On Doctor Who: New Adventures with the Eleventh Doctor & the Often-Ignored Virtues of the Licensed Comic

Concerning the first 8 pages of Al Ewing, Rob Williams, Simon Fraser & Gary Caldwell’s Doctor Who #1 (2014)

The quality of licensed comics has never been higher, and yet some still regard them with condescension, contempt and even resentment. Where they were once frequently dismissed as typically cheap and cheerful cash-ins, the disapproving now offer a more complex and nuanced critique. What else could they do, faced with work as outstanding as North, Lamb, Paroline and Rugg’s Adventure Time, James Stokoe’s Godzilla: Half Century War and Roger Langridge’s The Muppet Show and Popeye? Though the objections are often undeniably insightful, they do miss, in their patricianly principles and aspirations, the fact that there’s a substantial and frequently passionate audience for such books. No matter how disastrous their impact on this or that model of the industry’s best interests, tens of thousands of readers remain impervious, if not oblivious, to high-minded pronouncements of artistic worth and longterm commercial ideals. Yes, there are undeniably fundamental and pressing issues of authenticity, of corporate abuse, of “creator-led” work not being “creator-controlled”, of original achievements being crowded out by familiar media properties, and so on. But to high-handedly dismiss what so many readers so clearly want can sound as suspiciously snobbish as it’s undoubtedly principled, informed and well-meant.

The disapproval certainly ignores the surely obvious virtues of the licensed book as a gateway drug to a medium that, for all its recent growth in popularity, is still absurdly peripheral to popular taste. But even if, as Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson would have it, the licensed comic is really little more than “marketing material for movies, toys and video games,” there’s still a great deal to be learnt from the best of its kind. So much of the American market is dominated by monthly comics that are light on content, unwelcoming to the newcomer, wilfully self-obsessed and emotionally constrained. By contrast, the licensed book at its best reaches out beyond the clusters of hardcore comics readers and their often-strangely particular and peculiar obsessions.  Rather than hacking out a soulless simulacrum of a pre-existing property, the finest tie-ins must imaginatively recast a familiar experience in what’s a fundamentally different form. To do so requires not just a ferociously sharp grasp of comics storytelling, but an awareness that the work will need to speak simultaneously to a range of quite different audiences. Titles such as those in Titan Comics’ new Doctor Who line must appeal to more than just long-time comics readers with an intimate familiarity with the SF-TV source material. At the same time, they have to strive to be welcoming to Who-fans with limited familiarity with the comicbook itself, while snaring those who might barely know their Gallifrey from their Skaro. Many of the more supposedly credible comics in the market place can survive, and even prosper, within their relatively small niches while delivering unsatisfying thin storytelling, continuity obfuscation and a wilful disconnection from anything but the shallows of genre. This can be as true for creator-owned books as is for corporate product. But the likes of Al Ewing, Rob Williams, Simon Fraser and Gary Caldwell’s Eleventh Doctor tales have no such margin for self-indulgence with form or content. With more than just a single eye on the mass market, they simply can’t afford to be complacent, inexpert or self-indulgent.

Serving as an introduction to the Eleventh Doctor’s new comic-book companion Alice Obiefune, the opening eight pages of After Life are a masterclass in concision, exposition, density of text and feeling. Teasing the familiar into enticing and purposeful variations, the creators begin the tale’s first act with the desolation of a winter funeral in England. Introduced as that of Alice’s mother, it’s a familiar setting that economically establishes a world of loss and sorrow; the church, the priest, the mourners, the lowering skies, the rain, and so on. Relatively light on text while deliberately lacking any sense of movement, let alone action, Fraser’s splash page seems perfectly in keeping with the traditions of decompressed storytelling; a somewhat-grand visual statement establishing a simple plot-beat without recourse to panel-to-panel continuity. But this isn’t an off-the-cuff scene-setter, and it’s content couldn’t be more prudently replaced by a single panel at the head of the side. Though it works perfectly well as a moody introduction for the reader who’s keen to quickly turn the page, it’s also a subtle, precise and detailed store of information combined with a clear statement of intent. As such, the page deftly expresses an utterly morose state of mind even as it details the physical facts of a thinly-attended burial. In doing so, it establishes with no little precision, and in one single shot, the dominant themes and conflicts of this chapter of the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures.

