Monday, August 3, 2015

Another double-take at the supermarket



“Ladies and Gentlemen, by overwhelming demand, we start with everybody's favourite... Chocolate Sandwich!”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Everything is wonderfully pointless: Who's Who and Official Handbooks


I keep thinking I should chuck them out. They're just taking up precious space in our small spare room, and they're not even relevant any more. There are dozens and dozens of them, and when I go on a purge binge through the comic collection, they always end up on the 'maybe-it's-time-to-let-them-go' pile, before I chicken out and put them away again, until the next time.

They are two series, published by Marvel and DC in the late eighties. The DC one was called Who's Who, and the Marvel one was called The Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe. They are catalogues, histories and data about the most prominent characters, settings and props of the main superhero universes.

They're 30 years out of date, and are obsessed with a continuity that has been rewritten four or five times since. They're totally useless in this 21st century, but that's just another reason why I can't bring myself to get rid of them.


It's all about the context. Unless you're 70 years old, any new reader of the big superhero comics has decades of history to catch up on, and after years and years of ignoring the issue altogether, by the 1980s, things had got complicated, and needed to be catalogued properly.

There was a strong fanbase asking for this, desperate to know if Iron Man or Thor was stronger, or how tall the Golden Age Black Canary was. The eighties are the decade when the fans really took over the asylum, and were finally given the green light to put everything in its proper place.

Fanzine theories became canon and hidden histories were revealed, but I didn't know anything bout that. All I knew was that these series were full of background information from comics I never  thought I'd get to read, and my 12-year-old brain hoovered that shit up like it was cocaine.


Who's Who came out as DC's continuity-shattering Crisis On Infinite Earths was still running, and there is some incredibly impressive back-pedalling in the earliest issues, as they catch up with a new status quo that was shifting literally every month.

Still, it had the task of setting the new reality, and original editors Len Wein and Marv Wolfman went about it with gusto, giving some of DC's quirkiest characters their first on-page appearance in years, and devoting a bit of space to even the most bizarre histories as everything was sorted out.

Despite some great art, the comics themselves were eye-searingly over-designed, and various experiments with yellow dots and bleeding colours sometimes produced pages that were almost unreadable.

But they were dense with fifty years of history, and covered everyone from Baron Blitzkrieg to El Diablo, and even the goofiest shit got in there.


The Marvel version was, as the name suggest, more utilitarian, with less artistic craziness, but more text and information crammed into its pages. Marvel actually got there with this sort of thing first, with a Handbook series in the early eighties, but it was the Deluxe Edition, first published in 1985, that was the definite catalogue of Marvel's best and brightest.

With a greater focus of facts and information than its DC counterpart, the Official Handbook was absolutely dense with data, with little wasted space. Again, there were some nice character portrayals by some of comic's brightest star of the time, but the information was the thing.

And Marvel delivered – the Handbooks had denser history segments, and greater detail, right down to whether somebody engaged in light, moderate or intensive exercise. It wasn't perfect - by some glitch, they kept under-powering Iron Man by 90 per cent – but it was some beautiful detail.


After all, there are some hidden truths of the time they were published, like how much they care about recent things – characters that are largely forgotten now get detailed entries, just because they were flavour of the month 30 years ago, and some of comic's biggest characters today get little more than a footnote in the mid-eighties.

They also show that while superhero comics are still primarily a boy's medium today, we've come a long way, because these things are packed to capacity with straight white men, and few characters of any colour or creed other than whitebread. They're not being blatantly offensive, it just shows how colourless a lot of characters were back then because that was the way they always had been, but it's certainly noticeable now, especially when males outnumber female character entries by 10 to one, and it's a good reminder that we could still use a few more different perspectives.


I read these comics to pieces in the eighties, and still get them out again now, to remember the strange and obscure characters and worlds. They've both been mined by their parent companies for anything useful over the past three decades, but there are still some delights to be found in characters that have slipped away in history.

There were a couple of update series towards the end of the eighties, and then the whole thing was reinvented and over-designed to death, just like everything was over-designed to death in the 1990s. And now we've got Wikipeadia to find out everything we need to know, right down to the slightest details, and there's no need for them now. But they were crucial for their times.


