Doctor Who reviews: The Tenth Planet

I’ve wanted to watch the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet,” originally broadcast in October 1966, for many years.  However, as the final episode has been missing from the BBC archives for almost four decades, I never had the opportunity until now.  The DVD release of the story features a reconstruction of that missing episode using the original audio track and brand new animation based on the Telesnap photos made by John Cura way back when.

Tenth Planet DVD

So, having finally had the chance to see “The Tenth Planet,” what did I think of it?  Well, to be perfectly honest, while I thought it was a good story, I did not necessarily think it was a great one.  I think that this serial, co-written by Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis, is significant for the precedents it set for the series as a whole.  One, it is the debut of the Cybermen, now regarded as the second most popular monsters after the Daleks.  Two, it introduced the concept that the Doctor is capable of undergoing a complete change in both his physical form and personality, as William Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode, an aspect of the series’ mythology that eventually enabled the show to last for half a century and counting.  Three, it established the “base under siege” story formula which would be so effectively used throughout Troughton’s three years portraying the Doctor, and which has been revived from time to time since then.

The concepts introduced by Pedler & Davis in “The Tenth Planet” are definitely innovative & creepy.  The idea of a parallel race of human beings that existed on Earth’s long-lost, wandering twin planet Mondas, who found themselves growing weaker and weaker and decided to resort to the replacement of body parts & organs to survive, is a really good one.  As postulated by Pedler & Davis, the Cybermen eventually succumbed to their own technology, becoming more mechanical than organic.  Even the alteration of their still-living brains to remove emotions was seen by them as an improvement.  In the end, the Cybermen did survive, but at the cost of their humanity.  In those scenes where the technicians of the South Pole Tracking Station are desperately attempting to save the doomed crew of the Zeus IV space capsule, there is something very tragic about the Cybermen’s complete inability to comprehend why these humans are expending all of their efforts & energy towards a hopeless task.

I also really like the designs of these early Cybermen.  The cloth-like face with an obviously humanoid head beneath it, the still-organic hands, and the rather bulky, clunky forms of their headgear & chest-units all point to beings who were once human and, over time, were gradually transformed into cyborgs by spare-part surgery.  There is something undeniably spooky about these Cybermen.  Derek Martinus, who overall does good work directing this story, certainly succeeds in making the Cybermen menacing figures, especially in the scenes set on the Antarctic landscape.

On the one hand, it’s a real shame that in subsequent appearances the Cybermen appeared much more robotic than they did here.  On the other, yeah, I can certainly understand why, given a bigger budget, the production team decided to streamline them.  These must have been incredibly difficult costumes for the actors to wear, and in quite a few shots you can actually see the Cybermen’s helmets held together by transparent tape.

Tenth Planet Cybermen

All that said, though, “The Tenth Planet” does have certain problems.  The pacing of this story is poor.  The first invading party of Cybermen is wiped out towards the end of the second episode.  In the third episode, we barely see the Cybermen at all.  Most of the third installment is taken up by the increasingly-deranged General Cutler ordering the launch of a super-weapon known as the Z-Bomb to destroy Mondas, even though everyone keeps warning him that the resulting explosion will probably expose the Earth itself to deadly radiation.  Making matters worse, Hartnell became very ill right before the filming of this episode.  So, via a body double, the Doctor passes out in the opening seconds of part three, and it falls to his companions Ben and Polly, played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, to try and thwart Cutler’s mad scheme.  Yes, that gives Ben a lot to do.  But poor Polly spends the episode looking after the unconscious Doctor and serving coffee to the tracking station staff (yeah, okay, this was written in the 1960s, but still).  The episode just seemed to drag on.