As the pithy text declares, everything is grey here, but that doesn’t mean that the scene’s been nonchalantly jerry-built from the common store of media conventions. The funeral party itself is marooned at the head of the page’s lower half, sandwiched into the central vertical third of the high-angle longshot, tiny and faceless and powerless, dwarfed by the Church and its grounds and isolated from any sense of comfort and belonging. Corralled between both the horizontal lines of the featureless tombstones and the constraining vertical presence of the wizened and bare trees, the shot depicts a group that is as atomised from each other as it is alienated from its surroundings. Reduced to the powerlessness and anonymity of hapless figures land-locked far from the page’s edge, they appear to have nothing at all in common, let alone to celebrate. Each stands away from the other, with Alice a lonesome presence on the nearest side of the grave. Indeed, the two hood-wearing bystanders sheltering from the weather in the background appear to have just a touch more energy and interest about them, even as they seem to care nothing for the burial itself.

It’s a suggestion of an uncaring, flat-effect world that every aspect of Fraser’s composition subtly reinforces. Though many of the gravestones may appear bowed and therefore slightly sorrowful, there’s no sign of any inscriptions upon them. This is death, and the farewell to the dead, in its most impersonal and industrial guise. As if to emphasise the ubiquity and forlornness of the situation, the featureless tombstones stretch out in rows not only in the foreground, but right into the far distance. By the same token, the impassive Church’s interior is dark and unwelcoming; there’s none of the comfort and inspiration of faith and community here. (It’s only the first of several social institutions that will fail to offer Alice Obiefune and her fellow citizens-in-need the slightest crumb of comfort.)  Beneath the ashen sky, there’s no suggestion that either closure or renewal are even possible. The tops of the branches of the trees in the foreground come closest to suggesting animation, but that doesn’t evoke any comforting associations at all. Instead, theirs’ is the writhing of threateningly malevolent dead things. (Fraser’s artwork has incorporated more and more of these lively, impressionistic elements in recent years, which has added even more vividness to his always-precise and involving depictions of place and time.) Thunder, lightning, melodramatically extreme squalls of wind and rain, upturned umbrellas, defiant or fiercely suffering mourners; all these melodramatic shortcuts have been pushed aside, and what’s left is a portrait of utter despondency. Not so much a funeral and more a description of Alice Obiefune’s profoundly depressed state of mind, it immediately establishes an enervating status quo for the Doctor to encounter and disrupt.

Yet there’s still three intriguing suggestions that optimism might still be both possible and appropriate. One lies in Ada and Alice’s surname, an Igbo word which translates as “do not lose hope”. That in itself might be a cruelly ironic twist of the knife on the part of After Life’s writers, and yet, this is Doctor Who. Though the show’s cast have hardly remained strangers to tragedy, the suffering of its front rank of characters has usually arrived in service of a higher cause and as the unavoidable cost of making things better. The Who universe is not a futile one. Given that the overwhelming majority of the comic’s readers will be fans of the TV show, their immediate expectation will be that the Doctor will, after his own fashion, make things better. Finally, there’s the purposeful determination and faith that’s expressed in the reading taken from William Penn’s Fruits Of Solitude. Rather than using the familiar media-shortcut of the funeral service from the Book Of Common Prayer, Ewing and Williams have opted to show an aspect of the Quaker tradition instead. It’s a choice that does alot more than imply that the Obiefune’s are intriguingly nonconformist in their spiritual preferences. In the extract quoted, Penn expressed his belief that the inevitability of death must be embraced in order to live as full and meaningful a life as possible. Though offered as part and parcel of his religious beliefs, it lays out in common-sense language exactly the transformation in perspective that might help Alice Obiefune prosper once more. As such, it serves as the antithesis to the thesis that’s her despondency, and lays out the conditions for the future development of her character.

Intriguingly, Penn’s words can also be read to apply to the Doctor himself. If taken in a literal rather than a devotional sense, they evoke the Timelord’s ability to escape the grave, to use every moment in service of his fellow creatures, and to dare to live in good faith despite all that that threatens his well-being. Whether Alice finds a religious or a secular sense of being born again through the Doctor, and that is what appears to be being promised, the suggestion is that better days are indeed approaching.

