The Memory Cheats

I have an ambiguous response to the audio plays of Big Finish, it’s safe to say. I have listened to most of the audios in the main Doctor Who range over the last 15 years and lately I’ve found them more enjoyable than the screen adventures of grumpy doctor Capaldi.

However, I feel the company’s desire to capture the broad appeal of the tv series is slightly disconnected from its drive to recreate the flavour of thirty -or -forty year old family sci-fi. 

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Exhbit A is the Fifth Doctor Box Set. This comprises two plays that reunite the Season 19 team of Tegan, Nyssa and Adric for the first time since 1982.  This assemblage is seemingly the reason for the, er, boxing of the set since Matthew Waterhouse is the last 80s companion to sign up to Big Finish performances.

Adric was a petulant and unlikeable lad and, I’m sure Waterhouse would agree, played with meagre skill. His claim to fame is ofcourse being blown up in Earthshock. Perhaps here the nostalgists want to give the maths geek more to do than eat, whinge and sigh.

The first play in the set is Psychodrome by Jonathan Morris. Waterhouse delivers a breathy, fluting performance which sounds almost like the Adric of 30-odd years ago but is just unlike enough to jar, somewhat. However, the soundtrack is incredibly faithful to the sound of 1982- a Radiophonic suite of burbling, bleeping synth pieces.

The Davison Doctor Tardis team wind up on a spaceship where their fears and insecurities are made manifest- the other characters in the story are exaggerated symbolic representations of their personalities. It’s a character study with a rather predictable, ah, masterly, cliffhanger mid-way through but one that’s still quite satisfying. 

 John Dorney’s story Iterations of I, the second play in the set, is set a little later in Season 19, on a remote Irish island where a scientific project has unleashed a predatory sentient number.

I really enjoyed this atmospheric and imaginative ghost story. The 1980s setting – evoking bulky PCs  with green, glowing graphics -was easy to visualise. In fact, I could imagine Iterations as an adult sci-fi serial on BBC1 in the vein of The Nightmare Man or even Day of the Triffids. This spooky adventure redeemed the navel-gazing fantasy of the first serial.

Big Finish revisited another era with less success, I feel, with its Philip Hinchcliffe Presents box set. This is the second such set for Tom Baker’s Doctor. The brief to solicit story ideas from the producer of the Fourth Doctor’s legendary “Gothic Era” seems to have arisen from the reception to that fiest box.

I didn’t find much to enjoy in The Foe From The Future- the story that transmogrified into The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Essentially, they are both about megalomaniacs from, er, the future who rant in grandiose fashion and commit grisly acts.

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The Ghosts of Gralstead retells that same story all over again, this time with a female antagonist- Mordrega, a brain-munching alien ,who is something of an Elephant Woman-style attraction in Victorian London.

However, although it’s the third blinkin’ outing for this scenario, I actually enjoyed it more. It was very atmospheric as I listened. walking to work past the benevolent pile of  Anderson’s Care Home on black December mornings. There are lashings of gallows humour and an evocative shift of locale to the plains of Africa. Leela has a romance with a native chieftain and Tom gets to snarl at the cannibal villainess. The apocalyptic climax of the story is described in dialogue but nonetheless, it was more entertaining than the second play. 

The Devil’s Armada is set in the time of Walter Raleigh and features an exciting sea battle and an explosive cliffhanger on a “hell burner” . However, it’s also largely about the persecution of witches and Catholic priests and has a ludicrous satanic villain called the Vituperon.

We’ve already seen the Tenth Doctor bawling at the Beast on tv and Paul McGann’s murmured at demons on audio. Similarly, witch hunts and giggling imps have appeared in other Who stories in print. It all felt tired and overfamiliar and, where Gralstead gets away with it with its bravura characters, Armada is more earnest and dull.

It frustrated and disorientated me to hear the very recognisable Beth Chalmers playing two roles in the play since I associate her with the Raine Creevy character in the Sylvester McCoy plays. The Hell-dimension of the Vituperon was far less interesting than the seafaring setting and the witch-haunted village was tedious.

Tom and Louise are charming and aimiable companions on audio; happily, they sound more like their tv “selves” than Davison and Waterhouse. But I’m looking forward more to the upcoming Tom/ Lalla Ward collaborations and seeing if they can capture the vim and insouciance of the Douglas Adams era.

