The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Seven

The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.  I chose “coffee.” From the work of how many comic book artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I post these daily on Facebook, and collect them together here.

31) Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott

“The Mind of the Monster” from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, penciled by Rich Buckler, inked by Joe Sinnott, written by Gerry Conway, lettered by Artie Simek, and colored by Petra Goldberg, published by Marvel Comics with a May 1974 cover date.

The Incredible Hulk leaps into Manhattan and passes out in a deserted alley.  Transforming back into Bruce Banner, the cursed scientist heads over to the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters, hoping Reed Richards can find a cure for his condition.  Only Ben Grimm, the Thing, is home, but he welcomes Bruce, telling him “Guy’s like us’ve gotta stick together.”

The Thing asks the frazzled Banner “Ya want some java?”  A grateful Banner accepts, and the Thing brews him a cup of coffee using some weird-looking Kirby-tech.  “Don’t look at me, Banner — it’s one’a Stretcho’s dohickeys.”  Yeah, leave it to Reed Richards to take something as simple as a coffee maker and transform it into a ridiculously complicated device!

The Think lets slip that Reed was recently working on a “psi-amplifier” to restore his lost humanity.  An eager Banner decides that with a few modifications the device can cure both of them in one shot.  Unfortunately they don’t wait for Reed to return before proceeding with the experiment, and of course something goes wrong.  Next thing you know, we have another epic battle between the Hulk and the Thing, but with a twist: the Thing’s mind is in the body of the Hulk, and vise versa.  Hilarity ensues… hilarity and several million dollars worth of property damage.

As explained by editor Roy Thomas in a text piece, Giant-Size Super-Stars was a monthly oversized title that would rotate through three features: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Conan the Barbarian.  After this issue was released Marvel changed their plans.  Spider-Man and Conan both received their own quarterly Giant-Size series, and Giant-Size Super-Stars also became quarterly, renamed Giant-Size Fantastic Four with issue #2.

The creators behind “The Mind of the Monster” were the regular Fantastic Four team: writer Gerry Conway, penciler Rich Buckler, and inker Joe Sinnott.  They all do good work on this entertaining tale of swapped identities and smashed buildings.  Buckler does a fine job showing via facial expressions and body language that the Thing and the Hulk have switched bodies.  Longtime FF inker Sinnott does his usual great work finishing the art.

32) Rick Burchett 

Presenting a double dose of caffeinated cliffhangers starring those two-fisted aviators the Blackhawks!  Action Comics Weekly #632 is cover-dated December 1987, and Blackhawk #2 is cover-dated April 1989.  Both stories are by the creative team of artist Rick Burchett, writer Martin Pasko, letterer Steve Haynie, and colorist Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics.

I was sad to hear that longtime comic book writer Martin Pasko had passed away on May 10th at the age of 65.  Among the numerous characters Pasko worked on was the revamp of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.  Pasko chronicled the aviation adventures of Janos Prohaska and Co in serials published in Action Comics Weekly, and then in an all-too-short lived Blackhawk ongoing series.

Pasko was paired with the great, underrated artist Rick Burchett.  I’ve always enjoyed Burchett’s art.  His style is simultaneously cartoony yet possessed of a sort of gritty verisimilitude (I hope I’m articulating that in an accurate manner).  Pasko & Burchett chronicled the Blackhawk’s post World War II adventures which saw the ace pilots becoming embroiled in the Cold War anti-Communist activities of the newly-formed CIA.

Within the pages of the Action Comics Weekly #632, the Blackhawks have been tasked with transporting chemist Constance Darabont to West Berlin to pick up an experimental batch of LSD.  Unfortunately for Prosahka and his team Constance is murdered in Berlin and replaced by Nazi war criminal Gretchen Koblenz.  On the flight back the diabolical Gretchen spikes the Blackhawks’ coffee with the LSD, pulling a gun on Olaf Friedriksen when her deadly ruse is discovered!

Blackhawk #2 ends on a much less life-threatening note, but certainly one that is just as dramatic.  Over morning coffee Janos and the Blackhawks’ assistant director Mairzey ponder the current whereabouts of the missing Natalie Reed, as well as wondering what will become of Natalie’s infant son.  Mairzey tells Janos that she has been considering adopting the baby.  Suddenly an unidentified figure enters the room and announces “I was always afraid to tell you this before… but I’m the father of Natalie’s baby…”

(Cue melodramatic music!!!)

