Mind Probe, as much to verify the Doctor’s story as to fulfill his own sadistic glee.  Cinder barely survives…

She gasped for air.  “He’ll kill you,” she said, between shallow breaths. “He’ll kill you for this.”

Karlax laughed. “Oh no, not the Doctor,” he said. “The Doctor and I are old playmates. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

Mann also addresses the suggestion made by Davies that “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Time Lords dispatched the Doctor back in time to abort the creation of the Daleks and he hesitated at committing genocide, was actually the first shot fired in the Time War.  Early on, seeing the horrific loss of life on Moldox, witnessing the atrocities being committed by the Daleks, the Doctor is burdened by the knowledge that if not for his indecision on Skaro many years before he might have prevented all this from occurring.

Towards the end of the novel, the Doctor and Cinder come face to face with the Eternity Circle, the group of Daleks tasked by the Emperor with developing the temporal weapons.  The head of the Circle explicitly refers to the Doctor’s presence at the birth of the Daleks

“Ah,” said the Dalek. “The beginning of the Time War. The moment that you, Doctor, taught the Daleks their most valuable lesson of all —  that emotion is a weakness that must be eradicated. That mercy has no place in victory.”

“Not a weakness,” said the Doctor, “but a strength.”

“If it had not been for your hesitation,” said the Dalek, its tone derisory, “for your inability to do what was necessary, then the entire War could have been prevented. The Daleks would have ceased to exist.”

Engines of War is very much concerned with explaining exactly how the Doctor arrived at the point seen in “The Day of the Doctor.”  What was it that finally drove him to solemnly declare, “No more,” to decide to utilize the Moment and wipe out the whole of the Time Lords and the Daleks?  What was it that convinced him that there was no other choice?

War Doctor

Mann shows us a Doctor who, as the story opens, is already burned out, bone-weary from an unending nightmare conflict.  And then he is faced with further horrors as both the Daleks and his own people pile atrocities upon one another, and each side reigns down scorn & mockery upon him for his perceived weakness and lack of resolve.  When the novel finally comes to a close with the Doctor experiencing yet another soul-rending loss, you can fully imagine that this is a man who just wants it all to end, who will do anything to stop it, who will tell the Moment Interface “I have no desire to survive this.”

If there is a weakness to Engines of War, it is that perhaps it references the history of the series a little too heavily.  It is inevitable that any novel set during the Time War is going to require allusions to a number of past events.  Nevertheless, the nods to specific televised Doctor Who stories do come quite frequently.  While for the most part Mann is able to fit them in seamlessly, on occasion they do feel superfluous.  By the time a character starts playing the Harp of Rassilon, well, I couldn’t help but feel that Mann was overdoing it just a bit!

Well, aside from that, and from events jumping back and forth between the different settings, Engines of War is a good read.  Mann effectively delves into a previously little-explored period of the Doctor’s life.  He is successful at not just conveying the cosmic scope of events only previously hinted at on the television series, but at utilizing them to explore the character of the Doctor.  Mann also examines how a conflict that rages across myriad planes of reality would affect the average mortal person on the ground, viewing the staggering events of the Time War through Cinder’s eyes.

As I indicated earlier, for a variety of reasons it is very unlikely that we will ever be provided an in-depth look at the Time War on our television screens.  Nevertheless, that conflict provides a rich backdrop against which to tell engrossing stories in other mediums.  Engines of War by George Mann undoubtedly proves that potential.