Doctor Who vs. Black Friday

Yesterday I was wondering why we have never had a Doctor Who Thanksgiving Special.  After all, there has been a Doctor Who Christmas Special every single year since 2005.  So why not a Thanksgiving Special?

Okay, I understand, Doctor Who is a British-produced television series, and Thanksgiving is an American holiday.  So, yeah, it’s not liklely that the Doctor would have to save Cardiff from being overrun by a flock of alien turkeys.  But the show always could make another excursion here to the States to film a Thanksgiving special.

Thinking it over some more, though, I soon came up with a much better idea: a Doctor Who Black Friday special!  If necessary, the BBC would not even have to film it in America, because it turns out that Black Friday consumer madness has now spread to Great Britain, with police across the the country being called in to control unruly crowds.

So, here’s my idea: the Doctor and his companion arrive on Earth in the TARDIS on the day after Thanksgiving.  They are alarmed and horrified to find mobs of maddened shoppers swamping department stores, drawn by the promise of absolutely insane discount prices.  But it all turns out to be a trap.  All the shopping mall gates slam closed simultaeously across the globe, imprisoning millions of consumers.  And then the store mannequins and shop window dummies begin to come to life…

Auton attack

Yes, it’s the Autons!  All of these events have been put into motion by the extraterrestrial Nestine Consciousness.  Having seized control of the giant multi-national retail juggernaut Sale-Mart via their Auton duplicates, the Nestine Consiousness has slashed the prices of its entire line of merchandise to absolutely rock-bottom levels.  After all, why bother sending out an army of Auton soldiers to try and conquer the world when you can just lure the masses to your super-stores with the promise of super savings, at which point you can easily slaughter all those defenseless consumers?

The plastic Christmas trees would also begin marching about, shooting flames and launching razor-sharp ornaments at helpless bystanders.

Obviously it would fall to the Doctor to rescue humanity from the twin threats of the Nestine Consciousness and it’s own covetous nature.  And, having saved the world, the Doctor would impart a sage message about the true meaning of Black Friday, namely that it is the day when we should all just stay at home and sleep off all of that turkey we ate the night before.

Well I for one think it would make for a cracking episode.  So, anyone else here up for having the BBC broadcast Doctor Who: The Black Friday Invasion next year?

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Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

I sometimes feel rather ambivalent about the Batman television series that ran from 1966 to 1968.  Along with the Super Friends cartoons, when I was a kid it provided my first exposure to many of the characters in the DC Comics universe.  I enjoyed watching reruns of the show when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

A decade later, when I was a teenager, I had a rather different view of show.  By that time, I was reading the actual Batman comic books, along with many other titles.  And it drove me nuts that people would often assume that I was immature for reading comics, that they were nothing but silly, campy stories meant for kids… i.e. exactly like the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Along with many other comic book readers, I would protest that comic books could be serious and adult.  I’d wave around my copies of Batman: Year One and Watchmen to demonstrate that comics were intelligent and deep, not at all like that old TV show.  This persisted for years.

And then one day I looked around and realized that everything had turned 180 degrees on me: comic books were too damn serious!  Everyone was trying to mimic Frank Miller and Alan Moore, churning out grim & gritty nonsense, reiterating for the zillionth time the now utterly trite question “What if super-heroes existed in the real world?”  At that point I threw up my hands in frustration and actually started asking “Why can’t comic books be fun again?!?”

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 8

It seems that I’m not the only one to have realized that the pendulum had swung much too far in the opposite direction, taking us from campy to clinically depressing.  I think this is a significant factor in explaining the huge success of the Batman ’66 comic book.  Written by Jeff Parker, with interiors by a number of artists and covers by Mike Allred, Batman ’66 is set in the television series continuity.  This brings us to Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Len Wein, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Joe Prado, with a cover by Alex Ross.

Back in the mid-1960s when the first season of the Batman television show was in pre-production, prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison was invited to write an episode.  He submitted a synopsis entitled “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” which would have brought the duality-obsessed Harvey Dent into the TV show.  For one reason or another, the episode was never made.  The synopsis then spent the next several decades in Ellison’s files.  Finally Ellison dug it out, dusted it off, and included it in Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison Volume 5, published in 2013.  Then, as recounted by Len Wein, Ellison got in touch with DC Comics to suggest the use of his synopsis for the Batman ’66 book.  That got the ball rolling, eventually leading to The Lost Episode special.

Len Wein is probably best known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he has many credits to his name, including a number of Batman stories that were published in the 1970s and 80s.  He’s also a longtime friend of Ellison, which made him the ideal choice to adapt the synopsis into a full-length comic book script.

It is interesting to compare Wein’s script to the original treatment by Ellison, which is included in The Lost Episode.  Ellison obviously conceived the major points of the plot, which Wein fleshed out.  Wein also added certain details.  Ellison’s synopsis has Two-Face working alone.  In keeping with the character’s double motif, Wein gave Two-Face a pair of henchmen named Deuce and Twain.  Not only does it suit the character, but it also fits with the TV series.  As I recall, every single bad guy on the show had at least a few henchmen on hand to do the heavy lifting and run interference when Batman and Robin inevitably crashed their criminal capers.

I do think there was at least one point that worked better in Ellison’s original outline.  But on the whole Wein does a very good job translating Ellison’s synopsis into a 30 page comic book script.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 15

Wein did a superb job of capturing the tone of the television show’s scripts.  Reading “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” I really could “hear” in my head Adam West and Burt Ward speaking Batman and Robin’s dialogue.  Wein also utilized television producer William Dozier’s omniscient voiceover narration, including the obligatory mention of “stately Wayne Manor.”  And there was a healthy heaping of animated alliteration from our compelling cast of characters.

The only thing that was missing was the cliffhanger!  As I was reading, I kept expecting that any minute Two-Face and his goons would gain the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo, and that the next instant Batman and Robin would then find themselves about to meet a gristly end in the jaws of some overly-complicated deathtrap.  That was always how the first episode ended!  I’m guessing that Ellison must have composed his story synopsis before the two-episode structure with its requisite cliffhanger was established.

Penciling “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face” is the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  Now this was when my interest in this project was really piqued.  As I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of Garcia-Lopez.  He is an absolutely amazing artist.  Regrettably it has been quite some time since he has worked on any significant projects for DC, focusing instead on licensing art and style guides.  Most of the published work he’s done recently has been variant covers, and those editions were inevitably rare & expensive.  I recently found out he contributed on a couple of issues of All-Star Western which flew under my radar, so I have to search them out.  So the promise of a brand-new, full-length story penciled by Garcia-Lopez was definitely enticing.

I am not especially familiar with Joe Prado, although I know he’s done quite a bit of work for DC over the last several years.  He has a very modern, slick inking style.  Prado utilizes quite a bit of hatching in his embellishment.  This makes for a distinctive collaboration with Garcia-Lopez, whose style is definitely more traditional.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 37

Perhaps it was done to pad out the size of the book, but The Lost Episode also contains all 30 pages of Garcia-Lopez’s uninked pencils.  While perhaps not an essential element, I certainly regard this as a unique opportunity.  In my blog post Thinking About Inking: The Role of Comic Book Inkers, one of my major points was that it is often difficult for the casual reader to look at a published comic book and discern what the work of the penciler is and what that of the inker is.  The Lost Episode provides us with the chance to view the pencils side-by-side with the inked artwork, enabling us to understand what Garcia-Lopez and Prado each contributed.  It also allows us to see how much of a role the excellent coloring by Alex Sinclair played in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Garcia-Lopez did illustrate a variant cover for The Lost Episode, although that edition was, inevitably, rarer and more expensive.  At least his uninked pencils for that alternate cover are published inside.