They also had some terrific art – even with the appalling polka dots, the DC pieces were artistically stronger, with montages showing a character’s history, while Marvel favoured blank backgrounds and a focus on the actual people and props. But both of them attracted unusual artists, and you'd find somebody like Jaime Hernandez doing the spunkiest legion of Super Heroes or Curt Swan doing one of Marvel's Superman analogues.

The first issue of the Handbook alone has art from Byrne, Cockrum, Buscema, Ordway, Smith, Simonson, Zeck and Steve flippin' Ditko. But DC went better, with the young stars like Gibbons, Giffen, Bolland and Perez kicking out some killer images, while Kane, Kirby, Kubert, Swan, Orlando, Infantino and Garcia-Lopez brought decades and decades of experience on incredible cover designs to their character pieces.

These publications were full of beautiful art and silly trivia, and I still care about this shit to go back over it, again and again. Somebody has to, right?


The pages are starting to yellow, and the data is getting more and more pointless, but that just makes it even more attractive. Caring about superhero universes is the ultimate in pointlessness anyway – because let's face it, true believer – because none of this shit really matters.

But if you're going to pretend you're going to give a damn about pointless shit, than you might as well go all the way. I can try to justify it with art appreciation or shameless nostalgia or anything like that, but the fact that these things are so obsolete is really appealing.

The Who's Who and Official Handbook comics don't really matter any more. That's what makes them so great.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fables: An unexpected journey

After 150 issues, 22 collections and half a dozen spin-off comics, Fables reached a natural conclusion in the past week, with the final volume released out into the world and left to fend for itself.

Fables was Vertigo's most successful property of the past decade, and has inspired innumerable imitators in comics, TV and film. It somehow survived for 13 years as a monthly comic in the modern media landscape, thanks to a large dose of charm, some sweet artwork and a whole lot of relentlessly entertaining yarns.

It is bitter-sweet to see Fables come to a conclusion, because its very premise left it open for a million more tales, but all stories have to come to an end sometimes. The ideas carry on, and are reborn over and over again, but this particular chapter is over.


Fables ends with the usual unpredictability, and the usual flagrant disregard for the accepted rules of epic storytelling. Creator Bill Willingham has been doing this for a while, most notably when the grand war the whole series revolved around suddenly and unexpectedly got resolved halfway through the series run.

This sudden shift in the story left many readers cold, but it's still arguable that this was the best thing that ever happened to the comic, getting all the stuff you expect to happen out of the way, and allowing events to travel down unexpected new paths.

And the plot behind Fables has been built around this kind of happy mystery right up until the end, when one last epic battle is coming, only for that story to collapse in anticlimax, because the real story is what is going on in two sisters' hearts. There is still some bloody big events going down – an apocalyptic mystical duel starts with social niceties and ends in suicidal destruction - but that's not really what this story was about.

In the end, the Fables that can change their own fates, and rewrite their own destinies, are the ones to survive, and move on to something new. After all, ancient curses and blood feuds are no match for modern lateral thinking.


Fables has been strong enough to handle a bunch of spin-off titles, including the beautifully free-wheeling Jack Of Fables, which lasted for 50 glorious issues. But it all had to reach some kind of natural end sometime, and when Willingham revealed that the end was nigh, it wasn't a great shock.

Besides, he had plenty of time to sort out all the loose ends that had built up over a decade of comics, and he has been wrapping up lot lines for the past couple of years. Death never really had much impact in the world – unless you were an unfortunate Munday who caught caught in some Fables crossfire – but with the story ending, there was no more room for improbable resurrections, and the blood shed over the comic's last year was permanently stained on the narrative, where dead finally means dead.


While many characters met their final fate as the story reached its climax, the comic had such a vast and sprawling cast, that there were plenty of characters to check in on towards the end.

These little epilogues were often humorous, occasionally touching and sweetly efficient – the last Flycatcher story is a single panel gag about who takes over his kingdom, (which is still much better than the cruel, terrible and all-powerful Emperor Flycatcher that is glimpsed in another possible future), and there are great little stories where you also get Pinocchio growing up to be the President of the USA, while Geppeto learns nothing at all and starts the whole cycle of pointless empire all over again.