Then part four arrives, and suddenly events rocket forward.  The Cybermen re-invade the Snowcap base not once but twice in a plot to blow up the Earth with the Z-Bomb before Mondas absorbs too much energy & dissolves.  After that fails, Mondas does indeed go kaput, and the Cybermen, who were drawing their energy from it, disintegrate.  Ben rescues the Doctor and Polly from a now-abandoned Cyber-ship.  And to wrap it all up, once they get back to the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses and regenerates.  That’s a hell of a lot to cram into 25 minutes!

I think it is extremely unfortunate that Hartnell was absent for a large percentage of what was his last story.  Watching the first two episodes of “The Tenth Planet,” he is in top form, giving a magnificent performance.  You would hardly guess he was suffering from ongoing health problems and was on the verge of departing the series.  But then, sadly, it just falls apart.  Hartnell is completely absent from part three.  When he does return for part four, between the fact that he was still recuperating from bronchitis and the character of the Doctor is written as fading fast, Hartnell does not have too much of a presence in his final episode.

There are also some major flaws with the Cybermen.  The whole notion that Mondas needs to recharge itself by sucking up Earth’s energy, but that it will be destroyed if it drains too much, leaves the Cybermen looking rather incompetent.  They appear to have no plan for dealing with this, other than invading the Snowcap base and using the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth before that happens.  At least, I’m guessing that is why they landed at the South Pole in the first place, even though they don’t get around to attempting to utilize the Z-Bomb until the final episode.  And that presents another hindrance: the Cybermen need ordinary humans to prepare the Z-Bomb.  Why?  It turns out that, despite having replaced the majority of their organic material with artificial parts, making them super-strong, bulletproof, and immune to illness, the Cybermen are somehow much more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary human beings.  All that Ben and the Snowcap scientists end up having to do is don radiation suits, pull the rods from the base’s nuclear reactor and thrust them at the approaching Cybermen, causing the denizens of Mondas to instantly collapse.

I’m not saying that “The Tenth Planet” is a bad story.  As I explained at the outset, I think it is a good story with interesting ideas.  There are certain flaws that unfortunately keep it from being truly great, problems which perhaps Pedler & Davis could have ironed out if they’d had more time to fine-tune their scripts.  And, of course, there was Hartnell’s sudden illness, which caught everyone by surprise.  No one could have prepared for that, especially given the breakneck speed at which the show was filmed back in the 1960s.

Tenth Planet novelization

Perhaps “The Tenth Planet” was a learning experience for Pedler & Davis.  In their next two Cybermen stories, “The Moonbase” and “Tomb of the Cybermen,” there is a very apparent climb in quality.  In turn, Davis may have taken what he learned co-scripting those two serials and applied it ten years later when, in 1976, he novelized “The Tenth Planet.”  Yes, the plot holes of the televised version are inevitably still there, but they are much less obvious.  Indeed, Davis’ book has a very palpable atmosphere of claustrophobia & menace.

In the end, we can look back on “The Tenth Planet” as a crucial moment of major transition & experimentation for Doctor Who.  The series was taking a tremendous leap into the unknown via the recasting of the main character, the Doctor.  It was also introduced an enduring villain, as well as establishing a story structure that would be very effectively utilized over the next three years, leading to a number of now-classic serials.  By working though the difficulties of this particular story, the production team helped to guarantee the series a long and exciting future.

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Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Comic book reviews: Savage Dragon #192

The much-anticipated Savage Dragon #192 finally came out this week, courtesy of Erik Larsen and Image Comics.  As Larsen himself admits in the letters page, this one took him a bit longer than usual, as he re-thought the course of the issue more than once.  No wonder, considering how significant an event it contained.

For a long while now, Larsen has been building up to a changing of the guard.  Since this series takes place in “real time,” everyone ages accordingly.  That, and Larsen certainly is not averse to killing off major characters.  So inevitably there was going to come a point where Dragon would get too old to be a superhero, or perhaps even die, and his son Malcolm would step into his shoes, becoming the series’ lead.  About two and a half years ago, in issue #169, I really thought that this event had taken place.  However, Larsen had left himself an avenue for reviving the Dragon.  And, indeed, within a few months he was back.  But now, finally, Larsen really has come to the crossroads with #192.  Dragon, previously convicted of murder for the crimes he committed under his Emperor Kurr personality and sent to death row, is seen on the cover apparently being led to the electric chair!