The standard cover is painted by Alex Ross.  I’ve observed in the past that, while Ross is an amazing artist, when it comes to rendering costumed characters sometimes his paintings are a bit too realistic.  If the Batman television series demonstrated one thing, it is that in real life people can end up looking rather preposterous when dressed up in spandex outfits (the exception, of course, being Julie Newmar, who always looked purrfect as Catwoman).  There are times when Ross has created paintings of superheroes that are so photorealistic that it just takes me out of my suspension of disbelief because I feel like I am looking at an actual person wearing a silly costume.  I guess this relates to the whole idea of how a lot of the elements that look fantastic on the pages of comic books end up appearing silly when translated too literally into three-dimensional reality.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode cover

Having said all that, Ross is the ideal artist to be creating covers for Batman ’66.  In this case, since this is a comic book based on a television series (which, yes, in turn was based on a comic book) photorealism is the name of the game.  He definitely captures the likenesses and body language of Adam West and Burt Ward, something he has also done successfully on his recent covers for the Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet miniseries.  Ross’ conception of Two-Face is both horrific and tragic, a portrait of brooding, melancholy madness that is obsessively fixated on the duality in life.  He even frames the composition in an off-kilter angle, evoking the tilted “Dutch angle” camera shots the television show utilized for scenes set in the villains’ lairs.  All told, his cover is extremely striking and dramatic.

I do think the ten dollar cover price for Batman ’66: The Lost Episode was a little too high.  Still, all in all, it was a very good book and I am glad I purchased it.

In hindsight, yeah, the Batman television series was pretty cool.  I’m glad that all of the rights issues were finally worked out, enabling it to at last be released on DVD.  And I’m also happy that we have the Batman ’66 comic book series.  It definitely makes for a nice change of pace from the oppressively grim pall of the New 52 Bat-books.

Now if only DC Comics would give Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez an ongoing book to illustrate.  How about a miniseries at the very least?  Come on, DC, just think about it!

The Doctor and The Master: the best of enemies

“That’s my best enemy. He likes to be known as the Master.” – The Third Doctor

On the Doctor Who television series, the Daleks are often referred to as the Doctor’s greatest enemies.  However, our eccentric time traveler also has another arch-foe, an adversary of a more intimate nature, his personal bête noire: a fellow renegade Time Lord known as the Master.

The character of the Master was created in 1970 by Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts.  Having compared the relationship between the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, they then contemplated who his Moriarty would be.  The two of them devised the Master, a fellow Time Lord of the Doctor’s who was also in exile, but one without morality or conscience, who had devoted his existence to the acquisition of power.

The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has always been complicated and dysfunctional.  Not only did they come from the same world, but they also attended university together, and at one time were even close friends.  But then something occurred to sour that friendship, and they became bitter enemies.

We first saw the Master on television in “Terror of the Autons,” written by Robert Holmes and broadcast in January 1971.  Portrayed by Roger Delgado, the Master was already an infamous criminal.  Appearing regularly on the series throughout the next three years, the Master led a succession of alien menaces to attack the Earth, where the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was temporarily exiled by the Time Lords.

Master Roger Delgado

On the surface, the Master’s goal seemed to be one of conquest.  But underneath it all you got the impression that he was causing all of this death & destruction primarily to annoy the Doctor.  In “Terror of the Autons” the Master ostensibly comes to Earth to aid the Nestine Consciousness in a second attempt to invade the world.  But in fact the Master spends the majority of his time not working to advance the Nestine scheme, but rather repeatedly attempting to kill the Doctor via all manner of complex, sophisticated death traps & ambushes.

The second story to feature the Master, “The Mind of Evil,” had the renegade Time Lord utilizing an alien mind parasite that could psychically kill people by manifesting their greatest fears.  When the parasite is accidentally turned on the Master himself, the results are illuminating: it appears that the Master’s worst nightmare is of the Doctor scornfully, mockingly laughing at him.

In the next serial, “The Claws of Axos,” at one point towards the end of the story it seems that the destruction of Earth by the energy vampire Axos is unavoidable.  The Doctor briefly appears to agree to work with the Master in order to escape the seemingly-doomed planet.  Although skeptical, the Master was also rather pleased at the idea that the Doctor was ready to abandon both humanity and his principles in order to save his own skin.  Of course this was just a ruse by the Doctor to trick the Master into assisting him in defeating Axos.

Following that, in “Colony in Space” written by Malcolm Hulke, the Master is seeking control of the Doomsday Weapon, a device capable of destroying entire planets.  The Master wishes to blackmail the entire universe into obeying him.  And when, after five episodes of padding, the Doctor finally catches up with his foe, the Master, instead of attempting to kill him, surprisingly offers to divide control of the universe between the two of them…

The Master: Doctor, why don’t you come in with me? We’re both Time Lords, we’re both renegades. We could be masters of the galaxy. Think of it, Doctor. Absolute power. Power for good. Oh, you could reign benevolently. You could end war, suffering, disease. We could save the universe.
The Doctor: No, absolute power is evil.
The Master: Select carefully, Doctor. I’m offering you a half share in the universe. You must see reason, Doctor.
The Doctor: No, I will not join you in your absurd dreams of galactic conquest.
The Master: Why? Why?!? Look at this. Look at all those planetary systems, Doctor. We could rule them all!
The Doctor: What for? What is the point?
The Master: The point is that one must rule or serve. That is a basic law of life. Why do you hesitate? Surely it’s not loyalty to the Time Lords, who exiled you to one insignificant planet?
The Doctor: You’ll never understand, will you? I want to see the universe, not to rule it!

This scene is well scripted by Malcolm Hulke.  It is also played extraordinarily well by Pertwee and Delgado.  Throughout the entire exchange you can see the Doctor contemplating the Master’s offer, mulling it over in his head, weighing the pros and cons. Likewise, the Master is genuinely perplexed that the Doctor isn’t being won over.  As the argument continues, the Master becomes more and more frustrated.  He just cannot comprehend why the Doctor isn’t willing to accept what to him is so readily apparent about the nature of the universe and existence.  When the Doctor finally rejects the proposed partnership, the Master is absolutely furious, and in the very next second he is once again quite ready to kill the Doctor in cold blood.

So, even from the start, it was obvious that there was a lot going on beneath the surface when it came to the relationship between Doctor and the Master.

There are definite similarities between the Doctor and the Master.  They are each brilliant, charismatic, sophisticated, and arrogant, as well as not altogether sane.  But the Doctor has a conscience, a sense of right & wrong, an appreciation for the lives of others, things totally absent in the Master.  One can look at the Master and see that he is the Doctor completely unencumbered by any sort of empathy.  The Master is a sociopathic figure who casually uses and discards others, who finds amusement in manipulation and murder.

Master Peter Pratt

Dicks & Letts had planned to write one last story featuring the Master that would explore his exact relationship with the Doctor, an epic swan song for Roger Delgado to go out on.  These plans came to naught when in June 1973 Delgado tragically died in an automobile accident.  The character of the Master quietly disappeared until 1976, when the Doctor was now being played by Tom Baker.

