Friday, June 8, 2012

Bluewater Blues

Bluewater Comics publishes multiple lines of biographies of famous figures from politics, history and entertainment. I was excited when I saw they were publishing a graphic novel featuring actors from Doctor Who - you may not have noticed, but I'm something of a fan. Bluewater's biographical comics don't have the best reputation among comic fans, but I had yet to read one for myself and decided to keep an open mind. My verdict? Fame: The Cast of Doctor Who (unauthorized) is...strange. It is a strange, strange comic. Is it bad? Oh, yes, it's terrible. But it's terrible in such a peculiar way. Let's take a look...

We're off to a good start with a gorgeous cover by artist Joe Phillips, better known (by me, at least) as the writer and artist for a slew of erotic gay comics featuring body-hairless twinkie boys thoroughly enjoying one another's company. He's done plenty of mainstream comics work too, and I really feel like he's outdone himself here - the likenesses of Tom Baker, Paul McGann and Matt Smith are accurate without feeling stiff - most licensed comics have a hard time striking a balance between looking like their subjects while not looking too much like copied photos. William Hartnell is a little young, but that's probably Phillips' personal preferences coming through. It's an odd choice to make the TARDIS red in the logo, but that's Bluewater, not Phillips. All in all, things are looking good! I hope Phillips does the interior art too!

Oh. The interior art is by Jaime Martinez Rodriguez, about whom I can find little information from the internet but who - and I don't think I'm going too far out on a a limb here - can safely be described as a "photo-reference enthusiast." More on that in a page or two.

This is the very first page of this comic, and you might be thinking it's a bit odd that the first page of a biographical comic about the cast of Doctor Who consists of a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy and her children at JFK's funeral, slightly overlapping a stock photo of stars. You would be correct in your thinking. Why not the TARDIS, or a group shot of the actors in the book, or a picture of absolutely anything that is in any way connected to Doctor Who? I've no idea. This will not be the last strange choice made by...I was going to end that sentence with "the editor", but when I went to the credits page to see who that was, I saw that there isn't anyone credited with editing this book. That may answer my question right there.

Throughout the book, we'll see that the artist seems to have just chosen some random phrase from whatever's in that page's caption boxes and drawn...excuse me, I mean "drawn"...that. If it's something to do with the actor being profiled, great! If not, whatever. He's still getting paid and obsessive Who fans like me will still buy it.

Before I go any further, I need to explain another peculiarity of this comic that will result in more bizarre choices by whoever the hell was in charge. It was released in two formats - a regular comic, and a "graphic novel" edition, with a cardstock cover and an additional biography, of Peter Cushing, who played the Doctor in a pair of sixties films. For some reason, the lay-outs of the two comics are slightly different. The graphic novel seems to have a higher page count, and not just because of the added biography; it also seems to be somewhat smaller. This has apparently resulted in a couple of extra pages to kill in the graphic novel. The first page is almost identical.

(The more washed-out look is my fault - bad scan of the graphic novel on my part compared to the regular comic. That is the only thing I take responsibility for.) The pictures are the same, but the graphic novel has fewer caption boxes. The comic has this as its second page:

There's William Hartnell or a reasonable facsimile, gazing up at the night sky, dreaming of one day being a science-fiction action hero and wondering if he should be worried about how impossibly enormous the moon is. Fine. But the graphic novel has a couple of pages to kill, so it gives us this:

And this:

Two double-page splashes with the caption boxes left over from the first page. Two double-page splashes that have absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who or William Hartnell. I guess....maybe? could make an argument that the first image is supposed to represent the time-space vortex, otherwise known as the TV show's opening credits, but that's a bit of a stretch and I'm not sure this comic has earned the benefit of the doubt. And the second image - just a random, vaguely science-fictiony city. Space-fillers. That's all these pictures are. It is the least possible work that whoever is responsible could do, short of just printing blank pages. Mary Kate Thorne is credited with "Production", so I'm going to go ahead and point the finger at her.

As if that weren't bad enough - lazy enough - take a look back at the first page from the regular comic, the one with all the caption boxes. Look closely. It's hard to see on my small scan, so I'll narrate a bit for you. The second caption box reads, "The premise was simple: a traveler in time and space and his magical machine stuck in the shape of a police call box that is bigger on the inside." The third box reads, "The possibilities were (and still are) endless." The fourth box reads, "The premise was simple: a traveler in time and space and his magical machine stuck in the shape of a police call box that is bigger on the inside." The fifth box reads, "The possibilities were (and still are) endless." Whoops! Ok, mistakes were made. I've seen the occasional repeated caption or misplaced word balloon in plenty of comics that don't suck. It happens. take a look at the first page of the graphic novel format, and then the first double-page spread. You would think when Ms. Thorne, or whomever was responsible for rearranging the comic into the graphic novel, was editing these pages that the mistake would be caught. Instead, the caption boxes were rearranged on the first page to fill the space and then the mistakenly repeated caption boxes were dragged onto the next and arranged there. Somebody did that. Somebody took the effort to rearrange this page and yet didn't catch such a glaring error. You don't even have to be paying all that much attention to catch it. You just have to read. Unless, of course, they did catch it, but by that point the art was in and the writer was paid and it's been a long day so fuck it. Yeah, that seems more likely to me.

