Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

In my February 23rd blog post, I wrote about how back in May 2000 I came to start my theme sketchbook featuring the character Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, who had been created by the legendary Jack “King” Kirby.  At the end of that post, I mentioned that I also happened to have a tattoo of the character.  Here’s how that came about.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994.  I am a huge fan of his work, and I have always regretted that I would never have the opportunity to meet him, much less get a sketch of Beautiful Dreamer by Kirby himself.  Also, pretty much all of Kirby’s artwork is way beyond my budget.  So I didn’t think I’d ever own an original piece drawn by him.  And then Michele came up with a suggestion, the next best thing, you might say… why not get a tattoo of Beautiful Dreamer?

I had previously gotten a Watchmen smiley face tattoo done by Becca Roach.  I was happy with her work, so I decided to go back to her for this new ink.  I searched through my collections of Kirby’s wonderful “Fourth World” stories.  I finally located the perfect image, a bio picture of Beautiful Dreamer drawn by Jack Kirby & Greg Theakston that appeared in Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #2.  It was later reprinted, along with all the other bios of the New Gods from that series, in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume Four.

I had the tattoo done on my left leg. Becca did impeccable work.  You can see it below, side-by-side with the original Who’s Who profile (click to enlarge):

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

Becca is currently working at North Star Tattoo, located at 74 East 7th Street in NYC. You can view her tattoo work and her paintings on her website, http://www.beccaroach.com/

A few years later, at the 2012 New York Comic Book Marketplace, I met Greg Theakston.  In addition to his excellent work inking Kirby in the 1980s, Theakston is a talented artist in his own right, as well as a comic book historian, an expert on Bettie Page, and a publisher who has reissued a variety of Golden Age material through his Pure Imagination imprint.  I had corresponded with Greg on Facebook, but this was the first time I had a chance to talk face to face.  He remembered me very well, since I’d previously e-mailed him a photo of my tattoo.  He mentioned in passing that he thought he still had the original ink artwork from the Who’s Who entry.  I just shrugged it off, though, since I figured it was out of my price range.

So today I received a package in the mail from none other than Greg Theakston.  I wasn’t expecting anything from him.  I mean, a few weeks back he had asked me what my mailing address was, but I didn’t think anything of it, just guessing that he might send me a copy of one of his books or something.  But what I got in the mail this morning was much too small to be a book.  I opened it up, and discovered this:

Beautiful Dreamer Theakston inks

Yep, it was the original ink artwork that Greg did on vellum for the main image of Beautiful Dreamer from the Who’s Who bio.  In the 1980s, a great deal of Kirby’s artwork was inked separately on vellum via the use of a lightbox.  That meant that Kirby’s original pencils remained, in addition to the inked work which was then used for publication.

Of course, this means there’s still Kirby’s original pencil drawing somewhere out there.  I don’t know who owns it.  I certainly do know that at this point in time there is no way in hell I could afford to purchase it.  But that’s okay.

I am very grateful to Greg for this kind gesture.  To tell you the truth, my life has been very crazy lately, with a great deal of stress and a lot of emotional ups & downs.  I have had to put up for sale some pieces of comic book artwork from my collection that I really liked because I urgently need to pay bills. So this generous gift from Greg really means a lot to me.  Thanks!

Happy birthday to Trevor Von Eeden

Time for another birthday blog post!  Today is the birthday of artist Trevor Von Eeden, who was born on July 24, 1959.  Trevor is an absolutely amazing artist, as well as a cool guy.  It has been a pleasure to have corresponded with him for a number of years now.

Trevor first came into the comic book biz in 1977 at the young age of 16, when he was assigned to draw Black Lightning, the very first African American superhero series at DC Comics which was created by writer Tony Isabella.  Trevor’s work on Black Lightning definitely showed promise, but unfortunately the series was cancelled a year later during the now-infamous “DC Implosion.”  Nevertheless, Trevor remained at the drawing board, illustrating a variety of stories for DC.

Trevor has gone on record as stating his work as an artist took a quantum leap forward in 1982 when he illustrated Batman Annual #8.  Written by Mike W. Barr, “The Messiah of the Crimson Sun” sees the Dark Knight in an epic confrontation with his immortal foe Ra’s al Ghul.  Trevor’s art is astounding, featuring stunningly dramatic layouts.  Paired up with colorist Lynn Varley, Trevor’s illustrations are simply fantastic, and an indicator that even better work was on the horizon from him.  I am genuinely surprised that this story has never been reprinted.  Fortunately, I was able to find a copy in the back issue bins of Midtown Comics a few years ago.

Batman annual 8 pg 36

More quality work followed from Trevor in a four issue Green Arrow miniseries published by DC in 1983.  In the mid-1980s, he also did some work for Marvel, before returning to DC in the early 1990s.  And it was at this point that I first discovered his art.

As I’ve mentioned before, I did not begin regularly following comic books until around 1989, when I was 13 years old.  So probably the very first comic book series I saw that Trevor drew was Black Canary.  Paired with writer Sarah Byam and legendary inker Dick Giordano, Trevor penciled the four issue Black Canary: New Wings miniseries in 1991.  A year later, he was re-teamed with Byam and inker Bob Smith on an ongoing Black Canary title that regrettably lasted only a year.

I immediately fell in love with Trevor’s work.  I could instantly see that he possessed a distinctive and beautiful style.  That, and he drew incredibly sexy women.  Trevor’s renderings of the female form are among my favorite in the comic book field.  In the early 1990s, when so many “hot, superstar” artists were drawing women who looked like anorexic porn stars, Trevor’s curvy rendition of the character of Black Canary was a breath of fresh air.