The Blackhawk serials written by Grell & Pasko and drawn by Burchett were among the best material to run in Action Comics Weekly.  I’m happy they’ve finally been collected together with the excellent Blackhawk miniseries by Chaykin.  Hopefully a second collected edition will reprint the ongoing series by Pasko & Burchett.

33) Jack Davis

Today’s art comes from “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” in The Haunt of Fear #21, drawn by Jack Davis, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a Sept-Oct 1953 cover date.

When I was a kid I preferred the sci-fi stories from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, but as I got older I developed a taste for EC’s horror titles.  I guess my dry, offbeat sense of humor came to align more closely with EC’s macabre pun-cracking horror hosts.

“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is the story of Ulric the Undying, who makes his fortune staging very public, very violent deaths from which he miraculously recovers each time.  In a flashback, we see that Ulric was previously a nameless bum on skid row who was approached by Dr. Emil Manfred.  Over a cup of coffee, Manfred claimed that he had discovered the secret of a cat’s nine lives, and offered to surgically transplant that ability into the bum, with the end goal of gaining wealth & fame.  Manfred is successful and “Ulric the Undying” is created, but this being an EC horror story, of course things eventually take a very nasty turn for all involved.

Jack Davis was a frequent contributor to EC’s horror anthologies, illustrating many of their most famous, or perhaps infamous, stories.  Davis was certainly adept at creating moody atmospheres perfectly suited to Al Feldstein’s scripts.  His artwork was also appeared regularly in EC’s satirical comic books Mad and Panic.  Following the demise of EC’s comic book line he drew trading cards for Topps.  From the 1960s onward David, who was renowned for his caricatures, did a great deal of advertising work, movie posters and magazine covers.  He passed away in 2016 at the age of 91.

34) Ross Andru & Frank Giacoia

Amazing Spider-Man #184, penciled by Ross Andru, inked by Frank Giacoia, written & edited by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Glynis Wein, published by Marvel Comics with a September 1978 cover date.

I recently learned of this storyline thanks to Brian Cronin of Comic Book Resources.  In the previous issue Peter Parker had asked Mary Jane Watson to marry him, but she turned him down.  A despondent Peter returned home, only to discover someone was waiting for him in his apartment!  On the splash page of this issue, we discover who: Betty Brant, secretary to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and Peter’s girlfriend from way back when.  Betty, who is all glammed up, has let herself into Peter’s apartment and made herself a cup of coffee to await his return.  Now that he’s home, Betty greets him with a very warm welcome.

There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem here: Betty married Ned Leeds a few weeks earlier, and she is supposed to be in Europe with him on their honeymoon.

Yeah, that’s the old Parker luck at work, all right.  You propose to the woman you love but she turns you down, and when you return home you find your recently-married ex-girlfriend has broken into your place, raided your supply of coffee, and is looking to have a fling with you.  Oy vey!

The subplot of Betty attempting to hook up with Peter, and Peter being very tempted in spite of that whole “just married” thing, went on for nearly a year.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise that it all ends badly for poor Peter.

Penciling this tale of torrid emotions and pilfered caffeine is veteran comic book artist Ross Andru.  After two decades of working for DC Comics on such titles as Wonder Woman, G.I. Combat, The Flash and Metal Men (the last which he co-created with writer Robert Kanigher), Andru came to Marvel in 1971.  He penciled Amazing Spider-Man for five years, from 1973 to 1978; this was one of his last issues.  Andru is paired here with well-regarded inker Frank Giacoia, who had previously embellished ASM during the early part of Andru’s half-decade run.

35) Alex Saviuk & Al Wlliamson

Web of Spider-Man #91, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Al Williamson, written by Howard Mackie, lettered by Rick Parker, and colored by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1992 cover date.

Following up on our last entry, it’s another Spider-Man page featuring Peter Parker, Betty Brant, coffee and… oh no, Betty’s throwing herself at Peter again, isn’t she?

