Guest scribe David MacGowan hops on our TARDIS to wax lyrical about TV Comic’s wild and wonderful adventures as we continue to celebrate to Who @ 50!
In fan circles, the Doctor Who comic strip is usually synonymous with Marvel and its fan-friendly teams of writers and artists. Dave Gibbons, Pat Mills, Grant Morrison and many others certainly deserve their place in the annals of comic fandom. But many years before Doctor Who Weekly changed everything there was a very different kind of strip featuring weekly adventures with the Tardis crew and their adversaries, and they happened in the pages of TV Comic.
The TV Comic ethos was very much orientated towards children, perhaps even infants. All the strips were based, as the title suggests, on popular TV series of the day, usually in the classic British comics mould of having the main characters getting involved in humorous scrapes. Their Doctor Who strip stays close to this template for even though the adventures are presented as dramatic or action-packed (whole planets being menaced by alien invaders, for example), the sense of threat and danger is in fact minimal, with the Doctor acting as though the reader is cheering him on throughout. The stories were simple and the art often reflected this. But this simplicity of style, so often discussed in negative relation to the supposed maturity of televised Who, proved in fact a perfect medium for Who’s always-present sense of fun and mischief.
Certainly the TV Comic version of Doctor Who has great differences with its TV parent (Patrick Troughton would never be heard to utter the unbelievable war cry, “Die, hideous creature, die!”) but strip away the technobabble, adult humour and SF philosophising and pretty much all televised Doctor Who can be seen to have the impish qualities of a TV Comic story. For example, ‘The Moonbase’ features sarcastic Cybermen invading a base only to be repelled by an anti-gravity ray that makes them float into the air, and ‘The Underwater Menace’ features fish people conducting a ballet whilst a mad scientist plans to crack open the crust of the Earth and ‘desstroy ze world’… plots which, on the face of it, certainly stand up to comparison with TV Comic adventures such as ‘The Underwater Robot’, in which a mad scientist builds a huge building-sized robot that walks about under the sea, or ‘The Cyber Mole’, in which Earth-burrowing Cybermen are defeated by a handy ‘Anti-Cybermen Ray Gun’!
Every story is of course the product of a number of people working in collaboration, but TV Comic only ever credited the artist, whose signature could usually be seen in the corner of a two-page spread as a mark of their work. So although research and articles have long since unearthed info on script writers it is still very much the artists’ names which I for one associate with these comics. Neville Main was the first artist to draw these, and his simple line-drawing style sets the tone of the whole enterprise rather wonderfully. With his cartoonish figures, minimal backgrounds, slightly oversized heads and other out of proportion details, the look of a Neville Main strip is that of a children’s fairy story picture book gone a little weird.
Decades later, Doctor Who Magazine, contrasting contemporary comic strip styles and scripts with their TV Comic forebears, charmingly parodied Neville Main’s work as way of alluding to this harmless, fantasy-land version of Who, where “villains are naughty, not evil. People never die and promises are never broken.” A significant successor to Main was John Canning, possibly for drastically different reasons! Although as a draughtsman he is superior to Main, with exciting page layouts and more realistic figures, his likenesses (especially of both Hartnell and then Troughton) are on the whole atrocious, varying wildly from panel to panel. At best, they convey the actor adequately, at worst they look like mis-shapen and disfigured caricatures encased in jowelly lumps of flesh. Yet idiosyncratically it is impossible to imagine the TV Comic version of Who without Canning’s lively sketchy style. And his monsters, from imposing Cybermen to dastardly Quarks and all points in between, crackle with energy and enthusiasm.
The mid-90s magazine series Doctor Who Classic Comics brought many of these stories back from obscurity to contemporary fandom’s bewilderment and joy in equal measure. Although they differ in tone from both their parent TV series and later comic versions, they remain a vital part of Who’s history. As Paul Scoones states in the introduction to his book The Comic Strip Companion, these comic strips were repeatable in a way that the TV series, back in the day, simply wasn’t… so to the imaginations of millions of readers at the time, the TV Comic strips were constantly accessible and absolutely valid.
They really are proper adventures of Doctor Who… colourful, bizarre, slightly silly, and so much fun!
You can hear more from David Macgowan over at his blog, The Battered Billycock.
Next time: The Daleks in TV Century 21!