Ok! So, page two and I already feel like this comic is actually hostile towards me. The feeling is more than mutual. Let's move on!

The text of this comic is somewhat plodding - this happened, then this happened, then this happened - with the occasional bit of oddly phrased hyperbolic praise. Apparently, Harnell "brought a cantankerous grandfatherly flair to his interpretation that still to this day has influenced most if not all successors to the role." Because I always think "cantankerous grandfather" when I think of David Tennant. Or Christopher Eccleston. Or Paul McGann. Or Tom Baker. Or John Pertwee. Or Matt Smith. (Ok, maybe Matt Smith.) So yes, the writing is just as lazy as the editing. Most of the text can be found in Hartnell's Wikipedia entry, the rest from a simple Google search. His one paragraph New York Times "About This Person" entry covers a lot of the same ground.

But the art's good, right? Let's take a closer look at the art. I must admit, Rodriguez does a pretty good job of capturing likenesses.

Why, that looks just like William Hartnell! Here, I'll prove it:

See! It's almost like he just did a Google image search of William Hartnell and then traced the image - amazing!

Oh dear. Yes, almost every single drawing in this comic is clearly just copied from a picture found on Google's image search. I didn't even have to look that hard to find the originals. I'm not saying there's no skill involved here - I couldn't do it (I don't have Photoshop). But combined with the lazy writing and non-existent editing, it doesn't really make me feel like I got eight bucks worth of graphic novel.

Ok, enough snarking about the production values. For now. Let's get back to the actual content. After a few more panels of William Hartnell's Illustrated Resume, we get to the reason we're all here.

This panel tells me so much I didn't know about how William Hartnell got the part. Apparently, he gave a cold reading of a monologue on stage in a giant empty theater, while in the very back row Verity Lambert took notes in her enormous illustrated manuscript Casting D. Who. Charming! Her calligraphy is impeccable.

Some of the choices of photo-references are a bit odd. I'm not sure what relevant Google Image search terms would bring you pictures of 21st Century Brooklyn hipsters. Janeane Garofalo really wants an autograph, though.

This comic doesn't just give you insights into the men who played the Doctor. Here I learn two more important things about original producer Verity Lambert: she forgot her job title a lot and had to keep a reminder facing her on her desk, and she prepared the design for the new series Cybermen forty years before they appeared in the program and kept a poster of them in her office. She truly was a visionary!

The random vaguely science-fictiony pictures aren't employed just to fill the extra space in the graphic novel. The image above, for example, appears in both versions of the comic, and has fuck-all to do with anything. There were two panels with captions devoted to the Doctor's first regeneration, and I guess that was one too many for Rodriguez's image searching skills.

Here's the image he chose, and I guess it's fine, given the level of quality we're now conditioned to expect. By that I mean, it's supposed to suggest one man turning into another, but it came out looking like William Hartnell's head is growing out of Patrick Troughton's cheek. It's...actually kind of disturbing, but at least it's an attempt to draw photo-manipulate something related to the show.

Here's a nice image to depict Hartnell's return to the roll in the 10th anniversary story The Three Doctors. Unfortunately, it's a bit too wide for the graphic novel rearrangement - most of the panels in the comic have all the action happening in the middle of the picture, so they can be inserted into the narrower graphic novel just by trimming off the uninteresting sides and rearranging the captions. This picture wouldn't make much sense if you cut off one of the three Doctors, though, and finding a new image is clearly not going to happen. So if you got the graphic novel, you didn't get the picture above, you got this:

Thanks for spending the extra dough, sucker! And yes, this is essentially the same picture as the first double-page spread, but run through a blue filter instead of a green one.

And there we'll leave Mr. Hartnell. On now to the man who is arguably the most popular of all the original Doctors, Tom Baker. And if you think the full-page splash introducing his biography will be something exciting, interesting, and relevant, then you have clearly not been paying attention.

It's...a white corridor? Filled with light? Maybe from a space ship? With...a fire extinguisher? I would say, "They're not even trying anymore," but that would imply that they were, at some point, trying. Even more baffling is that this panel too only appears in the comic. If you got the graphic novel, you got this:

That same frigging vortex picture, but orange this time. I can't think of any reason why the panel from the comic needed to be changed. I mean, no, I can think of a thousand reasons, but none for why it should be changed to this.

