Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter rides again!

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is an odd entry in the Hammer Studios horror oeuvre. After a couple of decades of movies featuring middle-aged scholars struggling against monsters and supernatural menaces, Captain Kronos introduces a young, handsome, aristocratic swordsman as its hero. The movie was written & directed by Brian Clements, who previously had a prolific career in British television.

Clements is probably best known for his decade-long association with the spy-fi series The Avengers, and he brought much of the energy & ingenuity of that show to Captain Kronos. The movie was a deft blending of swashbuckling action and gothic horror.  Clemens had conceived of Kronos as a possible franchise for Hammer.  Unfortunately the movie was not released for two years after its completion in 1972, and its theatrical run was limited.  Between that and Hammer being on its last legs, there would be no further cinematic adventures for Kronos.

Over the next few decades, however, the movie would go on to become a cult classic, gaining numerous fans. I saw it on television twice in the 1990s, and thought it was amazing.  I’ve re-watched it several more times since it was released on DVD in 2003.

Captain Kronos 1 cover

I definitely agreed that Kronos had the potential to helm an ongoing series. Obviously others also felt the same way, and the character has at long last been revived by Titan Comics in a four issue comic book miniseries written by Dan Abnett, illustrated by Tom Mandrake, colored by Sian Mandrake, and lettered by Simon Bowland.

Set in the mid-1600s, the first issue opens with Kronos and his fellow vampire hunters Grost and Carla pursuing the undead fiend Porphyr across Eastern Europe. This chase leads the trio to the town of Serechurch, which is beset by a plague of vampirism.  The town elders ask Kronos to rid them of these monsters, and the swordsman, eager to continue his vendetta against the undead, agrees.

Abnett does a good job writing a fast-paced story. There are several exciting action sequences in the miniseries.  Much as Clemens did in the original movie, Abnett also effectively utilizes a certain amount of humor in order to offset the horror and violence of the plot.

The characterizations of Kronos, Grost and Carla are tweaked to various degrees. Clements merely hinted at Kronos’ immense obsession in one scene, and for the rest of the movie depicted him as a level-headed strategist.  Abnett, however, re-casts Kronos as a brooding monomaniac who charges in to danger.  Grost is no longer quite Kronos’ close friend, but rather a mentor who is alarmed at his protégé’s rash actions.  Carla has evolved from Kronos’ girlfriend and inexperienced assistant to a very adept vampire hunter in training.

It is certainly possible to see these as logical extrapolations of the characters. One can imagine Kronos, after repeated encounters with the forces of darkness, and the loss of a number of people who were close to him, eventually becoming harder, more obsessed and rash.  Grost, the level-headed scholar, would be alarmed to see this change, and would probably feel that stern admonitions would work better than heartfelt pleas at bringing the Captain to his senses.

Carla is the most-changed of the trio. The sweet, kind Gypsy girl has become a tough, take-no-crap fighter.  I appreciated that Abnett gave Carla much more agency in this story than she had in the movie.  At times, though, I felt perhaps he did go too far in changing her.

That said, via her dialogue in this miniseries we can conclude that Carla’s first meeting with Kronos was a transformative experience. She became aware of both the existence of the supernatural and of the wider world outside of her tiny village home.  Already cognizant of the very limited choices available to women in the 17th Century, and now awakened to the dangers posed by vampires & their ilk, Carla obviously decided that the best opportunity she had to both gain independence and acquire the skills necessary to survive in a very dangerous world was to join Kronos and Grost on their quest.

Abnett does fortunately still retain some of Carla’s innocence and inexperience. Upon arriving at Serechurch, she thinks to herself that it is the “biggest place [she’s] ever seen” and wonders “Is this what a city looks like?” In the next scene, entering the hall of the town council, Carla is awed by the wealth on display, whispering to herself “Is that gold? The ceiling’s painted with gold.”