Black Canary 7 cover

What’s really interesting about Black Canary is that Trevor himself has admitted he was never especially fond of working on the series.  So the fact that he did such amazing work on it really speaks to his professionalism.

Throughout the 1990s, Trevor returned Batman on several occasions.  He did the pencil layouts for Denny O’Neil’s now-classic “Venom” story arc in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, with Russell Braun contributing the finished pencils and the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez inking.  Trevor worked with mystery novelist C.J. Henderson on a pair of Batman tales, “Duty” and “Joker’s Apprentice,” with Josef Rubinstein inking both stories.  And he was once again paired with Garcia-Lopez on the excellent five part “Grimm” arc that ran through Legends of the Dark Knight #149-153, which was written by J.M. DeMatteis.  That’s another fine story that has never been collected.  I definitely recommend searching out copies of those issues.  I was fortunate enough to obtain a really nice page of original artwork from that story.

batman lotdk 149

About a decade back, Trevor also worked for independent publisher Moonstone.  He produced some very moody, atmospheric art on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Mysterious Traveler.  I really enjoyed those comics.

That said, I think that Trevor Von Eeden’s best work has to be his most recent.  He wrote & illustrated The Original Johnson, a graphic novel biography of John Arthur Johnson who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  To be perfectly honest, before Trevor announced this project, I had not even heard of Jack Johnson.  I have no idea if this was due to his race, or simply because I am not a sports buff.  Whatever the case, I was aware of Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, and how significant (and controversial) an accomplishment that was.  So, someone like Jack Johnson, who broke through a similar barrier nearly 40 years earlier, in an even more hostile & intolerant time, was definitely worthy of examination.

Trevor spent several years working on The Original Johnson.  A variety of difficulties cropped up along the way, and it almost seemed that it might not be published.  But Trevor persevered, and it was finally released in a two volume edition by Comicmix / IDW.  It was a true labor of love on his part, and this definitely shows in the finished pages of the graphic novel.

The Original Johnson book one cover

The Comics Journal #298, published in May 2009 by Fantagraphics, contained an extremely in-depth, bluntly honest interview with Trevor Von Eeden.  It was an very revealing, insightful read.  Trevor pulls no punches, sharing his honest thoughts about himself, his growth as an individual & his development as a creator, his colleagues in the comic book industry, and the companies he has worked for.  I really think that it should be required reading for anyone who is looking to become a professional comic book creator.

Currently Trevor is collaborating with writer Don McGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Detectives Inc) on his new graphic novel, Sabre: The Early Future Years.  There is a Kickstarter fundraiser scheduled to begin on August 3rd to help raise money towards the publication of the book.  So please keep an eye on Don’s Facebook page for details.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  Don is an amazing, revolutionary writer.  As for Trevor, his artwork continually improves, and he is better than he has ever been.  I’m confident his work on Sabre is going to be absolutely amazing.

Happy birthday to Luke McDonnell

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist Luke McDonnell, who was born on July 19, 1959.  McDonnell did a fair amount of work for both Marvel and DC in the 1980s and 90s.  He has this rather gritty, atmospheric style that I have always enjoyed.  I guess if I had to make a comparison, it is a bit like Gene Colan.  I have always appreciated McDonnell’s work for possessing a distinctive appearance that set it apart from many of his contemporaries.

Some of McDonnell’s most well-known work was as the penciler on Iron Man in the early 1980s, during a lengthy story arc written by Denny O’Neil.  It had previously been established by David Michelinie & Bob Layton in their excellent “Demon in a Bottle” storyline that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.  At the conclusion of it, with the help of Bethany Cabe & Edwin Jarvis, Stark had put down the drink.

Of course, the thing about addiction is that there is no cure.  Recovery is an ongoing process, and you need to actively work one day at a time to maintain your sobriety.  When O’Neil came on as the writer of the series, he had one of Stark’s business rivals, Obadiah Stane, manipulate events from behind the scenes so that Stark suffered a number of personal & professional setbacks.  The result was that Stark fell off the wagon in a major way, going into a serious downward spiral that eventually resulted in him losing his entire fortune to Stane.  For a while there, Stark hit rock bottom, roaming the streets of Manhattan, homeless & drunk, before beginning the long, difficult climb back to recovery.  In the meantime, Stark’s best friend James Rhodes had to take on the identity of Iron Man, joining the Avengers and opposing Stane’s schemes.

Iron Man 182 cover

Luke McDonnell penciled the majority of this three year long arc.  His unflinchingly moody artwork was the perfect fit for this dark tale of Tony Stark’s fall & redemption.  One of those issues, #182, was recently voted the number seven position in The 25 Greatest Iron Man Stories Ever Told at Comic Book Resources.  Looking at the cover to that issue, you can see the stunningly dramatic power of McDonnell’s artwork.

I actually bought most of these Iron Man comics from out of the back issue bin.  The very first Iron Man issue that I ever read as a kid was #194 (May 1985), which featured dual tales of Stark and Rhodes.  By this point in time, Stark had regained his sobriety and constructed a makeshift set of armor.  Following a battle with a Godzilla-like creature, he plunges into the ocean, and we see him desperately trying to avoid drowning.  Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes, still in the regular Iron Man armor, while helping out Hank Pym with some experiments, is trapped in a bizarre alien dimension.  McDonnell did an excellent job at illustrating the parallel predicaments of the two Armored Avengers.