After the festive season, I’ll be looking at the third box set in the Dark Eyes series and the spin-off collection, The Worlds of Doctor Who ( which I won in the DWM competition, excitingly!) Also coming up in 2015: Multiversity, Don Heck and the Captain America movie serial.

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Kid On I’m Only From Largs

It’s St. Andrew’s Day tomorrow. The National, the slender newspaper that supports independence from the UK, has won a second week of publication, although I couldn’t actually buy it the other day since it had no price code in Tesco. The warplanes have boomed over Moray for three days straight as the rest of the press warns us of the terrorist attacks that have been foiled lately.

And Dundee publishers Diamondsteel Comics’  “Saltire”, released last year, proclaims itself Scotland’s first superhero.

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Well, obviously that accolade could go to Marvel’s  Wolfsbane, the naive young lycanthrope created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod in 1983’s New Mutants graphic novel. I used to think her vernacular was inauthentic and an American approximation until I came up here. 

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Further back, in a 1977  Invaders two-parter, Thomas and Robbins delivered a pastiche of Phantom Lady: Ghost Girl had a distinctly Caledonian burr. Not to mention a presentiment about the metric system.

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As far as DC is concerned, the only notable Scot in its colossal ranks is Grant Morrison’s version of the Mirror Master. A scabrously verbally abusive Glaswegian, this super villain once actually took a bribe from Bruce Wayne in return for betraying Lex Luthor. If I recall correctly, MM donated the cash to his former orphanage children’s home,  proving himself to be both mercenary and sentimental. No sterotyping there.

Living amid the Picts and in the feverish weeks before the referendum, I was all for a genuine attempt to craft a Scottish equivalent to Cap or Iron Man- a Holyrood blockbuster as it were. Not some wise guy mockery or parody a la Glasgow’s Electric Soup or the satire of 2000 AD. Unfortunately, like the vote itself, this comic just trod a well-worn path of Ginger Cringe.

While it’s a handsome enough package, I found Saltire a barely readable mash-up of Asterix and Highlander with a ho-hum fantasy backdrop that was redolent of Pomp Rock and early-80s role playing games.

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Pages of  pompous Tolkienesque myth-making clashed with bathetic humour as the blue-hued giant bellowed ” I’m gonnae have you!” at Roman legionaries, not unlike a Tartan Army dad on a Superlager rampage among Lazio fans.

Saltire has been printed in Scots and in Gaelic – as ever feeding the fantasy that it’s the ancestral tongue of the nation- so there’s something laudable about that. But the jarring, unfunny blend of urban dialect and Hobbit-y hokum, the one-dimensional characterisation  and the colouring book artwork only make me sigh: “Gonnae no dae that?”

Coming soon: Big Finish Box Sets

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A Strangely Compelling Masculine Figure

It’s nearly Dr. Who’s fifty-first birthday. Twelve months on from the celebration that encompassed The Day of the Doctor, Light at the End and Destiny of the Doctor ( plus a line of reprinted novels), how is the series faring?

The Drama Channel is very late to the party with a series of sequential  repeats that began with The Aztecs and tomorrow revisits the Pyramids of Mars. While it’s a welcome move to show classic Who on tv, what about the real BBC deal?

The final quartet of episodes have strayed far from the 60s mission to educate as well as entertain. The Tardis has left the mathematics and computer science of the 80s far, far behind as it whirls into Harry Potter territory. Is the magical thinking and Blakeian allusion another manifestation of Cycle 24, like the mind-expanding imagery of Capaldi’s early episodes?

Flatline, like Mummy on the Orient Express was a popular episode by writer Jamie Mathieson. Part urban horror and part tribute to Banksy, it focused on Clara’s gradual transformation into a Doctor-figure. Frank Cotrell Boyce’s urban fantasy In the Forests of the Night was a whimsical fable, with more poetry than logic and less well-received, although I thought the writing was better.

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Moffat’s traditional season finale (Dark Water/Death in Heaven) reminded me of the DWM strip The Flood as Cybermen harvested the dead in an elaborate revenge scheme fostered by Missy, the “gatekeeper of the Nethersphere”. The new female incarnation of the Master was typically “bananas” – an evil Mary Poppins. But I found the episodes quite dissatisfying. The first part was  macabre but in poor taste with the cremation terrors of the newly deceased and the second resounded with the jingoistic militarism that post -Referendum Britain revels in.  Twelve’s antipathy towards the armed forces seemed to be resolved in a glutinous tribute , awkwardly poised before Remembrance Sunday.