Resurfacing in “The Deadly Assassin,” a serial written by Robert Holmes, the man who had scripted the villain’s first appearance, the Master was now a very different individual.  Somehow having used up all of his regenerations, the Master, portrayed by Peter Pratt, was now literally a walking corpse.  Seemingly driven on solely by willpower, the Master conceived a brilliantly apocalyptic scheme to renew his regeneration cycle, a plan that would have destroyed his home world of Gallifrey.  Part of this plot required a patsy to be framed for the assassination of the Time Lord President.  The Master’s ally / pawn Chancellor Goth protests that using the Doctor for this was too dangerous, and they could have manipulated anyone.  To this the half-decayed Master stubbornly replies…

“Noooo, we could not have used anyone. You do not understand hatred as I understand it. Only hate keeps me alive. Why else should I endure this pain? I must see the Doctor die in shame and dishonor! Yes, and I must destroy the Time Lords! Nothing else matters! Nothing!

Even at the apparent end of his existence, the Master cannot let go of his rivalry with the Doctor.  His will to survive is equaled by his obsession with humiliating and then killing his old foe.

The Master next appeared in “The Keeper of Traken” in 1981, still in his grim reaper incarnation, now played by Geoffrey Beevers (who would later reprise this incarnation in several of the Big Finish stories).  It was Beevers who observed that this incarnation of the Master, stripped of all his charisma, cultured airs and good looks, was “the essence of the creature,” revealed to all the world as an insane, hateful, murderous figure of death.

Master Anthony Ainley

At the end of “The Keeper of Traken” the Master perpetuated his existence by seizing control of another living being and merging his form with his victim.  As played by Anthony Ainley, he was rejuvenated into a form physically similar to Delgado, although now rather less charismatic, and certainly much more feral & insane.  Still unable to regenerate, the Master embarked on a series of highly implausible, convoluted schemes to further extend his life and generate chaos & destruction.  And no matter what he got up to, the Master always had to drag the Doctor into the proceedings in order to brag about his latest scheme before once again attempting to kill his longtime opponent.

Even after being exterminated by the Daleks, the Master found a way to survive as an ectoplasmic snake-like entity.  Causing the TARDIS to crash-land in San Francisco in late December 1999, this remnant of the Master once again engaged in body-snatching, possessing an ambulance driver named Bruce (Eric Roberts).  Knowing that this human form would not last long, the Master unsuccessfully sought to take over the body of the Doctor (Paul McGann).

The Master, reborn with (appropriately enough) a rather reptilian persona, manipulated the misguided teenager Chang Lee into helping him gain access to the TARDIS, telling the young man that he regarded him like a son.  Later, though the Master quite casually murdered Chang Lee, as well as the Doctor’s friend Grace Holloway.  Understandably enough the Doctor was outraged by these deaths, and he angrily shouted “You want dominion over the living, yet all you do is kill!”  To this the Master’s only response was a snarled “Life is wasted on the living!”  During their struggle, the Master was sucked into the Eye of Harmony and once again seemingly destroyed.

Master Eric Roberts

By the time David Tennant was playing the Doctor, it was revealed that the Master had been resurrected by the Time Lords to fight in the Time War against the Daleks.  Instead the Master had fled to the end of time itself and transformed himself into a human being, losing his memory in the process.

Arriving at the end of time, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) encountered Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi).  A brilliant but absent-minded scientist, Yana was a kindred spirit to the Doctor.  The two of them got along brilliantly… at least until the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones recognized Yana’s broken fob watch as a chameleon arch, something which the Doctor himself had also once utilized.  Her interest in the “watch” led Yana to open it, restoring him to his true identity: the Master.  The kindly, benevolent grandfather figure was instantly supplanted by an icy, arrogant, ruthless murderer who shot his long-time assistant Chantho in cold blood.  Before she succumbed to her wounds, Chantho also shot the Master.  Mortally wounded, the Master regenerated into a new, younger body (John Simm).

It is certainly telling that the Master, stranded at the end of time and stricken with amnesia, became a figure very much like the Doctor.  And once he regenerated, the Master, as played by Simm, was very much an evil reflection of the Tenth Doctor, possessing many of his qualities and habits, but none of his positive attributes.

Master Derek Jacobi

By this point, despite their long enmity, the Doctor was desperate to mend the shattered friendship he once had with the Master.  It appeared that he and the Master were the only two surviving Time Lords, the rest of their race having perished in the war against the Daleks. Unfortunately the Master, who had always been decidedly unbalanced, was now barking mad, totally unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s entreaties.

In “The Last of the Time Lords,” captured by the Master, the Doctor is reduced to a feeble old man, unable to regenerate.  The gloating, sadistic Master keeps the Doctor as a pet, forcing him to witness his brutal conquest of the Earth.  At one point the Master even has the Scissor Sisters song “I Can’t Decide” playing as he manically springs about his headquarters, pushing the incapacitated Doctor around in a wheelchair:

I can’t decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you’ll prob’ly go to heaven
Please don’t hang your head and cry
No wonder why
My heart feels dead inside
It’s cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We’re going for a ride

That chorus certainly sounds like an apt description of the Master’s ambivalent feelings towards the Doctor.

At the conclusion of “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master defeated and his year-long rule over of the Earth erased from history, the Doctor is ready to take custody of his arch foe.  However, the Master’s abused wife Lucy shoots him.  The Doctor realizes that if the Master dies he will once again be the only surviving Time Lord and begs his adversary to regenerate.  But the Master wills himself not to.  He would rather perish than become the Doctor’s prisoner.  And, seeing how terrified the Doctor is of once again being alone in the universe, the Master says “How about that? I win.”  With that he dies.  The Master, a being who clung so stubbornly, tenaciously to life, looking for any means to escape death’s embrace, finally lets himself die just to spite the Doctor.

Master John Simm

Of course, even dead and cremated, the Master finds a way back to life.  He’s good at that sort of thing.  “The End of Time” sees him and the Tenth Doctor once more face to face.  Again the Doctor is pleading with the Master to end his latest scheme of conquest and accept his help.  For once, we see the Master hint at regret and sadness at how twisted their friendship has become.  But he is also possessed of a resigned conviction that things can never be the way they once were.

A few writers over the years have attempted to examine what led the Master to become the cold, ruthless monster that he is.  David A. McIntee’s novel The Dark Path and Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish audio play “Master” each had their own ideas.  Russell T Davies also took a stab at it in the revived television series.  We learned that the future Master, at the young age of eight, looked into the time vortex as part of a Time Lord rite of initiation.  The experience apparently drove him mad over time, and in the back of his mind he heard the incessant, unrelenting sound of drums pounding.  Davies stopped short of categorically stating this was the cause of the Master’s insanity, suggesting it is only a theory on the Doctor’s part.

Davies returned to the pounding of the drums in the Master’s psyche in “The End of Time,” and we learn the horrible origin of the mental noise that has plagued him throughout much of his life.

In the final days of the Time War, the Time Lords, corrupted by their immense powers, and driven to desperation by their cataclysmic conflict with the Daleks, decided to re-create reality itself and ascend to a higher plane of existence.  Unfortunately, this would wipe out all other life in the universe.  The Doctor, realizing how dangerous and ruthless his own people had become, apparently destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks.  The events of the War became “time locked,” unalterable.

