A Brief Comicbook History of a Timelord
With Doctor Who over until – well a couple of week’s time I guess – it seemed an opportune time to rerun Rob Cave’s history of Doctor Who in comics, which originally ran in Tripwire Annual 2008, part of our Brief History of a Timelord…
ROBERT CAVE puts on his long coat and scarf and delves into the history of the Doctor on the comicbook page…
The story of Doctor Who-related comic strips goes back almost as long as the TV series itself, although ironically it was his most popular and deadly foes, the Daleks, that beat the Doctor to appear in a comic strip first. The Daleks made their strip debut in June 19
64, scant months after their first TV appearance. It was in The Dalek Book, written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and Doctor Who script editor David Whittaker and illustrated by Richard Jennings. The book was so popular that it spawned sequels. Then, in November 1964, nearly a year after making his TV debut, the First Doctor’s strip adventures commenced in TV Comic, a British title that featured, as its name suggests, a variety of comic strips based on (mainly British) popular television shows of the day. TV Comic had been a fixture at the newsagent for around a decade when the first Doctor Who strip, illustrated by Neville Main, appeared in issue 674. It was a great success and, despite beinglimited to a few pages, continued to feature regularly in the title up until 1979, with a few brief gaps.
The Daleks had some more solo success with their own single-page strip running in TV Century 21 (also known as TV21) between January 1965 and January 1967. Nation and Whittaker returned to flesh out the origin and back-story of the pathological pepper pots in tales that were largely ignored by later continuity in the TV series. Jennings, whose grasp of Dalek anatomy was more expressive than strictly accurate, also returned to provide art. He was replaced during later strips run by Ron Turner, whose Daleks had a distinct art deco quality to them.
The first US Doctor Who strips hit the stands in 1966, with Dell Movie Classic’s adaptation of the two Peter Cushing Dalek Movies. It wasn’t until 1981 that the ‘real’ Doctor from the TV series would make his US debut, and even then it would be in reprints strips… but we are getting ahead of ourselves, ever a danger with time travel. Later in 1966, the First Doctor regenerated and this change in cast was reflected in the TV Comic strips from issue 784. But strangely, no one in the strip seemed to comment on the Doctor’s sudden and dramatic change in appearance. Perhaps they were more interested in the Doctor’s arch foes as they began to appear in an increasing number of the Doctor’s comic adventures, to a point where the strip was re-titled Doctor Who and the Daleks. The school playgrounds of Britain were gripped by Dalekmania.
When the Doctor next regenerated in 1970, his adventures again became a staple of TV Comic running from issues 944 to 999 before, in 1971, being moved across to feature in a new launch title from TV Comic’s then-publishers. Despite fantastic artwork from Harry Lindfield and Jerry Haylock and great production values, Countdown, with its mix of TV Sci-fi tie-in strips struggled to establish itself in the same way as TV Comic, changing its name to TV-Action and featuring more general TV tie-in fare didn’t help it. It lasted just 130 issues and the Doctor was reunited with TV Comic as of issue 1133 in 1973. The Fourth Doctor replaced the Third in more ways than one between issue 1204 and 1385, as a number of Third Doctor strips were re-run with the Fourth Doctor’s head simply redrawn over the top of the Third’s body.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Tom Baker’s Doctor really got the strips he deserved with the launch of Doctor Who Weekly, a comic aimed squarely at the programme’s young audience. It was created, edited and published by Marvel Comics UK office under the direction of its then editor-in- chief, comics impresario and all-round shrewd businessman Dez Skinn. Skinn commissioned the top UK comic talent of the day, starting with a young Dave Gibbons, to draw the Doctor’s adventures. Gibbons knew that Pat Mills and John Wagner, both key writers on the legendary 2000AD, had both made pitches to the TV show that, for one reason and another, didn’t make it onto the screen. Skinn saw an opportunity to take these pitches and turn them into spectacular strips far beyond the budgets and abilities of the BBC to produce and with a greater page count than previous publications. An alternative Britain where Rome never fell, massive tank battles and jet-bike chases; Doctor Who Weekly gave its readership more than it had seen before, and with an eye on the US market, these strips were structured so as to facilitate being reprinted in the US, which they eventually were, firstly in Marvel Premiere issues 57-60 (1981) and later in The Doctor’s own US series in 1984. Unfortunately, while the strips themselves were fantastic, the colourisation of Gibbons’ originally black-and-white strips was not always up to snuff, and there was the simple fact that the these comics featured the Fouth Doctor at a time when it was the Fifth and even the Sixth Doctors who were on US TV screens. The Marvel US Doctor Who comic ran for 23 issues, but had largely missed its window of opportunity.