Iron Man 194 cover

After departing from Iron Man, McDonnell became the regular artist on Justice League of America.  I think that his work on JLA was definitely underrated, probably because he was chronicling the adventures of the rather unfairly maligned “Justice League Detroit” team.  In any case, JLA was soon cancelled to make way for the new Giffen & DeMatteis “bwah-ha-ha” version.  Luckily, McDonnell quickly moved over to a brand new title that was seemingly made to order for him.

Debuting in 1987, Suicide Squad was penned by the super-talented John Ostrander.  Once again, McDonnell’s artwork was an absolutely perfect fit.  With its premise of convicted supervillains drafted by the government to perform covert black ops missions, featuring amoral characters and political intrigue, McDonnell’s moody style was just right in establishing a dark, noir, suspenseful atmosphere.  McDonnell also penciled & inked the 1988 Deadshot miniseries written by Ostrander & his wife Kim Yale which spotlighted the Squad’s resident sharpshooter with a death wish.

(The first eight issues of Suicide Squad, along with Secret Origins #14, were collected in the 2011 trade paperback Trial By Fire.  Definitely pick up a copy.)

Suicide Squad TPB

In the 1990s, McDonnell continued to do work for DC, penciling issues of Armageddon: Inferno, Eclipso and Green Lantern: Mosaic.  He also drew a trio of stories for Marvel’s alternate reality series What If…?   Unfortunately, as with a number of other good, solid artists, by this time I think McDonnell’s  particular style was sort of falling out of favor, with editors preferring either “flashy” work along the lines of Liefeld and McFarlane, or Manga-inspired work.  He seemed to be getting fewer and fewer gigs.  The last couple of stories I recall seeing him do were Atom Special #2 in 1995 and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #115 in 1999.  As always, McDonnell did his usual excellent work on both assignments.

I have been fortunate enough to meet McDonnell on a couple of occasions in the past.  I think the last time was about 14 years ago.  Back then, my primary original art focus was in obtaining sketches of Captain America.  I asked McDonnell for a sketch of Cap and, wow, did he do an absolutely amazing one.  I would love to get another sketch from him.  I’d probably ask him to do a drawing of Deadshot in my supervillains-themed sketchbook.

Captain America Luke McDonnell

Nowadays, I believe that Luke McDonnell is doing coloring work for IDW’s Popeye comic books.  I’m glad to see he is still employed, but I definitely hope that one of these days he has an opportunity to return to the drawing board.

In any case, happy birthday, Luke!  Hope there’s many more to come.

Should Superman kill?

I have not seen the new Superman movie Man of Steel.  But from what I have heard online, it has generated a fair amount of controversy.  Specifically, as I understand it, at the end of the film there is a tremendous battle that nearly decimates the city of Metropolis.  Superman, in order to prevent the Kryptonian arch-criminal General Zod from murdering even more people, kills him.

I can understand how this would cause some fans to be up in arms.  After all, Superman is supposed to be one of the most noble and ethical heroes in popular fiction.  As a firm believer in the sanctity of life, he is typically written as always looking to find non-lethal methods to defeat whatever menaces he is facing.

So, the question is, should Superman kill?  I think that every comic book reader will have differing views on the matter.  All I can do is offer my own individual opinion.  Feel free to agree or disagree:

I honestly feel that, yes, Superman should do everything in his power to preserve life.  And that means that, whenever possible, he ought to avoid the use of lethal force… but please note that I did say “whenever possible.”  Given his amazing powers & abilities, 99.999% of the time Superman will somehow find a way to stop his enemies without killing.  But, I think that inevitably, there is going to be that 0.001%, a no win situation, so to speak, when Superman may be forced by circumstances to kill.

Let’s look at such a situation, one that occurred back in 1988.  The three part “Supergirl Saga” ran through Superman vol 2 #21, Adventures of Superman #444, and Superman #22.  The main creative force behind this story was writer-artist John Byrne.  Also on hand was Jerry Ordway, who co-plotted & penciled Adventures #444.  The final chapter in Superman #22 is titled, appropriately enough, “The Price.”

Adventures of Superman 444 cover

I need to set the stage for this one.  It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me.  In the aftermath of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the new continuity established by DC was that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, and he did not become a costumed superhero until he was an adult, when he took on the guise of Superman.  This created a huge problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes, who had Superboy as both their inspiration for forming and an actual long-time member.  So the creative types at DC came up with a solution of sorts:

Post-Crisis, it was retconned that the Legion’s arch-nemesis the Time Trapper had (for reasons best left unexplained here) created a “Pocket Universe” which was a duplicate of our own, but with all the life-bearing planets other than Earth or Krypton removed from it.  In this artificial reality, once again Krypton exploded, and baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth, where the Kents adopted him.  Here he did become the teenage Superboy.  Every time Superboy traveled in time to meet up with the Legion, he would be travelling back & forth between the real universe’s 30th Century and the Pocket Universe’s 20th Century without even knowing it.  Oh, yes, the Time Trapper also ensured that no other superheroes came to exist in the Pocket Universe, i.e. no Wonder Woman, Batman, Justice League, Teen Titans, etc.  Yeah, this was a really unwieldy explanation, and it certainly didn’t work perfectly, but I guess it was the best they could come up with at the time.