The Time Lords, though, refused to give up.  Rassilon, the resurrected Lord President of Gallifrey, hatched a desperate scheme to escape the time lock.  On the eve of the War’s conclusion, Rassilon learns that the Doctor and the Master are the only two Time Lords who are destined to survive the conflict.  Rassilon orders a signal beamed back centuries through the time vortex, to be intercepted by a young Master during his initiation: the sound of drums.  This signal, which helped drive the Master insane, is something the Time Lords can now fix onto and use to break Gallifrey out of the time lock, freeing the Time Lords to rewrite all of existence.

The Master, the grand manipulator who sought control over all reality, learns in “The End of Time” that he has been someone else’s pawn all along.

At the conclusion of the story the Doctor managed to shatter that link.  Rassilon, the Time Lords, and Gallifrey were all yanked back into the time stream, to once again perish at the end of the Time War.  And this time the Master vanished alongside them.

However, as was revealed in “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey was not actually destroyed.  Instead it was hidden away in an alternate dimension.  And so the potential survival of the Master once again became a possibility.

Missy Michelle Gomez

The Master did indeed eventually resurface to bedevil the Doctor.  Now in his Twelfth incarnation, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encountered Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Master regenerated into a female body.  But she was still as insane and demented as ever.  In the two part story “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” Missy succeeded in transforming billions of dead humans into an army of Cybermen. When she subsequently reveals that her manipulations have all been enacted in order that she could give the Doctor control of this Cybermen army as a gift, he is absolutely flabbergasted…

The Doctor: All of this… All of it, just to give me an army?
Missy: Well, I don’t need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they’re right. And nobody thinks they’re righter than you! Give a good man firepower, and he’ll never run out of people to kill.
The Doctor: I don’t want an army.
Missy: Well, that’s the trouble! Yes, you do! You’ve always wanted one! All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back.
The Doctor: Nobody can have that power.
Missy: You will because you don’t have a choice. There’s only one way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it’s done.
The Doctor: Why are you doing this?
Missy: I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.

This exchange very much parallels the one between the Doctor and the Master many years back in “Colony in Space.”  Once again the Master / Missy is offering the Doctor the opportunity to bring order to the universe, to reshape it in his image.  And whereas before the terms of the offer were “join me or die” here it is “join me or I destroy the human race.”

Christopher H. Bidmead once described the Master as “the devil incarnate.”  That was an apt description.  Not only is the Master an entity of pure evil who wants control over all existence, but he is also a figure of temptation.  On various occasions he has tempted individuals with offers of power.  In the end, after they (metaphorically) sold their souls to him, he inevitably killed them.  The Master sought to bring the Doctor himself over to his side with the promise of equal control of the Doomsday Weapon.  Now once again the Master / Missy seeks to corrupt the Doctor with the offer of absolute power.  If Missy cannot prove that she is superior to the Doctor, then she is instead determined to drag the Doctor down to her level, to demonstrate to both herself and the Doctor that in the end he is no better than her.

Missy Master all incarnations

As I was writing this post, pondering the question of what caused the friendship of these two Time Lords to transform into such a bitter, twisted enmity, a thought occurred to me.  Perhaps it was not only the Master who changed.  Maybe it was also the Doctor who became a different person.

In the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-64, the figure of the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, starts out as very unsympathetic.  In the first few stories he is, at best, an anti-hero.  If you want to be brutally honest, he is an asshole.

The Doctor is repeatedly insulting and condescending to Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton.  He kidnaps the two schoolteachers in the TARDIS to prevent his granddaughter Susan from going with them and leaving him.  In Earth’s prehistoric past he is willing to bash in the head of a wounded caveman with a rock, to kill in cold blood, in order to ensure his own survival.  He selfishly sabotages the TARDIS so that he will have a chance to explore Skaro, resulting in him and his companions nearly dying from radiation sickness and then becoming prisoners of the Daleks.  Afterwards, when the TARDIS malfunctions and hurtles back in time out of control, without any evidence he accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the craft, and threatens to throw them out at the very next destination.

Finally, at the climax of “The Edge of Destruction,” a fuming Barbara reads the Doctor the riot act.  She calls him out on all of the crap that he has pulled throughout the previous three serials.  When the Doctor discovers that he was totally incorrect about what was wrong with the TARDIS, and Susan points out to him that he has acted horrible towards Ian and Barbara, the Doctor is forced to eat humble pie.  He reluctantly offers up a mea culpa to Barbara, acknowledging that he was wrong and she was right.  He acknowledges that “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.”  And from that point on the Doctor began his transformation into the heroic figure we all know & love.

If the Doctor became a better person through his travels and his friendships with human beings, perhaps the opposite is true of the Master.  Perhaps he was once like the Doctor in the old days, arrogant, overconfident and manipulative, yet not truly evil.  But along the way, traveling the universe alone, without the positive influence of others, without anyone to call him out on his mistakes or urge him to change his ways, all of the Master’s negative flaws were left unchecked and allowed to flourish, until eventually he became a monster.

That, I think, is the fascination of the Master as a character.  He is the man the Doctor could have become under a different set of circumstances, if he had made different choices.  The Master is his warped mirror image, an eternal reminder to the Doctor of what he still might yet become, a potent warning that he must ever keep himself in check, lest the same fate befall him.

Doctor Who reviews: Dark Water and Death in Heaven

The two part finale of Doctor Who Series Eight, comprised of “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven,” has the Internet all abuzz.  Steven Moffat seems to have hit all the right notes with his scripts.  Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson and Michelle Gomez each did excellent work portraying the Doctor, Clara, Danny and Missy.

There is soooo much to cover… where to begin?  I expect that most everyone reading this review will have already viewed these two episodes, so I can keep the plot summaries to a minimum and focus on my reactions & analysis.  If you need to refresh your memories about the details, well, as my girlfriend likes to say, “Look it up on Wikipedia!”

Doctor Who Death In Heaven promo image

“Dark Water” opens with Danny walking through the streets of London, talking to Clara on his cell phone.  Crossing the street, he is hit by a car and is instantly killed.  Wow, I did not see that coming.  And I was genuinely upset.  As with the character of Clara, I felt Danny was somewhat inconsistently written over this past season.  But Anderson played him so very well, made him such a compelling character, that when Danny died I was upset.

Clara is consumed with grief and shock.  Absolutely distraught, she attempts to force the Doctor to travel back in time and undo Danny’s death, threatening to strand them both on a volcanic planet by tossing all of the TARDIS keys into the lava.  However, the entire journey is revealed to be an illusion, as the Doctor hypnotized Clara to find out how far she was willing to go.  This sequence is interesting because throughout Series Eight we have seen Clara acting more and more like the Doctor.  Now she attempts to manipulate him, and in the sequence where it appears that they are standing on the edge of the volcano Clara really behaves in a very Doctor-ish manner.

Realizing that she has betrayed the Doctor’s trust, Clara is ready to accept banishment from the TARDIS.  But the Doctor informs her that despite this betrayal he still regards Clara as a friend, and if it is possible he will help her attempt to locate Danny in the afterlife, or wherever it is people go when they die.  While I did think the bit about the Doctor saying “Go to hell” was forced, both Capaldi and Coleman play this extremely well.  It really demonstrates Clara’s grief and remorse: she believes that having already lost the man she loves, she has now also let down her best friend.  Then Capaldi shows us a Doctor who, despite his disappointment at this betrayal, is still willing to help a friend who needs him.