In the following page, we’re shown the everyday drudgery that Alice’s life has become. In this, the comic draws on the elements of social realism that helped make Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner of the TV series feel so urgent and grounded. Yet even more than the soul-crushing banality that marked the lives of soon-to-be companions Rose Tyler and Donna Noble, Alice Obiefune’s experiences are entirely without comfort or compensation. For it’s not just that we’re given the detail of her joyless existence, but that we’re also made to feel something of her isolation and despair. A significant part of this is colourist Gary Caldwell’s empathetic use of grey and white and nothing but. In addition, Fraser’s design sense compliments his skill as an artist in creating an air of the purest, timeless misery. His innovative use of the page stultifyingly divided into four equal rectangles takes a tradition most commonly associated with Jack Kirby’s kinetic monumentalism and puts it to a far wearier purpose. Ensuring that there’s no continuity of movement at all between each panel, Fraser paints a portrait of a woman who is slogging through the joyless, disconnected moments of her own thankless life. This isn’t simply the unhappiness of the extremes of melancholy, but the inescapable pocket universe of secondary depression. Even the vanishing points of each individual panel carry the eye away from the surrounding frames, insisting as they do that Alice’s life has no unifying, redeeming purpose of any kind. Though each panel uses different camera angles and shots to describe the various components of her day, the cumulative effect is of an unremittingly bleak existence.

Matched to this endlessly repeating sequence of demoralising events is the sense of society as a machine for fleecing the powerless while enriching the entitled. It’s there in the second panel, where Alice attempts to assist the individuals who’ve been left unaided by the Department For Work And Pensions, and in the third, where the bored children of the more affluent pay little or no attention to Alice’s reading while their parents look on with a mixture of disinterest and disdain. It’s even implied in the side’s morose final frame, in which the dejected Alice is trudging beside a threateningly traffic-crowded road. Cunningly, claustrophobically, Fraser has threateningly squeezed her onto a pavement barely big enough for one when, in the background, it’s become clearly wide enough for two. Even the sidewalk treats Alice with a clearly unfair measure of cruelty. Everyone, it seems, has somewhere to go but her, a point that’s reinforced by a nigh-identical scene appearing in the same place on the following page too.

By the end of that third side, government cuts will see Alice laid off from her job as a library assistant while her landlord will evict her in the name of a lucrative luxury development. The implication is clear: her depression is an entirely understandable and blameless response to a combination of shattering loss and an often remorselessly self-interested culture. In such a way does After Life counter any cruelly facile suggestion that Alice is a weak and unadmirable individual. Either of the events which have triggered her heartache might understandably floor even the best-adjusted of individuals. Both would be hard to endure without darkness closing in. Both bereaved and dispossessed, the shock is that Alice Obiefune can even manage to place one foot after another while attempting to keep going. As the tale’s creators emphasise, it takes a Herculean strength to do so under such conditions, which the Doctor, of course, will recognise.

But again, Ewing and Williams have smuggled hope onto the page. Partially hidden behind the railings to the right of Alice in that last frame is the single splash of colour that marks the presence of the Doctor’s Tardis. (It will also appear again, a little more obviously this time, in the same place on the subsequent side.) Though it’s the first redeeming intrusion of the hopeful into the hopeless, it’s clear that Alice and the Doctor’s paths aren’t to cross just yet. Still, hope’s also present in the poem that Alice is thanklessly reading to a circle of bored, inattentive kids. As if her unconscious has already grasped something of the tools of her own rescue, she’s chosen Edward Lear’s absurdist poem The Jumblies. A great deal more than the playful nonsense it’s often lazily described as, The Jumblies is a celebration of good humour, daring, optimism, innovation and non-conformity. In it, and despite the misgivings of their parochial peers, a small group of heroic if ill-prepared travellers head out to sea in a fragile sieve. Whatever and whoever these Jumblies might be, they’re as gifted, daring and joyful as the Doctor himself, and they joyful endure twenty years of trials to return with unheard-of riches and decades-worth of inspiring memories. In short, they purposefully push away from the safe constricting world of convention and head off under “dark skies” into the great unknown. “If only we live,” declare their newly-inspired neighbours when they finally return, “we too will go to sea in a sieve.”  Perhaps, given The Jumblies’ impulsiveness, there might also be a hint of what the clearly thoughtful and resourceful Alice might in her turn bring to the Doctor in return. After all, her choice of verse has already suggested that she possesses the kind of imagination that would allow her to prosper in the Doctor’s fantastic world. So much of Who’s mythos suggests a kinship with Lear’s playful geography. The Torrible Zone would sit comfortably on any star-map next to Trenzalore, the Hills of Chankley Bore alongside The Forest Of Cheem.