Eventually Superboy dies in the future on a mission with the Legion.  Back in the Pocket Universe, no one knows what has happened to him, though.  That Earth’s version of Lex Luthor, although arrogant & egotistical, is nevertheless not a criminal, and he examines Superboy’s cache of inventions, hoping to contact the Legion.  Instead, he accidentally communicates with three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone: General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora.  The criminals trick Luthor into releasing them, and immediately embark upon the conquest of the Earth.

Despite this Earth’s absence of superheroes, humanity manages to fight Zod’s forces to a draw for a decade, aided by the fantastic weapons built by Luthor.  He even creates Supergirl, a “protomatter” life form based on Lana Lang, to help in the battle.  Eventually, though, the triad of criminals tire of the conflict and decide to wipe out humanity completely.  They use their powers to drill down to the Earth’s core, and the heat transforms the oceans into super-heated steam, which completely destroys the atmosphere.  Everyone on Earth is killed, save those in Smallville, who are living behind a force field erected by Luthor.

Realizing that the war is all but lost, a desperate Luthor transports Supergirl across to the “regular” universe to recruit Superman, hoping a genuine Kryptonian will be able to finally stop the Phantom Zone criminals.  Even with Superman’s presence, though, in the final battle the remainder of humanity is wiped out.  But a dying Luthor reveals to Superman the location of a piece of Gold Kryptonite, which the hero uses to strip Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora of their powers.  An understandably confused Superman asks Luthor why he didn’t use the Gold Kryptonite years before, thereby preventing all the bloodshed.  With his last breath, Luthor confesses that, driven by wounded pride, he wanted revenge on the Kryptonians for tricking him into setting them free.  “I wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated.”  Remember what I said before about arrogance and ego?

Time for a slight digression… some readers have regarded this disclosure as a flaw in Byrne’s writing, stating Luthor’s actions make absolutely no sense, that it it an awkward mechanism to force Superman to deal with a trio of super-criminals who have committed genocide.  But if you look at Byrne’s entire run on the Superman titles, and his depiction of Lex Luthor throughout, this revelation actually makes a great deal of sense.

Superman 1 pg 19 panel Lex Luthor

The confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor very much mirrors a scene featuring the “real” Lex Luthor shown by Byrne less than two years earlier in Superman vol 2 #1.  Luthor learns that the Kryptonite-powered villain Metallo is on the verge of killing Superman.  Infuriated, Luthor had his forces snatch away Metallo.  Yes, Luthor certainly wants Superman dead.  But as Luthor himself explains, “No! No, that won’t do at all. I have promised Superman that when he dies it will be by my hand! And Lex Luthor always keeps his promises!”  The subsequent confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor in #22, using nearly identical wording, is undoubtedly a deliberate parallel by Byrne to demonstrate that even though this version was a more heroic individual he still shared many of the selfish, narcissistic flaws of his other self.

In any case, back to our story… so now Superman is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem: what to do with General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora?  Yes, they have been de-powered, but they have the blood of billions of innocents on their hands, and they are defiantly unrepentant, gloating to Superman that they will somehow find a way to regain their powers and escape to his universe to wreck havoc there.  And so Superman is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life.  Using Green Kryptonite, Superman executes the Phantom Zone criminals. (Click on the image below to read the entire scene.)

Superman 22 pg 16-17

Did Superman make the right decision?  It is very difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think that he probably did.  Yes, it was extremely drastic.  But keep in mind that the Phantom Zone criminals had murdered the entire population of the Pocket Universe Earth, five billion people.  I am typically against capital punishment, but that is an absolutely monstrous crime.

Also, there is the question of exactly what else Superman could have done with Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  He had no way of exiling them back to the Phantom Zone.  And, as I explained before, the Pocket Universe had no other inhabited planets, so he could not hand them over to that dimension’s equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps for trial.  I suppose he could have brought Zod & Co back to his own reality and asked the Guardians of Oa to take charge of them, but who knows if those little blue bureaucrats would have even accepted that it fell under their jurisdiction.  And why even take the chance of removing them from the Pocket Universe?

Really, the only other choice Superman had was to maroon Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora on the dead Earth.  And if he did that he certainly couldn’t just leave them there unsupervised in case they somehow did regain their powers.  This would of course mean spending the rest of his own life in the Pocket Universe as their jailer.

So between the very real worry that somehow they would escape, and the sheer scope of their horrific crimes, it is understandable that Superman felt he had no choice but to execute Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  And it’s made very clear that this is not a decision that Superman makes lightly. He is troubled by it right from the start.  Returning to his dimension, Superman leaves the gravely injured Supergirl in the care of his parents, the Kents.  And, as can be seen from the final page of the issue (see below) they can immediately sense that something is very wrong with their adopted son.  So “The Price” ends on a very melancholy, introspective note.

Superman 22 pg 22

Regarding this three part story, some readers have subsequently criticized John Byrne for A) writing the character into an impossible corner where he would have no choice to kill and B) immediately departing from the Superman titles, leaving it up to others to pick up the pieces.  On the first point, in Byrne’s defense, I would argue that sometimes, in the real world, you do have literal no-win situations such as the one in issue #22.  Yes, writers of fiction can, and typically do, include convenient escape clauses that allow their protagonists to find a way out of a seemingly irrevocable moral dilemma.  But, y’know, once it a while it is interesting and refreshing to see a writer push the boundaries, not give the hero a convenient “out” and watch what happens when the $#!+ really hits the fan.

