Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Pages Of Time: A Brief History Of 'Doctor Who' Comic Books

Note: Due to technical oddities beyond my control, I won't be reviewing 'The Minister Of Chance' podcast featuring 'Doctor Who' alumnus at all now, sorry. If you enjoyed it, then perhaps, if you ask nicely, Steve Lake will handle a review of the series on 'The Whostorian' podcast itself. It's available on iTunes for free download, and their twitter account is @MinisterChance. I support them, so should you!

..and now, we return to our regularly scheduled blog entry, already in progress....

As we kick 2012 to the curb and collectively laugh at the Mayans in the process, 'The Whostorian Blog' will begin reviewing one of the longest-lasting spin-off merchandise examples of the Whoniverse; comic books. 'Doctor Who', in addition to being rewarded the title of 'world's longest running science fiction television series' by Guiness Book Of World Records, also boasts another record; it's comic strip and comic book incarnations themselves are the longest-serving examples of such, having started to appear very shortly after the thin, whispy black and white patterns of William Hartnell's original opening credits sequence first graced BBC screens.

In order to appreciate the current state of 'Doctor Who' comics, it is important to briefly run down the list of licensees to same. Initially limited to British newsstands in the form of semi-regular annuals such as 'TV Countdown' and 'TV Action', which featured comic strip adventures of other licensed properties such as 'Thunderbirds' and 'UFO' alongside those of The Doctor, the stories were primitive and tame. Often, they reflected the fact that not 'all' elements of a chosen television series were licensed; in the case of 'Doctor Who', only the likeness of the Doctor as played by Hartnell and the TARDIS were made available to Polystyle Publications, the publishers.

This meant that new companions, initially in the form of the Doctor's 'grandchildren' John and Gillian, were created to fill the void left by Ian, Barbara, and Susan. These 'grandchildren' would even outlast Hartnell himself, going on to appear in stories featuring his televised successor, Patrick Troughton. For well over a decade and through several name and editorial changes, Polystyle Publications was the primary source for 'Doctor Who' comic strip adventures (it is important to note that, unlike publishing houses that would come later, the stories of this timeframe were originally presented as comic strips first and foremost, and only appeared as 'comic books' insomuch as they were collected together to form longer storylines; Polystyle Publications devoted only a few pages per issue to 'Doctor Who', and were not truly the first licensees of 'comic books' featuring the character in the traditional sense).

Another early and important publisher for 'Doctor Who' was World Distributors, who produced 'Doctor Who Annuals' sporadically from 1965 through to 1985, an outstanding association with the Time Lord that lasted through many televised incarnations. Unlike 'TV Countdown/Action', the annuals not only produced unique material exclusively devoted to 'Doctor Who' alone without competition with other licensed products, but they benefitted tremendously from the contributions of actual 'Doctor Who' production personnel. Text stories, production photographs, interviews and more were regular highlights of the annuals, and the annuals more closely resembled early fanzines than traditional comic books.

'TV Century 21' was also an important early comic strip media form for early Whovians, though more geared towards those immersed in the throes of 'Dalekmania': fronted economically by Gerry Anderson, creator of the 'Thunderbirds' primarily as a vehicle for his own creations, Terry Nation licensed his creations the Daleks to appear in the pages. Thus the earliest 'origins' of the Daleks were told, ghost-written by television series story editor David Whitaker. The stories were limited to depicting the Daleks as 'good guys' who strictly operated defensively, fending off cosmic invaders to their home colonies in a complete role reversal from the series' depiction of them as a ruthless and cunning alien menace. To be fair, the campy nature of many of the stories evoke a pleasant, retro 'Buck Rogers' feel and are worth seeking. The Doctor himself never makes an appearance, though other elements of the whoniverse created and owned by Nation, such as Sara Kingdom from 'The Daleks' Masterplan', does.