I haven’t warmed to this  reactionary Doctor, crabby and choleric. Smith’s second season was about River Song and her timeline. The third was about Clara and her timeline. Capaldi’s first season has felt like  an extended epilogue to the Eleventh Doctor, wasting time on the “Am I a Good Man?” question which can’t really go anywhere- and didn’t.

I have no issues with the actor’s suitability for the role: his grouchy delivery makes me laugh and I find his Cushing-like scuttling particularly amusing. But the Rude Magician’s next outing already looks like a pastiche of 1965’s TV Comic adventure with Father Christmas.  Sentiment and whimsy seem tonally jarring after the grisly boneyard horror of the preceding story. I don’t want to descend into a cliche “Moffat Must Go” routine but in modern ministerial style, one might hope lessons had been learned. A fun-free Doctor in “just -pre-watershed” adventures isn’t a brilliant idea.

The three novels featuring the Twelfth Doctor are for the most part undemanding Young Adult fare.  The prolific Justin Richards writes prose that’s often flat and tedious: Silhouette, a Paternoster Gang Penny dreadful where aliens weaponise circus performers, plods through Victorian tropes. Another BBC stalwart, Mike Tucker evokes the Pertwee era- as suggested by Capaldi’s costume- in The Crawling Terror. This undemanding  invasion- by -giant- insects is very Terrance Dicks although the sprightly Home Guard veteran in action in 2014  stretched my credulity somewhat.

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The most successful of the three is The Blood Cell. Although I can think of three other  Doctor- Captive- in- Inescapable -Prison stories, James Goss’ novel is very well-written, blending dark humour and horror in a way that Moffat can’t quite get right.

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of audio Who,  Peter Purves plays Steven Taylor as King Lear in The War to End All Wars. Purves’ energy lifts a very humdrum story of a phoney war inspired by the writing of Alex Comfort.

Philip Olivier makes his final exit(?) as Hector/Hex in two tales: The Mask Of Tragedy, again by James Goss, is a comic sci-fi romp in ancient Athens which takes a very dark turn. A gossipy alien insect healer and a living god with mind-control powers clash in a very theatrical adventure.

Matt Fitton’s Signs and Wonders is quite reminiscent of the Virgin New Adventures as a Northern Revelationist (played by Warren Brown) summons aliens in a near-future Liverpool. A truce is eventually called between Doctor Seven and the Elder Gods- thankfully, since these stories are too apocalyptic to wear every day. Even better, Hex gets a happy ending after all his trials. I never felt Phil got to play Hector very differently from Hex, despite being possesed repeatedly and while I’ll miss his boyish energy, the character’s resurrection was squandered.

Coming soon: Titan’s Doctor Who and Iterations of I

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Generation of Loneliness

I am waiting for tonight’s Dr. Who finale to pronounce my judgement on the Twelfth Doctor and its flavour of  Cycle 24 New Psychedelia . (Read up on the Sekhment Hypothesis and the hippie maxima being in ascendant). I had wanted to revisit the Claremont/McLeod New Mutants this month after 30 years but the TPBs are dreadfully expensive.

Then last week’s “Goth at the BBC” compilation regaled us with the spectacle of  Speciemen’s hilarious Rocky Horror pronouncement : “Peasants gather round oh beautiful mutants”.

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This doggerel reminded me it was the twentieth anniversary of Generation X, the Nineties generation of Marvel’s mutants. Synchronicity indeed!

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This moody, monstrous class of mutant teens made their debut in The Phalanx Covenant.  A small scale crossover  event by comparison to the modern era, it involved an attack on some new mutants by a group of human supremacists infected by Warlock’s  Transmode virus. The story ends with the sacrifice of Blink ( who’d go on  to appear in this year’s’ X-Men: Days of Future Past.)

The creators were Scott Lobdell ,Joe Madueira, Fabian Nicieza and Andy Kubert. It feels quite contemporary, probably because the art styles are so influenced by early 90s Image Comics… as are modern DC books.

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When GNX were launched in their own comic, the art was by Chris Bachalo. Stylised and moody but with a quirkiness that replaced the Neal Adams-ish photo realistic elements of  Bill (New Mutants) Sienkiewicz.  Ugliness and cartoon elements abound in GNX making the kids feel less wholesome and more, well, Goth.

