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Doctor Who Weekly | Miles Booy

Doctor Who Weekly | Miles Booy

When Marvel Comics released Doctor Who Weekly it was the consummation of a flirtation which had been on-again, off-again throughout the decade. Between February 1971 and August 1973, the Doctor Who comic strip had left its traditional home in TV Comic for the more sophisticated Countdown (later TV Action). Aimed at an older audience, this comic allowed longer, more complex stories and the artists – Harry Lindfield, Frank Langford and Gerry Haylock – drew from the same wells of pop art as did the more avant-garde of the artists on American Marvel comics (Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, etc). American comics themselves were also a fleeting influence at Target, notably in the brief stint of artist Peter Brookes, who completed the cover art for four novels in 1975: The Giant Robot, Terror of the Autons, The Green Death, and Planet of the Spiders. Each of these depicted a distinct scene from the story (with a smaller scene inset) rather than montages of diverse images favoured by the books’ original artist Chris Achilleos. Brookes drew black lines around the edges of characters and objects, giving the look of a pencil-and-ink comic strip. Even when Brookes left, and Achilleos returned, the comics influence sporadically remained. His cover for The Three Doctors drew heavily on Jack Kirby’s front cover for Fantastic Four no. 48 (powerful villain Omega stands in for the planet-consuming Galactus, the faces of the Doctors are positioned as were those of the FF), and Dinosaur Invasion featured a large lettered comics-style sound-effect on the front cover, the (now infamous in fandom) kklack! of a pterodactyl’s snapping jaws. This style of cover was a short-lived experiment, however, and when Target began to rejacket the books in 1978, ‘The Three Doctors’ was first up, followed by ‘Dinosaur Invasionand Brookes’ quartet of covers. However, Brookes’ sense – conscious or otherwise – that Who and Marvel comics shared an audience was an astute one and it foreshadowed the release of Doctor Who Weekly.

The Weekly was launched in October 1979. The publication itself was a hybrid of children’s comic and magazine, and there were successful models of both upon which it drew. The 1970s had seen a variety of UK titles based around fantasy and science fiction. World of Horror, Monster Mag, and Monster Fantasy all previewed upcoming films, provided historical accounts of past films and gave career overviews of genre practitioners. Before taking up the editorial position at Marvel, Dez Skinn himself had launched House of Hammer and Starburst. House of Hammer, in particular, with a chatty editorial, ‘answer desk’ (to readers’ questions), comic strips extrapolating further adventures for characters derived from Hammer films and articles on fan collecting would seem particularly familiar, even down to the paper stock, to anyone aware of the magazine that DWW would evolve into by summer 1981. In the comics market, 2000AD demonstrated how sophisticated storytelling and social satire could be packaged in a humorous fantasy version of its own production (the comic was supposedly edited by a green-skinned alien called Tharg, with his army of art and script robots, just as DWW was notionally edited by the Doctor himself). Star Wars Weekly, Marvel UK’s other big tie-in title, provided much of DWW’s format: the 28-page length, the 12p price tag and the glossy cover (which were then rare on Marvel UK comics, having been mostly phased out as a cost-cutting measure). DWW was so plugged into this pre-existing network of SF/fantasy publications that it received mail citing them even before publication commenced, in a letter it reprinted in issue 10: ‘you’ve already produced two revolutionary fantasy mags – House of Hammer and Starburst . . . thanks for being an innovative publisher in these days when most comics are grossly plagiaristic.’ The correspondent, clearly older than anyone else featured on the letters page, was a fantasy fan from Haywards Heath called Matthew Waterhouse.