Okay, what’s actually going on here is that Betty has been working undercover on a story for the Daily Bugle.  She’s investigating the organization belonging to the international assassin the Foreigner, the man behind the murder of her husband Ned Leeds.  When Betty happens to run into Peter in the street she locks lips with him and drags him into a nearby diner so that she can give him the information she’s been collecting to pass on to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson.  Unfortunately the people who are following Betty see through her ruse and attack the coffee shop.  What follows is Spider-Man spending the rest of the issue trading blows with a pair of the Foreigner’s armored goons in the java joint, which of course gets demolished.  I hope the owners had their insurance premiums paid up!

Betty had spent a long time after her husband’s death traumatized & vulnerable.  This was the beginning of a new direction for her, as she quit being Jonah’s secretary, became more assertive, and began a career as an investigative journalist for the Bugle.

The pencils are by Alex Saviuk, a really good artist who had a long run on Web of Spider-Man, from 1988 to 1994.  I think Saviuk’s seven year stint on often gets overlooked because this was at the same time McFarlane, Larsen and Bagley were also drawing the character, and with their more dynamic, flashy styles they consequently receiving more attention.  That is a shame, because Saviuk turned in solid, quality work on Web of Spider-Man.  I enjoyed his depiction of the character.

As we can see from this page, Saviuk was also really good at rendering the soap opera and non-costumed sequences that are part-and-parcel of Peter Parker’s tumultuous personal life.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Five

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and now I’m collecting them together here.  (Please click on the “coffee” tag to read the previous parts of the series.)

coffee pot

21) John Buscema & John Romita

The art team of penciler John Buscema and inker John Romita join with scripter Stan Lee to tug on those heartstrings in “I Love Him – But He’s Hers!”  This tale of torrid passions appeared in Our Love Story #2, published by Marvel Comics with a December 1969 cover date.

With her father having died unexpectedly and her brother serving in Vietnam, young Anne must work as a waitress to pay for college.  Anne’s difficult circumstances are constantly rubbed in her face by her rich snob doom roommate Cynthia.  Soon cruel Cynthia ups her taunts by showing off her handsome boyfriend at every opportunity.  “This is Art Nelson, little woman – and he’s all mine! So you may look — but don’t touch!”  Anne is, of course, instantly attracted to Art, but she dares not make a move, fearful of Cynthia’s temper.  Cynthia’s taunts eventually back fire on her as Art, realizing what a horrid person she actually is, dumps her for the sweet, down-to-Earth Anne.

John Buscema has been referred to as “the Michelangelo of comics.”  He was incredibly talented, one of the top artists at Marvel Comics for three decades, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  Buscema was, however, not actually fond of drawing super-heroes, something he admitted to on several occasions throughout the years.  He much preferred drawing Conan the Barbarian to any of Marvel’s spandex-clad crimefighters.

Given his dislike for super-heroes, perhaps he saw romance stories as  a refreshing change of pace.  It definitely drew on one of Buscema’s strengths, namely his ability to render beautiful women.  He certainly does a damn fine job on this splash page, drawing Anne waitressing in a coffeehouse populated by a colorful crowd of hip java-drinkers.

Of course, Buscema was also vocal about his dislike for most of the inkers / finishers he was paired with, as he felt most of them overwhelmed his work with their own styles.  So we can only guess how he felt about being inked by John Romita on Marvel’s romance stories, especially as the later’s style is very much in evidence.

Having acknowledged all that, from my perspective as a reader, this really looks stunning.  I feel the combination of the two Johns results in a deft, effective blending of their signature styles.

A big “thank you” to colorist supreme José Villarrubia, who spotlighted this page on his FB feed.

Our Love Story 2 pg 1

22) Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema

Amazing Spider-Girl #15, penciled by Ron Frenz, inked by Sal Buscema, written by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz, lettered by Dave Sharpe, and colored by Bruno Hang, published by Marvel Comics, cover-dated February 2008.

Her name is May “Mayday” Parker, and she is the daughter of Spider-Man.

Yes, it’s a “Mayday” post, which would have been absolutely perfect for May 1st.  Instead I posted this on FB on May 2nd.  Oops.  As the man used to say, “Missed it by THAT much!”