So, does he live?  Does he die?  If he does die, will his spirit spend the rest of eternity making mad, passionate love to a bevy of leggy super-models?  Read on and find out!  And, oh, yeah, SPOILERS!!!

Savage Dragon 192 cover

Previously, Dragon’s race, the Krylans, was decimated by the brutal Tyrrus Combine.  Dragon’s one-time lover Lorella, seemingly the only survivor, managed to make her way to Earth.  She was convinced that Dragon held the key to creating a new generation of Krylans.  You can probably figure out the rest.  Y’know, the birds and the bees?  Yep, that’s right.  Hmmm, given that Dragon is already in his mid-fifties, I just hope he can, um, keep up his end of the bargain, so to speak!

Of course, there was just one catch to all this: since Dragon was super-powered, every single time he (and his previous persona, Kurr) had ever impregnated a female, his offspring gained his super strength, resulting in all his mates having a very good chance of dying while giving birth.  Lorella rigged up a device that would remove Dragon’s powers, making him a normal Krylan, so that they could then get on with the business of safely making babies.  Of course, said device happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to an electric chair, and it gives Dragon one hell of a zap in the process.

Savage Dragon 192 pg 10

That Erik Larsen, he is such a tease!

Okay, there you are.  Dragon is now the equivalent of a normal human being, albeit one with green skin & a fin.  Which means that, even if he is able to get his conviction overturned and get out of jail, there’s no way he’s going to be able to return to slugging it out with supervillains.  So now it’s Malcolm’s show.

In an online interview, Larsen indicated that Dragon will still be sticking around, albeit as a supporting character, a mentor to Malcolm, likening him to the elderly Bruce Wayne seen in Batman Beyond.  And, wow, Savage Dragon #192 shows that Malcolm really is in need of some guidance when it comes to fighting crime.  Not only is he inexperienced, he’s also on the naïve side.  Between that, the majority of Chicago’s costumed heroes leaving town to join the Special Operations Strikeforce in Washington DC, and the sociopathic Dart having finally accomplished her goal of seizing control of the Vicious Circle crime cartel, I foresee some really rough times ahead for Malcolm!

Anyway, Larsen succeeded admirably in his misdirection, convincing everyone (myself included) that this really was the end for Dragon.  At the same time, he achieved his goal of permanently promoting Malcolm to the lead, while still keeping his dad around in some capacity.  Which is cool, because I enjoy the family dynamic between the two of them, as well as with Malcolm’s stepsister Angel.  Speaking of which, I hope she isn’t gone for long, and will continue to show up in the book.  As #192 demonstrates, Malcolm could probably benefit from some of Angel’s common sense.

Savage Dragon 190 pg 24

I’m glad that Powerhouse and Flash Mercury, who had unsuccessfully attempted to steer the Vicious Circle in a more benevolent direction, managed to survive Dart’s brutal purge by skipping town.  As seen in the back-up story in Savage Dragon #190 written by Larsen with art by Frank Fosco, the two of them joined up with the Medusa-esque Fever to become professional monster hunters.  As with Angel, I hope Larsen brings this trio back to Chicago at some point to help Malcolm out.

Speaking of back-up stories, I’m happy Larsen is continuing to run these.  He has a cast of what seems like several hundred characters, and obviously he cannot fit them all into the main feature.  So it’s nice that he and a few other folks are working on these short stories.  Issue #190 also had a new misadventure of those inept crime-fighters Kill-Cat and Kid Avenger, aka the Deadly Duo, with art by Scott James.  The next issue had James illustrating a tale of the perpetually late Max Damage penned by editor Gavin Higginbotham.  And in the current issue, there’s a flashback tale of the diminutive dictator from Dimension X, Mister Glum aka Ba-Goom, written & drawn by Simon Mallette St-Pierre.