Though these examples serve to illustrate that 'Doctor Who' was, from virtually the first transmission of the series, considered an excellent license for merchandisers to seek out and exploit, the products themselves suffered from 'also-ran' status; once the money had changed hands and the comic strips, comic books, or annuals, had been printed, it was clear that those in charge simply felt that printing the words 'Doctor Who' and crudely drawing a cartoony TARDIS would suffice, that fans would purchase the products regardless of the inattention to detail or seeming lack of care given to it. In many ways, they were right; 'Doctor Who' comic appearances of this time period were all-ages affairs, momentary additions to a young fan's devotion to the series. At no point was there any consideration given to penning serious stories that would take full advantage of the character. That would come much later.

As much as Great Britain had and has its own history of home-grown comic book products, much like Canada they tend to be rather staid and lacklustre, lacking in proper dynamism and panache. The reserved nature of the British culture precluded the creation of many over-the-top, colourful adventure heroes; even James Bond answers to his superior, Her Majesty. Influential comic book talent such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Hitch, and Neil Gaiman, all of whom would go on to work upon 'Doctor Who' in one form or other, found themselves wasting away in the U.K, uninspired and under-appreciated. What saved them all, indeed what saved 'Doctor Who' as a viable comic property, was making the jump 'across the pond', and being born again in the wild and heady, capes-and-cowls, action-packed world of American comics.

While DC Comics is credited with getting the ball rolling when their superhero character Superman started to leap tall buildings in a single bound and inspire scores of imitators that quickly populated early newsstands and earned fan interest, it was and is Marvel Comics that truly changed the world of comics forever. Around the time that 'Doctor Who' was first transmitting in the U.K, in the U.S.A Marvel was initiating the 'Marvel Age Of Comics', resurrecting World War Two comic hero Captain America to lead the mighty Avengers super team, demonstrating with Spider-Man that 'with great power comes great responsibility', and allowing readers to feel a sense of familial connection to the world's first superhero family, The Fantastic Four.

If DC Comics was classical music, then Marvel was rock-and-roll. Featuring flawed characters who struggled with universal notions of identity, depression, jealousy, anger, rebelliousness, financial and personal hardship, Marvel, dubbed 'The House Of Ideas', hit upon what was, on paper, an excellent one: create a newsmagazine about 'Doctor Who', and eventually merge the Whoniverse into their Marvel 'multiverse', allowing The Doctor to interact with Marvel characters. After all, in a satisfying example of wibbly-wobbly, timey-whimey, it had been the American servicemen stationed in the U.K during World War Two who indirectly inspired the creation of the British comic book market, distributing their U.S forces-approved American comic books to eager children and fellow Allied soldiers.

In 1972, Marvel created Marvel U.K, primarily to service the British market with reprints and also-ran material, shipping numerous copies of popular American titles to their British cousins for them to enjoy. Some titles would be altered to suit the sensibilities of the British market, considered unquestionably more formal and button-down than the teen-angst American one; 'G.I. Joe' was re-named 'Action Force', for example, while 'The Transformers', in the U.S considerably more violent and action-packed and reflective of the cartoon it was based upon, was in the U.K certainly more philosophical, apt to spend pages upon pages with robotic characters pondering the moral implications of their unending civil war rather than engaging in massive and destructive brawls.

As a 'made in the U.K' product, however, 'Doctor Who' under Marvel U.K initially was treated with the respect that a home-grown product would be expected to; the early days of the magazine first entitled 'Doctor Who Weekly', then 'Doctor Who Monthly', and now, under the sticker-and-collector cards publisher Panini simple 'Doctor Who Magazine' or 'DWM' to fans, reported nothing salacious or gossipy. They preferred instead to run 'making of' articles about upcoming televised adventures, offered mail-in competitions, printed quiz material, and featured bare-bones interviews with production personnel. When John Nathan-Turner assumed full producer ship of the TV series, however, and in tandem with the growing cheeky attitudes on display everywhere else in British tabloid journalism, 'Doctor Who Magazine' became a hotbed for controversial opinions and hard-line stances, along with headlines that screamed low-brow and often inaccurate news.