AHEM!  Spider-Girl is the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, from a reality where their newborn baby was rescued from the clutches of the diabolical Norman Osborn.  Now a teenager, Mayday has inherited both her father’s powers and sense of responsibility.  Assuming the identity of Spider-Girl, Mayday attempts to fight crime and save innocent lives while juggling high school classes, an active social life, and a pair of parents who are understandably very concerned that their daughter is following in her father’s web-swinging footsteps.

Spider-Girl is the little comic book that could.  Originally making her debut in a one-off story by DeFalco & Frenz in What If #105 (Feb 1998), Mayday graduated to her own ongoing series just a few months later.  DeFalco, first paired with penciler Pat Olliffe, and later reunited with Frenz, did a great job developing Mayday and her supporting cast.  Spider-Girl gained a relative small but very enthusiastic fanbase and ran for 100 issues, followed by Amazing Spider-Girl, which lasted another 30 issues.  Mayday then migrated to several issues of Spider-Man Family and Web of Spider-Man, and then a Spectacular Spider-Girl miniseries, with DeFalco & Frenz bringing her story to a close with the Spider-Girl: The End special in October 2010.  Of course, that was still not the curtain for Mayday, who has continued to pop up here and there.  You can’t keep a good Spider-Girl down!

Mayday and her friends often hung out at Café Indigo, a coffee shop in Forest Hills, Queens.  As per Ron Frenz:

“Café Indigo was introduced by Pat Olliffe, as a tribute to his wife’s architectural design business at the time.”

In Amazing Spider-Girl #15 the gang gathers at Café Indigo to welcome back their pal Moose, who had to move away for several months due to his father’s illness.  Frenz does a great job with this sequence, giving it moments of both characterization and comedy.  I love the facial expressions.  Frenz is such a strong storyteller, as this page demonstrates.

Inking is provided by the legendary Sal Buscema, who has been working with Frenz regularly since 2003.  They make a great art team.

Amazing Spider-Girl 15 pg 7

23) Bill Sienkiewicz & Klaus Janson

May 3rd was artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s birthday.  To celebrate the occasion, I took a look at two coffee-themed pages of artwork by Sienkiewicz featuring Moon Knight.

The first page is from the Moon Knight back-up story in the The Hulk magazine #17, penciled by Sienkiewicz, inked by Klaus Janson, written by Doug Moench, and colored by Olyoptics, published by Marvel Comics with an October 1979 cover date.  The second page is from Moon Knight #23, drawn by Sienkiewicz, written by Moench, lettered by Joe Rosen, and colored by Christie Scheele, with a September 1982 cover date.

On the first page we have Moon Knight stopping in at Gena’s Diner, the Manhattan coffee shop he frequents while sniffing out info on illegal activities in his guise of cabbie Jake Lockley.  Sienkiewicz was only 21 years old when he drew this story.  His work here definitely brings to mind Neal Adams, who Sienkiewicz has cited as a major influence.

Even with the obvious stylistic similarities, we can see that Sienkiewicz was already starting to utilize some interesting layouts in his storytelling.  Janson’s inking goes well with Sienkiewicz’s style here, giving it a grittier edge that suits Moench’s writing.

Moon Knight Hulk Magazine 17 pg 50

On the second page we have Moon Knight, Frenchie, Marlene and her brother Peter having fled to Maine in the dead of winter, hiding out in an isolated house in the woods Moon Knight owns in his Steven Grant persona.  They are fleeing from Moon Knight’s old foe Morpheus, the so-called “Dream Demon” who has the ability to possess people in their sleep, and to create horrifying nightmares.  In order to stay awake and prevent Mopheus from controlling them Moon Knight and the others are gulping down copious amounts of black coffee.

Morpheus utilizes his psychic connection to Peter to learn their location.  He invades the house and seizes control of both Marlene and Peter.  Moon Knight and Frenchie are unaware of any of this, as they are busy trying to rig up a generator in the basement as a defense against Morpheus.  Marlene comes down to join them, ostensibly to bring them some much-needed coffee.  Too late they realize that Marlene is now in Morpheus’ thrall.  Eyes ablaze with madness, Marlene strikes a match and tosses it onto the generator, with explosive results.

