Comic Strips! Features! Pin-Ups!
Last week saw the publication of issue 500 of Doctor Who Magazine, marked by a celebratory event on Saturday 28 May attended by several past and present contributors. I’ve been a reader of Doctor Who Magazine for most of my life, and have more recently contributed to its sister publication The Essential Doctor Who. I came on board with issue 2 of Doctor Who Weekly, cover dated 18 October 1979. ‘Marvel Comics presents Doctor Who Weekly‘ was an intriguing collaboration. I was familiar with Marvel through its UK reprint range as well as occasionally glimpsing US originals distributed in UK newsagents. As a devoted fan of the series and reader of the Target novelisations the idea of a weekly publication aimed at my age group – I was eight, nearly nine, at the time – it seemed a development which I couldn’t miss.
I was a week late as I hadn’t had the extra 2p to pay the cover price of issue 1 and so supersede the 10p TV Comic. I’d remained loyal to Polystyle’s slowly ailing anthology title – a slender sixteen pages by spring 1979 – out of what I suppose was even at the age of eight a scholarly interest in its progress, even though its Doctor Who comic strip had finished in May 1979. Indeed, as I later learned, some of the oddities I’d encountered in Doctor Who‘s last year in TV Comic were explained by the stories being reprints of first, briefly, Patrick Troughton and then Jon Pertwee stories. Such cost-cutting would never affect Doctor Who Weekly in the same way, where reprints would appear but never as the main title strip narrating the Doctor’s adventures. I was intrigued by the Marvel Classic Comics reprints in the centre pages, retitled Tales from the TARDIS and introduced by an intense portrait of Tom Baker, but clearly reminiscent of American film and television in their realisation of the British novels they retold. The back-up strips were imaginative applications of science-fiction comic values to the monsters of Doctor Who, often allowing them an emotional quality absent from many of their television appearances. The main comic strip itself, written for the first four eight-part stories (excluding the midway two-part filler Timeslip) by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shifted the Doctor Who paradigm, worldbuilding with a breadth the television series could rarely attempt and a flair guaranteed to win fans of cinematic storytelling and children with aspirations to intellectualism alike. I can still remember the shock of seeing Latin (and I didn’t go to a school which taught it, but recognised it from reading about royal history and coins) appearing in a speech bubble in a Doctor Who comic.
The highlights, though, were the text features. I was at first apprehensive of Doctor Who non-fiction which didn’t come from the comfortingly authoritative pen of Terrance Dicks, whose Doctor Who Monster Book I’d read some years before. It was soon clear from the articles on the Doctor’s alien adversaries, largely written by Gordon Blows, that they substantially shared my childhood assumptions about how the fiction of Doctor Who worked. I was however wary of the occasional reaches beyond what I’d read in the novelisations or remembered from television. Gordon Blows’s imagining the Doctor anguishing over whether he should eliminate the Krynoids in issue 12 is lodged in my memory as something that didn’t convince. Perhaps this was because I couldn’t find the sentiment in the novelisation Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom.
Most influential on me, of course, were Jeremy Bentham’s articles telling the story of Doctor Who from the beginning. On the autumn and winter Thursday evenings at the end of 1979 and the start of 1980, I was transported to the mid-1960s and devoured tales of the Aztecs and the Sensorites, of the imprisonment of Barbara and Susan in the Conciergerie and the Doctor’s rout of the Dalek invasion of Earth. I respected too Jeremy’s brief ‘Comment’ boxes which sought to put each Hartnell-era story in historical context. These also alerted me to the existence of fan disputes: The Romans for example, was cited as a counter-example to arguments that comedy had only entered into Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s era. Sometimes Gordon and Jeremy collaborated, for example on the tw0-part ‘Inside the TARDIS’ feature, which one week featured Gordon’s interpretation of the capabilities of the TARDIS and another Jeremy’s.
After a little while the text features moved on from accounts of monsters, with a chart placing for the top twenty Doctor Who villains being followed by a history of UNIT. While UNIT were no longer part of the series they were familiar to viewers a little older than I was and to anyone who had read novelisations of early 1970s stories. The article used some licence in tracing UNIT’s roots to The War Machines, though the extrapolation seemed reasonable at the time. The second part of the history concluded with a promise that Doctor Who Weekly readers would soon be able to become UNIT members! This seemed an offer of doubtful merit, I thought at the time.
The launch of the UNIT club (which I didn’t join immediately) turned out to be part of a repositioning of the comic which took place over a few weeks either side of issue 26, promoted as the ‘1st great new look issue!’ Dez Skinn had left Marvel UK and as a result Paul Neary had become editor with effect from issue 23. Like Dez Skinn, he was deeply versed in the world of comics as a fan and a professional, but drew different commercial lessons from his experience. Cover designs changed, Skinn’s philosophy of frantic straplines framing a strong central image being overturned in favour of competing pictures, whether of posters or Movellans or shots of Tom Baker as the Doctor, before comic strip artwork covers became the norm for seven weeks from issue 30.