Dr Who Weekly

Such responses show just how carefully constructed a product Doctor Who Weekly was. With Tom Baker and a Dalek on the front cover, free transfers and quizzes including coded messages warning of alien invasion, DWW must have looked to many like business as usual, with young children targeted as the major audience. The letters page reflected back an image of the readership, printing photos of them bedecked in scarves and holding cardboard K9s. There are more girls represented than later stereotypes would suggest. Under the surface, however, it was a more complex affair. Older fans/readers were amply catered for with the comic’s coverage of the series’ early days. It aimed to retell the stories from the first episode in order, a project which necessarily skewed early issues towards the Hartnell era. Tom Baker graced the covers of the first five issues, often with the programme’s other primary icons (Daleks, K9, Cybermen), but soon older Doctors and monsters started to appear. Issue 15 featured a stunning full-colour cover of Hartnell outside the TARDIS – manna from heaven for fans starved of such imagery, but perhaps an unusual image on the children’s comic racks.

Beyond this dual appeal to older and younger readers was the other target audience: the emergent constituency of comic fans. Whilst previous Marvel UK editors had been happy to remain anonymous, Skinn began to appear not only at the increasingly frequent UK comic conventions, but also in the pages of his own comics. At Marvel he authored a column (‘Sez Dez’) which promoted the company’s publications. His model in this was Marvel US’s creator/mascot Stan Lee, but his agenda of making clear who was at the top, and creating a visible persona, anticipated the way John Nathan-Turner would promote both the programme and himself upon becoming producer of Doctor Who in 1980.

Skinn’s ambition was to reverse the usual process whereby Marvel UK comics simply reprinted American material. He wanted to initiate new work, and sell it to the USA. A number of original strips began to appear, particularly in Hulk Comic, in 1978, but that comic’s size and style didn’t lend itself to work suitable for republication in the standard US Marvel comic. When Skinn created Doctor Who Weekly, he made sure its comic strips would work both in the UK market and the US Marvel formats. He hired Pat Mills and John Wagner, stalwarts of 2000AD who had been unsuccessfully submitting script ideas to the Doctor Who production office, to write it and Dave Gibbons to draw it.

Since a US Marvel comic featured 17 pages of story, the earliest stories in DWW were 34 pages long, divided into two 17-page sections. For UK publication, those 17 pages were further divided up across four issues in a five/four/four/four page pattern. The genius of the strip’s construction is the way that this division was anticipated and structured. Thus, the last frame of every five/four page section ends with an exciting image/plot point which serves, in the UK editions, as a cliffhanger: The Iron Legion episode one – the Doctor gets blasted by an energy weapon as he runs to the TARDIS, Iron Legion episode two – he is thrown into an alien arena to face a creature called the Ectoslime, etc., etc. Artist Dave Gibbons composes the images of every fourth page in such a way that UK editions can replace the top left hand corner with a plot recap without losing any vital narrative information. The US editions just print the pages straight through, devoid of recaps and ‘next issue’ slogans, and it flows very well.

The Iron Legion, the first Marvel comic strip, is the point where the Doctor Who comic strip fi rst began utilizing the full range of comic storytelling devices (largely as inherited from Marvel, DC and 2000AD). A partial list of the devices used to create mood and communicate information would include the following: depicting the monsters in shadow or total silhouette; jagged borders for panels of special drama; wide panels for panoramas of scale; close-ups for small details; panels devoid of background image so that the foreground might be emphasized; fuzzy, television-shaped images which do not simply record the world as it happens, but instead show the media coverage from the games, and using consecutive panels to cut between the contrasting action of a British sweet shop’s interior (where the Doctor shops for jelly babies) and its exterior (where a robot Roman approaches). Whilst none of these devices may be particularly significant in themselves, their presence en masse represents the first full immersion of the Doctor Who comic strip in a sophisticated vocabulary of storytelling which was equal to that of the techniques used in making the television episodes. Whilst The Iron Legion and its ilk were no doubt devoured for their plots alone by an initial readership of nine year olds, they were also stories which could be rewardingly read and re-read by those with an interest in the processes and aesthetics of comic strip storytelling itself. Thus, Doctor Who Weekly wasn’t just aimed at ten year olds. It was also niche-marketing to the newly emergent phenomena of UK comic’s fandom. In 1981, Doctor Who Monthly (as it would become) would win an Eagle, UK comic fandom’s award for Best Comic Magazine.