Sometimes the ticking off of the boxes has gotten a bit blatant, such as when the cubs' predictions are all fully explained, and these epilogues overdose on a brand of metatextual mischief that is oddly unfashionable right now, but in keeping with the themes of the whole thing – any story about stories is always going to be a story about that story.


But when you've been following the same story, month in and month put, for 13 years, it's only right that you get to check in on favourite characters one last time. Fables could be infuriatingly glib, politically dodgy and downright mean sometimes, but it had some wonderful characterisation work that was some of the strongest in modern monthly comics.

Willingham and his artistic collaborators breathed new life into ancient archetypes, putting the world's oldest characters from the world’s oldest stories in a thoroughly modern setting, and made you care about the struggles they faced. They might be strange, magical creatures that aren't bound by things like logic or physics, but you still care about Bigby & Snow, and Rose Red, and the Three Blind Mice, and Old King Cole, and all the rest.

As inhuman as they could be, they still felt love and fear and regret and joy and all the human emotions we all share, and that made them so much more than simple characters in a story.


Of course, it also helped that the comic was also full of some brilliant art. Mark Buckingham has been the lead artistic voice on the comic for most of its life and has produced a dazzling amount of great artwork, given a free hand to design huge unwordly armies, while also nailing the quieter moments of contemplation and compassion.

Fables was also a wide enough concept to allow other artists to come in and do odd bits and pieces, even if they only had to show up to do two or three page stories, and this is another tradition that lastest to the end, with the final issue alone includes fine art from noted creators such as Neal Adams, Bryan Talbot, Mike Allred, Gene Ha, Teddy Kristiansen and others.


And so, Fables ends with the magical world crashing headlong into the real world, changing both worlds forever, but it doesn't end in blood. It ends with a huge family reunion, where everybody gets back together after a long time apart. It ends in a celebration of family and life and all the weird twists and turns they take. And boy, do they have some stories to share

In a book full of charming rogues and charming artwork, this was always Fables' most charming aspect, that there is always a place to meet up with loved ones and share your stories. It's what we all do, and it's almost comforting to know that the characters in those stories do the same, long after the final page is turned.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

You can't go home again


I went back to my old home town over the weekend, and suffered the usual bouts of discombobulating nostalgia. Driving around the streets I grew up on, every street and ever corner is infused with meaning and experience, and it's almost overwhelming.

I drove past old houses I lived in, and past the park where I first kissed a girl, and along roads I staggered along as a drunk youth, but I keep coming back to the comics. They're my first love amongst all of the entertainment mediums, and the places where I bought and read specific issues are burned into the memory, whether I like it or not.

It's the comics. It's always the bloody comics.


I just can't help remembering the hundreds of individual comics I bought over the years growing up. I can't remember what I had for breakfast last Tuesday, but I can instantly tell you where I bought the first Eagle Comics issue of the Judge Child Quest in 1984, or where I found the Inferno tie-in issues of Nocenti and Romita Jnr's Daredevil. That information is locked in for life.

But I'm not sure this is always such a good thing. Wallowing in nostalgia is fun and easy and often quite rewarding, but it can really also fuck you up sometimes, and I came back from the weekend away with a head swimming in pointless history and a hunger for the new.


It's not exaggeration to say that every damn street is infused with a particular comic-related memory, because I've read thousands of comics on those streets over decades and decades, and these incidents stick like nothing else.

It's not even the big stuff, like literally jaw-dropping twists in 2000ad, it's the most innocuous stuff. Look over there and it's a stretch of the shoreline where I can remember reading Avengers #303 in 1989, and Galactic Guardians #1 in 1994, and While Portacio's first X-Factor in 1991, over years, but all within metres of each other. I don't even own any of those comics any more – they got purged out of the collection years and years ago – and I can't even remember much about the comics themselves, (the only thing I remember about the Avengers comic is that I ate the world's best chocolate bar while reading it). But I can still remember where I was in space and time when I first read them

And just along the coast a bit, there is a stretch of weather-blasted beach where I accidentally dropped an issue of Hot Stuff into the ocean when I was seven – 33 years later, I'm still mourning the loss – and where I would later get totally fuckin' wasted and read Invisibles comics in the light of late 1990s sunsets.