Savage Dragon 192 pg 25

All in all, Savage Dragon #192 was a great read, a really well done transition issue by Erik Larsen.  I’m eagerly anticipating seeing Malcolm step up to bat in upcoming issues.  It looks like Larsen has some exciting, interesting stories planned for his series.

Doctor Who reviews: Prisoners of Time

Happy birthday to Who!

No, as of this writing, the highly anticipated Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is still a few days away from being broadcast.  However, another great celebration of a half-century of traveling in the TARDIS came to its conclusion today as the final installment of the twelve-issue Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time comic book series was released.  Published by IDW, written by Scott & David Tipton, and drawn by a line-up of amazing artists, Prisoners of Time features all eleven incarnations of the Doctor, numerous companions, multiple aliens & villains, and plenty of surprises.  It’s been an exciting, enjoyable romp through the rich history of the series.

As I detailed in my post The Big Bad of Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time Revealed, the mastermind behind the scheme to attack the Doctor in all his incarnations was none other than Adam Mitchell, previously seen on the television episodes “Dalek” and “The Long Game.”  After nursing a lifetime of bitterness & hatred towards the Doctor for abandoning him, Adam was finally able to assemble a cache of stolen alien technology and began abducting the Doctor’s companions from the time stream.  Along the way, he allied himself with the Doctor’s diabolical arch-nemesis, the Master, who did everything in his power to further enflame Adam’s long-festering resentment towards the Doctor.

So at last we’ve come to the grand finale in issue #12.  Now, as River Song likes to say, “Spoilers, sweetie!”

The Eleventh Doctor is a prisoner of Adam and the Master in their base in limbo.  Adam is threatening to murder all of the Doctor’s companions, offering him the impossible, torturous choice of saving one, just one of them.  In the grand tradition of Doctor Who cliffhangers, just when it seems that all is lost (and I have to admit, when I reached the end of the previous issue, I was really left wondering how the heck the Tiptons would resolve this) we are greeted to new arrivals, beautifully depicted by artist Kelly Yates (click to enlarge):

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 2 and 3

What follows is a fantastic finale as all of the Doctors and companions fight off Adam, the Master, and a horde of Autons.  As they’ve done with the previous installments of the miniseries, Scott & David did a brilliant job scripting this, getting the dialogue & cadence of each version of the Doctor just right.  Yates was pretty much dead-on with all the likenesses, and also did wonderful work pacing the story, finding room for literally dozens of characters without it ever seeming cluttered.

Along the way, the Tiptons did a great job at bringing Adam’s story arc to a close.  In the previous issue, drawn by Matthew Dow Smith, the Doctor had futilely attempted to convince his one-time companion that, whatever the legitimacy of his feud, it was a terrible mistake to ally himself with the Master, who was “pure unbridled evil.”

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 11 pg 17Now, in #12, the Master seizes the opportunity presented by the Doctor’s combined TARDISes, sending a wave of chronal energy through them in an attempt to not only destroy all the regenerations of his enemy, but to wipe out reality itself, so he may rewrite existence as he wishes.  And, for the first time, Adam is aghast.  As twisted and vengeful as he has become, he simply cannot conceive of committing such a monstrously vast crime.  The Master’s response shows just how utterly consumed by hatred, by the lust for power, he truly is.  Scott & Dave’s dialogue for the renegade Time Lord is doubly emphasized by Yates’ artwork, which demonstrates his sheer, burning insanity.  That bottom panel on page 11 is chilling.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 11In the end, the Doctors finally manage to appeal to Adam, and he turns against the Master, saving reality at the cost of his own life.  When I got to page 19, and saw Adam laying there dying, surrounded by the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh Doctors and Rose Tyler, um, well, I have to admit that for a second I really thought I was going to shed a tear.  Yeah, the story and artwork were just that moving.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 19As I said, there were so many brilliant artists who worked on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time.  Some of them have been intimately involved in illustrating the Doctor’s comic book adventures in the past.  For others this was, I believe, their first time.  And I really wish I had the space to post examples of all of their work on this series.  But for the record, this is the list: Simon Fraser, Lee Sullivan, Mike Collins, Gary Erskine, Philip Bond, John Ridgway, Kev Hopgood, Roger Langridge, David Messina & Giorgia Sposito, Elena Casagrande, Matthew Dow Smith, and Kelly Yates. (I encourage everyone to click on the links and go to those artists’ websites to view their wonderful work.)