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Where the New Mutants of the previous decade were often rather child-like and twee ( even Sam, who was shaving), GNX looked more dangerously glamorous and adult. They were loners with literally spikey peronalities  and Angelo even smoked. Don’t call them X-Babies!

Actually, don’t call them at all. Very few are around in any form today. Mondo, the short-lived Samoan member and the mute Penance were essentially red herrings. Skin and Synch were killed off. Husk and M were hived off into other X-Books as was Chamber. The disfigured poster boy of the group, an analogue of  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman- or even of Gaiman himself -was a  passive-aggressive character, given to glaring in the rain, whilst delivering his monologues in telepathic thought balloons. The Ultimate Goth hero is now reduced to cameos.

Even the Identification Figure -the Cyndi Lauper-ish Jubilee – lost her sass and sparkle,vampirised years ago but too late for GNX.  Happily though, the  MC2 version of Jubes grows up to serve as leader of the X-Men, sorry, X-People.

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On the other hand, the series effectively created or reinforced the star-status of the adult leads: all former X-foes.  Banshee was clearly rejuvenated and became a buff, bearded Irish hunk from the cover of a romance novel.  A far cry, sadly, from the  spectral, androgynous figure designed in the 60s by Werner Roth. The ultraviolent Sabretooth was in the midst of his bizarre transition from serial killer to antihero while the conflicted super- bitch Emma Frost provided sexual chemistry with Banshee that would ultimately lead to her starring role in Morrison and Whedon’s iterations of the X-Men.

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Curiously, GNX was awarded its own TV movie , predating the Jackman-Stewart-McKellen cinema cycle. I haven’t seen it for years but US sensation Max Headroom is the villain. Sort of. Bwah-ha-ha.

What GNX proves, ultimately, is the strength of the X-Men’s core concept. They are not, despite the potency of the Claremont-Cockrum-Byrne 70s era, a super- powered strike force but a school. And as I now know, all students have to leave eventually but the classes are refreshed with new intakes. The experience is similar but always individual.

Many of these Marvel students are now long gone but the legacy of Young X-Men, New Mutants Vol. 2 , Genext and Wolverine and the X-Men proves that mutant school days are the best of their lives.

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To conclude: another shape-shifting character, blending tragedy and comedy,  is fifty this month. Metamorpho, the Fabulous Freak created by Ramona Fradon and Zany Bob Haney, is one of my earliest Batman memories. He was a strangely comfortable fit in the campy (Batman and) the Outsiders of the 80s. But the chemical hep-cat has resisted attempts to turn him into a moody, Goth outcast. Happy 50th, Rexy-Boy.

Coming soon: Signs, wonders and death in Heaven.

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File It Under Fear

Before I write about this unseasonably warm Hallowe’en, I just want to announce how fascinating I’ve found the BBC Genome Project, which archives issues of the Radio Times.  I found out the very night my dad sent me to bed in 1973 when I wanted to see Barbarella. (Monday November 26th!) It is an amazing tool to reacquaint you with your childhood and adolescence through  BBC TV.

It also lends weight to my recent theory that, as a very small boy, I only began to watch Patrick Troughton in Dr. Who because Batman had ended on STV in the spring of 1967.  I hope Scottish nostalgists might supply transmission dates for Batman in the Clyde Valley area.

It’s curious that the notion of Hallowe’en as a month-long festival and something of a holiday has seemed to have filtered into our culture in the last couple of decades- probably through the service industry and US corporations like Wal-Mart. Trick or Treat was an exclusively Yank custom in my childhood; we called it “guising” and it was a time for monkey nuts, not Haribo. 

However, I don’t need much encouragement to watch old Universal or Hammer movies at the weekend. This year, it was Sixties Brit monster movie, Island of Terror and Thirties Art Deco-Satanist shocker, The Black Cat.

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The former is like a Pertwee Who projected backwards a few years in time. It features Peter Cushing and the bluff Edward Judd fighting bone -eating  monsters on a (not very) Irish island. I think I first saw it in the 80s on C4 and it’s quite slow. The “look” reminds me very much of Daleks -Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

I first saw The Black Cat, I think, the weekend before our holiday in the Rhins in 1977: the weekend before Elvis died. It is an astonishing -and very short- story of necrophilia, torture and revenge. Karloff and Lugosi play old enemies who engage in a battle of wills in a fantastic Bauhaus fortress. It must have been very shocking to its audience and it’s still powerful (if a little mannered to our tastes). Interestingly, the soundtrack was reused for the Flash Gordon serials – and his Trip to Mars was on the very same Saturday in ’77.