And there are a thousand more such associations, a thousand different comics, and the places where I found them on bookshop shelves, and where I read them in the car on the way home, and where I kept them and read them and read them till they fell apart. All those memories bleeding into the geography and staying there, waiting to be unlocked.


It's not just the comics – I get weird associations with my movies and music and games as well, just like anybody else. Christchurch will always be a Tarantino city for me, because that's just where I always saw his films, and I just mourned the closure of the Dunedin video store where I hired Eraserhead, and I can still tell you where I saw my first ever video tape for rent (it was Star Wars, up on that shop on the Bay Hill).

And I'll always associate roads across the very Northern tip of Scotland with some bangin' Skrillex tunes, the blank road north-east out of San Francisco will always sound like the soundtrack to Travis Bickle on the Riveria to me, and the driveway into the fat factory I used to work at still sounds like A Day In the Life from Sergeant Pepper.

I was even attacked by a huge dose of 1996 the other day, when I annihilated my mate Nick on the N64 Goldeneye game, and when I remembered exactly where all the body armour was hidden, I swear I could taste the nineties in the back of the throat. I might as well have been watching bloody Trainspotting or listening to Pulp.


But it's always the bloody comics. And walking down the same roads and driving the streets where I spent the first 20 years of my life (and a fair few later on), I remember the Superman and Batman comics of those day. I ado che for those easy days of youth and the comics that are imprinted on those times, and it becomes clear I can't go back again.

I don't want to go back. I love my home town, and I love that I have so much weird history with particular places, and I'll keep coming back to visit, because that's where most of my family and friends still are. But I want to be somewhere new, making a new story and making new weird associations, reading new comics in new places.

That isn't too much to ask for, it it?

I can't stop myself from dredging these things up when I'm wandering around, and sometimes, I really wish I could, because they're taking me out of the now, out of the current moment, which is the only one that really matters.


I really don't know if this is normal or not, but it would have left me really bummed out on the flight home, if it wasn't for one thing.  At one point while I was driving around, thirsty as hell after all this miserable musing, I stopped at the same dairy where I used to buy Scream! comics more than 30 years ago.

I only stopped at that particular shop because of that association, and I couldn't stop myself from checking out the magazine stand, even though I hadn't bought any comics from that shop in 30 years, and drokk me, they have an issue of 2000ad I thought I'd missed from a few weeks ago. Without that desperate nostalgia, I would have missed it completely.

I'm fucked if I know what the moral of all this is, but shit, at least I got to see how that first Enceladus story in Dredd finished.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Carlos Ezquerra is still The Man

There have been dozens and dozens of artists who have worked on the Judge Dredd comic over the past 38 years, and the strip is highly unusual in having a number of definitive Dredd artists with wildly varying styles – a Bolland Dredd is just as iconic as a McMahon or Smith or McCarthy or Hairsine Dredd.

But there is still one artist who stands above all as the one, true Dredd artist. Right from the start, he's been the man they call in for the big, epic storylines, and the man they can always rely on to deliver the strange day-to-day life of Mega City One like no other.

Nearly 40 years after he co-created Judge Dredd, Carlos Ezquerra is still The Man.


Ezquerra was part of a great wave of Spanish artists who flooded into the British comic market in the 1970s, where they pumped out a huge amount of pages for UK publishers, who were only too happy to take advantage of the cheap labour.

A lot of that art was just average enough to be forgettable, but there was also some incredible talent shining through, and Carlos Ezquerra soon made his mark in the British war comics. Even before they put the credits on the stories, you could never mistake the craggy beauty of an Ezquerra page for anybody else, with the consistency and vitality of a great comic artist. His figure-work could get a little rigid, but his storytelling was silky smooth, and things could get all wonderfully shaky when the bullets started flying.

No wonder they got him in to design Judge Dredd when 2000ad launched in 1977. Even though co-creator John Wagner was after a sleeker, meaner look, Ezquerra piled on improbably design elements, including a big gold badge on the character’s chest and a giant bloody eagle on his shoulder – and it somehow worked. Dredd's design is immortal because it doesn't look like anything in the real world, and remains almost totally unchanged, all these years later.

