Sunday, 26 September 2010

Stuff Goes Graphic: Dr Who and the Walking Dead...

You may have noticed, across two glorious – if haphazard – years of my World of Stuff, that I’m not really big on comics. It wasn’t always so; back in the 1970s and, as far as I can remember, into the early 1980s, I was seriously into the mighty world of Marvel Comics (and, sometimes, the slightly less upmarket DC Comics, always ITV to Marvel’s classier BBC1) until, literally overnight, I just lost interest. Just like that, as the other man with the fez used to say. Oh I’ve gone back now and again, tempted by a few of the comic books (or graphic novels as they were dubbed in an effort to make them seem less like...well, comics) which, it was said, raised the form into something a little more respectable and, indeed, respected. But, admirable as they might have been, stuff like ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and even the legendary ‘Watchmen’ left me a bit cold. Nowadays my only real contact with the four-colour world of comics is via occasional perusals of the strip in the monthly ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and, in all honesty, I can take ’em or leave ‘em.

Two things, though, have conspired to drag me back into the world of comics – albeit, I suspect, very briefly. Both of my recent comic book experiences have a strong connection with the world of TV; one of them’s inspired by a long-running TV show, the other has, conversely, inspired what it’s hoped will become a successful genre series. Allow me to introduce you to the BBC’s first full-length ‘Doctor Who’ graphic novel, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ and Image Comics’ ‘The Walking Dead’. Created and written by Robert Kirkman ‘The Walking Dead’ is a dark and brutal zombie apocalypse strip which is about to become a short-run US TV series (although a second, longer run is pretty much guaranteed before the first even airs) masterminded by Frank (“The Mist”) Darabont and starring Britain’s own Andrew (This Life, Teachers, Afterlife) Lincoln.

But let’s look at the good Doctor’s latest comic strip romp first. Because a ‘romp’ is what ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is. Writer Justin Richards has taken the Doctor and, more especially the Daleks, back to the 1960s. In doing so he’s created a bit of a nirvana for long-time fans of the series as the storyline references long-forgotten concepts and creatures from the so-called ‘classic’ series but, to be fair, he manages to do it in a way which doesn’t necessarily alienate newer fans and many of them are throwaway references and foreknowledge isn’t a requisite to enjoying the rather simple Doctor vs Daleks adventure as it rattles across nearly 130 pages. So when the TARDIS pitches up in what appears to be the petrified forest of the Dalek planet Skaro (complete with fossiled Magneton creature), the hardcore will squeal with pleasure – and I shudder to think of the ecstacy overload they’ll experience when Varga plants, Slythers, Robomen, Mechonoids and Ogrons turn up further into the adventure. The adventure itself is as traditional Dr Who as it might be possible to get away with nowadays; this is pure Terry Nation through and through, the Daleks portrayed as the Galaxy-conquering army of thousands with their armada of flying saucers as seen in the legendary old TV21 comic strips, fighting against the black-clad forces of the Special Space Security squad (also a throwback to the 1960s TV show). The story it simplicity itself and that’s its strength. At a remote and secret spaceborn installation called Station 7 humanity gathers and examines Dalek technology collected during Mankind’s unending battle with the might of the Daleks. Station 7 is also home to something which the Daleks themselves are desperate to get their plungers on and even the Doctor becomes alarmed by the nature of Station 7’s research. Is it true that the only good Dalek is a dead Dalek? Or is there another way?

There’s really nothing much wrong with ‘The Only Good Dalek’ – but there’s also nothing at all exceptional about it. It has none of the wit and character nuance of the current Tv series – this is all black-clad soldiers and bearded scientists and they’re all pretty much indistinguishable and they mostly end up as cannon fodder. Station 7’s tough-as-nails Commander Tranter has a prosthetic eye and a secret even he doesn’t know about, and Amy spends a lot of her time in the company of feisty SSS agent Jay. Matt Smith’s Doctor is fairly generically-characterised with only the odd snap of dialogue evoking his TV portrayal and whatever character Amy has on TV (and I’m still not sure what it is) is entirely missing here and Amy could be replaced with any girl’s name you might care to think of, whether it’s one from the history of the TV show or not. The story features the new, squat, multi-coloured Daleks catastrophically introduced in this year’s terrible ‘Victory of the Daleks’ episode and while they work a little better in comic strip form and in greater numbers, they just don’t look right. I still don’t understand why a race of creatures determined to wipe out everything in the cosmos which isn’t them would want to inspire terror and fear by colouring themselves like party balloons (“Argh, look at those Daleks...ooh, doesn’t that bright red colour look lovely??”) and even in strip form the new design is fat, ugly, awkward and angular with those jutting-out shoulder panels and clumsy scart-studded back panel. The Daleks just don’t look scary any more despite the fact the basic shape remains and no matter how many swathes of them we see in ‘The Only Good Dalek’, they somehow don’t quite seem like Daleks any more. Artist Mike Collins, however, does the best he can and manages to give the new Daleks at least a bit of their former status in some dynamic, ferocious action panels highly reminiscent of the classic Dalek strips of the 1960s.

