Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Collection

Doctor Who I’m a latecomer to Doctor Who.  My 11-year-old son turned me on to the television series a few months ago, and we have been steadily making our way through the Netflix collection. When I saw Doctor Who: The Dave Gibbons Collection, I couldn’t pass it up.  I mean Dave Gibbons, artist of Watchmen and Superman: “For the Man Who Has Everything,” and Doctor Who together in comics?  How could you go wrong?

Since I’m no expert, my insight into how these stories relate to older episodes of the series will be admittedly limited.  The collection mainly focuses on the Tom Baker incarnation of the Doctor, with a few stories towards the end that include the Peter Davison incarnation, including one of my favorites in the collection “The Tides of Time.”   Sharon and K-9 are the Doctor’s companions for several stories, but most of the time he travels alone in these stories and meets people along the way.

Naturally, Dave Gibbons’ artwork lives up to his reputation.  The colors and detail are superb throughout the collection.  From what I can tell, he captured Tom Baker’s manic grin and personality perfectly, but I’m going on very limited knowledge of Baker.  Gibbons’ vision of creatures, space vehicles, and intergalactic communities completely drew me into the stories.
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The book opens with several multi-part stories that I really enjoyed- “The Iron Legion,” “The City of the Damned,” and “The Star Beast.”  “The City of the Damned,” which has Orwellian themes, is probably my favorite of the collection.  The citizens of the city are controlled and programmed to be emotionless, but there is a gang of rebels, who each exhibit one emotion, fighting the controllers. There is a quirky ending befitting the Doctor.

“The Tides of Time” runs a close second.  It shows a side of the Doctor I haven’t seen in the latest seasons of the television series.  There are massive powers at play in the universe.  The Doctor is mainly along for the ride and is just as confused as everyone else.  The story takes some really bizarre turns, but is visually stunning.
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There are several other stories in the collection where the Doctor seems to just be along for the ride without contributing much, but they are one-off, quick stories that seem to end as soon as they really begin.  There also seems to be a lot more Star-Wars-like space battles and lasers in these older stories, but that may be natural in the older stories and incarnations of the Doctor.

Overall, the collection is just as compelling as the television series.  Anyone who is a fan of the show and likes comics will certainly enjoy this book. Check it out here.
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Supergods by Grant Morrison

supergods-coverWhat Morrison does very well in Supergods is offer an analytical history of superhero comics from the perspective of a fan and talented insider. The book is organized chronologically and progresses through the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance. Unfortunately, Morrison interjects his own memoir and belief systems, which are not all about comics. The book reads as if it should be two or three separate books, and the further Morrison gets away from analyzing the history of superhero comics, the more disjointed the book becomes.

Supergods is subtitled, “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” which sounds like a great germinating idea for a critical examination of superhero comics. The first section of the twenty-six chapter, 426 page book comes the closest to living up to the subtitle. Morrison begins at the logical beginning:

In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment—and from their union, something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear. Superman was the ferocious attempt of two young men to show us ourselves at our very best.

Morrison goes on to write an engrossing analysis of the creation of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and the small cast of popular early superheroes in the Golden Age. He includes the perfect amount of historical context, pop references, and commentary on the writers and artists to keep the book from becoming overly academic. I found his detailed analyses of the covers of the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Fantastic Four fascinating. Morrison’s prose is full of hyperbole, and his imagery keeps the discussion lively, although at times it’s self-indulgent. At the end of the Golden Age section, he writes:

Alone at night, in the midst of unprecedented luxury after a successfully won World War, Americans were more frightened than ever before… There was the space race, with its launch into the limitless unknown, and Kinsey’s groundbreaking surveys into the sexual habits of Americans, opening the dripping treasure chest of a buttoned-up country’s inner life, revealing a sleep world of polychromatic polymorphous perversity acted out behind a camouflage of pipe-smoking patriarchs and Stepford wives. There were as many different kinds of fear as there were brands of gum.

flash-coverAs the book moves into the Silver Age section, Morrison examines the fifties and sixties era comics in the context of the growing popularity of psychoanalysis and the space race. Along those same lines, He injects his own initiation to comics into the chronology, but this quickly turns from comics to his family life to his belief systems regarding time, the fifth dimension, and the multiverse. From that point the analysis of superhero comics, which is still good, is interrupted by Morrison’s own memoir about his many identity crises, drug inspired occult experiments, and new age philosophy.

The memoir interruptions take over in the Dark Age and Renaissance sections as Morrison’s career takes off, and the organization and logic of the book are derailed. He writes:

If I found some dangerous or interesting ritual in a book, I’d give it a go to see what effect it would have on my consciousness. The results were never less than revelatory. Psychedelics gave these experiences the fidelity of a Star Trek 3-D holodeck experience. Demons and angels had faces now of white-hot, razor-edged purity or grotesque puzzle box monstrosity… I have no really explanations for a lot of this but numerous speculations that may find their way into another book one day. I simply allowed all this to happen under some vague direction from a diamond-interior Protestant straight-edge self that seemed to never lose control.

How Morrison can say with a straight face that his “Protestant straight-edge self” never lost control while he was taking drugs and performing occult experiments is completely illogical to me, especially since he claims to have rejected the Bible at an early age and completely botches the central theme of the Gospel message early in the book.