Just as crucially, he created the actual look of Mega-City One. Originally envisioned as a near future New York, Ezquerra created an awesomely futuristic cityscape that forced the writers to send things another hundred years in the future. No Ezquerra, no Mega-City One, and everybody knows the main character of the Judge Dredd comic is the city itself, and it's all thanks to Carlos.


Despite all his work, the first actual published Dredd story didn't feature Ezquerra at all, with Mike McMahon doing his best to emulate the Spanish artist. Ezquerra rightfully took offense and refused to have anything to do with the character for years after that, but eventually softened. And that worked out well for everybody, because he went on to draw some of the greatest Dredd stories ever.

He drew decades of great Dredd comics, and his work was always consistently satisfying. Even with those weird little bumps he'd put around characters' outlines, a Ezquerra Dredd was always a terrific Dredd. He would disappear for years, and then do months of comics in a row, blowing up the city he created several times over, or doing some intimate epic about life in a Sector House.


All those years, and his work was always so recognisable. It still evolved - figurework becoming rounder and fuller, while his Dredd just got harder and harder, with a face that never, ever cracks.

Ezquerra was also busy experimenting with colour, trying out new technologies with glee. This saw some unfortunate results in the 1990s, with tones that had all the charm of garish mud, but then he got the hang of it, bringing a new shine to his work that gives it even more heft and weight.

Because that's what Ezquerra does best – he is always the master of bringing power to the comics page. He can could make a man striding down a corridor into a huge dramatic moment, he could craft huge action scenes that were grounded in reality and he captured Dredd's superhuman senses of will, honour and duty like no other.


Creating something like Dredd is a great achievement that would be enough for some artists, but Ezquerra also co-created – and still draws - the other great 2000ad character: Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog.

Alpha is just as hard as Dredd, but is also more human, even if he is an intergalactic bounty hunter. He will kill any scum that crosses his path, but he's also a good mate, somebody who has your back, somebody you can have  beer with. A noble fighter, who would break the rules to bring justice, and Ezquerra captured it all, with a more haunted action hero.

And somehow, Ezquerra created the most bizarre outfit for Alpha, with a rounded helmet and massive pads, all in bright greens and yellows, and it is just weird enough to be just as eternal as Dredd's outfit. We can see this even now, because Ezquerra is still drawing the ongoing adventures of Johnny Alpha, recently completing the terrific and fun 'Stix Fix' storyline in 2000ad. Nobody does Johnny Alpha better.


Outside these two big characters, Ezquerra has always been keen to try something new, from the Mafia pregnancy silliness of Al's Baby to the space age shenanigans of the Stainless Steel Rat. He's happily imported the Major Ezy character from his Battle days into Dredd's world with Cursed Earth Koburn, and wasn't afraid to get a bit political with the launch of Third World War, written by Pat Mills, for the Crisis bi-weekly title in the late eighties.

The artist has stuck with writers he explicitly trusts, and rarely does anything for 2000ad that isn't written by John Wagner or Alan Grant, and has also had a lot of fun with Garth Ennis' scripts. There he could do comedy nonsense like the Rifle Brigade, or the odd deeply serious and deeply affecting war story, like the brilliant Condors, a tale of humanity in the Spanish Civil War, which Ezquerra took personally and still ranks as one of the best things he has ever done.


Ezquerra has spent the past few years bouncing between Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd, and even after all this time, and after thousands and thousands of pages of comics, an Ezquerra strip is an absolute delight, and always welcome. He's still massively under-rated, so a recent award for his incredible life-long career was more than overdue.

He suffered a health scare a few years ago, but has vowed to keep working until they put him in the grave with his pen. Hopefully, that day is still some long way off. He's given us thousands of pages of great comics, but we could always use a few more Ezquerra comics.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Where all the strange ones go


Messy comic shops are the best comic shops, and the great thing about going to them is finding the weird little oddities that no other store has. Comics you might have heard about but never seen, and others that are completely unknown until you stumble across them, hidden behind a stack of Heavy Metals and Archie digests.