I didn’t like these changes. The prose style of the retellings of William Hartnell stories changed from The Time Meddler, with dialogue exchanges appearing which included details which led me to doubt their authenticity. The first Doctor referring to Gallifrey was an obvious error to someone who knew that neither the Time Lords nor their planet had been introduced by then. After Galaxy Four the synopses disappeared, to be replaced from issue 26 by new illustrated text stories featuring the current (fourth) Doctor which failed to capture the characters of the television series or of the adjacent comic strip, where scripts were still in the hands (just) of Mills and Wagner. They had now introduced their own companion character, Sharon, a black schoolgirl from industrial working-class probably northern England, whose retention in the TARDIS at the end of Doctor Who and the Star Beast had surprised me as I didn’t particularly expect to find child characters in Doctor Who, still less those who didn’t speak BBC drama serials English and made jokes about mortgages, and I am fairly sure that I regarded her as usurping Romana’s rightful place by the Doctor’s side.
The work of Mills, Wagner and Gibbons aside, Doctor Who Weekly seemed to have lost its self-respect, and I think it was only about then that I went back and cut out the pin-ups from earlier issues. If Doctor Who Weekly didn’t respect its own integrity, why should I? Ironically there was little from the relaunched title which I wanted on my wall. Worse was to come. The Marvel Classics reprints were replaced from issue 30 by hideously dated and often condescendingly written time travel comic stories from the Marvel archive. From issue 33 more and more pages were devoted to a comic strip of mysterious origins, The Dalek Tapes, whose pictures and script, in an old-fashioned but recognisably British style, had to be discerned through incredibly heavy greyscale or, later, were reproduced at a contrast level which led black lines to almost disappear from the page with consequences for legibility. I didn’t know where the strips came from, though would have realised if I had known that the Daleks had enjoyed the back page of TV Century 21 for two years, though I already knew that comic had existed and been dominated by Gerry Anderson characters. Within Doctor Who Weekly, The Dalek Tapes seemed at the time to be chiefly another blight on the title’s previously consistent production and content quality, though the better the reproduction the better I regarded the story – perhaps this is why so many of my generation of readers seem to have fond memories of the tale of Zeg and his attempt to dethrone the Emperor Dalek, as it’s one of the most successfully printed of these tales intended for colour photogravure rather than monochrome litho on low-grade paper.
Gradually as the 30s wore on things began to recover. Jeremy Bentham seemed to have been banished to the new mock-news and factual snippets page, Gallifrey Guardian, and Gordon Blows was no longer required. However, Gallifrey Guardian started to carry occasional news stories about the forthcoming eighteenth season or new Target books and would occasionally hint at older fan circles beyond the weekly’s readership. Eventually in issue 40 the retellings of old stories returned, and it was more than a sufficient apology for their absence for the resumption of the synopses to be advertised on the cover, but no longer as a chronological progression through the Hartnell years. Regular allusions were made in the latter weekly pages to the Randomiser which during season 17 helped the Doctor evade the Black Guardian and this justified the mix of material. This allowed a theme of the ‘new look’ issues, photo-features on recently transmitted season 17 stories, to be extended back to the Key to Time season, or for the UNIT page (I’d eventually signed up to the UNIT club so as not to miss out on this aspect of the weekly) to spin off multi-page ‘special reports’ such as the article on The Green Death in issue 43, which also restored some of the historical contextualisation previously dropped. The prose style largely returned to that seen in the earlier weekly issues. The back-up comic strips Black Legacy and Business as Usual (starring the Cybermen and the Autons respectively) had a pleasingly grim character and I am sure I realised that the Moore who wrote these was probably not Steve Moore, who had from issue 35 taken over the main comic strip from Mills and Wagner.
Then, following issue 43, it was over. I remember digesting the news from the contents page editorial – apparently written and signed by the Doctor as an extension of the earlier ‘Letter from the Doctor’ feature – that ‘as of next week Dr Who Weekly will become a monthly comic – bigger and better than ever before!’ while walking round Waudby’s supermarket and contemplating the purple grapes which seemed identical in shade to the background colour on that final weekly issue. A letter from the editor on the letters page – Who Cares! – reinforced the message. Doctor Who Weekly thereafter turned into Doctor Who Monthly, which for its first issue came across even at the time as a hastily-assembled compilation of material already commissioned for Doctor Who Weekly. At least one unused weekly cliffhanger in the main comic strip, Dragon’s Claw, could be picked out. The longer reprinted comic strips from the 1950s and 1960s were happily removed and stopped from crowding out both the text features and the new comic stories which more closely reflected the tastes of 1980. Quite quickly, though, Doctor Who Monthly began to find an editorial direction which solidified after issue 50 and the adoption of a house style closer to Marvel’s science fiction and fantasy film magazine Starburst than to its mostly juvenile US reprint comic titles. In hindsight, moving to a less frequent publishing schedule just before a new series of Doctor Who started was an odd move, but Marvel had lost their way with the title and the move to a monthly schedule identified a sustainable forward path which probably calmed financial planners characterised by later writers as unnerved by the rollercoaster of fluctuating weekly sales. At the time, the new format certainly flattered the serious-minded child, such as myself.
Doctor Who Monthly first appeared in my local newsagent a week after the advertised publication date, and until 1984 it would often turn up in my region four and even six weeks late. It made up for its erratic distribution by building a closer relationship with John Nathan-Turner’s production office and making more information about the series available than ever before. Its presence and its dialogue with readers and programme-makers transformed Doctor Who from a well-loved television programme to a fully-fledged pop-folk-cultural activity, even if readers and programme makers weren’t quite ready for what that might mean. These, however, are other stories.
Posted on 31 May 2016, in doctor who reviews, Uncategorized and tagged 1979, 1980, doctor who, doctor who magazine, doctor who reviews, doctor who weekly, marvel comics. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.