Doctor Who Dark Water volcano

Speaking of Danny, he regains consciousness in the Nethersphere, the mysterious location where several other characters who died in recent episodes have also found themselves.  A bureaucrat named Seb (Chris Addison) informs Danny that he is deceased.  Addison portrays Seb with this amusingly smarmy quality.  He very much brings across the notion of a paper-pusher attempting to project sympathy, but who it is transparently obvious really doesn’t give a crap, and who delights in being able to tangle people up in red tape.

Danny is having difficulty believing he is really dead… until he comes face to face with the young boy he accidentally killed while serving in the military.  Moffat has previously been heavy-handed at implying that this is what took place during Danny’s time in the service, and why Danny dislikes the Doctor, who reminds him of the officers & politicians who sent him into a war zone.  So the revelation comes as no surprise.  But, again, Anderson plays Danny so well that he brings real emotion to this scene.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor uses the telepathic circuits to navigate via Clara’s thoughts, hoping to home in on Danny’s location.  They materialize inside a massive mausoleum containing dozens of skeletons seated in chambers filled with liquid.  The pair is greeted by Missy who introduces herself as the android interface of 3W, a facility dedicated to preserving the bodies of the deceased out of the belief that the dead remain conscious after death.  The Doctor dismisses 3W as a scam… and he is correct.

Missy is not an android, but the head of 3W.  She has conned people into letting them preserve their bodies, but in fact is converting them into Cybermen.  She has also spent centuries stealing the minds of countless people at the moment of their deaths, storing them in the Nethersphere.

The revelation of the Cybermen is not a surprise, as there’d been publicity photos of Missy standing alongside an army of them circulating about for weeks before “Dark Water” was broadcast.  So it wasn’t much of a mystery as to what was happening with all of those dead bodies in the possession of 3W.

Missy is a slightly different matter.  Over the past few months, since her debut in “Deep Breath” there’s been much online speculation concerning her identity.  It was clever for Moffat to throw in some last-minute misdirection so that, for several minutes at least, it appears that Missy is some sort of artificial intelligence gone rogue.  It then results in some more drama & surprise when her true identity, which many already suspected, is finally revealed.

Of course, I totally missed out on figuring out what the nature of the Nethersphere was, when it should have been so obvious.  The Doctor identifies it as “a Matrix Data Slice, a Gallifreyan hard drive.”  Introduced in 1976 in the serial “The Deadly Assassin,” the Matrix was a vast computer network into which the memories of recently-deceased Time Lords were uploaded.  Living minds could also enter the Matrix, within which a virtual reality world could be generated.  So, yes, as a long time Doctor Who fan, I really ought to have figured out that this was the destination where all of those deceased people were arriving at throughout Series Eight, especially given the speculation concerning Missy’s true nature.

Doctor Who Dark Water Cybermen

Trying to locate Clara, from whom he has become separated, the Doctor accidentally exits the 3W facility, only to finds himself outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, 2014.  As the corpses, now converted into Cybermen, begin marching out into the streets of London (in homage to a very similar scene from the 1968 serial “The Invasion”) the Doctor attempts to figure out Missy’s identity.

The Doctor: Who are you?
Missy: Oh, you know who I am. I’m Missy.
The Doctor: Who’s Missy?
Missy: Please, try to keep up. Short for Mistress. Well…couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?

The Doctor is absolutely horrified at this revelation.  The look on Capaldi’s face is epic.  You can just see an expression spread across his features that translates into “Oh fuck!”

Quite a few people guessed Missy’s identity well in advance.  So it wasn’t nearly as much of a shock as, say, the reveal several years ago in “Utopia” that Professor Yana was actually the Master.  Nevertheless the climax to “Dark Water” is well-written and well-filmed, so that even if you’ve deduced what’s coming it still packs a punch.

Regarding the Master becoming a woman… It was established in both “The Doctor’s Wife” and “Night of the Doctor” that Time Lords have the ability to change genders when they regenerate.  So it is not entirely unprecedented that the Master should resurface as a woman.  Honestly, it adds yet another wrinkle to the Doctor’s dysfunctional rapport with the Master.  The two of them have had a love-hate relationship right from the moment when the Master was first introduced in “Terror of the Autons” back in 1971.  On many occasions the Master has come across as a demented stalker, hounding the Doctor, attempting to impress and outdo him before finally trying to kill him.  It actually makes a certain twisted sense that the Master, regenerated into Missy, now refers to the Doctor as her “boyfriend” and is behaving like an unhinged, jilted lover.

Still in 3W headquarters, Clara is communicating with Danny in the Nethersphere over an audio link-up.  Danny refuses to give her any information that might prove he is the genuine article; he wants her to move on with her life and not attempt to find him, finally having accepted he is deceased.  A frustrated Clara cuts the link, and Danny is left weeping.  Seb hands Danny an iPad, giving him the opportunity to erase his painful emotions… which, of course, is exactly what the Nethersphere programs want him to do, in order to be able to convert him into a Cyberman.  Danny is ready to press “delete,” but then he sees the face of the child he killed reflected in the iPad screen, and he hesitates.

As “Death in Heaven,” opens, the Cybermen are marching through the streets of London.  The human bystanders, rather than fleeing, come up to the cyborgs and start taking selfies with their cell phones.  Oh lordy!  Yeah, I could see people doing that.  The Doctor has mentioned on more than one occasion that human beings have an exceptional gift for mass amnesia.  It seems no one in this crowd remembers the time several years ago that the Cybermen and the Daleks were fighting it out in the city streets.  So we get everyone taking photos of themselves posing with a murderous cyborg army and posting onto Instagram, much to the Doctor’s bewilderment & frustration.  Missy shows him via her own handheld device / disintegrator ray that the exact same thing is occurring in all the major cities on Earth.  “We’re going viral,” Missy proudly announces.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven gone viral

It turns out that many of the people in the crowd are undercover agents of UNIT headed by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and her assistant Osgood (Ingrid Oliver).  Kate drops a wrecked Cyberman head left over from the 1968 invasion at the feet of this new wave and warns them to leave Earth because humanity has the Doctor on their payroll.  Instead all of the Cybermen fly into the sky via rocket-boots and blow themselves up, scattering “pollen” all over London.  The same thing takes place across the globe.  This infects the bodies of countless deceased people, transforming their corpses into Cybermen, and downloading their now-emotionless minds from the Nethersphere into their revived corpses.

In the past I have described the idea of being converted into a Cyberman as a fate worse than death.  And that is literally the case here.  Missy has stolen the minds of billions of dying people, imprisoned them in the Nethersphere, removed their emotions, and forced their consciousness back into their reanimated bodies.  It is an absolutely monstrous act, depriving countless innocents of the peace of the grave, transforming them into her enslaved army.

Interestingly, in the Big Finish audio story “The Reaping” it appeared that the Cybermen had gained the ability to convert the dead.  This turned out to be a deception on their part to trick the Doctor into assisting them.  But in “Death in Heaven,” enhanced by Missy’s pilfered Time Lord tech, they are able to do exactly that.  One of the most chilling aspects of this is how we see it affect Danny, who revives in the morgue transformed into a Cyberman.  Not having deleted his emotions, Danny is fully aware of what has happened to him.

The converted Danny tracks Clara to St. Paul’s and rescues her from the other Cybermen, rendering her unconscious in the process.  She awakens in a cemetery as disoriented Cybermen slowly begin crawling out from their graves.  There Danny removes the faceplate from his helmet, revealing his undead, distorted face to Clara.  It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Danny converted

UNIT takes both the Doctor and Missy into custody.  Aboard their mobile aircraft headquarters, Kate informs the Doctor that due to the worldwide crisis he has been appointed the President of Earth.  Naturally enough the Doctor is appalled; he does not want that kind of power & authority.  Of course, when you think about it, that probably makes him the most qualified person for the position.