This issue of Moon Knight was drawn by Sienkiewicz only three years after that story in The Hulk magazine and, WHOA, what a difference!  Sienkiewicz’s work grew by absolute leaps and bounds in that short period of time.  This page is a really good illustration of how much he developed.  His work has become very stylized and atmospheric.  His layouts are striking, and he utilizes inking and zip-a-tone to superb effect.  You can see here that Sienkiewicz has begun his evolution to the stunning abstract artwork that he would soon be creating in the mid 1980s.

Credit must also go to the coloring by Christie Scheele on this story.  Her work complements Sienkiewicz’s art so very well.

Moon Knight 23 pg 10

24) Wallace Wood

This artwork is from the story “The Probers” in Weird Science #8, drawn by Wallace Wood, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a July-August 1951 cover date.  I scanned this from the hardcover The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume Two, issued in 2007 by Russ Cochran and Gemstone Publishing.

Growing up in the early 1980s, I discovered the classic EC Comics via reprints.  I was never overly fond of EC’s horror titles, since I found the pun-slinging hosts sort of cheesy.  But I was absolutely enthralled by the sci-fi stories in Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with their insightful examinations of the human condition, their grimly ironic twist endings, and their realistic, detailed artwork.  Looking back on these, I realize that many of the EC stories that made the biggest impression on my young self were those drawn by Wallace Wood.

Wood, known to his friends as “Woody” (reportedly he disliked being called “Wally”), was an absolutely incredible artist, with his intricately detailed spaceships & technology, bizarre aliens, and stunningly beautiful women.  Wood is rightfully remembered for his brilliant work, and the word “classic” is deservedly used to describe the stories he drew for EC.

“The Probers” is a typical EC tale of cosmic karma. Interestingly the story takes nearly a page detour to showcase young Lawrence Cavips’s futile attempt to drink coffee in outer space.  Captain Scott provides us with a demonstration of the correct way do things, using a straw to sip up the free-floating bubbles of coffee.  Scott guesses this must be Cavip’s first mission, which the young man confirms, telling him “Right! I just graduated two months ago!”

What?  Just graduated?  Cavip went to Astronaut Academy (or whatever they call it) and no one there bothered to explain to him the behavior of liquids in zero gravity?  What are they teaching kids these days?  Ehh, the young punk was probably slacking off, too busy hanging out with girls and listening to that newfangled rock & roll.  Why in my day…

Weird Science 8 coffee

25) Gilbert Shelton

“I Led Nine Lives!” written & drawn by Gilbert Shelton, appeared in the underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #3 published by Rip Off Press in 1973.  It was reprinted in Fat Freddy’s Cat #1, released by Rip Off Press in 1988.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are a trio of San Francisco potheads: Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, Phineas T. Phreak and Fat Freddy Freekowtski.  Fat Freddy has an orange tabby cat, the so-called “Fat Freddy’s Cat,” although the cat is (unsurprisingly) much smarter than his human, and often poops on Freddy’s possessions, especially if he’s late getting fed.

Fat Freddy’s Cat occasionally recounts his supposed adventures to his three nephews, and “I Led Nine Lives!” he regales them with his time as F. Frederick Skitty, federal agent.  Skitty is assigned by “the Chief” to stop a nefarious plot to poison the nation’s water supply with a drug nicknamed “Hee Hee Hee.” When asked what exactly “Hee Hee Hee” does, the Chief gravely replies “It turns you queer!”

Skitty parachutes into to the mountain headquarters of the “Hee Hee Hee” manufacturers.  After accidentally shooting up the nudist colony next door, Skitty confronts the flamboyant terrorists, who inform them that he is too late, because “We already mixed the drug in the nation’s coffee supply!”  Skitty guns down the terrorists and races back to Washington DC to warn everyone, only to find the Chief already drinking his morning coffee and softly giggling “Hee Hee Hee” to himself.  Skitty shoots the Chief, reasoning “It was my patriotic duty.”  He then realizes that by now everyone else in the country has probably also had coffee.  “So I shot myself, too” he tells his nephews.  However he quickly assures them that everything turned out fine because “I still had eight more lives.”

Fat Freddys Cat 1 pg 7

Of course that extra-long nose we see Fat Freddy’s Cat sporting in the last panel hints that perhaps his thrilling account might not have been entirely accurate, to say the least!