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The one real criticism I have concerning Abnett’s writing is that at times his scripting is a bit too present day, especially in his humorous banter. Early in the second issue Kronos goes off to scout the town quarter occupied by the vampires. Carla, fearing that he will do something rash, tells Grost “Let’s hope Kronos doesn’t do anything too Kronos before we’re ready.”  That line feels more like it belongs in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in a Hammer Horror period piece.

There is also a running gag throughout the miniseries where one of the three main characters will curse and another will respond with a chiding tsk tsk of “Language.” It’s funny the first couple of times, but after that not so much.

On the artwork end of things, Tom Mandrake is certainly a very appropriate choice to illustrate Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Mandrake has a great deal of experience working on horror-related series, such as his acclaimed collaboration with John Ostrander on The Spectre at DC Comics and his work with Dan Mishkin on the grotesque miniseries Creeps from Image Comics.  Mandrake superbly renders both the supernatural elements and the fast-paced action in Abnett’s plots for Captain Kronos.

Mandrake’s storytelling is very effective on this miniseries. It works equally well in the action sequences and in the quieter moments when characters are conversing.

One thing I noticed regarding Mandrake’s layouts is that many of the pages are constructed to contain tiers of three to five panels stacked vertically. I don’t recall Mandrake employing this device before.  I am curious if he made this choice in order to evoke the widescreen frames of a movie.  It is an interesting creative decision, one that does suit this story.

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As I have observed before in other reviews, when working on licensed properties it can be a tricky proposition for an artist to capture the likenesses of actors. Sometimes going too photorealistic can actually be jarring, with characters who look like they were traced from photographs, which can really take the reader out of the story.  It is usually more important for the artist to depict the personalities of the characters.

To wit, Mandrake’s renderings of the main trio in Captain Kronos do not look especially like actors Horst Janson, John Carson and Caroline Munro; however they do feel like the characters of Kronos, Grost and Carla, if you understand what I mean.

Sian Mandrake is obviously going to be very familiar with her father’s artwork, with knowing what works over it and what doesn’t, and she does an excellent job coloring it. The subdued palette she utilizes works well in the service of the story, with the occasional bright splash of color for blood or fire consequently standing out.

The only quibble I have concerning the coloring is that Sian gives Carla reddish-brown hair. A darker color, something closer to black, would have more closely evoked the look of actress Caroline Munro.

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Despite a few missteps in the writing, I really did enjoy the Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter miniseries. I definitely would like to see a follow-up from the same creative team. There is a great deal of potential to these characters, and to the world they inhabit.

My dream would be to see Kronos encounter the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. In real life actor Christopher Lee was an expert fencer, and so it would be very appropriate to have his iconic depiction of the lord of the undead cross swords with Kronos.  There is also the infamous Karnstein family, who were actually alluded to in the movie.  They would make appropriate adversaries for Kronos to meet in combat.

Really, there are a lot of possibilities, and I hope that the character returns soon.

Doctor Who reviews: The Comfort of the Good

The first “season” of Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor from Titan Comics comes to its conclusion with issue #s 14-15.  The two-part “The Comfort of the Good” by writers Al Ewing & Rob Williams, artist Simon Fraser and colorist Gary Caldwell satisfactorily brings to a close many of the plotlines set up within the last year.

After the events of the last few issues the TARDIS has rejected the Doctor, leaving him, library assistant Alice Obiefune and the shape-changing ARC stranded in Rome in 312 AD.  Elsewhen, future prog rock god Jones has merged with the amorphous Entity.  Jones believes he is dead, but in fact the Entity is rocketing backwards in time towards the beginning of existence.  Through ARC’s telepathy, the Doctor and Alice are able to contact Jones, who merges with the Entity.  Rescuing his friends, Jones brings them to London in 2015, in search of the TARDIS.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 15 cover signed

Throughout the prior 13 issues, Ewing & Williams had done interesting work exploring the Doctor and the disparate qualities of his personality that had been set up within the television series itself.  Simultaneously a lonely god and a deeply flawed fool, the Doctor allowed his long-buried yearning to reunite with the Time Lords to be twisted and used against him by SERVEYOUinc and their Faustian agent the Talent Scout.