That's where you find the strange stuff, and that's what I'm always looking for in those stores, because I've got all the obvious great comics and I need to look around for things that deliver the goods. I've been reading comics since I was three years old, but there are still plenty of old comics to discover.

I dug out some more during a recent visit to one of my favourite comic shops in the world, and they're not all great comics, or even truly satisfying ones, but at least they're something a little bit different:


The Worm
By Alan Moore, several scripters and dozens of artists


This strange little book features “the longest comic strip in the world”, cooked up in one day in 1991 by 125 British cartoonists and four scripters, working from a detailed plot from Alan Moore.

Published as a book in 1999, it's the story of an everyman cartoonist running up against the Man, over and over again throughout human history, and it looks like it was a hell of a lot of un to make, but as a reading experience, it's little more than a curious mess.

Jam comics come with the best of intentions, but they never really work, not with jarring changes in style between individual panels.  There are a lot of lovely little panels – which was always going to happen with the vast talent on the roster, including O'Neill, Fabry, Gibbons, Talbot, Hughes, Emerson and Lloyd - and The Worm does come with more of a theme and point than most jam comics, but it's never quite satisfying as much as the sum of its parts suggests.


Comix Book #1
By Marvel


 Stan Lee's greatest attempt to get down with the hip kids saw him strike up an unlikely friendship with Denis Kitchen, and in 1974, Kitchen somehow talked Marvel into publishing Comix Book, featuring some of the finest underground comic artists at the time.

Only a few issues of Comix Book were ever published, and while Marvel might have written it off as an unmitigated failure, it's a far better cultural portrait of 1970s society than a hundred and fifty issues of The Defenders. In the first issue alone, there is some hamfisted political allegory, the usual what-if-funny-animals-were-gross nonsense and several strips with horribly dated jokes, but there are also touches of brilliance.

They do come from the usual suspects – Art Spiegleman is at his art-deco abstract best, Basil Wolverton is still showing the kids how to do it and there is some fun and games from the likes of Howard Cruse, Kim Deitch and Scott Shaw – and these pieces still give Comix Book some bite and relevance, more than 40 years after it baffled Marvel.


Bizarre Adventures #27
by Claremont, Buscema, Janson, Duffy, Perez, Alcala, Layton and Cockrum


Seven years after Comix Book, Marvel were still trying out new things with their black and white magazines, but by now they were sticking to more traditional fare, with this issue of Bizarre Adventures focusing on the lives of three different X-Men.

It's the sort of softly weird and totally pleasant filler that would bulk out Classic X-Men later that decade, with Nightcrawler, Phoenix and Iceman getting into various scraps. This was before the glut of X-products that started smothering the whole thing in the late eighties, where a previously untold story of Jean Grey's time as the Phoenix was actually quite rare.

The stories are still fairly generic, but have their charms. I have a weird soft spot for Jean Grey's family, and I'm frequently appalled by the horrors they suffer for plot purposes, so seeing Jean spend some time with her sister Sara is somewhat touching, even if they get dragged into Atlantean bullshit, while Nightcrawler is at his swashbuckling best and Iceman is at his moping worst.

Bizarre Adventures proved to be one of Marvel's last gasps in the B&W game, and this issue probably didn't help things too much, but at the very least, you can never have too much of Dave Cockrum's yelling comics.


Housebound with Rick Geary
By Rick Geary


All the cool kids know Rick Geary's Victorian murder mystery comics are essential reading, looking at historical atrocities with a wry eye, but this book of his earlier work is a great look at the artist in progress.

In the pages of this 1991 book, collecting his random comics from the previous 15 years, you can see Geary feeling his way around, looking for his own distinct style and tone. There are hints of the true crime adaptations already shining through, amongst stream of consciousness stories and contemporary snapshots.

Looking at his art, the thing that is most remarkable is how quickly he settles on his signature style, with broken lines, intense detailing and vivid caricatures. He quickly develops it in the strips he produces in the late 1970s, and by 1980 its recognisably Geary. A viewpoint as idiosyncratic as his takes some time to get right, but it didn't take that long before his art couldn't have come from anybody else's pen.