I scanned this from my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s copy of Fat Freddy’s Cat #1. She was probably my intro to Gilbert Shelton. Michele is very much into independent and underground comics, and she’s broadened my knowledge & interests considerably.

Doctor Who reviews: Flatline

This review is a bit late, but I was so struck by the Doctor Who episode “Flatline” that I had to sit down and do a write-up on it at some point.

After another journey in the TARDIS, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is getting ready to return Clara (Jenna Coleman) back home to London. Unexpectedly the TARDIS lands slightly off-course in Bristol.  Something is leeching the energy from the time machine, and the exterior dimensions have begun to shrink.  Clara squeezes out of the now-smaller doors to scout around for anything suspicious while the Doctor stays behind to check over the TARDIS.

Clara meets Rigsy (Joivan Wade) a graffiti artist who is being forced to perform community service, which includes having to paint over his own work, something that his mocking supervisor Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) finds especially amusing. Clara learns from Rigsy that a number of people have recently disappeared under unexplained circumstances, but that the authorities are not particularly interested in investigating since it is a low-income area.  Clara returns to the TARDIS only to discover that the outer shell has shrunk even further.  It is now small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.  Trapped inside, the Doctor squeezes his hand out the door and gives Clara his sonic screwdriver, psychic paper, and an earpiece to wear which enables him to communicate with her as well as see through her optic nerves.

Clara slips the tiny TARDIS into her handbag. Returning to the nearby council houses, Clara convinces Rigsy to help her investigate.  She informs Rigsy that she is “Doctor Oswald” from MI5, and begins to mimic some of the real Doctor’s mannerisms, much to the real Time Lord’s consternation, who is listening in and watching everything on the TARDIS scanner.

Doctor Who Flatline Clara with tiny TARDIS

Clara and Rigsy go to the apartment of the latest victim and find nothing out of the ordinary other than an odd desert-like mural on one of the walls. Heading over to the site of the very first disappearance, they are joined by police officer Forrest.  While Clara and Rigsy are in one room, Forest is sucked into the floor screaming.  By the time Clara and Rigsy make it into the room, the policewoman is vanished.  Looking through Clara’s eyes, the Doctor observes a mural on the wall that is an exact reproduction of the human nervous system.  The Doctor solemnly informs Clara and Rigsy that this is, in fact, an actual human nervous system, all that remains of the unfortunate PC Forrest.  Likewise, in the other apartment they were in the “desert mural” was in fact a close-up of human skin.  The Doctor deduces that entities from the second dimension, beings with length and width but without height, are invading into our third dimension and, in an effort to understand humans, are capturing and dissecting them.

And it was at this point watching this episode that I really started freaking out!

Barely escaping being killed by the two dimensional entities, which the Doctor refers to as “The Boneless,” Clara and Rigsy flee.  They locate the rest of the community service crew, including an especially ill-tempered Fenton.  Clara tries to use the psychic paper to convince him that she is from MI5 to get him to cooperate, but all Fenton sees is blank paper.  Inside the TARDIS the Doctor sardonically observes “It takes quite a lack of imagination to beat psychic paper.”  Before Fenton can argue any further, the graffiti on the walls literally comes alive, revealing itself to be more of the Boneless.  Clara, Rigsy, Fenton, and the crew all flee into the nearby railway tunnels, being pursued by the bizarre, lethal entities.

“Flatline” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned the previous episode, “Mummy on the Orient Express.” It is literally back-to-back frights with these two episodes.  “Flatline” must be the scariest episode of Doctor Who since “Blink.”  Older fans of the series will no doubt recall how certain critics in the 1970s and again in the mid 1980s accused Doctor Who of traumatizing Britain’s youth.  Well, it seems like Mathieson is attempting to completely unsettle an entirely new generation of young viewers.  I bet Mary Whitehouse is rolling over in her grave!

Mathieson’s concept of the Boneless, of entities from a second-dimensional universe, reminded me of an old sci-fi / horror story from the comic book Weird Science published by EC Comics. “Monster from the Fourth Dimension” originally appeared in Weird Science #7, cover-dated May-June 1951, was written & drawn by Al Feldstein.  As you can no doubt tell from the title, that story involved the opposite scenario, with a being from a four-dimensional universe entering our own three-dimensional reality.  Feldstein did an excellent job explaining the theoretical science behind such an entity and how it would be perceived by us, as well as in crafting an extremely unnerving, creepy tale.  I wonder if Mathieson ever read that one.