Ewing & Roberts open issue #15 in a scene that parallels their very first issue.  In The Eleventh Doctor #1 we saw Alice in a grey, rainy graveyard, attending the funeral of her mother.  Now a year later it is the Doctor in that same cemetery, mourning his own “death.”  He may still be alive, but he has lost faith in himself, and he has lost what is (in certain respects) his oldest friend, the TARDIS.  He is marooned on one planet in one time, unable to explore the whole of time & space, which is for him the thing that makes life worth living.

Within these two issues Ewing & Roberts bring to a close the trajectory of character development for their entire cast.  The Doctor is able to work on mending his ways and repairing his relationship with the TARDIS.  Alice, who was left adrift by her mother’s death, discovers the means to let go of the past and move forward with her life.  Jones is able to tap into his full creative potential, setting him on the path to becoming a revolutionary musician.  ARC and the Entity are reunited, once again becoming a single being.  Even the Talent Scout finds closure.

I enjoyed the scripting by Ewing & Roberts.  They do a good job giving each character a unique voice.  Their dialogue is both poignant and witty.

“The Comfort of the Good” ties everything together while laying the groundwork for future stories.  Alice has a new lease on life and chooses to continue to travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS.  And it seems likely that SERVEYOUinc are still lurking about somewhere, plotting their corporate intrigues.

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I was extremely impressed by the artwork from Simon Fraser in these two issues.  Once again he renders these amazing cosmic vistas as we see Jones, merged with the Entity, gliding through the universe.

Fraser’s storytelling is excellent.  In issue #14, there is a two page sequence with the Doctor facing the TARDIS, first pleading and then demanding to be let in.  Cutting back and forth between the two, the “camera” slowly zooms in on each, and we see the Doctor become more and more distraught & angry.  It is very effectively done.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Fraser’s depiction of Matt Smith’s Doctor is not a photorealistic likeness, but it absolutely works.  Fraser superbly captures the personality of the Eleventh Doctor, his facial expressions and body language.  It is a very natural, organic rendering of the character.  Fraser also continues to bring to life Alice and Jones, two characters he designed, gifting them with nuance and subtlety that effectively complements their development by Ewing & Roberts.

The coloring by Gary Caldwell is wonderfully effective.  It works in conjunction with Fraser’s art to create tangible moods throughout these issues.

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While the past year of The Eleventh Doctor comic book series was not without some hiccups, on the whole it worked quite well at presenting an interesting, compelling storyline.  Certainly these two issues serve as an effective denouement.  I’m looking forward to reading the entire series again to see how it works.  Much as with various television episodes of Doctor Who, I expect that there are further layers and meanings to discern from reexamining these stories.

Doctor Who reviews: The Eleventh Doctor #11

Disaster strikes as the TARDIS crashes smack dab into the middle of a honking big time paradox.  In other words, it’s just another typically bizarre day for the Doctor and his companions in the pages of Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor #11 from Titan Comics.

The Doctor learned that the mysterious shape-shifting ARC is actually the mind of the strange Entity that he recently encountered.  ARC was ripped from its body by the ruthless interplanetary corporation SERVEYOUinc (damn it, that name is playing havoc with spellcheck).  Now hoping to locate the Entity, the Doctor has ARC plug in to the TARDIS telepathic circuits.  ARC discovers that it can navigate the time machine to back before it was captured by SERVEYOUinc, and attempts to alter its own past, despite the Doctor’s panicked attempts to stop this.