Back in the UK, Doctor Who Weekly moved to monthly publication from issue 44 in September 1980, changing its name to Doctor Who Monthly for a spell before finally changing it again to Doctor Who Magazine (DWM) as of issue 85 in February 1984. The title reflected a shift in content towards more articles about various aspects of the TV show, however the magazine never lost its strip component. Over the years, the magazine became the primary source for the Doctors comic strip adventures, featuring some of the brightest and best writing and art talent available. Grant Morrison, Steve Parkhouse, Steve Moore, John Tomlinson, Dan Abnett, Simon Furman, John Ridgeway, Richard Piers Rayner, Arthur Ranson, Mike McMahon, David Lloyd, Mike Collins and many other besides, all took a tilt at crafting Doctor Who strips.
While everyone probably has their own favourites, a few rank as classics, for example Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons’s much-reprinted The Iron Legion, or perhaps Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgeway’s Voyager strips where the Sixth Doctor, partnered with a shape-changer who chose to remain in the guise of a penguin for ‘personal reasons’ are forced to embark on a quest to track down Astrolabus, another renegade Timelord, at the bidding of a seemingly omnipotent Lord of Life. Ridgeway’s detailed artwork always rewarded repeated viewings. Some others will be curious to see Grant Morrison’s controversial tale, also drawn by John Ridgeway, that saw the return and heroic demise of the Second Doctor’s companion Jamie McCrimmon in a story about the role the Timelords played in the evolution of the Cybermen.
But amongst these great strips there is one great missed opportunity. During his time as editor, Dez Skinn gave the monsters free reign without the Doctor to tame them in their own back-up strips. In these strips the monsters battled newly created characters, such as the memorable Dalek killer Absalom Daak, a ne’er do well who was given the virtual death sentence of exile to a world infested with Daleks. Like the main strip, the back-up strips also featured a host of great talent including the likes of a young Steve Dillon and one Alan Moore. Sadly though, despite crafting tales featuring various Doctor Who villains, Moore never wrote a full adventure starring the Doctor himself.
There was another element to these back-up strips though — the idea behind this being that even if the publisher lost the license he would at least have created an audience for a character who could then be rolled over to another publication, hopefully bringing at least a percentage of the old title’s readership over with it. In any event Marvel’s UK branch never lost the Doctor Who license; indeed it and Doctor Who Magazine itself even outlasted Marvel UK, which was sold off to the Italian publishing house Panini in 1995 when the parent company, Marvel US, was undergoing financial difficulties.
Doctor Who Magazine‘s readership grew up, but they kept buying the magazine to get their regular dose of Who. Indeed, a search for new material in the mid-90s led one editor, John Freeman, to acquire the rights to the Doctor Who strips from TV Comic, Countdown / TV Action and TV Century 21. It fell to Freeman’s successor, one Gary Russell, to oversee their reprinting. He spliced some strips into the monthly magazine before collecting them into a sister title, Doctor Who Classic Comics, bringing the old strips to a whole new audience, many of whom had not been around in the early 60s.