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My Halloween reading matter included DC’s  Showcase Presents Ghosts. I’ve read a couple of volumes of the Joe Orlando stable of titles from the late Sixties and early 70s. Ghosts was editor Murray Boltinoff’s contribution: Levitz says it was a “disproportionately good seller”.

It purports to present “true tales of the weird and supernatural” but the very first story borrows heavily from that of Miss Havisham in Great expectations so I hae ma doots on that score.

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Many of the stories  were written by Leo Dorfman, who created Pete Ross, Superboy’s pal. I didn’t find Ghosts anywhere as enjoyable as The Witching Hour, for example but I like Cardy’s stylish scroll design for the covers. I also came to enjoy the exuberance and surrealism of Jerry Grandinetti.

Last night I read the sole two issues of Marvel’s 1975 Masters  of Terror anthology. This was quite a late entry in their horror line of b/w magazines: Dracula Lives and Vampire Tales were finally staked at this year. 

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The selling point of this mag was its literary value: these were all shockers by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard etc. They had all appeared in colour two or three years earlier too, so it was a reprint collection, tapping the vein, as it were, of Chamber of Darkness, Journey Into Mystery, Supernatural Thrillers and others. I never read many of those titles at the time- I preferred the superheroes and I often found DC’s “mystery” books like House of ,eh, Mystery quite scary!

Here’s a run down of the contents of issues 1 & 2:

It: first published in Supernatural Thrillers and  the originator of swamp monsters  including Solomon Grundy, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing. Really well-written. Adapted by Roy Thomas and Marie Severin.

The Horror from the Mound: dull Mexican vampire tale by REH. Adapted by Gardner Fox and Frank Brunner for Chamber of Chills.

The Terrible Old Man: primitive work by Barry Smith on a Lovecraft story in Tower of Shadows (and from the first issue I ever glimpsed). Disappointing on all levels, although I like the Kirby-isms a little.

The Drifting Snow: eerie, gorgeous vampire tale from, uh, Vampire Tales #4. Adapted by Tony Isabella and Esteban (Satana) Maroto.

The Shambler from the Stars: Robert Bloch does Lovecraft adapted by Ron Goulart and Jim Starlin. Very early Starlin is not great. This story and the next are both from Journey into Mystery

Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper: dynamic Bloch adaptation by Goulart, Thomas and Gil Kane. A very well-known story- one of my S4 pupils wrote about it in her Added Value Unit. Second-best thing in this issue.

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The second edition opens with The Invisible Man by Goulart and Val Mayerik who always seemed like a poor man’s Berni Wrightson. I think I first saw this “Supernatural Thriller”  in POTA weekly and maybe again in Dr. Who Weekly. it’s competent but a bit boring.

The Man Who Cried Werewolf: weak Bloch adaptation by Gerry Conway and Pablo Marcos. You can see Steranko influences. This was the headliner in Monsters Unleashed #1.

Dig Me No Grave: my favourite in this issue. a Faustian tale by REH, adapted by Thomas and Kane. Again, from the revived Journey Into Mystery and an early POTA reprint too.

The Music of Erich Zann: Thomas and Johnny Craig provide the first of two Lovecraft adaptations from Chamber of Darkness. This cosmic tale is competent but not brilliant.

Pickman’s Model: The other Lovecraft shockeroonie is by Thomas and Tom Palmer. it’s very naturalistic but also predictable.

The Roaches: this is quite unsettling. Gerry Conway and Ralph Reese bring an Underground Comix flavour to a queasy revenge story by Thomas Disch, who novelised The Prisoner. The Roaches ( from Monsters Unleashed features a rather racist and sexually repressed woman with an obsession for cleanliness.

There were no further issues of Masters of Terror ( although the branding was re-used in 1978 in an issue of Marvel Preview). This is a pity because I would be interested in more reprints from Tower of Shadows . Ron Goulart was a name I associated with the one-and only issue of Power of Warlock I got at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station in the early 70s. Turns out not only did he ghost-write Shatner’s Tekwars, he also wrote this Flash Gordon book I got later in the decade.