And that brings me to the second point.  I really do not know how abrupt Byrne’s departure was from Superman.  But as Jerry Ordway relates in the Modern Masters volume covering his career, he and Byrne had been working pretty closely together for some time to plot out the direction of the Superman books.  They had concrete plans to show the serious, long-lasting effects of Superman’s actions in the Pocket Universe.  The whole subplot of Clark Kent having a nervous breakdown and taking on the Gangbuster identity originated with Byrne and Ordway.  After Byrne departed, Ordway carried it forward with new writer Roger Stern.  And that, in turn, led to Superman’s decision to temporarily exile himself from Earth.

The point is, yes, I do think that a character like Superman should willing to use lethal force, but only where there is absolutely no other option available.  I certainly do not want to see him making a habit of killing bad guys!  Written properly, Superman will attempt all other possible alternatives to resolving a conflict before resorting to killing a foe.  If he does have to take a life, it should be seen to weigh heavily on him.  And when a writer has him make that decision, it should be in the service of the telling of a really interesting, thought-provoking story, rather than just for the purpose of generating gratuitous bloodshed!

Of course, your mileage may vary.  No doubt there are some who will completely disagree with me on this.  Indeed, a quarter century later, Superman #22 still remains a very controversial issue.  Looking at this, one can certainly infer that the character of Superman is such an icon, and has come to mean so much to so many, that a story such as “The Price” continues to inspire such passionate debate.

Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

Recently I’ve been enjoying fellow WordPress blogger Chance November’s ongoing look at the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Third Doctor on Doctor Who.  She’s been doing an excellent job at it.  After Chance penned a write-up on “Day of the Daleks” I was inspired to take my own look at it, since it is one of my favorite Pertwee serials.

“Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to be released on VHS, back in 1989.  In a turnaround, it became one of the last DVDs, coming out in 2011, ten years after the BBC began re-releasing the series on disk.  However, it was worth that decade-long wait.  The two disk set of “Day of the Daleks,” in addition to the original broadcast show, has a Special Edition with new visual & sound effects, as well as an assortment of extras.

Day of the Daleks DVD

Examinations of the complications and paradoxes inherent in time travel are rather common in the revived Doctor Who series.  “Father’s Day,” “Blink,” “The Big Bang,” “The Girl Who Waited,” and practically every episode to feature the character River Song have all touched upon the notion of just how strange, convoluted, and dangerous time travel can be.  The excellent 1998 novel Vanderdeken’s Children by Christopher Bulis also dealt with time paradoxes in a very eerie manner.  But back during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 this was very seldom addressed.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, time travel was simply a device to get the Doctor and his companions to the particular place in the past or future where they needed to be for the story.

The first Doctor Who serial to address the possible complexities of time travel was the underrated, thought-provoking 1965 story “The Space Museum” written by Glyn Jones.  It would not be for another seven years, in 1972, that the series would dive headlong into the same waters, when Louis Marks penned “Day of the Daleks.”

Most long-time fans of the series will already know the plot of “Day of the Daleks.”  The premise revolves around a group of guerilla resistance fighters traveling back in time 200 years to the late 20th Century in order to alter history.  By assassinating the politician Sir Reginald Styles, they hope to prevent the outbreak of World War III and, in its aftermath, the total subjugation of the Earth by the alien Daleks.  The dramatic twist of the story is the revelation that the guerillas are caught in a predestination paradox: by attempting to alter history they have actually caused those events to take place.  The first time I saw “Day of the Daleks” this curveball blew my mind.  It was both clever and frightening.

It’s worth noting that the Daleks are implied to be the original instigators of history being altered.  They inform the Doctor “We have changed the pattern of history,” and later on explicitly travel back to the 20th Century to destroy Styles’ peace conference, thereby causing nuclear war to occur, ensuring their future domination of Earth.  It appears that the guerillas, unaware of the Daleks’ own manipulations of time, then went back in time themselves to alter history, but instead became trapped in a paradox.

If “Day of the Daleks” was made today by the Doctor Who production team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the Daleks as the initial cause of Earth’s apocalyptic future.  In keeping with the notion of history as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” (to quote “Blink”), the guerillas’ actions would probably be part of what is commonly referred to in sci-fi as a stable time loop with no actual involvement by the Daleks in the initial alteration of the time stream.  That said, for a Doctor Who serial filmed four decades ago, the time travel concepts Louis Marks introduced in “Day of the Daleks” were very though provoking and revolutionary at that time in the show’s history.

There are a number of fine actors on hand who do a superb job of bringing to life Marks’ brilliant script.  Foremost among them is Pertwee himself, turning in one of his best performances as the Doctor.  The moment when he deduces the cause of history being altered, he gravely proclaims to the guerillas “You’re trapped in a temporal paradox. Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves!”  It’s a powerful scene made even more so by Pertwee’s forceful delivery, one that all of these years later gives me chills.

Another instance where Pertwee shines is in the Doctor’s verbal fencing with the Controller, the Daleks chief human lackey in the 22nd Century.  Pertwee delivers stinging condemnations raining down on the Controller.  And on a lighter note I’ve always enjoyed the scenes where the Doctor is, to quote Jo Grant, “carrying on rather like a one man food and wine society.”