This results in the TARDIS fracturing from the attempt to rewrite history.  Alice, Jones and ARC find themselves in different portions of the damaged ship.  The Doctor is left drifting through space in a non-corporeal state, helplessly witnessing the agents of SERVEYOUinc attacking & capturing the Entity.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 11 cover

“Four Dimensions” is another temporal twister from writer Al Ewing.  He brings together some of the threads he (along with series co-writer Rob Williams) has been developing in previous issues.  Since the beginning of this series, the Doctor and his companions have been encountering various representatives of SERVEYOUinc, albeit in a non-linear fashion, hopping back & forth across the timeline.  It’s a very Steven Moffat storyline, with the Doctor meeting people who he yet to meet but who already know him from events that to them are the past.  And, of course, vice versa.  Ewing utilizes this issue to finally establish the chronological order of events, clearing up some of the confusion the Doctor and his companions (as well as the readers, no doubt) have been experiencing.

Ewing also looks at the fallout from the Doctor’s disastrous confrontation with SERVEYOUinc in the last two issues.  It’s been commented from time to time that the Doctor is usually most successful when fighting against overtly villainous foes such as invading armies and power-mad dictators.  When he has to deal with subtler adversaries, such as deeply entrenched political corruption or corporate malfeasance that is technically taking place within the boundaries of the law, he often ends up making a hash of things.

That’s exactly what happened in this case: the Doctor attempted to beat SERVEYOUinc at their own game by using time travel to raise enough capital to buy them out.  Instead, it completely blew up in his face, and the Doctor became a helpless pawn of SERVEYOUinc, corrupted by their promises & lies.  It fell to Alice and Jones to have to save him and everyone else.

This is followed up on in issue #11.  The Doctor is attempting to locate the Entity to prevent it from falling into the “wrong hands.”  To this, Jones offhandedly replies “What, like yours?”  Alice is furious at this rude comment, but the Doctor is forced to acknowledge that there is validity to what Jones said, that he really did mess things up in their confrontation with SERVEYOUinc.  Ewing has previously shown Alice role in keeping the Doctor’s ego in check.  Now we see Jones also playing a part in that.

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After the TARDIS is cracked, the plot gets really wonky.  Credit goes to artist Boo Cook for successfully pulling this off with his inventive four-panel pages, effective layouts and off-kilter compositions as the action is split between the Doctor, Alice, Jones and ARC.

Cook has been alternating with Simon Fraser and Warren Pleece on art chores for The Eleventh Doctor.  Truthfully, Fraser has been my favorite until now, as his style fits in quite well with what I regard as “traditional” Doctor Who comic book artwork.  Cook, in contrast, has a much wilder, sketchy style to his work.  You might describe it as looking “early 1990s Image Comics.”

Cook’s unconventional work is a perfect fit for the story in issue #11, though.  He draws some really odd and interesting pages.  Cook even manages to pull off Jones’ latest fashion experiment, with the destined-to-be glam rock god wearing full clown regalia & make-up.

I definitely have to point out the contributions of colorists Hi-Fi.  I’ve noticed their coloring work on a number of occasions in the past.  In this issue, after our cast members are split apart, each of them and their surroundings are colored in a different hue.  This works very well in conjunction with Cook’s artwork.

Rounding out the issue is another humorous “Pond Life” back-up strip by Marc Ellerby.  The Doctor once again drops in on Amy and Rory, this time with Strax the Sontaran in tow.  The two are about to embark on their annual “pub crawl across the galaxy.”  Amy suggests that Rory accompany them, which he does reluctantly.  And over the next two pages, naturally enough, hilarity ensues.

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I will admit that I found last few issues of The Eleventh Doctor a bit underwhelming.  They weren’t bad, just not as interesting as they could have been, at least in my estimation.  But Ewing and Cook definitely did excellent work on issue #11.

In any case, despite its slightly uneven quality, Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor is still a good read, and I’m looking forward to what Ewing and his artistic collaborators bring us next.