In terms of the comics themselves, Marvel U.K produced comic strips 'in house' for publication within the magazine, leading to work by the afore-mentioned British comic talents such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. These stories were and are often collected and feature some of the finest examples of the genre, chiefly among them 'The Mark Of Mandragora', a sequel to the television episode 'The Masque Of Mandragora', and featuring the Seventh Doctor re-teaming with the popular companion Sarah Jane Smith. Numerous other examples abound of the quality of the 'Doctor Who Monthly/Magazine' comic strips; once it regenerated from its 'Weekly' status, the comic strip became one of the true examples of quality original stories. Within Whovian fandom, the canon of the comic strips, while certainly considered at the very least to be 'secondary', has been given the respect to be virtually interchangeable with that of the other major licensee, Big Finish Productions audio plays, to such a degree that often characters and story lines depicted within the comic strips find their way, sometimes in altered form, into the audio plays, and vice versa.

The dawn of the current BBC series would see an offer made by Russel T Davies as television series producer to 'DWM' editorship to officially depict the canon regeneration of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor into the then-current Christopher Eccleston Ninth, an indication of the respect level given to the magazine and to the comic strips. The offer was declined on grounds that the editors did not think the allocated space given to them could possibly justify depicting such a momentous Whoniverse event, and they could also not adequately resolve their storyline with the Eighth Doctor in such a way as to accommodate the request.

As much good as Marvel, the 'House Of Ideas', was to 'Doctor Who' in terms of the creation, publication, distribution, and marketing of 'Doctor Who Magazine', which quickly rose to become the industry standard tome for fans and remains so to this day, the same cannot be said for their treatment of the character itself once they got hold of him. Appearing in back-up stories in titles such as 'Incredible Hulk Presents', and encountering characters such as Death's Head, a robotic mercenary, the Doctor traipses merrily across the Marvel Universe...or, at the very least, one of the several thousand 'Earth' designations that Marvel assigns to a wider 'multiverse', in order to differentiate between titles that feature encounters between licensed characters such as the Doctor and established Marvel characters.

The 'universe' created by the likes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby way back in 1961 is called 'Earth 616', to give an indication of just how 'many' different and varied universes exist within Marvel. For the record, the 'All New Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe', volume 1, #7, assigns the Whoniverse as 'Earth 5556'. As the majority of the Marvel U.K line is encompassed within this, the Doctor primarily encountered them to the exclusion of the more popular cape-and-cowls heroes such as Spider-Man. The Knights Of Pendragon, Death's Head, Motormouth, and Dragon's Claw all appeared with or referenced the Doctor or some other element of the Whoniverse on occasion.

While Marvel U.S generally performed admirably with their licensed characters, integrating diverse characters such as Godzilla into their universe and providing it a nemesis in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D agent and well-known supporting character Dum-Dum Duggan, the same cannot be said for 'Doctor Who'. Denied proper integration which would have helped American readers familiarize themselves with the character, given zero advance publicity in the pages of other Marvel U.S titles and with scarcely a mention in the well-read and popular 'Stan's Soapbox' feature in which Marvel CEO Stan Lee hyped upcoming projects, the good Doctor first appeared in an American title in the form of Fourth Doctor Tom Baker.

In the pages of the comic book 'Marvel Spotlight', an anthology series intended to be a 'proving ground' for possible new series or re-tooled ideas, The Doctor first tested the waters of American comic books...even though the story itself, spanning issues #57 to #60 and collected since under the title 'The Star Beast Saga', was a poorly re-inked reprint of a 'Doctor Who Weekly' strip. With such limited exposure and within the pages of a title that did not see the distribution of much better known titles as 'Amazing Spider-Man' and other A-list material, these issues did not in any way set sales records, nor was there 'any' rush to head back to the printers to order further printings.