The Controller is effectively portrayed by Aubrey Woods (fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will remember him as Bill the candy shop owner).  Although at times Woods’ performance is, to quote producer Barry Letts, “far too theatrical,” it is nevertheless very compelling.  At first the Controller appears to be a willing agent of the Daleks.  However, as the story progresses, we see he is not genuinely evil, but rather weak.  He is terrified of the Daleks, believing them unbeatable.  The Controller rationalizes his collaboration by regarding himself as someone who can reason with the Daleks, gain concessions, and make the occupation of Earth slightly less brutal.  His interactions with the Doctor, who labels him a traitor and a quisling, slowly begin to reawaken his buried conscience.

In the fourth episode, Woods delivers a haunting recitation of the Earth’s nightmarish future to the Doctor and Jo, relating how after decades of war decimated the globe, the planet was crushed by alien invasion, humanity’s survivors turned into a slave labor force to mine resources for the expanding Dalek Empire.  Woods’ monologue vividly illustrates what would have been impossible for Doctor Who to actually visualize on-screen with a shoestring budget and early 1970s special effects, painting a grim picture of a shattered world under the domination of the Daleks.

Day of the Daleks Aubrey Woods

The actors portraying the guerillas are also very good.  Just as the Controller is nowhere near as clear-cut as he first appears, neither is the anti-Dalek underground.  The guerillas straddle the fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.  Though their goal is a noble one, to free Earth from Dalek rule, they are seen utilizing such morally ambiguous tactics as assassinations and suicide bombings to achieve their aims.  The actors really bring across the desperation and fanaticism that the guerillas have become gripped by as a result of their gargantuan struggle against the Daleks.

Dudley Simpson composed the incidental music for nearly all of the Doctor Who serials produced between 1970 and 1979, including this one.  His work on the series has a definite consistency and, in retrospect, there is this “sameness” to a lot of his scores.  I think certain serials might have benefitted from another composer to shake things up.  The music for “Day of the Daleks” falls within the earlier period of Simpson’s work, before his signature became quite so uniform.  He was more experimental at this time.  In other words, he goes a bit crazy with the synthesizer from time to time on this serial, although it’s not as insane as what he did for “The Claws of Axos” the previous season!  The music on “Day of the Daleks” may be quite odd in places, but mostly it is effective.

While the writing and acting is almost consistently top-notch, the serial does have a couple of striking deficiencies.  Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Daleks actually have very little screen time.  This is probably at least partially due to the fact that Marks’ initial story did not even contain the Daleks!  His original conception was to have a fascist human government ruling the 22nd Century.  However, both Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt the story would make a stronger season opener if the Daleks were in it, and so instructed Marks to insert them into his scripts.

In Marks’ defense, he did this in a rather seamless fashion.  True, the Daleks aren’t actually seen very much.  But the other characters talk about them throughout the story, making them a sort of unseen menace looming above the proceedings.  In a way, this is more effective than having scene after scene of them crashing onto the screen, guns blazing, shouting “Exterminate” over and over.

However, a much more tangible reason for the Daleks’ limited appearances is that there were only had three Dalek props on hand.  True, with some creative editing, a director could make a trio of Daleks appear to be a much bigger force (something David Maloney would achieve in “Genesis of the Daleks” a few years later).  Unfortunately, someone had the none-too-bright idea to have the lead Dalek in “Day of the Daleks” painted gold.  This made it much more difficult for director Paul Bernard to have it appear there was an entire army of Daleks, especially at the end of the fourth episode.

Due to the story’s less-than-spectacular final battle, some have faulted Bernard’s direction.  However, throughout the majority of the serial, he does strong work.  He frames his shots in a dramatic fashion.  I like how he filmed the Daleks’ apelike henchmen, the Ogrons, often shooting them from a low angle, so that they appeared as towering monstrosities. And the editing, the cutting from one scene to the next, is very good, heightening the drama.

Really, one cannot place too much blame on Bernard for the final sequence.  In addition to only having three Dalek props, he had to film them on location.  It wasn’t even easy to get the Daleks to maneuver around the studio back in those days, so I can only imagine the difficulties in the Dalek prop operators had in trying to move about outside on an uneven field.  It’s no wonder that final battle was underwhelming.

Much more of a sticking point for me were the Daleks’ voices.  The two actors who spoke the dialogue in “Day of the Daleks” had not done any other Dalek stories before or since, so the tones sound unfamiliar.  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue is spoken in a drawn out, stilted monotone, with each syllable pronounced almost as if it is a separate word.  These are probably the least effective Dalek voices ever heard on the series.

Since “Day of the Daleks” was an otherwise well done story, in the past it was easy to overlook these few problems.  Nevertheless, many Doctor Who DVDs have featured updated effects, so I thought it would be cool if, when “Day of the Daleks” came out, the producers could change the Dalek voices.  Specifically, I was hoping they’d bring in Nicholas Briggs, who has very effectively voiced the Daleks on both the revived television series and on numerous audio adventures produced by Big Finish.  And if they could also add some extra Daleks to the battle sequence, that would be the icing on the cake.

It turned out the DVD producer Steve Broster felt exactly the same way. With the help of a small group of talented individuals, he created the Special Edition of “Day of the Daleks,” adding new visual effects, extra Daleks, and having the Dalek voices re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs.  As the DVD extra on the making of the Special Edition explains, these were not simple tasks.  I really have to compliment Broster and his crew on creating a new, more visually exciting version of the serial with effects that nevertheless manage to mostly remain in synch with the original 1972 footage.

As for the new vocals by Briggs, well, until I heard them in this story, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much of the Daleks’ effectiveness as monsters is due to their voices.  Yes, Raymond Cusick’s iconic design is a crucial aspect of their appeal, but their vocalization is equally important.  Re-doing the Dalek voices makes them so much more menacing.  At the same time, Briggs knows when to inject arrogance, panic, and incredulity into his delivery of their dialogue, so that they are not just screaming non-stop, instead possessing a certain amount of nuance.