The Daredevil Chronicles
By Enthusiasm!


A lightly professional fanzine, full of the same enthusiasm, but with a comparatively huge print run, The Daredevil Chronicles was part of a series of magazines focusing on Marvel's biggest titles, but published by FantaCo in the early eighties, and full of interviews, articles and artwork, with this one featuring pictures of Daredvil by George Perez, Fred Hembeck and Spain.

The main appeal of the Daredevil issue is a long and rambling interview with Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, right at the peak of their first run. Its heartening to see how they are still invigorated by their own success, and delighted to see their experimentation take off, with a strangely nebulous vision for the future.

Like all these publications, it's a total product of its time and place. Everything moves on in this world, but these pieces of cultural debris are still here, and are still full of fun, and still worth looking for.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Doctor Who: On the beach with New Adventures


Doctor Who started to die a long, slow death when the BBC took it off the air in 1989. Apart from a lamentable crossover with Eastenders, 89 minutes of Paul McGann and the odd comedy sketch, the TV show was off the air and gone from the world.

Russell T Davies and chums sorted all that out 10 years ago, and brought back the Doctor, better and bigger than ever. But for 15 years there, Doctor Who was pretty much dead in mainstream culture.

But it was only his TV adventures that were dead. Something strange and wonderful was happening with the Doctor in a new format, with a new series of novels that took the Doctor into previously unexplored realms of time and space. They were called the New Adventures, and if you get me drunk enough and thinking about girls with short, dark hair, I'll swear they are the best Doctor Who stories ever.


Here's a slice of space and time: Sometime in 1997, I'm on a beach in Dunedin on the arse end of the world, drinking a bloody big bottle of scrumpy cider and reading a book that has the best Wings-based pun ever, and it also features an incredibly smart woman with short dark hair who orders a pint of vodka, and I fall in love with Professor Bernice Summerfield.

Benny is the first proper companion introduced in the Doctor's novel adventures, and she's an absolute delight – snarky and sharp and clever and resourceful and expanding her mind as she falls through the universe. Never mind about running off with the good Doctor, I want to explore the limits of space and time with somebody like Benny.

She's still out there now in 2015, starring in the occasional book or audio adventure, and she's still as beautifully sharp as ever.  


The New Adventures were published by Virgin and were born in the immediate aftermath of the TV show's end, with the Doctor and Ace strolling right out of Survival and into the Timewyrm saga. It only lasted a few years, until the BBC grabbed the rights back in the wake of the McGann movie, and almost all of the Virgin novels have long since fallen out of print.

But they burned brightly, and remain a massive influence on the current generation of Doctor Who writers. Some of the New Adventures novelists went on to write for the series themselves, and some of them peaked a long time ago, but there was such a sudden rush of infectious enthusiasm for what you could do with a Doctor Who story at this time, with a burst of creativity and cleverness.


It became a series that got inside the TARDIS crew's heads like nothing before, or since. Unashamedly going for an older audience, the stories were complex and human, with a direct focus on characterisation – lots of hugs and hurt feelings as the Doctor saved the world again.

They could get quite brutal and dark, with massive body counts and destruction on a galactic scale, but they also featured the Doctor going off and getting drunk on his 1000th birthday and singing Happy Birthday to the universe, and they featured strange, lyrical tales set in long-ago English summers.

Paul Cornell set the new standard with Timewyrm: Revelation, and would come back every year or so to raise the bar again, and it was a level of quality that no other TV tie-in novel series came close to touching. There were consistently brilliant books by Cornell, Kate Orman, Lance Parkin, Andy Lane and Ben Aaronovitch, and they were all must-reads, with stunning ideas and swaggering style.


Here's another slice of time and space: One night during this period of New Adventures, I have this ridiculously vivid dream about pain and loss that leaves me with an inexplicable crush on the character of Dodo, a young woman with short, dark hair who was in the TV show in the 1960s and is precisely nobody's favourite companion.

I'm not sure where this comes from, all I know is that I'm fucking shattered when I get to the part in Who Killed Kennedy where she is callously murdered for plot purposes, and it isn't helped when she ends up with a brain-eating STD at the end of The Man In The Velvet Mask. Dodo deserved better.