This concern with creating a more sophisticated Who comic strip than had ever existed before was also apparent in other areas, notably its strict attention to continuity details and its capturing of the exact mood of late-1970s Who as Graham Williams was producing it. As regards continuity, the comic sets its stall out in the first issue with a sequence which plays on the fact that Time Lords have two hearts. In the story, a robot legionary who encounters the Doctor becomes confused by the contradictory data it receives: only one human visible, but two heartbeats registering. As to the tone of Williams’ Who, Dave Gibbons’ drawing of the Doctor himself, a somewhat caricatured figure all flashing grins and fl ailing scarf, took its cue from the heightened humour of the television series in this period, as did some of the dialogue. The Doctor’s references to ‘Gallifrey comp’ and being ‘a spotty teenager for fifty years’ would, if they’d ever have been uttered on screen, have joined Romana’s ‘time tot’ quip in ‘Shada’ in the fans’ hall of disdain.

The Marvel comic strips would be worthy of note if this was all they achieved. As the fi rst products to take pains to get the continuity right and attempt to replicate the distinct style of the late-1970s programme (rather than some generalized spirit of the show) the strips are an important evolution in the Doctor Who product. Atop all of this, the strip had its own social realist agenda to follow, something it wasn’t taking from the programme itself. When the TARDIS materializes in issue one, it does so outside a village newsagent, whilst a running joke has the Doctor repeatedly attempt to take the TARDIS to Benidorm for a holiday, and he sings 1974 novelty hit Y Viva Espana when he thinks he has got there. These are small touches, but significant ones at a time when the programme’s idea of Earth normal was Parisian art galleries and Cambridge colleges. Issues 19 to 26 presented The Star Beast, the highpoint of the strip’s social realism. The story is set in a northern steel-mill town called Blackcastle, and Sharon, the new companion who debuts in this story, is black, granting the Doctor a coloured companion 27 years before the television series did. She enters the story as a happy schoolgirl, but ends up screaming at the Meep, the story’s villain, ‘I hate you, you’re horrible’.

If you only know the television series, then the insertion into Doctor Who of overtly emotional material is the big development of the 2005 reboot. In fact, the quest to produce this sort of Who – one with a greater amount of emotional content than the classic series ever managed to consistently achieve – is a long one, stretching right back to the Ian/Barbara romance which David Whitaker inserted into the very first novelizations. Doctor Who Weekly escalated efforts to wring emotional material from the programme’s format. In addition to the Doctor’s adventures, a second comic strip told stories about the programme’s favourite monsters. Without the Doctor to act as a moral centre, and perhaps aware that the readership might be rooting for the familiar villains rather than their newly created (usually humanoid) adversaries, these stories take place in an altogether harsher universe. Alliances are fragile and opportunistic, authority is useless or corrupt, and heart-breaking loss – the emotion which revamped television Who most consistently returns to – stalks the characters, notably the two deemed sufficiently popular to return for second stories: Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer and Kroton, a junior Cyberleader. Daak is a hard-drinking, leather-wearing, chainsaw-wielding serial-killer straight out of the 2000AD school of anti-heroes. A convicted murderer, the sentence for his crimes is to be instantaneously transported to a Dalek world, where, with a life expectancy of two hours, he must kill as many of the creatures as possible. Here, Daak finds unexpected redemption as planetary liberator but his new love, Princess Taiyin, is cut down by the one Dalek who survived his savage assault. In subsequent stories, as he makes his way through Dalek space, he carries her in a cryogenic unit, though she is beyond medical help. Kroton is a Cyberleader whose conversion from human hasn’t fully taken, causing him to question his orders, and to respect the non-logical responses of human beings. In his first story (‘Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman’, Doctor Who Weekly 5–7), he aids heroic human rebels who fight against their Cybermen conquerors even though their defeat is assured, but ends up adrift in a fuelless craft in space, caught between two worlds and able to live in neither. His tragedy becomes more complete in issues 23 to 24, when his ship drifts into a time vortex, there encountering a leisure-cruiser. With the ship stuck in time, and the passengers having nothing to do but enjoy themselves with pleasures long since gone stale, Kroton is confused again by a variety of human emotions, this time less admirable ones. His technical skills release the craft from the time vortex, but it has been there over 600 years, and the crew age instantly to dust as they re-enter normal space, leaving the lonely Cyberman friendless again. These were sophisticated emotions to be writing about and the stories stand comparison with anything else going on in UK comics at the time.