Doctor Who reviews: The Eleventh Doctor #6

Things are not going well for the Eleventh Doctor and Alice Obiefune.  Their friend Jones, who was one day destined to become a Bowie-esque rock god, has been killed saving Alice from a power-mad Nimon, and the mysterious shape-changing robot known only as ARC has barely saved the TARDIS from being destroyed.  And that’s only on the first page of our story.  Or should I say the last page?

The beginning is the end is the beginning.
The beginning is the end is the beginning.

Writer Rob Williams and artist Simon Fraser turn matters back-to-front in Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor #6, published by Titan Comics.  “Space in Dimension Relative and Time” sees the time stream “running backwards in incremental jumps.”  Only the Doctor, due to his Time Lord nature, is able to perceive this.  “I’m aware we’re running backwards through time but no one else is,” the Doctor announces to himself.

With history repeatedly leaping back, the Doctor realizes that he has an opportunity to change events and save Jones from being killed.  However, an even more pressing issue is at hand.  As he tells Alice:

“We have to stop this… time can’t run backwards. It’ll destroy us. It’ll destroy everything.”

This is one of the most high-concept Doctor Who comic book stories I’ve read since Rich Johnson penned the Tenth Doctor adventure Room With A Déjà Vu, published back in 2009 by IDW.  Rob Williams’ plotting for The Eleventh Doctor #6 is mind-bending, tossing the reader right into the thick of things.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around the conclusion.

Appropriately enough, even the page numbering runs backwards in this issue!

Once again Williams does an excellent job at capturing the voice of Matt Smith’s Doctor.  I could so totally imagine him on television having a conversation with a geranium that he’s decided to call “Dave.”  Reading Williams’ dialogue for the Doctor, you can definitely “hear” Smith’s voice in your head.

This issue is more plot-orientated than the previous few.  Nevertheless, even with all the regressions back through time, Williams is able to fit in a few small moments to further develop Alice, Jones and ARC.  I’m interested in seeing where he goes with the trio and their relationship with the Doctor in upcoming issues.

Yes, Jones really is dead, but he'll be just fine once we hit rewind again.
Yes, Jones really is dead, but he’ll be just fine once we hit rewind again.

I am really wondering how exactly Simon Fraser illustrated this one.  How do you lay out a story where on each page events jump backwards?  He must have put a great deal of thought into deciding exactly how to pace this, as well as making sure all of the details lined up.  However Fraser went about it, the results are impressive.

Fraser even does a good job rendering the Nimon.  Now there is an old monster that I never thought I would see again.  Well, actually, if I had to pick the unlikeliest aliens to ever return to Doctor Who, it would have been the Macra, who appeared in a story that aired once way back in 1967 and which probably no longer exists barring a few seconds of footage that were saved from the scrapheap.  Yet low and behold the Macra popped up four decades later in “Gridlock.”  So if they could return from obscurity, I suppose the snicker-inducing Nimons were capable of doing so, as well.

Actually, the Nimons were used in one of the Doctor Who audio stories from Big Finish, which makes a certain sense, since their eerie, menacing voices were definitely their best feature.  Even the revived television series gave them an unexpected nod when the Doctor identified the Minotaur from “The God Complex” as a distant relative of the Nimons.  So, yeah, I guess it’s not too unprecedented that one of them shows up in this issue.

Credit where it is due: Fraser does his very best with what is a silly-looking design and manages to render the Nimon to look at least semi-menacing.  Fraser even gives the Nimon a handy suit of “temporal armor” which makes the creature appear slightly more imposing and less ill-proportioned.

No! Stop! You're making me giddy!
No! Stop! You’re making me giddy!

There’s some nice work on this issue by colorist Gary Caldwell.  His palette of colors works very well with Fraser’s art, emphasizing the reality-bending, time-twisting elements.  Caldwell’s work on the opening page (or is it the closing page?) of the issue, with the TARDIS amongst the vastness of the cosmos, is beautiful.