Throughout the 16 years Doctor Who was not in production, Doctor Who Magazine kept the faith and, through the comic strip, continued to provide the Doctor’s many fans with new stories at a time when it seemed that his television adventures had become a thing of the past. But there were brief moments when the Doctor’s fortunes took a turn for the better, both in terms of comic strips and new television adventures. In 1996, the Doctor featured in a weekly half page strip in the Radio Times, a British TV listings magazine published by the BBC. The strip was designed to tie into the 1996 TV Movie that introduced the Eighth Doctor. The strip was written by Gary Russell, established editor of Doctor Who Magazine and future script editor for the revived Doctor Who TV series, and drawn by Lee Sullivan. It has been acclaimed as possibly the highest circulation Doctor Who strip ever, reaching the RadioTimes’ 1.1 million regular weekly readers. Unfortunately, the Radio Times strip was hastily and prematurely curtailed after a change in management. It lasted just 42 weekly parts.
Meanwhile, Doctor Who Magazine itself was still going strong and has continued to do so. Now in its 29th year of continuous publication, it has actually managed to outlast Doctor Who’s formidable original 26 year (more or less continuous) run on British TV, no mean feat when you realize that there was a lack of new TV Who for just over half of that period! Little wonder then that the TV crew chose to honour the Doctor Who strips with nods and references for longtime readers, from kronkburgers to the designs of the Dalek spaceships and even the occasional line. There was even unfettered access behind the scenes the likes of which Dave Gibbons could only have dreamed about when he first attempted Peter Davison’s likeness for the initial Fifth Doctor strip with just a few publicity stills and images from the Radio Times to rely on.
However, while the BBC were happy to allow Doctor Who Magazine to continue publishing comic strips, they were also keen to launch a publication aimed at the younger audience coming to Doctor Who anew with the 2005 series. Timed to launch at the start of David Tennant’s run in the role of the Doctor, BBC Magazines determined to produce a some kind of publication for children, the same demographic Doctor Who Magazine had been aimed at in it’s original weekly form. Thus Doctor Who Adventures was born — a magazine with activity pages and heavily illustrated features, but still with a place retained for a further comic strip. In contrast to the heavily referenced and detailed artwork standard in Doctor Who Magazine, the artwork in Doctor Who Adventures by the likes of John Ross was more fluid and free flowing. Simple and cartoony in both art and script the Adventures strips serve to introduce new readers to the world of comics. And the Doctor’s modern strip adventures don’t stop there; even partwork publisher GE Fabbri has got in on the act with a strip element to its UK-based publication Doctor Who: Battles in Time, a combined magazine and Doctor Who game card series, similar to Magic the Gathering.
Back in the US, IDW has been the latest publisher to start producing new original strips. They added Doctor Who to its growing raft of licensed comics, and commissioned Gary Russell with his formidable Doctor Who background to tackle scripting duties while Nick Roche, IDW’s veteran Transformers artist, and Jose Maria Berdy tackled the art chores. This new title, full of all-new all-original strip action, partnered with Doctor Who Classics, a reprint title geared to giving a new, freshly recoloured, outing to Dave Gibbons strips, marks a high water mark in The Doctor’s US adventures and shows a considerable commitment to the Doctor by the US publisher.
On top of all this, the BBC have handed visitors to their Doctor Who website the chance to make their own comic strips using the memorably titled Comic Maker software. With Doctor Who related clip art, special layouts and a few handy hints from Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davis himself all provided, Doctor Who fans of all ages are encouraged to let their imaginations run riot with the very best strips gaining prominent position on the official website. The possibilities for people to make their own Doctor Who strips, their own Doctor Who stories are as limitless as the medium itself.
With so many of the Doctor’s old strips coming back into print, either as graphic novels (in the UK through Panini) or as a classic comic series (in the US through IDW), with new Doctor Who strips currently appearing in no fewer than four regular publications, and with the Doctor Who Comic Maker bringing the ability to create Dr Who strips to the masses, the Doctor’s comic strip future looks bright indeed.