Two important considerations must be made to demonstrate 'why' Marvel chose to debut 'Doctor Who' as a Marvel comic after its four-issue test, since neither sales figures nor industry buzz could possibly account for it. First, on the 'Doctor Who' side of things, this period in series history coincided with a directed push from the BBC first and with producer John Nathan-Turner later, to attempt to crack the elusive American mainstream market; as detailed in previous blogs, efforts were made not only to popularize 'Doctor Who' on U.S television by providing PBS stations with hours upon hours of content in the form of episodes, but this period also began the emergence of 'Doctor Who' stars and production personnel on the stages of multiple American conventions. Comic books, that quintessentially American pop culture media form, were simply another outlet to exploit.

Second, Marvel, the largest and most productive American publishing company of comic books at the time, were masters of maximizing their profits while minimizing their overhead. Actively seeking to obtain licenses to produce everything from 'Planet Of The Apes' titles to special 'KISS' magazines to even the life-story of Pope John Paul II, Marvel diversified its output to appeal to fans of both the popular and the cult, and did so as cheaply and economically as possible. The way they figured it, they had established Marvel U.K in order to stretch their profits on already-produced American material that was repackaged for a European audience; they simply 'reversed the polarity' when it came to 'Doctor Who'. This time, it would be the American readers who would be given the second-run material, repackaged in the U.S as a comic series from material already published in strip form in the U.K.

'Doctor Who' the Marvel comic series began its run in October 1984, and finished just under two years later, in August 1986, for a total of 23 produced issues. The fantasy of the 'House Of Ideas' providing new and fresh stories full of the pathos, characterizations, drama, and appeal that was its hallmark among comic fans quickly was dashed with the reality of cost-cutting, editorial confusion, and artistic apathy. Titular editor Jim Shooter, 'still' a controversial figure within the comics industry to this day, primarily for work he actually did during this period of time with Marvel, clearly spent 'no' time overseeing this title from an editorial standpoint. The same man who crafted 'Secret Wars' and its sequel, the same man who oversaw one of the finest stories in Marvel, if not comics, history, 'The Dark Phoenix Saga', and the same man who created an entire 'Legion Of Superheroes' with its sweeping future history of DC Comics at the age of fifteen years old...never bothered to 'once' attempt to craft, initiate, or influence any story published during the 23 issues. Shooter is an editor in name only on 'Doctor Who'; it's doubtful he was even aware his name appeared within.

On the writing side of it, for the first 14 issues, the series is handled more or less well thanks to the writing team of Pat Mills and John Wagner. Both had submitted story ideas to the television series, and both had grown weary of the seemingly endless re-writes required in order to fit their pitches into workable episodes. When artist Dave Gibbons was given the opportunity to become the artist on 'Doctor Who Weekly', he suggested both of them be named writers, and to turn their rejected and neglected stories into comic form instead. While some of the ideas, such as the Doctor turning into a werewolf, a killer midget alien called Beep The Meep, and the Doctor battling a 'Time Witch', are all unimaginative and childish, they 'did' reflect the declining nature of the series itself at the time.

Gibbon's art was sparse and workmanlike, and that was yet another contributing factor to this series falling under the radar; despite the obvious attempt to 'jazz up' the covers to visually hook readers with the tried-and-true action shots and multiple uses of exclamation points, Gibbon's clean yet mundane style does not lend itself to the chore. Had Marvel coughed up a few bucks to assign a different cover artist who could provide some much-needed visual flair, perhaps it would have stood out from the herd more. As it was, for a visual medium like comics, both the cover and interior art simply were nothing to call Winston Churchill from a TARDIS red phone over. Marvel didn't even bother to hire anyone to re-draw panels, clean up the inking, or polish the title in any way; they obtained the original artwork, removed the references to its source at 'Doctor Who Weekly', and shipped it to the printers. Done.

From issue #15 onwards, however, Mills and Wagner departed and the writing chores were handled by Steve Parkhouse, another British comics veteran, but one that definitely began to steer the series (more accurately, the comic strip upon which the series is collected), into 'traditional American comic book' territory. Whether by accident or design, the Doctor, at this point the Fifth, is characterized much more as a typical American comic book protagonist; he battles not just villains but super villains; he is pithy and makes caustic remarks woefully out of character for the Fifth Doctor; he is more apt to strike a pose. Encumbered with both art and writing chores on the title, Parkhouse benefits slightly from the transition to glossier paper that the comic industry as a whole was experimenting with at the time, but this is cold comfort in the end.