This issue’s time-twisty cover is by Verity Glass.  The Escher-inspired piece features an endless series of TARDISes inside one another, spiraling inward into an infinite regression.  It definitely suits the story by Williams & Frasier.

Doctor Who reviews: The Eleventh Doctor #1

The Eleventh Doctor may be gone from television screens, but he is back in the pages of comic books, courtesy of the brand new ongoing series Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor published by Titan Comics. Written by Al Ewing & Rob Williams, illustrated by Simon Fraser, and colored by Gary Caldwell, the series is set during one of those periods of time when the Doctor was traveling without Amy and Rory (specifically between “A Christmas Carol” and “The Impossible Astronaut”). The first issue introduces a new companion: Alice Obiefune, a library assistant from London.

“After Life” opens on the mournful scene of Alice in a rainy churchyard, where she is attending her mother’s funeral. From that point on, it seems that life for Alice becomes ever bleaker: she is laid off from the library due to budget cuts, her few friends are all moving away, and her landlord wants to evict her so that he can build luxury flats (yep, gentrification totally sucks). Alice seems trapped in a downward spiral.

And then, while morosely making her way through the streets of London, Alice’s entire existence is turned upside down when she abruptly see the Doctor chasing after a giant alien rainbow dog.

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Ewing & Williams do a superb job with this first issue. They really have the Eleventh Doctor down perfectly, scripting both his rambling stream of nonsensical babbling as well as his insightful, empathic moments when you glimpse the wise, caring individual underneath all the seeming eccentricity. They also do excellent work introducing Alice, making her an engaging, relatable character, and setting up the beginning of her relationship with the Doctor. I am very much looking forward to seeing how the dynamic between the two of them develops in future issues.

Scottish-born Simon Fraser is a long-time Doctor Who fan, so this must be a dream job for him. I’ve always admired the way in which he illustrates people so distinctly. He really excels at making the characters in his artwork expressive, and in giving them natural body language. There is real emotion to his people. Fraser is able to imbue his figures with a range feeling, from pathos to joy. Likewise, he is equally adept at rendering his characters in scenes both comedic and dramatic.

Fraser’s depiction of the Eleventh Doctor is not so much a photo-realistic depiction of Matt Smith as it is something a caricature. But it definitely works. Fraser absolutely captures the personality and nuances of the Eleventh Doctor in his rendition.

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And then there is the aforementioned giant alien rainbow dog. Or, as the Doctor explains: “It’s a Kharitite. ‘Joy-Beast.’ Native to the planet Vreular in the Fifth Galaxy. I think this one fell through a dimensional rift.” I love the Kharitite.

There are some things that just do not work in live action. You could have the biggest special effects budget in the world, and they would still look ridiculous. But if you put pencil to paper, draw them into a comic book, they look incredible. The Kharitite absolutely falls into that category. If the BBC was ever crazy enough to try to bring something like that to life on television, it would probably be a disaster, and audiences would be howling with derision. But in the pages of a comic, rendered by Simon Fraser, the Kharitite looks amazing and funny and brilliant. And it’s great when the Doctor Who comic books do stuff like that.

Gary Caldwell’s coloring is top notch, an integral part of the storytelling. The first three pages of “After Life” are completely in grey, mirroring the events and emotions of Alice’s life. The first hint of color is in the very last panel on page three, a tiny blue spec in the background that is the TARDIS. Then, turning the page, there is an inset panel in the upper right hand corner, a close-up of Alice’s face still in grey. But immediately below that is the splash introduction of the Kharitite, and it’s rendered in an explosion of color, as Alice’s existence collides with that of the Doctor.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 1 cover

Topping the issue off is a lovely painted cover by Alice X. Zhang. I am not familiar with her, but I already like her work. The preview image of her next cover also looks great, and I’m looking forward to seeing it full size when the second issue comes out.

All in all, Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor is off to a good start. If you are a fan of the show, this one is well worth picking up.