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And neatly we return to the Seventies- tonight I have House of Dark Shadows to catch up with and the beginning of the Twelfth Doctor’s series finale. More on this to come…

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Bring Me My Bow

We’re currently in something of a Golden Age for tv series based on comic books. Agents of SHIELD returned to UK screens last night with the blinkin’ Absorbing Man! Gotham began two weeks ago and I imagine The Flash and Constantine might be picked up by terrestrial channels.

I  had lost interest in the first SHIELD series one very quickly since it seemed a rehash of Angel with a few elements from the Marvel Cinemantic Universe. I’m willing to give it a second chance after watching the first box set of Warner Brothers Arrow.

Arrow is a descendant of Smallville, the  Superman teen soap which ran for a spectacular ten seasons. Green Arrow first made his tv debut there as a Batman-substitute- even forming a Justice League of sorts in season six -who bullied Lex Luthor at prep school.

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Arrow, is firstly, an action show about urban stealth warfare. But the plot is driven by family dramas with a soapy feel and the series also co-opts the island ordeals of Lost with some of the convolutions of Heroes. So far,so formulaic.

Indulged playboy Oliver Queen retuuns to Starling City after five years on an island in the China seas. He uses his archery skills to thwart a conspiracy that began with his own family and is assisted by loyal Tough Black Man and Adoring Blonde Computer Nerd. For some reason, she is named after a supporting cast member in 80s Firestorm . The weekly flashbacks to the hero’s origins on the island tend to be more compelling than the conspiracy story until the requisite series finale.

GA is never called Green Arrow in series one. Frustratingly, he’s referred to as the Vigilante or the Hood- the names, of course, of other comics characters. The conspirators are led by John Barrowman ( the man who introduced the Commonwealth Games accompanied by dancing tea cakes). His scenes are actually among the most entertaining with a knowing and larger than life gusto which contrasts with the endless exposition and admiring shots of the grimacing hero’s glistening torso. Another Doctor Who  alumnus, Alex Kingston, appears as the matronly Dinah Lance.

  A wide variety of DC characters appear in series one: villains include Deadshot; the Royal Flush Gang- here, a family of masked bank robbers; Count Vertigo – a drug dealing gangster; Firefly ( re-imagined as a firefighter-turned-arsonist). One of the major threats is Deathstroke, looking faintly ridiculous in his Perez-designed orange face mask.

DC heroine The Huntress appears as a very dark, conflicted character: a mobster’s daughter turned Lady Punisher. The Blackhawks were almost eviscerated as a corrupt security firm turned robbers. Delinquent Roy Harper has been introduced, presumably with the intention of becoming Speedy for tv. Similarly, damsel in distress Laurel Lance, who works for a law firm called CNRI (Can-ar-y!) is surely set up to be Black Canary. There have also been cutesy references to Slade Wilson’s son Joe (Jericho); Nanda Parbat, the Shangri La of the DCU ; a seismologist Brion Markov (Ge0-Force) and Laurel’s friends Ray (Palmer) and Jean (Loring). There seems no way, however, that sci-fi or supernatural characters could exist in the “grimdark” world of Arrow.

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Green Arrow, created in the 40s by Weisinger and Papp, was a masked crimebuster with a boy sidekick in the Batman and Robin mould. In the late 50s, King Kirby brought a more fantastic edge, naturally including a trip into a futuristic dimensional world. But the character remained a Batman knock-off. Even one of his few memorable costumed foes, Clock King, was co-opted for two Batman tv series. GA only became interesting in the late 60s when he was redesigned and re-purposed by O’Neil and Adams as an angsty Liberal who’d lost his personal fortune.

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Permanently linked to Black Canary and regularly partnered with Hal Jordan, Ollie’s character became less strident but more cranky and he was often portrayed as a smart-ass and a boor: an annoying amplification of Hawkeye but a mainstay in the JLA. Mike Grell’s prestige format Longbow Hunters in the late 80s elevated Ollie into the Mature Readers sphere where he dealt with a mid-life crisis and drug crime in Seattle.