By After Life’s sixth page, Alice has encountered the Doctor and colour has flooded back into her perceptions. Even more than that, Fraser’s style has moved from an assiduously unpitying realism to a fusion of the literal and the cartoon-absurd. Eschewing the action/adventure comic’s preference for the grindingly humourless , it expresses  the psychological impact of the sudden arrival of change and purpose and bemusement. Co-opted by the Doctor in the pursuit of the alien, canine-like Kharitite Joy Beast, Alice has passed through the barely-permeable membrane of despair and arrived in a word where thoughts and experiences can at last successfully modify her feelings. (That great daft, colourful extraterrestrial hound isn’t just the story’s McGuffin, of course, but a symbol of the playful world-view that Alice will need to reclaim.) As such, we shown the first example of panel-to-panel continuity in the comic, as Alice begins to experience time as a continuing procession of unpredictable events rather than an unchanging gallery of soulless moments.  The edges of buildings begin to curve, panels are recast into a structure that suggests the exhilaration and effort of an uphill dash, while the Doctor himself assumes a form that’s part-comedic and part-heroic. Perfectly in keeping with the fusion of underlying sadness and surface slapstick that was Matt Smith’s brilliant interpretation of the character, it works to underline how Alice has moved into a far more eventful and promising existence. If she’s still attempting, without quite knowing why, to help other people, she’s now been liberated from the perniciousness of 21st Century England and the tombworld of her own despair. Equally, the Doctor’s essential backstory is being drip-fed in with a rare precision and brevity; he’s an alien, he’s knowledgeable, he’s constantly attempting to help, he struggles at times to express himself clearly, and he’s a remarkable faith in the apparently unremarkable people, such as Alice, that he bumps into on his travels. Catching the spirit of the Eleventh Doctor perfectly, Ewing and William’s dialogue is in itself a delight.

Just as in 2004′s TV episode Rose, the first meeting between Doctor and prospective companion ends in what appears to be a permanent farewell. It’s a tease, of course, that generates the disappointment and anticipation that will set up the story’s most emotional moment. In the last page we’ll be looking at here, Fraser reflects the disappearance of the Doctor and the absence of his influence with a return to unchallenged realism and the four panel page. Yet for all there’s now the implicit threat of Alice’s dejection returning,  the sense given is of renewed if only partial optimism and purpose. Even though the full range of colours that accompanied the Doctor’s presence has bleed to a more subdued pallet, colour remains. Even the Doctor can’t save Alice in one mad chase scene, but he’s still inspired Alice to recognise she’s a “life to reclaim”. With her deciding to fight back against her eviction, the future is decidedly brighter. To emphasise the point, Fraser changes the way in which he represents Alice in these four panels. If they still threaten to suggest something of the immutability of challenging circumstances, she’s been moved to the centre-stage of her own life. Viewing her at eye-level, we see not what life is doing to Alice so much as life through her newly invigorated world-view. Whereas before, she was constantly shown in situations where she was subject to the needs and wishes of others, now she’s central to her own existence, dominating the frame and reaching for purposefulness. The transformation of her body language in particular is telling. No longer a crouched, despairing figure as she sits on her couch, Fraser shows her leaning back, taking action and capable of multi-tasking with a mug of presumably refreshing beverage. Little signs of recovery reinforce the sense of forward momentum; even as Alice now fills a room that she was previously cowed within, the table that was piled with dirty dishes is shown to be conspicuously clear and tidy. In what’s a remarkable if unshowy example of a successful collaboration between writers and artist, neither text nor art is expected to carry the weight of the storytelling. Each informs the others, and each enriches the experience without ever once distracting from the story at hand.

(What I won’t do is discuss the culmination of this introductory sequence, although the presence of the familiar sound-affect of “vwoorrrp, vwoorp” in the side’s final frame will inform Who fans of what’s about to materialise in Alice’s apartment. To chin-stroke about what follows would be to spoil what’s to my mind the most touching scene in comics of the year so far.)

This really is storytelling of the highest order. Utterly lacking in pretension and ill-discipline while stepped in ambition and skill, it suggests a model by which the longed-for popular market might be gainfully targeted.  Rewarding a series of audiences while excluding none, it trusts its readers to engage with material on an emotional and intellectual level, should they so choose, as well as on an immediately vicarious one. To declare so isn’t to argue that licensed titles are by their very nature superior to any other kind of comics, or to suggest that criticisms of their kind are anything but germane and pressing. But it is to argue that one way to define ‘good’ comics is to look not at who owns the copyright, but rather, how the work is executed and to what ends. Even if it’s accepted that creator-owned titles are the ideal, the quality of their storytelling can and often still does leave a considerable amount to be desired. In the best licensed titles, as in the work of Ewing, Williams, Fraser and Caldwell, there’s an ambition matched to a level of skill that points to the possibility of the monthly book becoming a truly popular medium again. That the BBC owns the rights to the Doctor isn’t a fact to ignore, but neither is the outstanding quality of this adaptation and the lessons that might be learned from it.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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