And at the end of the day, ‘The Only Good Dalek’ is clearly designed to absolutely evoke the space opera ethos of the 1960s Dalek adventures both on TV and in comic strip form. In that respect it offers nothing new, it’s highly retro and, despite the relentlessly one-note nature of its storytelling, it’s huge fun and, if nothing else, it’s a real rattling page-turner.

‘The Walking Dead’, however, is another matter entirely. This is tough, bleak, dark and brutal stuff – but then we’re in the ‘adult’ world of the real graphic novel here, where blood is spilt and swear words abound. We’re also in the familiar territory of the zombie apocalypse in a continuing story – the comic book itself is at around issue 75 now, I understand – designed by its creator Robert Kirkman who, as fan of zombie cinema, became frustrated by the fact that zombie films, however good they may be, just end when their story’s told. Kirkman wanted to know what happened next, what further trials the characters might endure. So he created ‘The Walking Dead’ where the familiar zombie Armageddon is just the jumping-off point for stories of human survival in adversity, how the human spirit struggles and thrives when all around has fallen to pieces. I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of stories, of course – from ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Survivors’ on TV, through movies like ‘I Am Legend’, ‘Book of Eli’ and the desperately-bleak ‘The Road’ and any number of literary apocalypses courtesy of writers like John Christopher and Simon Clark to name just two I can remember because I can’t be bothered looking up any others. Tell it like it is.

‘The Walking Dead’, with its stark yet oddly-realistic artwork by Tony Moore, kicks off with Atlanta cop Rick Grimes, injured in a highway shoot-out, waking up in a desolate, deserted hospital. In the best traditions of ‘Triffids’ and ’28 Days Later’ Grimes stumbles about trying to orientate himself and finds that the world’s a very different place from the one he was last conscious in. Yep, there’s been some sort of zombie virus – the strips’ a bit vague on that one – and humanity has been routed, the dead have risen and they’re munching on the survivors. Grimes, bewildered and afraid, sets off to find his wife and son, making his way to nearby Atlanta where, he’s told, other survivors have congregated for protection. When he finally gets to the city he’s in for a bit of a shock...

Now it’s early days for me and ‘The Walking Dead’. The first graphic novel collection, ‘Days Gone Bye’, collects just the first six issues of the comic and so far the story’s not really done anything new with the genre beyond fleshing out its core characters and confronting the reality of trying to keep the essence of humanity alive in a world where it’s pretty much gone for good. Rick pitches up with a group of survivors in a rickety settlement just outside the city and here we meet a disparate cast of supporting characters all of whom have their own stories to tell and their own human dramas to come to terms with. There’s gore and adventure too; at one point Rick ventures into the city for supplies, smearing himself in bits of decaying zombie corpse to distract the zombie hordes wandering the streets of the city. Plus there’s plenty of biting, chomping and shooting – the stuff of your traditional zombie apocalypse yarn.

‘The Walking Dead’ is an impressive piece of work, though. Moore’s style is hugely visual (early trailers for the TV series – there’s one down below, incidentally - recreate memorable images from the strip) and expressive and Kirkman’s powerful, unpretentious writing means it’s easy to become involved with the characters and their crises and, by the end of the first graphic novel, I think I was sufficiently hooked to want to come back for more.

While I’m on a zombie ‘tip’, as it were, just time for me to give a bit of a ‘shout out’ for a new DVD release. ‘The Horde’ is, in fact, a French zombie horror, given a brief cinema release before making its way onto DVD. ‘The Horde’ is frantic, mental stuff. A crack troop of elite cops infiltrate a staggeringly-rundown block of flats somewhere in Paris to break up a brutal bunch of drug-dealing gangsters. Wouldn’t you know it, it all goes horribly wrong, not least in the sense that there’s suddenly a - gasp – zombie apocalypse and the block is suddenly under siege from hundreds of fast-moving, ravenous undead looking for a quick bite. It’s a veritable horde of ‘em, in fact (hence the name). ‘The Horde’ rushes along at 100 mph; it’s barking mad, with virtually non-stop zombie slaughter, machine-gun action and, most curiously, hand-to-hand zombie combat. It’s more of an action film than a horror movie and the publicity describing it as the ‘Die Hard’ of the zombie genre probably isn’t too far from the truth. It’s fair to say there’s been a bit of zombie overkill in the last few years and I’m really not sure how many more zombie movies we can be reasonably expected to tolerate but ‘The Horde’ is super-adrenalized stuff from start to finish and if you’re in the mood for some blood-crazed nonsense, it’s worth 90-odd minutes of your time, it really is.

Coming soon to the FX Channel in the UK: The Walking Dead...

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