Literally toping things off were the dozen covers by Francesco Francavilla which assembled to form one amazing image.  Here’s a picture of the complete illustration, courtesy of Scott Tipton, who posted it on Facebook a couple of days ago:

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time complete covers

As the Ninth Doctor was fond of declaring, “Fantastic!”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Francavilla is without a doubt one of the most talented artists to come onto the comic book scene within the last decade.

By the way, for those who missed out on picking up Prisoners of Time, IDW is releasing a hardcover collection of the entire series next month.  There you go, you have no excuse now.

In closing, I want to tip my hat to Scott & Dave, and their numerous artistic collaborators.  You all helped to make the series’ fiftieth anniversary that much more special.

Happy birthday to Richard Howell

I want to wish a very happy birthday to comic book creator Richard Howell, who was born on November 16th.  Not only is Richard a fantastic artist and a talented writer, but he is also a genuinely nice guy who I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions.

Looking back, I probably discovered Howell’s work when he was penciling Tony Isabella’s great Hawkman stories.  The two of them collaborated on the four issue Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries in 1985, which was followed the next year by a special and then an ongoing series.

Hawkman Special cover

Isabella had a great conceit for his storyline: Hawkman and Hawkwoman discovered that their fellow Thanagarians were covertly invading Earth. Unfortunately, Carter and Shiera Hall were forced to combat this infiltration completely on their own.  The Thanagarians possessed a device called the Absorbacon which enabled them to read the minds of anyone on Earth (the Hawks were immune because they were also from Thanagar).  So there was no going to Superman or the Justice League or anybody else for help.  Their only ally came in the unlikely form of their old enemy the Gentleman Ghost, who took it as a challenge worthy of his larcenous talents to “steal back” Earth from the Thanagarians (being dead, presumably they were unable to read his mind).  As a ten year old kid, I found this set-up majorly chilling & spooky, the idea that Carter and Shiera were seemingly all on their own, everyone else on Earth was compromised, and their one source of assistance was an untrustworthy villain.

Unfortunately, Isabella departed the ongoing Hawkman title with issue #7 due to disagreements with editorial, and his successor wrapped up the invasion storyline in a rushed, unsatisfactory manner.  Nevertheless, the work that Isabella & Howell did do together was really great.  Howell really showed his versatility, rendering the Kubert-designed Hawks with their combination of high-tech & primitive weaponry, the science fiction designs for the Thanagarian invaders, and the supernatural aspects of the series.

Vision Scarlet Witch 1 cover

Around this time, Howell was also over at Marvel, penciling the twelve issue Vision and the Scarlet Witch series written by Steve Englehart.   This took place in real time, which meant that we saw Wanda get pregnant and, in the last issue, give birth to twin baby boys.  Unlike some, I was never terribly bothered by the notion that Wanda used magic to conceive children with an android.  (I was quite annoyed when a few years later John Byrne did a major retcon, wiping the twins out of existence, but fortunately Allan Heinberg eventually reversed this and brought them back into being as super-powered teenagers in the pages of Young Avengers.)