Of course, if Special Editions are not your cup of tea, the original 1972 broadcast version is still available for viewing on the first disk of this set.  So you can choose which you prefer.

There are a number of other excellent extras included.  One of these, “The UNIT Dating Conundrum,” humorously addresses one of those contentious issues that keep hardcore fans arguing endlessly among themselves, namely when did the UNIT stories take place.  Were they set in the years they were broadcast, or a decade in the future?  The quick answer is that there is no answer, because there’s just too much contradictory information in the stories.  Or, as they say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax!”

Another interesting extra was “The Cheating Memory,” which examines how the brains of children process information, and how our memories from when we were young are often not reliable.  This is looked at in the oft-common context of very young fans who watched the stories in the 1960s and 70s when they were first broadcast, and remembered them as being incredible.  This being before the era of television repeats on the BBC, video recorders, or DVDs, it might often be years, even decades until fans might have an opportunity to re-watch those same shows.

I remember that when I first began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s, I would always hear fans complaining that the current stories were nowhere near as good as the old ones.  In response, then-producer John Nathan-Turner would often respond “the memory cheats.”  A good example of this is when the long-missing 1967 story “Tomb of the Cybermen” was re-discovered in 1992 and a number of fans had to admit that, while still very good, it was nevertheless not nearly as brilliant as what they remembered seeing when they were little kids.

Even I’ve experienced a bit of this myself with several stories when I watched them on PBS in the mid-1980s and then didn’t have an opportunity to see them again until they came out on VHS or DVD a decade or more later.  So I certainly identify with “The Cheating Memory.”

Day of the Daleks novelization

By the way, if you want an alternative to the DVD Special Edition, there is always the novelization written in 1974 by Terrance Dicks.  Unrestrained by a limited budget or primitive special effects, Dicks gives an expanded view of the post-apocalyptic dystopian future via a prologue entitled “Terror in the Twenty-second Century.”  Dicks also includes scenes featuring dozens of Daleks, gives background information on the guerillas, and he even makes the rather goofy motorized tricycle chase from episode three seem exciting & suspenseful.  Dicks concludes his adaptation with an introspective final chapter, “All Kinds of Futures,” that bookends an earlier scene from the televised story where the Doctor and Jo briefly encounter versions of themselves from elsewhere in the timeline.

Dicks wrote several dozen Doctor Who novelizations over the years.  Some of the later ones he penned were rather by-the-numbers, and it almost seemed that Target / W.H. Allen had the poor guy chained to a typewriter with orders to churn out a book a month.  But if you look back on the earlier books he penned in the 1970s, Dicks did an excellent job developing many of the serials beyond the confines of the television screen.  In the 1980s, before the VHS and DVD releases, those books were often the best way to experience the early stories.

*Whew!* That was a long post. I certainly had a lot to say. Thanks for reading.

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #188-189

I’ve mentioned before that my current financial situation, combined with the rising prices of comic books, has resulted in my following a greatly reduced number of monthly titles.  That, and there really isn’t all that much currently being published that I actually enjoy.  There is, however, one title that I continue to pick up each & every issue: Savage Dragon, written & drawn by the super-talented Erik Larsen, and published by Image Comics.  If it ever came down to my only being able to get just one comic book per month, Savage Dragon would be my pick.

Previously, the Dragon, after finding his people the Krylans a new home planet, decided to leave them to their own devices and return to Earth.  Unfortunately, he was arrested and placed on trial for the crimes that his alternate personality, Emperor Kurr, had committed.  The Dragon’s good “human” personality was eventually restored by the enigmatic Darklord, who then sent him back in time to kill Kurr.  Unfortunately there was still the matter of the hundreds of people Kurr had killed prior to that moment when history was altered.  The Dragon was found guilty of mass murder and sentenced to death.  And, as he sat in his prison cell, he learned via a holographic transmission from the Krylans that, in his absence, bereft of his leadership, they had been almost totally decimated by the invading Tyrrus Combine.  Oops.

Also in recent issues, Dragon’s son Malcolm has been trying to almost single-handedly fight superhuman crime in Chicago.  SuperPatriot was busy reforming the government Special Operations Strikeforce, and one by one the heroes of the Windy City have been heading off to join him in Washington DC, leaving Malcolm to hold down the fort against a second-generation Vicious Circle.  Meanwhile the monstrosity known as The Claw, who originally menaced the Earth back in the 1940s, has accidentally been resurrected by Malcolm’s half-brother Thunder-Head.

Are we all caught up now?  Good, good!

Savage Dragon 188 cover

The last couple of issues of Savage Dragon have been quite well done.  In #188, the Claw finally prepares to make his bid for world conquest, but Malcolm and the original Daredevil (the Claw’s old arch nemesis, who was also recently revived in the present day) are alerted to this by Thunder-Head.  What follows is a massive battle as Malcolm, Daredevil, the staff of the Rock House Diner and the military engage a giant-sized Claw & his swarm of winged minions.