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It’s a version of The Longbow Hunters Ollie we see in Arrow and it’s his use of lethal force that bothers me most.  My reading habits were formed by Silver age reprints and I find the murderous “Hood Guy” an uneasy watch. If the series had featured Marv Wolfman’s 80s Vigilante ( a bleak take on the Punisher), I’d find it more acceptable. I appreciate it may be part of the “Hero’s Journey” but I don’t approve of it. Especially because the family themes of Arrow with Hamlet-ish  mother’s boy Ollie  seem reminiscent of Smallville. It’s dull, predictable stuff in the main.

Gotham is ostensibly, a more adult series while  a more violent one. I’m enjoying Sean Pertwee’s Caine-inspired Alfred and the reptilian, effete Penguin (played by the aptly-named Robin Lord Taylor).  However, while the story’s inevitable end would be the young Bruce Wayne leaving the city to train as Batman, it’s unlikely to reach that point for years. The downfall and rise of Jim Gordon (studded with Arkhmam inmates appearances) is the probable arc of the show.

The Oliver Queen I recognise- mature, playful but still  ” a guy” and NOT Bruce Wayne- is featured in Bloodspell, a hardcover DC graphic novel by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones. This project began as a joke in a text feature in one of the Dini/Ross tabloid editions of the early Noughties. It’s an adventure of fishnet-wearing heroines Zatanna and Black Canary and while it does contain some adult situations and humour, I think it’s inoffensive enough; I would let any of my senior students read it- especially the girls.

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The two super-heroines pursue a ghostly villainess to Las Vegas and flashbacks charmingly depict the growth of their friendship. These flashbacks are unafraid to show the ladies’ dubious fashion choices in the 80s and feature several Justice Leagures including a wonderful Chrisopher Reeve Superman.t

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I’d much prefer to watch a Canary/Zatanna series, to be honest. I’d also like to see more graphic novels from these creators. It’s iconic yet modern, fresh and yet classic. Recommended.

Coming soon: Masters of Terror

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Return to the Forbidden Zone

It’s a staggering forty years since the launch of Marvel UK’s fourth and fifth reprint titles, Planet of the Apes and Dracula Lives. The Apes tv series began its UK run in October 1974 but, ape-allingly,  was never picked up by STV (although it probably was in broadcast up here in the North East)! Apparently Channel 4 showed the series twenty years later but I didn’t have a telly for much of 1994 so I wouldn’t know.

I’ve cast a desultory eye over both Tim Burton’s campy 2001  re-imagining of POTA and 2011’s “reboot”, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Neither, of course, satirise Sixties and Seventies culture the way the originals did.

in ’74, the two new comics were a departure from the Sixties super-hero fare of the original trio of  weeklies. POTA reprinted material from the US magazine of the same name. Marvel had published it as a response to high American tv ratings for winter screenings of the Apes films. 

My parents permitted me to add only one new comic to my weekly standing order ( Four comics equalled 32p a week. In the strike -bound  mid- 70s, you could get a hamburger and a coke for about 50p in Baxters in Strathaven).

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 I had been allowed to watch the 1958 Hammer Dracula one Friday night in STV’s Don’t Watch Alone slot and my brother and I had been taken to see Battle for the Planet of the Apes at the cinema in East Kilbride,  possibly in early ’74. Furthermore, one of the the first “grown-up” books I read was the novelisation (which I probably got in Safeway,  where the Blish Star Trek paperbacks were sold).

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I suspect I was subtly guided towards the POTA comic and away from Dracula – my parents being quite unaware of the references to lobotomy, gelding and other gruesome experiments in the script and oblivious to the Joy of Sex Man in bondage on the cover. By the second issue, I was captivated by the “savage tales” reprinted within.

Despite my love of  Kirby’s whacked-out post-apocalyptic cartoon Kamandi and its dolphin society however, or the talking worm in Shazam,  the simian satire of POTA didn’t grab me the way the back-up strips did. Ka-Zar, Lee and Kirby’s riff on Tarzan’s New York Adventure, segued into the Conan-esque sword and sorcery of the Petrified Man by Gerry Conway and Barry Smith. Meanwhile Thomas and Kane produced a pastiche of ERB’s Gods of Mars in Gullivar Jones (Even having read a couple of issues of DC’s Weird Worlds, I failed to pick up on the resemblance  for years!)

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I did come across occasional copies of Dracula Lives in the following months, in the homes of neighbours’ kids. I was intrigued by Conway and Colan’s first couple of dread-soaked outings but was far less keen on Ploog’s Werewolf By Night and the antiquated adventures of the literary Frankenstein’s Monster.