Howell did some really great work on this series.  The wide range of guest stars that popped up enabled him to render a significant portion of the Marvel universe.  A few years later, Howell again had the opportunity to draw the Scarlet Witch in the four chapter serial “Separate Lives” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents #60-63.  He also wrote, lettered, and colored the entire story, demonstrating he was a man of many talents.  Between that story and his work a few years earlier, I thought that Howell drew one of the most all-time beautiful, sexy depictions of the Scarlet Witch.  Years later, when I told him that, he modestly responded “It’s not difficult drawing a beautiful woman who was visually created by Jack Kirby and then developed into a star by Don Heck.”

Another group of characters who Howell drew really well were the Inhumans.  In addition to drawing their appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Howell penciled a “Tales of the Inhumans” short story written by Peter Gillis and inked by Sam De La Rosa which saw print in the back of Thor Annual #12, of all places.  I just found a copy of that comic about a year ago.  The splash page by Howell & De La Rosa is gorgeous.  Howell also penciled & colored a double-sized Inhumans Special written by Lou Mougin published in 1990 that delved into the history of the Royal Family immediately prior to their first appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Vince Colletta inked that one and despite his tendency to do rush jobs, especially in his later years, Howell said he was generally satisfied with how the art turned out.  If you want to check it out, that Inhumans Special was just reprinted by Marvel in a trade paperback along with their 1988 graphic novel written by Ann Nocenti.

Inhumans backup Richard Howell

In the 1980s, Howell also drew All-Star Squadron, the Green Lantern feature in Action Comics Weekly, various profile pics for Who’s Who, DNAgents, and his creator-owned Portiz Prinz of the Glamazons.  That last one first originated as a self-published project in the late 1970s.

Howell did some work on Vampirella for Harris Comics in the early 1990s.  He then co-founded Claypool Comics with Ed Via in 1993.  I first found out about Claypool several years later.  As I’ve mentioned before, I used to see artist Dave Cockrum quite often at conventions & store signings.  When I asked him what he was currently working on, he told me he was penciling Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool.  Since I loved Dave’s artwork, I had my comic shop order the current issue, which was #30.  I read it, and thought it was awesome.  The series was a supernatural comedy written by Peter David, with co-plots & edits by Howell.  I was soon following Soulsearchers and Company on a regular basis.

Claypool also published three other series.  There was the twelve issue Phantom of Fear City, written by Howell’s old collaborator Steve Englehart, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, an anthology featuring the campy, vampy horror hostess, and Deadbeats, a dark vampire soap opera written & penciled by Howell, with rich embellishments by Argentine illustrator Ricardo Villagran.  Howell acknowledges that Dark Shadows had an influence on Deadbeats, and series actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett & Lara Parker have each written introductions for the three trade paperbacks.

Deadbeats Learning the Game cover

It took me a while to get into Deadbeats, simply because I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires.  This was around the time that Interview With A Vampire and Vampire: The Masquerade were really popular, and I just thought the whole notion of the undead as these refined, romantic, aristocratic beings was so annoying & pretentious (you can just imagine what I think of all that Twilight nonsense nowadays).  And so I unfortunately assumed that Deadbeats was more of the same.

However, corresponding with Howell via e-mail, he wore down my resistance, and I finally picked up the first two TPB collections, “New In Town” and “Learning The Game.”  And I have to confess I loved them.  Yes, the vampires in Deadbeats were super-sexy (both the women and the men, got to give Howell points for fairness) but most of them were unabashedly evil, committing brutally violent killings in their quest for fresh blood.  There were also a few morally conflicted members of the undead, as well as some who had relatively benevolent agendas, such as the vampire king Hermano (no relation).  There was also a really interesting cast of humans who were batting against the vampires of Mystic Grove, led by teenage couple Kirby Collier and Jo Isles.  Anyway, once I was done with those two TPBs, I started following Deadbeats with issue #50.