Between the memoir sections in the last half, Morrison gives an excellent analysis of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work. Yet, he could not restrain himself from including his previously mentioned “speculations” about his mystical experiences. He explains that a life-changing drug induced epiphany he had in Kathmandu gave him his “very own superpower.” He can now “’see’ 5-D perspective.” He goes on for the majority of the last section of the book discussing his “experiments” and explaining his new found understanding of time and the universe. His analysis of more recent comics is painfully thin and focuses on his own work. The end of the book loses all coherence with the rest, and a whole chapter is dedicated to movie adaptations, rather than following the established chronological order of the book.

The history and analysis of superhero comics is excellent through three quarters of the book, but after the Silver Age, the reader has to pick through the new age philosophy and identity-crisis memoir to find the good stuff. I’m sure there are readers, especially diehard fans of Morrison, who will find the memoir and personal philosophy interesting. But as Morrison even seems to recognize, those topics would be better suited for another book. I will say that my advance copy of the book has obvious signs that it was a draft and would be edited.

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The Walking Dead Books 1-3

I’m late getting to this series, but I have always heard good things about it.  It recently won an Eisner Award, and AMC is airing the first episode of their new television series based on the comic October 31.  I figured I might as well check out the original.  I’m not a big horror fan, especially in comic form, but I do like the classic zombie films.  Here I am three books (36 issues) later.  Be warned: the series is like potato chips (or what I imagine crack cocaine must be like).  You can’t just read one.

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Author Robert Kirkman is a master of the cliffhanger and plot twist.  Every issue ends with the reader wanting to immediately read the next, which is certainly good for business in the comic world.  I’ve read a lot comments on the net praising the characterization and how the series deals with the human condition.  My elitist English Lit pedigree will not let me buy into it truly being literary in that aspect, like say Maus or Stitches. It’s a zombie comic.  It’s escapist fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I love the series, or I wouldn’t have read the first three collections straight through.  In terms of characterization and overall literary weight, I have to say it probably rises to the same level as a good Stephen King novel, although I haven’t read enough King to truly judge.   But it is really, really, outstandingly good as a zombie / survival series, perhaps even the best.

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Book 1 (issues 1-12) introduces the reader to Rick, the protagonist, and the situation, a zombie epidemic.  Rick is a cop, and he was in a coma from being shot in the line of duty.  He wakes up to find the hospital abandoned, except for the zombies.  He quickly learns the basics of the situation and heads for Atlanta where the government has supposedly set up a safe haven.  He joins a group of survivors with an RV.  There are plot twists galore, and then they meet another group of survivors who have a farm.  There are more plot twists, and Rick and his group are invited to leave the farm.

Book 2 (issues 13-24) begins with the group stumbling on a new safe haven.  I’ll not give it away.  It is in book 2 that we begin to learn more about the characters.  Several go through changes, especially Rick.  There’s a lot zombies, and as always, there are plot twists galore.

Book 3 (issues 25-36) is probably the weakest of what I’ve read.  Rick and a couple of group members go on an expedition.  Once again, I’ll not give it away.  They find other survivors and learn that live humans may be more dangerous than the zombies.  The characterization of several of the new characters in these issues is pretty weak in my opinion.  They just don’t make sense to the point of breaking the suspension of disbelief, which is saying a lot being that this is a zombie comic.  Oddly enough up to this point, the series has not been especially gory.  Book 3 is gory and even excessive in one issue. There are plot twists in these issues, but none are as surprising as the previous books.

My one criticism as a whole is that the dialogue can be pretty terrible.  The characters tend to say each others’ names way too often, especially when it’s a private conversation between two people.   It may be annoying to the discerning reader, but if you’re into the story, it will not stop you from picking up the next issue.

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Ruins by Warren Ellis

I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art.  I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe.  Ruins is comprised of two books:  “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.”  Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes.  In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world.  The book opens:

For every kiss, a bullet in the face.

For every action, a reaction.

For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.

If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…

…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.

Ominous stuff.  And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark.  How things get to this point is not quite clear.  Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong.  He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.

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The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses.  We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive.  A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation.  Things just didn’t work out.  It’s not a nice world.

Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2.  The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes.  I find that a little annoying.   His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.

There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given.  The grass is green; the colors are bright.  It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books.  Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.”  He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme.  A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.


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That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me.  Busiek’s story was very structured.  It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes.  The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative.  It stood on its own.  Ruins, like the  previously mentioned scene by the lake,  is very scattered and random.  The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own.  And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor).  It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense.  I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.


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Maus- Art Spiegelman

After playing the Indiana Jones Legos game on the Wii and seeing the triology box set of the movies, my eldest son has become interested in WWII and the Nazis as bad guys.  That reminded me of the seminal graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Since the Nazis portrayed the Jews as vermin to be exterminated, Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.  This cat and mouse metaphor makes the reader comfortable with the very serious material using seemingly harmless animal comic characters, but it also creates many levels of meaning dealing with racial stereotypes, nationalistic identities, and the commonality of humanity.

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Indiana Jones

I was eight years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out.  My mom, my aunt, and I went to a Chinese buffett before the movie.  I think I ate like seven egg rolls, which were my favorite at the time.

I remember sitting near the front in the theater and grabbing their legs when the boulder was chasing Indy. When the Nazis opened the Ark, I slid to the floor.  The face melting scene was too much.  Images from that film and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are forever etched in my cultural consciousness.  Sad, I know.

With the fourth movie coming out soon, they’ve made Topps trading cards with some classic characters.  Check them out.

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