Marvel's handling of 'Doctor Who' as a property could and 'should' have been much more. With the right artists, writers, editors, and with the power of proper marketing, 'Doctor Who' could have made an impact much greater than it did. Comic book fans today still talk about legendary series such as 'A Death In The Family', 'Days Of Future Past', and 'Dark Phoenix Saga'. Had Marvel wished to pair a properly motivated writer and artist team and give them free reign over their licensed corner of the Whoniverse, there is no end to the type of epic stories that 'could' have been fashioned. Instead, as happens so often with 'Doctor Who' in comic form, from 'TV Countdown' through to Marvel and now to IDW Publishing, the characters are given to people who either do not know the series or simply do not care, or both.

Marvel shut down its U.K branch ten years after it cancelled 'Doctor Who' the comic. It continued to publish  'Doctor Who Magazine' until it sold that to Pannini. Therefore,  issue #23 of the comic, with its American comic book-style cover screaming 'Is This The End Of The Doctor?!' as a warplane dive bombs the Doctor, who strangely is running 'away' from the safety of the TARDIS, remains the last gasp of Marvel's attempt to 'superhero-ify' the Time Lord. A massively misused opportunity summarizes the tenure of The Doctor in the Marvel universe.

Marvel is to be applauded for its creation of what is now 'Doctor Who Magazine', and for securing the rights to 'Doctor Who' and producing a comic title. It is to be deriding for nickel and diming 'Doctor Who' when it could easily have utilized its vast supply of talented writers and artists, that it refers to constantly as 'the bullpen', and made 'Doctor Who' the comic a giant success. However, at the end of the day, Marvel was and is no different than many other licensees and even the BBC itself, in that the brand power of 'Doctor Who' has been obtained for a cheap price and results in cheap merchandise based upon it. At least there's a corner of the Marvel Multiverse set aside for 'Doctor Who'. It's not much..but it's something to hang one's Whovian hat on.

IDW Publishing, much further down the totem pole well behind DC and Marvel, announced in 2007 they had acquired the rights to publish 'Doctor Who' comics. As NOW Comics and Dark Horse Comics had done decades beforehand, IDW eschewed the notion of establishing its own comics titles within a shared 'universe' in favour of producing licensed titles based on popular films and television series. Today the current publisher of a variety of 'Doctor Who' titles, annuals, and a regular series, IDW has done a lot of good work and done more with the character and the license than any previous publisher has..they also have produced an awful lot of cringe-worthy material. Ask 'Whostorian' podcast host Steve Lake about the 'Star Trek/Doctor Who' crossover miniseries 'Assimilation Squared', for further information.

In the blog entries to come, we will be reviewing stories drawn from all published eras of 'Doctor Who' comics, from the days of The Doctor and his 'grandchildren' to the days of The Doctor teaming up with the Sleaze Brothers, right through to the current IDW series. The hopeful expectation will be a review of a story pulled from each era per blog; a 'TV Action' story, a Marvel story, an IDW story. This is dependent upon time considerations as well as availability of titles, but my collection of Whoniverse merchandise is bigger on the inside! So, I shall do my best!

I hope you have enjoyed this truncated and rambling introduction to 'Doctor Who' comic books. Do yourself a favour and seek some of these out. Not only is the Marvel series collected in graphic novel format, the earlier 'TV Action' stuff was likewise reprinted by 'Doctor Who Magazine' under the title 'Doctor Who Classic Comics', and of course the IDW stuff remains readily available at comic shops and online stores, including smartphone apps. Any questions, comments, invitations to play the Game Of Rassilon, please feel free to email me at the links provided, or post on the Facebook 'Whostorian podcast' fan page group wall. And remember to download and support the podcast! 

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