I enjoyed the interaction between the Doctor and Osgood here.  The Doctor shows a grudging admiration for the clever scientist, who is definitely a major groupie.  Osgood is a cool fictional version of a geek girl.  When we first saw her in “The Day of the Doctor” she was sporting a multi-colored scarf.  Now she’s switched to a bowtie.

Since she survived her run-in with the Zygons, in the back of my mind I assumed that Osgood had gained plot armor.  That’s sort of the thing with UNIT personnel: when they first appear they stand a very good chance of getting killed off by that episode’s alien menace.  But if they manage to make it out of their debut alive, their survival is all but assured in any subsequent appearances.

So I was genuinely shocked when Missy, who had been handcuffed & restrained by UNIT, broke free and, after taunting Osgood, murdered her, blasting her to atoms, and then crushed her glasses beneath her boot.  Shortly after, when the Doctor is horrified to discover that all that is left of Osgood is ashes and a broken pair of spectacles, Missy mockingly inquires in a child-like voice “Have you brought any more friends I can play with?”

At this point Missy reveals she was the lady from the repair shop who gave the TARDIS phone number to Clara prior to the events in “The Bells of St. John,” putting them together, in effect altering the Doctor’s entire life.  The idea that Clara had become the most important person in the Doctor’s existence, having been scattered along his time stream, giving him hope when he was a child, understandably annoyed some viewers.  Now we find out that all of this has occurred only because the Missy put her into that position.  It must have given the Doctor’s arch enemy a great deal of pleasure to indirectly influence and manipulate so much of her adversary’s life without him even realizing it.

The UNIT aircraft is destroyed by a group of flying Cybermen, seemingly killing everyone onboard, including Kate.  Teleporting back to the Nethersphere, Missy watches the Doctor plummeting to his death.  She is actually disappointed to see him dying such an ordinary death.  Then, in a cool sequence, the Doctor aims himself at the falling TARDIS and manages to streak down to it, enter, and dematerialize, homing in on Clara’s cell phone.  Seb, who is watching all this with Missy, is delighted by the Doctor’s feat, which causes an exasperated Missy to delete him from the Nethersphere.

When the Doctor arrives in the cemetery, a distraught Clara asks the Doctor to active Danny’s emotional inhibitor, erasing his emotions and ending his turmoil at his undead existence.  At first, the Doctor refuses to do so, alluding to his own relationship with the Master / Missy…

“I had a friend once. We ran together, when I was little. And I thought we were the same. But when we grew up, we weren’t. Now she’s trying to tear the world apart and I can’t run fast enough to hold it together. The difference… is this. Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain we can’t feel the hurt we inflict.”

The Doctor asks Danny what the Cybermen’s plan is, but Danny is not connected enough to their hive mind to be able to discern their intentions.  The only way he will be able to find out is if the emotional inhibitor is activated…

“Clara, watch this. This is who the Doctor is. Watch the blood soaked old general in action. I can’t see properly sir, because this needs activating. If you want to know what’s coming, you have to switch it on. Didn’t all of those beautiful speeches disappear in the face of a tactical advantage, sir?”

Once more we see what the Doctor meant when he told Clara “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”  It is an impossible choice, save Danny or let him become totally converted in order to learn the information needed to possibly save humanity.  When Clara takes the sonic screwdriver from the Doctor to conduct this awful task, Danny sardonically mutters “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”

Doctor Who Death In Heaven Clara Danny and the Doctor

The now-emotionless Danny reveals that the clouds of cyber-pollen will rain again, this time killing all living humans and converting them into Cybermen.  At this Missy descends from the sky via umbrella, a demented Mary Poppins.  Surprisingly, wishing the Doctor a happy birthday, Missy hands the Cyberman control unit to the Doctor.  She reveals that the only way to halt the annihilation of humanity is if the Doctor himself takes control of the Cybermen army and uses them to bring order to the universe.

There is a great deal to say about the twisted relationship between the Doctor and the Master / Missy.  I’m planning to address it in an upcoming blog.  Suffice it to say that Missy is determined to drag the Doctor down to her own level.  She sees that as her ultimate triumph.  Yet again we have the Doctor confronted by two terrible choices: allow humanity to be destroyed, or join with Missy, in the process becoming everything he has ever fought against.  The question that has been haunting the Doctor since his regeneration comes rushing back at him: is he a good man?

Then the Doctor glances over at Clara, who is hugging the motionless form of the converted Danny.  He realizes that even with the inhibitor activated Danny has not lost all of his emotions, because he will not harm Clara.  The Doctor realizes that Danny is one of those people with a will strong enough to resist being fully converted.  And he comes to a realization.  Addressing Missy, he states:

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I really didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And, no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am? I… am… an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army, I never have, because I’ve got them. Always them. Because love, it’s not an emotion… love is a promise. And he will never hurt her.”

The Doctor tosses the control unit to Danny.  Taking command of the Cybermen, Danny flies with them into the sky.  They explode, destroying the clouds overhead.  As Danny stated earlier in the season, “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged… I’m the one who carries you out of the fire.”  He proved that here, protecting humanity, saving it.

Clara, once again mourning the loss of Danny, now knowing that he is gone for good, is ready to use Missy’s own weapon to kill her.  The Doctor realizes that the only way he can stop Clara is to do the deed himself.  Despite what Danny believed, the Doctor is willing to get his hands dirty, willing to kill Missy himself in order to prevent Clara from becoming a murderer.  Ready to pull the trigger, he sadly tells Missy “You win.”

At the last second, however, Missy is vaporized by a laser blast from a sole surviving Cyberman, one who has also rescued Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.  Although not stated, it is heavily implied that this is Kate’s father, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, returned from death to once more protect the Earth, and to save the Doctor’s soul.

Doctor Who Death In Heaven satute

In the closing scenes of “Death in Heaven,” the Doctor and Clara meet up in a café.  Clara tells the Doctor that she can no longer travel with him.  He believes that Danny used the control bracelet to return to life, and that she plans to marry him.  Via a flashback, though, we see that Danny used this one time only “get out of jail free” card to instead restore to life the child he accidentally killed.  Clara doesn’t tell this to the Doctor, and instead lies.  The Doctor informs Clara that he is going home to Gallifrey, having discovered it at coordinates provided by Missy.  But it turns out that the Doctor is also lying.  The information that Missy gave him before she died was false, one last painful, torturous twist of the knife by her.  Clara and the Doctor part, each with the mistaken belief that the other, at least, has a chance at a happy future.

It’s a very solemn, downbeat ending.  Then, midway through the credits, we cut to the Doctor, brooding at the TARDIS console, hearing a knocking on the door.  And into the TARDIS pops none other than Santa Claus.  Sooooo, to be continued on the 25th of December, then?

Is everyone still here?  Yeah, this write-up went on really long, didn’t it?  The two-part finale was certainly jam-packed with material.  On the whole, I liked it.  While not perfect (Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT felt somewhat wasted) it was certainly enjoyable, a real emotional rollercoaster.