One of my favorite covers from Deadbeats is #53, penciled by Howell, with lush inking by Steve Leialoha.  I don’t know who did the coloring, but it looks fantastic.  One of the subplots in Deadbeats concerned Kirby’s long-lost father Adam arriving in Mystic Grove and recruiting vampire hunter Dakota Kane in an attempt to track down the mysterious bat cult that had kidnapped his wife years before.  It turned out that sultry lounge singer Countess DiMiera, currently performing at Mystic Grove’s popular social spot the Bat Club, was a member of that secret society, as well as a conduit for their dark deity, Murcielago the Bat-God.

Deadbeats 53 cover

I really loved Howell & Leialoha’s depiction of the sinister songstress on that cover (in hindsight, she might have reminded me of a more wicked version of Howell’s Scarlet Witch).  I asked Howell to let me know if he ever wanted to sell the original artwork.  He responded that he typically held on to all of his originals.  But a few years later he was kind enough to do a really nice sketch of the Countess and her disciples for me.  You can view that, and a few other beautiful pieces he has drawn for me, on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Richard+Howell&GCat=60

Unfortunately, due to low sales, in 2007 Diamond Distributors decided they would no longer carry any of Claypool’s titles (this is the kind of thing that happens when you are stuck doing business with a monopoly).  Deadbeats, Soulsearchers, and Elvira were all canceled.  Since 2007, Howell has continued the Deadbeats story as an online comic at the Claypool website.  I’m glad he’s been able to do that, but I really hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to collect those installments together in print editions.

As you can see, Richard Howell has had a very diverse career, during which he has written and drawn some amazing comic books.  I really enjoy his art, and I hope to see more from him in the future.  Happy birthday, Richard.  Keep up the great work.

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Remembering Dave Cockrum

I wanted to take a moment to remember one of my all time favorite comic book artists, Dave Cockrum, who was born on November 11, 1943 and passed away on November 26, 2006 at the too young age of 63.  Today would have been his 70th birthday.

A few days ago I wrote about how I became a huge fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and how Dave Cockrum’s significant contributions to that series played a major role in that.  In addition to successfully redesigning the majority of the team’s costumes, Dave created new team member Wildfire, villain Tyr, and occasional allies Infectious Lass and Devil-Fish.  Dave had ideas for quite a number of other new Legion members, including a certain blue-skinned, pointy-tailed fellow named Nightcrawler, but his editor Murray Boltinoff feared that the character was too strange-looking.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum

After Dave left Legion over a dispute concerning the return of his original artwork, he took the unused Nightcrawler with him to Marvel in 1975.  There, the character became one of the members of the mega-successful revamp of X-Men by himself and writer Len Wein.  Dave co-created Storm, Colossus, and Thunderbird with Wein.  Although he was not involved in the initial development of Wolverine, Dave was the first artist to draw him unmasked, giving Logan his now-iconic hair & facial features.

The overworked Wein departed from X-Men after only three issues, and Chris Claremont became the series’ new writer.  Chris and Dave collaborated very well together, and they were responsible for revamping Jean Grey into Phoenix, as well as introducing Black Tom Cassidy, Lilandra, the Shi’ar Empire, the Imperial Guard (who were sort of a parody of the Legion), and the Starjammers.  Dave also helped Chris out on his other ongoing assignment, Ms. Marvel, penciling two issues wherein he designed a fantastic new costume for Carol Danvers.  Although he did not draw their first appearances in the pages of Ms. Marvel, Dave was the designer of both Deathbird and Mystique.  In the case of the later, Dave explained in 2003:

“This drawing was done for fun and hung in my office until my partner Chris Claremont wandered in one day, saw her, and started to drool. ‘I want her!’ he said. He named her Mystique, gave her powers and added her to the Uncanny X-Men rogues gallery.”

Dave Cockrum's stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique.