The fusion of comics culture with Who worked because, although it would later take on a mammoth life of its own, in 1979, Doctor Who fandom wasn’t easily separated from SF fandom or comics fandom. All were finding their feet in the specialist bookshops cropping up around that perpetual crucible of British subcultures, Tottenham Court Road (notably the original Forbidden Planet which opened in Denmark Street) and comics fandom would boom alongside Who fandom in the early 1980s. Once a month, Who fans mixed with the wider SF culture at the One Tun pub in Saffron Hill, London. Tom Baker and Terrance Dicks were frequent guests at SF conventions – indeed, DWW printed photos of Baker at one in its second issue. At the Comic Marts held monthly at Westminster Hall, DWW writers and artists signed autographs, answered questions and did sketches. In 1980, Marvel hosted its own ‘Film and Fantasy’ convention, where, amidst the other events, BBC special effects man Mat Irvine and sound technician Dick Mills demonstrated their skills, whilst scriptwriter David Martin signed copies of his new ‘Adventures of K9’ books aimed at young children. A petition circulated to save the robot canine from being written out of the television series. At this point, Who appreciation was a junior member of the various cult fandoms. Literary SF fandom had a much longer history and serious links with the major writers. Comics fanzines were more sophisticated than their Doctor Who equivalents, being frequently printed on A4 paper (Who fandom preferred A5), a format which encouraged longer articles. Those lengthy pieces could be written because the comics, unlike television shows in the prevideo age, could be read and reread until their stylistic secrets had been cracked. Who fandom was learning fast, though, not least because many fans were acquainted with the comics world, and because home video was on the horizon.

Doctor Who Weekly, then, was a sophisticated and multifaceted marketing ploy. It was not, however, a successful one. The actual sales figures seem lost in the mists of time, but it is certain that after a successful launch, sales soon dipped, sliding, according to some estimates, towards the 20,000 mark. When Skinn took an unexpectedly extended holiday in America, editorship passed to Paul Neary, who shifted the magazine towards a younger audience. Artwork covers were introduced, alienating those fans for whom photographic content – particularly the colour cover – was the main attraction. New features aimed at junior-school children were introduced, such as Fantastic Facts (unlikely out-of-this-world stories sourced from The Fortean Times). The U.N.I.T Hotline page debuted in April 1980, treated the world of the series as if it were real, and offered readers the chance to join up in the fight against alien invasions. It printed Know Your Enemy files on old monsters which could return to Earth with evil intentions any minute: (‘Cut the files out and keep them in a safe place – they must not fall into the wrong hands . . .’). However, when this new direction failed to stimulate sales, Marvel sought further reorientation. A shift to monthly publishing (from issue 44, cover-dated September 1980) enlarged the magazine, meaning that the comic strip (the most expensive pages to produce) accounted for slashed its monthly pagecount, thus reducing publication costs. It also, though this did not become apparent until later in the year, allowed for longer articles. Doctor Who Monthly aimed itself not at the generalized children’s market, but at the more distinct group, the fans. ■

This article has been extracted from Miles Booy’s Love and Monsters: The Doctor Who Experience, 1979 to the Present.

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This entry was posted on June 18, 2012 by in Who Watching.

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