The adaptations of the Apes movies began, of course, with the Charlton Heston original which ran from October ’74 to the first week of January’75. This serial was followed by Marvel’s first original story arc, Terror on the Planet of the Apes: a Moench/Ploog collaboration which introduced long-running protagonists, Jason and Alexander. The friends would continue to appear in increasingly -bizarre adventures with  a frontiersman named Steely Dan.

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Back-ups now tended to be Marvel adaptations of bleak sci-fi stories from Worlds Unknown, like “Black Destroyer”, “Killdozer” and “Arena”. At some point in this period, we were taken to see the first POTA movie and Escape from ... at the Ritz cinema in Strathaven.

The weekly publication schedule quickly devoured US Apes material. The response to this crisis, in March 1975, was one of the  most notorious creations of Marvel UK:  Apeslayer. Basically, this was a reprint of the mongrel Adams/Chaykin/Trimpe Killraven/War of the Worlds series…with Martians substituted by apes.

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Absorbed as I was by any and all of Marvel’s sword-wielding barbarians, I owned exactly this one issue of Amazing Adventures (from Stonehouse in ’73) so I was more than happy to read a bastardised into of Carmilla Frost and Grok the Clonal Man. However, this hybridised strip was mothballed by mid-May as Marvel’s version of the mutant-ridden sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes began in June 1975 and concluded in September.

Further Marvel adaptations appeared as back-ups in the summer of 1975: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and The Day of the Triffids. In August, reprints began of Lee, Thomas and Colan’s stultifying spaceman saga , Captain Marvel. They carried on in the pages of the first landscape title, The Titans from October 1975.

At the same time, the comic began to reprint the surreal fantasy of the “Future History Chronicles”, a piratical sequence of ape adventures by Tom Sutton. This story arc would also feature a Captain Nemo pastiche.

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Escape from the Planet of the Apes was reprinted close on the heels of Beneath in that same month.  The most literary strip carried by the weekly POTA was Don McGregor’s Panther’s Rage, beginning in November  and continuing into the late spring of ’76.  Meanwhile, the adaptation of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ran from January to mid-March, 1976.

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 Ultimately, as was always the way with British comics, there was “great news” for readers as POTA and DL merged that legendary summer,  in June 1976, ahead of the Masters of Terror double-bill on BBC2 that August.  Fittingly, the Jungle Lord , Ka-Zar, was still vine-swinging in POTA’s pages and the mindless Man-Thing , occasionally illustrated by Ploog, shambled over from the horror weekly.

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Meanwhile, Jason and Alexander’s saga became ever more surreal and satirical with monkey-demons, the Gandalf-esque Lightsmith and the unearthly, multi-orbed Keeper.

By December, Conan had bludgeoned his way into the weekly, with the Italianate intrigue of the Crimson Company/ Ring of Black Shadow storyline. It also introduced my favourite sidekick for the Cimmerian , the hoyden Tara of Hanumar.

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The following spring, in March 1977,  POTA/DL merged with the perennial Mighty World of Marvel. By that time, I was more interested in the Headshop Kozmic of Starlin and Englehart’s Captain Marvel than the interminable Battle for the Planet of the Apes- my first Apes story, after all, three years earlier.

The last hurrah for POTA  reprints, with Viking apes, Gorilloids and Terror-Toads,  finally came in the summer of 1977, just before I went into S3. Elvis was still alive but the charts were ruled by Disco Inferno and Carole Bayer Sager.

From early 1978, Star Wars Weekly would carry the bulk of Marvel’s sci-fi output, including movie Guardian Star-Lord;  Starlin’s subversive, trippy Warlock; and toy-based George Lucas pastiche, the Micronauts. Text features  on sci-fi movies, pioneered in POTA, would transfer to SWW and later to Starburst magazine .

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Ironically the apes would be replaced in MWOM by their ’74 stablemate, Dracula himself. 1977 saw the longest BBC2 summer season of horror double bills on a Saturday night: Dracula, Frankenstein and Friends. It was also the summer of BBC1’s Supernatural – and the final episode of that series was repeated for the very first time last night.

As we progress through the season for all things supernatural, future posts will venture into the realm of Marvel’s own Masters of Terror

All images are presumed  copyright of their respective owners. Thanks especially to Hunter Goatley’s Planet of the Apes archives.