Weird Science 7 pg 6

In terms of developing the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, “Flatline” can be regarded as the final part of a loose trilogy, with “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” comprising the first two parts. In “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor forced Clara to take on his role of making life-and-death decisions.  She did so, and was able to find an apparently ideal solution to the crisis, but she was absolutely furious at the Doctor for placing her in that position.  In “Mummy on the Orient Express” the Doctor once again assumed his role of making life & death decisions, of having to choose who lives and who dies.  Once again Clara was angry, perceiving the Doctor to be cold & unfeeling.  At the end of that episode, the Doctor explained “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”  Clara finds out exactly how true this is in “Flatline.”

With the Doctor trapped inside the shrunken TARDIS, only able to offer limited advice & assistance, Clara is now forced to once again assume his role. As first she may have jokingly referred to herself as “Doctor Oswald,” but soon enough she realizes that everyone’s lives really are in her hands, that she once more must make those life & death decisions.  And, unlike in “Kill the Moon,” this time there is no perfect solution.  Instead, as the Doctor previously explained, all the choices before her are “bad ones.”

Attempting to take charge of the community service crew, as well as cope with Fenton’s extremely negative attitude, Clara wonders what she can possibly do, and communicates her concerns to the Doctor:

Clara: I just hope I can keep them alive.

The Doctor: Ah, welcome to my world. So, what’s next, Doctor Clara?

Clara: Lie to them.

The Doctor: What?

Clara: Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?

The Doctor: In a manner of speaking. It’s true that people with hope tend to run faster. Whereas people who think they’re doomed…

Clara: Dawdle. End up dead.

The Doctor: So that’s what I sound like?

Clara is able to keep her head and manages to push everyone to try to stay alive, despite the relentless pursuit of the Boneless, who one-by-one are picking off their human prey. Clara is finally able to come up with an extremely clever solution to the problem, with a much needed assistance by Rigsy, who utilizes his artistic talents.

Doctor Who Flatline Clara with sonic screwdriver

The TARDIS is finally restored to normal. The Doctor, who had attempted to help Clara communicate with the invaders, to make them understand that humans were sentient, living beings, realizes that he has no choice but to fight the Boneless:

“I tried to talk. I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out, I tried to understand you but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think you just don’t care. And I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us. I don’t suppose it really matters now. You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine. The man that stops the monsters. I’m sending you back to your own dimension. Who knows? Some of you may even survive the trip. And if you do, remember this: you are not welcome here. This plane is protected. I am the Doctor.”

The invaders are dispatched, but nearly everyone in the community service crew has been killed by them. The only people who Clara managed to save were Rigsy, a train conductor they encountered along the way, and the ungrateful Fenton, who feels no regret at the loss of the others, who he refers to as “community payback scumbags.”  The Doctor sadly observes “Yes, a lot of people died, and maybe the wrong people survived.”  Clara, seeing how the Doctor feels, responds, “Yeah but we saved the world, right?”  She observes that “on balance” things worked out.  Clara is now even beginning to sound like the Doctor, attempting to cope with the deaths of others by looking at the big picture.  And then, when she asks the Doctor to acknowledge that she did well, that she did a good job filling his shoes, the Doctor solemnly responds “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. ‘Goodness’ had nothing to do with it.”

This goes back to the question the Doctor asked Clara at the beginning of the season, is he a good man? Perhaps the Doctor has finally decided that he is not.  Instead he sees himself as having to do what is necessary, what is needed to get the job done, rather than doing what is “good.”  Maybe he doesn’t believe that he can look at the bigger picture and still be good.

Elsewhere / when, watching all of these events on a computer screen is the sinister Missy (Michelle Gomez). She ominously observes to herself “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.”

In conclusion, “Flatline” was excellent episode. Jamie Mathieson’s script was intelligent and scary.  The continuing development of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship was well-handled, with both Capaldi and Coleman doing excellent work with the material.  Joivan Wade was also very good in the role of the story’s temporary companion, Rigsy.

And now, I wonder, will I be looking over my shoulder every time I pass by a wall filled with graffiti?