Tom Baker was born on January 20, 1934, in the heart of an active volcano.

I can't find any images on-line of Tom Baker playing the bear in The Winter's Tale, but please oh please let this have been his actual costume. When they invent time travel my first stop is the audience for this production.

Oh, dear. I include this for two reasons. One is to remind you that the photo-swiping is still going strong. The other is to illustrate again how little thought is going into this comic. Yes, Tom Baker's in blackface, playing the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice with Laurence Olivier. It was the done thing at that time, and it's certainly an unfortunate part of Baker's history, to say the least. (The make-up, not the part. Apparently he was brilliant.) In the original comic this is one small image, filling out about a sixth of the page. In the graphic novel, they chose this panel to fill up some of the extra space, and it's about three-quarters of the page. Just this one time, you couldn't have put in that damn vortex again?

I don't know who any of the people in this picture are.

I think the artist really captured the moment of Tom Baker leaving Doctor Who after seven years with this picture of grappling hooks.

You know what no comic about the cast of Doctor Who is complete without? A picture of the cast of Remington Steele.

By the way, Rodriguez, it took me less than two minutes to find that entire episode on-line, for free. You couldn't have at least given us a picture of Tom Baker in Remington Steele? Scan through it, find a good image, freeze frame, print screen, open in Photoshop, art filter, done.

That's enough of Tom Baker. Onwards to Eighth Doctor Paul McGann!

What I like about this picture is not only the arbitrary choice of a community theater production of Camelot to represent McGann's early acting days, but also that nobody in the audience is paying the slightest bit of attention to the show. That guy in the front is even standing up to stretch his legs and check out whatever else might be going on in the auditorium. 

McGann's biography, like the others, is almost exclusively swiped from publicity stills of his projects, like this one of him and his brothers in The Hanging Gale:

Handsome fellows, aren't they? There's also another two-in-one of an irrelevant science-fictiony shot replaced in the graphic novel for no reason. The comics gets this:

A space! I think. And why not? I mean, what else would you use for the only panels to talk about the making of the one and only time Paul McGann played the Doctor, the whole reason he's in this book? So anyway, the comic got that, and the graphic novel got this:

The vortex again! And the bottom of the space city. That vortex picture does not appear at all in the comic, but appears four times in the graphic novel. In fact, of the four actors' biographies from the original comic, the only one whose story doesn't get a vortex shot is Matt Smith, the one whose title credits it most closely resembles.

I don't have to much to say about Matt Smith's biography, as it's pretty short. No bizarre random science-fictiony pics, just stills from his credits with even less attempt to hide the fact that they're nothing but Photoshopped photographs.

That filter is on its lowest setting.

This picture of executive producer Steven Moffat is interesting, and not just because he looks like a Sim. He's never identified, and the caption here makes it seem as if this is a picture of Matt Smith playing the Eleventh Doctor. Excellent make-up crew on that show.

Bonus! The graphic novel contains an extra biography, of Peter Cushing, who played Doctor Who in a pair of 1960s films. This biography, finally, made me glad I bought the more expensive version of the comic. The text is still the standard list of credits, but the art is...brace yourself...actually art! DJ Burgess is credited with the bonus story, and although I can't find anything about him on the internet, I think I'm a fan.

Above is a composite shot he drew - drew! - of Cushing's various film roles. Plus some blonde lady, who may be Cushing in drag for all I know (I'm not overly familiar with his oeuvre). It's a thing of beauty, don't you think? I like his less realistic, more cartoony style. He captures Cushing's likeness without making it look like he just traced a publicity still. Cushing looks a little cadaverous throughout, but that's probably appropriate.

Here's a more relevant shot, of Cushing as Doctor Who with a pair of Daleks. The likeness of Cushing is just on the right side of caricature. I like it.

Here he is looking incredibly sad as Grand Moff Tarken in Star Wars, with some other dude. Cheer up, Pete! You got the best story in the whole comic! Admittely, the bar was not set too high, but let's see a smile!

No? Fair enough. And that's where the comic ends, on a better note than it started. I suspect my praise for the art in the Cushing segment is mostly motivated by comparison to the non-art in the rest of the book, but I do think Burgess' work is well-suited to a biography comic like this. Otherwise, well...I don't consider my commentaries on this blog to be reviews, because then I'd have to fair, and that's no fun at all. But I can't think of any way to end this post except negatively: Bluewater's Fame: The Cast of Doctor Who (unauthorized) is lazy crap. Go read some of IDW's Doctor Who comics and wash this out of your brain. They're awesome. (Hey, I ended with something postive!)


  1. Steven Moffat is a Sim!!! Love it.

  2. I can't look at that picture without imagining the green plumbob over his head.