In the past I’ve felt too many Doctor Who season finales have has the Doctor facing some apocalyptic threat that threatens the whole of existence.  In one respect that was the case here.  But it felt a lot different.  Instead of going into detail about the worldwide resurrection of the dead as Cybermen, Moffat’s script mostly focused on the Doctor, Clara, Danny and Missy, at exploring the relationships between them.  Against the backdrop of the looming annihilation of humanity, Moffat wrote a very intimate, moving, tragic character piece.  This story was much the better for it.

How would I rate it?  Well, as the Doctor’s former instructor Borusa once told him, “Nine out of ten.”

Catwoman by Ramona Fradon

It feels like I’ve been missing out on quite a bit lately: the 2014 New York Comic Con, the big Doctor Who convention that was held on Long Island last weekend, even my upcoming 20th high school reunion.  I’ve been short on funds so I wasn’t able to purchase tickets to any of those.

I finally decided to splurge a little though and pick up an early holiday present for myself.  Last week I received an e-mail update from Scott Kress of Catskill Comics Original & Commission Art.  I’ve bought a few things through Scott in the past and always found him easy to do business with.  It’s been a while since I’ve purchased anything though because of that aforementioned shortage in cash flow.  But I’m still on the mailing list for new artwork and special sales.

The latest e-mail update mentioned out that most of the artists were having a pre-Christmas sale between November 4th and 30th with 10% and 30% off original art.  Even though I figured I wouldn’t be able to afford anything I figured I’d browse around anyway just to see what was available.

One of the artists represented by Catskill Comics is Ramona Fradon.  I’ve been a huge fan of Fradon’s work for many years.  She was one of the first female creators to work in the comic book biz, first working for DC Comics in 1952.  During her lengthy career she illustrated the Aquaman feature in Adventure Comics, co-created Metamorpho the Element Man with writer Bob Haney, worked on series such as Super Friends, Plastic Man and House of Mystery, was the artist on the Brenda Starr newspaper strip from 1980 to 1995, and even did a few jobs for Marvel.

I was looking through the art by Fradon for sale at Catskill Comics, and of course I ended up finding a piece that I loved.  I just couldn’t resist.  So I  purchased this lovely pencil illustration of Catwoman and one of her furry friends:

Catwoman by Ramona Fradon

I really like this one a lot.  Catwoman is simply beautiful.  That cute kitty reminds me a bit of my cat Squeaky, as well as being reminiscent of Sebastian from Josie and the Pussycats.

Offhand I don’t recall if Ramona Fradon ever drew any stories for DC Comics featuring Catwoman.  But if you look through her artwork at Catskill Comics you will see that she’s previously created quite a few wonderful commission pieces featuring the feline femme fatale.

Something I have observed as a long-time comic book fan is that it is often it is women artists who draw the most beautiful, sexy females.  Yes of course there are a number of talented male artists with a fine mastery of the female form.  But there are even more who draw women that have such impossibly unrealistic body shapes, with giant breasts, tiny waists and thrusting rear ends.

I think that the main reason why women artists draw female characters so well is because as females themselves they know first-hand how the female form works, how gravity affects a lady’s assets, how a woman looks when she is in motion.  Perhaps female artists are also likely to have more of a sensitivity for wanting to render women who have a certain presence and dignity about them rather than drawing them as figures of sexual objectification.  Instead female artists may be more interested in investing their characters with personality.

I really feel that all of this applies to Fradon.  Throughout her lengthy career she has done wonderful work drawing female characters such as Saphire Stagg, Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Godiva, Mera, Supergirl, Phantom Lady, Brenda Starr and Thundra.  Her women are beautiful, but they also possess this appealing, glamorous quality.

At 88 years old, Ramona Fradon is still going strong, illustrating numerous wonderful commission pieces.  Definitely take a look through her wonderful work on display at the Catskill Comics website.

Cats and comic books: Counter Attack by Alisa Harris

This past February  on Kickstarter there was a fundraising campaign that I happily supported.  Ever since then I have been eagerly anticipating the project that was in the works.  Yesterday the completed book finally arrived in the mail: The Collected Counter Attack! by Alisa Harris.

Collected Counter Attack cover

Alisa Harris is a Queens-based artist & cartoonist.  Michele and I first met her in May 2011 at the Mini Zine Fest held at Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Among the mini-comics that Harris had for sale was Counter Attack, a cute series about her two mischievous cats, Moe and Fidget, that she has been creating since 2005.  Michele and I have two cats of our own, Nettie and Squeaky, and in the last few years I have become a huge cat lover.  I purchased Counter Attack from Harris, and I found it adorable.  (The series is so titled because, as Harris explains “Any cat will tell you: the best position of attack is from the kitchen counter.”)

Collected Counter Attack Moe and Fidget

Harris does a fantastic job investing the illustrated versions of Moe and Fidget with the personalities they posses in real life.  Anyone who has ever had a cat can tell you that felines have very distinctive temperaments.  They can be funny and adorable and mischievous and bossy, often all within the space of a few minutes!  Harris’ ability to capture those qualities, as well as her charming art style, made Counter Attack a big success.  The comics kept selling out and she kept having to re-print them.  That’s when she came up with the idea for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a collected edition of Counter Attack, with brand new material included.

Personally speaking, I believe that mini-comics are a real fount of creativity.  There are many very cool self-published comics out there from numerous talented creators.  That said, I never know how to store or organize them!  So, yeah, since I kept re-reading my copies of Counter Attack, and I also kept misplacing them in my jumbled, disorganized piles of books and comics, a hardcover collection was something that appealed to me.

Collected Counter Attack Alarm Clock

As a cat owner (or perhaps that should be a human who is owned by cats?) I have a lot of identification with the anecdotes and misadventures of Moe and Fidget that Harris illustrates.  I am certain that many humans with feline friends will also find these episodes vary familiar.  After all, what human with a cat has not been woken up at the crack of dawn (or earlier) by a cat who wants their breakfast?  Evidently in Harris’ household, her cat Moe likes to tap her on the head.  In my own case, Nettie will lean over my sleeping face and start poking me in the nose with one of her paws.  If that doesn’t work, and I still refuse to get up, on occasion she will extend one claw and begin prodding the tip of my nose with that, which inevitably works.  Yeah, sometimes Nettie can certainly be bratty!

Collected Counter Attack Well Trained

Cats also like to sharpen their claws.  I understand that this is a natural habit they engage in.  That’s why most people purchase a scratching post for their cats, so that their personal property will not get shredded.  Michele and I got one for Nettie and Squeaky.  I can count on one hand the times each of them have used it.  Instead they scratch everything else: the bed, the chairs, the sofa, the bookshelves, even my comic books!  And all the while they ignore a perfectly good, practically brand new scratching post!  I see from the pages of Counter Attack that Harris also experiences this phenomenon.

The Collected Counter Attack! is a cute, funny book.  Copies can be ordered through Alissa Harris’ online shop.  Also available is a “fun pack” containing the issues of her series Urban Nomad, which she describes as “Quirky true stories about living in the many boroughs of New York City.”  I recommend purchasing a copy of The Collected Counter Attack!, especially if you love cats.  You will be looking through the pages of the book and constantly saying to yourself “Yep, that’s my cat, too!”

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #30-35

This past week Wonder Woman #35 came out, bringing to a close the three year long story arc by Brain Azzarello, Cliff Chiang & friends. For those keeping track, that’s actually 38 installments: 35 regular issues, the flashback #0, the origin of the First Born in #23.2 during Forever Evil month, and a story in Secret Origins #6. It’s been quite a ride, and on the whole a successful one, at least in my estimation as a reader.