Both Daredevil and the Claw were originally published by Lev Gleason Publications in the 1940s.  Daredevil was created by Jack Binder in late 1939, but was almost immediately after revamped by Jack Cole, who soon pitted the hero against his own villainous creation, the Claw.  Since then, both characters have fallen into public domain, although Marvel later trademarked the DD name for their “man without fear.”  As a result several publishers have revised the pair of them, although Daredevil often was presented under different aliases.  I thought that Dynamite Entertainment’s Death-Defying Devil had a pretty good take on their antagonism, with the Claw revamped as a hive mind terrorist organization, but then the whole subplot came to a rushed, unsatisfactory conclusion in Project Superpowers.  In contrast, Larsen’s version of the two characters is much closer to Jack Cole’s initial conceptions, but at the same time we get to witness their decades-old conflict come to a very riveting, dramatic finale.

Issue #188 also features the brutal murders of Daredevil’s sidekicks the Little Wise Guys by Dart.  Now, ordinarily I’d find a psycho femme fatale gutting a bunch of kids with a sword and drinking their blood to be much too extreme.  In this case, though, it’s been established that the Little Wise Guys, like Daredevil, had become immortal some time before, and so they were actually older then they looked.  That, and in general I just find comic book kid sidekicks to be really annoying.  Every time the Little Wise Guys showed up, I would sort of groan aloud.  In the lettercol, Larsen explained that back in the 1940s the Little Wise Guys gradually pushed Daredevil out of his own series, and history seemed to be repeating itself in Savage Dragon.  So Larsen decided to just kill them off.  He definitely did so in a memorable fashion!

Savage Dragon 189 cover

Moving on to Savage Dragon #189, Larsen juggles a number of subplots.  Dragon is still in jail, trying to avoid getting killed by all his old enemies who he previously locked up.  Malcolm is having relationship problems with his girlfriend Maxine.  Thunder-Head is in the hospital after nearly being killed by the Claw.  Dragon’s wife Jennifer, who is believed to have died years ago, seems to have reappeared.  Oh, and Dart is still going around slicing people up.

Even though I have been following Savage Dragon since the very first issue back in 1992, sometimes I do have some trouble keeping track of the myriad characters and plotlines that Larsen has introduced in the last two decades.  I was scratching my head over the subplot of Jennifer’s apparent return, since it dealt with some really minor characters who, as far as I can recall, were last seen maybe 60 issues ago.

That said, the rest of the issue was quite good.  Poor old Dragon is sure getting the short end of the stick, to say the least.  But even after a major ass-whopping, he still manages to get in the last word, so to speak.  That final page was totally a killer.

Larsen’s artwork on these issues was, as usual, very good.  A few months ago, on #187, he was experimenting with a strict six-panel storytelling and a variation in his usual inking style, accompanied with a different sort of color palette.  I wasn’t sure if it was entirely successful, but at the same time I do appreciate that Larsen is someone who wants to continually grow as an artist, to attempt new things.  This is one of the things that separate him from many of his contemporaries.  In any case, on these following two issues, Larsen returns to a more standard style of illustration and color scheme.  Of course it looks great, with layouts that are extremely dramatic.

I was especially impressed with the covers of these two issues.  Savage Dragon #188 is a retro-styled piece with Malcolm and Daredevil fighting the titanic Claw.  In contract, #189 has a very unconventional layout, with the logo taking up much of the cover as the shadows of the Dragon’s fellow inmates reach down towards him.  The piece works very well in implying an atmosphere of entrapment and claustrophobia that encapsulates the character’s current predicament.

What’s next?  I don’t know.  Erik Larsen promises big changes are in store within the coming months.  Whatever happens, I will definitely be along for the ride.

Roswell 66

Today is the 66th anniversary of the infamous Roswell UFO Incident.  Apparently on July 8, 1947 something came crashing down in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.  I say “something” but a lot of people believe that it was an alien spacecraft.  Since then, the military have repeatedly insisted that it was an experimental high-altitude surveillance balloon.  But many people refuse to believe that, and to this day, there is this widespread belief that the government has a flying saucer stashed away in Area 51.

area51

To be perfectly honest, I actually believe the government in this case.  Why, you may ask?  Well, most people have come to expect that the government is going to lie.  If the military wants to cover up some sort of experimental surveillance device that was being used to spy on the Soviet Union or maybe even on actual Americans, just come out and say that that’s what it was.  Because so many people are going to assume that the government is lying, and believe it was actually a spaceship.  And the more the government insists that, no, it really truly was a hi-tech balloon, the more people are going to dig in their heels, stamp their feet, and argue that it must have been a flying saucer.  It’s so beautiful in its simplicity: tell the truth to get people to believe a lie.

I think the government has so many better things to cover up than the existence of extraterrestrial life.  War profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan, un-Constitutional surveillance of American citizens, indefinitely detaining suspects without trial, corporations buying politicians to pass laws making big business immune from prosecution & lawsuits, tax cuts for the wealthy while social programs for the poor are gutted; all of this are the things that we should be paying attention to.  But instead, the conspiracy-minded are running around harping about how a freaking UFO crash-landed six and a half decades ago.

(*Huff puff!* Okay, I promise to get down from my soapbox now.)

Oh, well, on the bright side, the whole Roswell Affair has supplied genre fiction with more than sixty years of raw material for churning out tales of alien invasions and government conspiracies.  If you don’t take this stuff too seriously, it can be very entertaining.  You have everything from Independence Day and The X-Files to Lilo & Stitch and Coneheads.  And that Google Doodle game where you play a crash-landed alien trying to re-assemble his flying saucer is pretty darn cute!  Just don’t spend too much of your spare time rooting around the deserts of the Southwest searching for little grey men from outer space.