The Man in The Velvet Mask wasn't actually a New Adventure, it was a Missing one. A couple of years into the run of NAs, the editors started putting together new stories about past Doctors, filling in the character's continuity with new travels and confrontations. Some of them emulated the new style, and weren't that successful for it, while ones that were more blatantly homaging the era they were going for worked out all right.

But my favourite Doctor is always, always the current one, and it was the New Adventures that mattered. They started getting deeply weird as they built up a new story of the Seventh Doctor's new role as Time's Champion, a Machiavellian mastermind who played chess with the cosmos and still understood the value of a single life, who negotiates for peace on apocalyptic battlefields and then goes off to play the spoons.

They played fast and loose with the Doctor's world, and I totally understand how it turned a lot of people off, and some of them had the worst book covers I've ever seen on a science-fiction novel (they got tremendously better towards the end), so I can see how Who fans could reject it.

They also got delightfully self-indulgent, with the 50th book a huge love-fest for the whole series, a book line that got drunk on their own possibilities. The end was near, and things got tangled up in psi-war nonsense and real-word computer failure, and the last few books came out of order and became legendarily rare, even as they promised answers to the oldest of questions.


One last slice of time/space is longer than the others, and stretches over a year or so as I get obsessed with these books, almost too late for my own good.

I know about them, but other than watching the odd old story on video, I have little to do with Doctor Who in the early nineties. I see the books in the stores and check out the back covers, but it's only when I get Return of the Living Dead, another continuity-drenched piece of gushing Who love, that I fall for them.

It's fortunate timing, because I'm just able to grab the hardest ones to find before they disappear, and spend the rest of the time buying them in bulk, the first time I ever use the internet to figure out and track down a new obsession.

And it is an obsession - I'm in my early twenties, and my entire pathetic life revolves around getting as fuckin' wasted as possible, re-reading The Invisibles in search of the meaning of life, and tracking down Doctor Who books. It all melts together, and I'm sitting on that damn beach, getting drunk as fuck and spinning out while reading No Future and Flex Mentallo. It all seems so normal.


And then it was all over. The BBC books came in and were never as satisfying, with a lack of a strong editorial vision or real point. They got briefly interesting with Lawrence Miles' additions to the saga, but they proved too inherently self-destructive to really get anywhere.

And then, at long last, the TV show came back, and it was amazing, with strong actors and high production values the old series had only ever dreamed about. Most of all, it came back with brilliant stories which built a whole new level to Doctor Who, and the debt they owe to the New adventures is palpable.

There is that same cleverness, and that same naked sentimentality, that could be found in the best New Adventures, and they gave the good Doctor's adventures a new credibility. They could be about more than running down corridors and filling 25 minutes of air time. They could be about anything, as small as hurt feelings, or as large as threats to the universe.
 

I came in so late, and had to go back and read the books in totally the wrong order. And it too me years to track down the last few New Adventures I needed, which was understandable, considering the last few's pitifully tiny print runs. I paid more than fifty bucks for a copy of Lungbarrow a few years ago, because I had to have it, but the one I could never track down was Cornell's Human Nature, the one that everybody raved about, until I got it the other week.

It was weirdly easier to live with that hole in the collection when the story was used as the basis for a two-part story in the TV show, with the Seventh Doctor's story claimed by the Tenth. But I was always looking for the book then I got it a few weeks ago, and it's done.

I still haven't read them all, because I'll have to be pretty desperate to finally crack open The Pit, but I'll get there one day. Like all particular periods of Doctor Who, it was the perfect thing for its place in time and space, and we've all moved on, but I still have a lot of dopey affection for these stories, too wide and weird for the small screen.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Please stand by..



Normal service - which usually means something about a thing nobody else cares about, until I get one nice email from somebody who tells me I'm absolutely right about absolutely everything - will resume at the Tearoom of Despair on Tuesday.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Please stand by



Normal service - which usually means something about a thing I was madly passionate about twenty years ago, and still feel all funny inside when I think about it - will resume at the Tearoom of Despair on Tuesday.