Dave Cockrum’s stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique

Due to X-Men going to a monthly status, Dave left the series in 1977, and John Byrne became the new penciler & co-plotter.  Byrne & Claremont had a great, memorable run, producing many classic stories, but the two eventually parted ways in 1981.  Dave came back for a second run penciling Uncanny X-Men, paired with inkers Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek.  During this time, Chris and Dave collaborated on several great stories, including “I, Magneto” in Uncanny X-Men #150, which first revealed Magneto’s history as a survivor of the Holocaust, “Kitty’s Fairy Tale” in #153, and a flashback to Xavier and Magneto’s first encounter in #161.  Chris and Dave also introduced the insidiously evil alien monstrosities known as the Brood.

Dave once again departed Uncanny X-Men in 1983 to create his Futurians graphic novel.  He also wrote & drew an enjoyable four issue Nightcrawler miniseries that saw the swashbuckling Kurt Wagner bouncing from one strange dimension to another.  On more than one occasion, Dave had said that Nightcrawler was a sort of romanticized version of himself, so he must have enjoyed working on these issues.

Futurians #0

Futurians #0

Around this time, Dave took the creator-owned Futurians over to a small company called Lodestone Comics.  Unfortunately, they folded after publishing only three issues, leaving Dave’s fourth issue unreleased.  However, on a couple of subsequent occasions it was finally published, first in a trade paperback by Eternity in 1987 and then as a black & white issue by Clifford Meth’s Aardwolf Publishing in 1995.  That later edition also included a brand new five page story by written by Meth & drawn by Dave.

Dave remained a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and over the years he would return to the series to draw the occasional cover or short sequence, plus some profile images for Who’s Who in the Legion.  It was always a delight to see his work on the characters.

In the 1990s, Dave unfortunately had some trouble finding regular work.  He did get the occasional job from Marvel, DC, Valiant and Defiant.  One of my favorite stories that he drew was “Depth Charges” in Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3, written by Michael Jan Friedman, which features an aquatic alien member of the GL Corps.  Dave did fantastic work on that.  He was briefly reunited with Chris Claremont when he penciled a series of back-up stories for Sovereign Seven.  Dave also became the penciler of the really fun supernatural comedy Soulsearchers and Company which was co-written by Peter David & Richard Howell, and published by Claypool Comics.  Again, he did really great work on those issues.

Dave Cockrum's super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath, from Soulsearchers and Company #37

Dave Cockrum’s super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath,
from Soulsearchers and Company #37

For a number of years Dave and his wife, artist & colorist Paty, lived in upstate New York.  I would often see them at local comic book conventions & store signings.  They were both really nice, fun, intelligent people, and I’m glad I had so many opportunities to meet them.  During this time, I was fortunate enough to acquire a few pages of artwork that Dave had worked on, as well as a few sketches.  I’ve posted scans of those on the Comic Art Fans website.  Here’s a link:

http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=2441

During the last few years of his life, Dave was sadly plagued by ill health.  Clifford Meth helped raise money to assist in paying his medical bills, publishing The Uncanny Dave Cockrum…A Tribute through Aardwolf.  Numerous artists contributed drawings of Dave’s numerous creations, with the originals subsequently being auctioned off to raise further funds.

Recently on his Facebook page, Meth announced the following: “In 2014, Aardwolf Publishing will release the final, never-before-published Dave Cockrum FUTURIANS comic, pencilled and written by Dave himself. We have a terrific assembly of comics’ stars participating, but we want EVERYONE to help us make this a HUGE success. Want to help? Artists are invited to contribute pin-ups of Dave’s Futurians’ characters, which we’ll include in the printed and/or digital book, and also use as Kickstarter perks. You’ll be in star-studded company–we promise. Please join us!”  I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I wish Meth great success in bringing this to print.  I’ll keep everyone updated once I learn more information about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Dave Cockrum was undoubtedly a superbly talented artist, as well as an incredible designer, who left an indelible mark on the comic book biz.  He left behind a rich legacy of wonderful artwork and colorful creations for us to enjoy.