Wonder Woman 30 cover
Speaking of Secret Origins #6, the twelve page tale contained within makes a nice prequel to this whole run. Written by Azzarello & Chiang, with artwork by Goran Sudzuka, it fills in a few blanks in the New 52 back story of Princess Diana. As in past continuities, Queen Hippolyta attempted to fashion a baby daughter out of clay; this time, however, the gods did not gift the clay with life. Instead the philandering Zeus made his presence known, and he seduced the Amazon matriarch, giving her the gift of a daughter. Hippolyta chose to perpetrate the lie about Diana being born of clay to protect her from Hera’s jealousy.

More significantly, we find out that Diana and Aleka, bitter rivals in the present, were once the closest of friends. There may even have been an unrequited love on Aleka’s part for the Princess. But Diana was restless, and wanted to explore the world beyond Paradise Island. Aleka felt betrayed & abandoned by Diana, which led to their current animosity.

Truthfully, the Wonder Woman tale in Secret Origins #6 could have used a few more pages. I think it’s a mistake to try to cram three different character origins into each issue. The histories of not just Wonder Woman, but also Deadman and Sinestro all needed more room to breathe. I think it would be better if Secret Origins became a double feature.

Secret Origins 6 pg 6
Moving along to Wonder Woman #30-35, the final six issues penned by Azzarello, the epic he has been weaving comes to an interesting, thoughtful, exciting conclusion. Truthfully, when I first read these issues, they did feel decompressed. However, sitting down and going through them again today in one sitting, I see that Azzarello took the time to bring closure to many of the subplots and themes that he had been developing over the previous two and a half years.

As Wonder Woman #30 opens, the First Born has seized control of Olympus, transforming it into a bloody charnel house that mirrors his twisted psyche. Consumed by millennia of rage at having been left to die by Zeus in ages past, he is ready to wipe out every single member of his family so that he will be the last god in existence. The surviving members of the Greek pantheon and their offspring, including Diana, have gathered on Paradise Island to mobilize the Amazon army to oppose the First Born’s nihilistic designs.

Before any move can be made against the mad god, though, certain affairs of state must be addressed. Hippolyta is still a lifeless statue, Hera inexplicably unable to restore her humanity. Instead Hera announces that Diana is the new Queen of the Amazons, a proclamation met with some disapproval, especially by Aleka. Thus Diana finds herself in the difficult position of having to assume yet another new identity. Already struggling to fill the role of the deity of War, now she must become a monarch. That involves not just leading her people into battle, but also into the future.

And a significant part of that future is the question of the role of men. A number of readers, perhaps understandably so, took issue with Azzarello writing the Amazons as man-haters who seduced males in order to breed before slaying them, and who exiled all of their male children to the realm of Hephaestus. Diana herself was unhappy when she learned of this. Now that she is Queen, she sets out to try and change the Amazons. She assigns to them the collective symbolic role of motherhood to Zeke, the infant boy who her friend Zola gave birth to after a one night stand with a disguised Zeus. Diana also has Hephaestus transport all of the sons of the Amazons back to Paradise Island, to fight alongside their mothers & sisters against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 30 pg 17
As Diana explains “We need to evolve. We’ve isolated ourselves to the detriment of our society… and some of our children. The old ways… do they actually work anymore? Do we just cling to them because that’s the way our forebears intended? We need to look at ourselves and open the doors we’ve closed. And now is a good place to start.”

Azzarello also continues to examine how immortality is perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. If one is unable to die, at least from old age, then does one eventually begin taking life for granted? Without the ever-present certainty of death in the future, does one become aloof and disconnected from the rest of the world?

Previously the once-imperious Hera was turned mortal, requiring her to learn to deal with fear and loneliness and vulnerability. Azzarello showed the former queen of the gods gaining humility and an entirely different perspective on existence. She became friends with Zola, the woman who she once wished dead. But now restored to divinity, Hera once more begins to feel disconnected from humanity. When Zola tries to ask her what is going on, Hera coldly replies “I’m no longer mortal. I’m a god. Life, death… for me, it’s once again like one of those shows we would watch and laugh at together. It’s beneath my concern.” Listening to all of this, Zola angrily responds “You once said you were afraid of dying alone. Well, hope you like living alone… goddess.”

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Strife also seems to epitomize the dangers of everlasting life. The goddess of discord seems utterly bored by existence, and the only way in which she can tolerate it is to create trouble. Strife is the ultimate shit-stirrer. She is like someone who hands a long, pointy stick to a group of children, encourages them to use it to poke at a hornet’s nest, and then sits back sipping a glass of wine, smiling in amusement as chaos & suffering unfolds before her. The carnage & devastation being wrought by the First Born is but one more diversion to entertain her.

Indeed, when the First Born and his army some come calling, Paradise Island is transformed into a war zone. The casualties on both sides are horrific, something that does not bother the First Born in the slightest. “There is no sentimentality in life” he harshly states to Diana. Having never felt love, having been rejected from the moment of his birth, the First Born wants nothing more than to share his pain with the whole of existence.

Diana, on the other hand, refuses to set aside her empathy and mercy. It is an integral part of who she is. As seen back in issue #0, years before when Diana was a teenager, the old god War, then her mentor, severely scolded her for her unwillingness to slay a fallen foe, and rejected her as his pupil. Now in the present, Diana is saved by that act of kindness. The Minotaur serving the First Born is revealed to be the very same one who Diana showed mercy to all those years ago, and it refuses to kill her. This act is enough to restore Diana’s faith in her abilities & beliefs, and to once again stand against the First Born.

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Orion from the New Gods also pops up once more, playing a small but crucial role in the conflict. When last seen he is charging off into battle alongside the goddess Moon. That’s an appropriate pairing, since Moon is also known as Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Orion is named after the mythical hunter. I think they would make a lovely couple, assuming they don’t kill each other first!

In my previous Wonder Woman review I wondered where, exactly, Zeus had gotten off to. The former ruler of Olympus was conspicuous in his absence throughout the entirety of Azzarello’s storyline. Well, as I predicted, we do indeed find out exactly where Zeus has been… although it was actually the last place I expected. Of course, the revelation makes perfect sense once you think about it. And, looking at some other blogs online, such as Martin Gray’s Too Dangerous For A Girl, it appears that a few people did actually see this coming. Well, I was surprised, okay?

In terms of artwork, these issues are all very strong. Sudzuka illustrates Wonder Woman #30 & #31 in full, and does the finishes for #32 over Chiang’s layouts.  Issue #s 33 to #35 are illustrated by Chiang going solo for the big wrap-up. The coloring is, as always, courtesy of Matthew Wilson, who does superb work. Chiang’s covers for all six issues are fantastic, with very striking layouts & designs.

Both Chiang and Sudzuka do a fine job at demonstrating their versatility on the interior art. There are many great, dramatic pages, as well as some nice, effective character-driven sequences. It’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But one of the stand-out images is by Chiang in issue #34, as Hephaestus leads his troops into battle, headed up by a trio of giant mechanical war elephants. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

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As I mentioned before, the reactions to Azzarello & Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman have been mixed. I will admit that there were a few rough patches, especially early on. But I’m glad that I stuck with the book, because this was a really great run with a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. At some point in the near future I look forward to sitting down and re-reading this storyline in its entirety, and finding out what I get out of it the second time around.