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Review: “Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I” by Tony Lee et al.

Title: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Vol. I
Writers: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, & Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Josh Adams, Paul Grist, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg, Kyle Latino, & Deborah McCumiskey
Series: Doctor Who (Series 2, 2010) #1-12 + Annual 2011
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Titan Comics, 2015

How do you explain Doctor Who? The Doctor is an alien who looks human (“No, you look Timelord!”), the last of his kind, travelling all of time and space in a vessel camouflaged to look like a 1960s British police telephone box. There’s a fair bit of tourism, to be sure, but the Doctor is always willing to help someone in need…and since his ship has a habit of depositing him when and where he’s needed rather than where he wants to be, he has ample opportunity. When critically injured he regenerates into a new body, thus allowing the showrunners to do a semi-reboot every few years without actually hitting the reset button and starting from scratch. Clear as mud? Good! Let’s move on to the book, shall we? This particular tome is a collection of Doctor Who tie-in comics starring the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy and Rory Pond, set during Amy and Rory’s honeymoon in between the fifth and sixth seasons of the revived series. It’s status as canon is questionable, but even with the occasional inconsistency* it shouldn’t be too hard to square things given the shifting nature of the timeline.

Doctor Who is at its most fun when it’s reveling in its core of whimsical lunacy, but there’s a deep vein of tragedy and determination to the character of the Doctor, and it’s the moments that this is revealed that make the franchise one of my favorites. Thankfully, this collection does both elements extremely well. There’s whimsy galore, from spam email infecting the TARDIS’ mainframe and manifesting as holograms to Kevin, a robotic tyrannosaur that briefly joins the adventuring. There’s a story that functions on one level as a standard Doctor Who romp and on another as an homage to the show Castle, transplanting the cast of that series to a space station. There are also more serious moments, such as a conversation between Rory and the Doctor about how much Amy means to them both, or between Rory and Kevin about finding your place and purpose in the world. These moments serve to ground the characters, making the Doctor, for all that he is an alien, very human. There’s a wide variety of art styles, and while I’m more a fan of some than others, they all seem to work for the stories being presented.

Most of these are written by Tony Lee, with the exceptions being the stories from the 2011 Doctor Who Annual. Spam Filtered (art by Andrew Currie, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the TARDIS overrun with holographic spam mail after Rory and Amy use it’s extra-temporal internet connection to check their email, forcing the TARDIS to set down and reboot. Unfortunately, the planet they land on is scheduled for destruction in about an hour…. The art here is pretty good, especially when it features the Doctor or Amy. Rory kind of gets the shaft, though. Also, the leader of the Scroungers is totally Danny Trejo. In The Ripper’s Curse (art by Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, & Tim Hamilton, colors by Phil Elliott) the Doctor and company get sidetracked to Whitechapel, London just in time for Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. The art on this one is shared among three artists, which leads to some small inconsistencies in the visuals, but the colorist is the same all the way through and helps to smooth things out with a painted (maybe watercolor?) aesthetic. It was different. I liked it, most of the time anyway, though I’m starting to think nobody can draw Rory properly. They Think It’s All Over (art by Mark Buckingham, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) has our protagonists once more sidetracked on their way to their football match, this time a case of right place, wrong time. This time, they’re in the ninth century, stuck between the invading Vikings and Alfred The Great’s defending Britons. Good story, and it includes a scene that should help explain just why the Doctor and Rory are two of my favorite characters ever, in different ways. The art was good, as is expected from Buckingham. When Worlds Collide (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) gives us a minimalist, geometric aesthetic that actually worked better than I’d expected. The story involves a strange resort built on a rift allowing for different spaces slightly out of phase with each other….until an accident merges them all. Suddenly, there’s a dozen Amys, a dozen Rorys, and a dozen Doctors….and a whole army of Sontarans. Also introducing Kevin the Dinosaur! Space Squid (art by Josh Adams, colors by Rachelle Rosenberg) was weird. I think the writer had a fixation with the television show Castle (and who can blame him?) because the side characters are all named after the cast of that series. Commander Katic, Major Fillion, everyone down to Ensign Quinn. It was honestly a bit distracting, though I did laugh when I first noticed. The likenesses aren’t bad, either…most of the time anyway. The story involves a mind-controlled cult on a space station that wants to enslave the galaxy to their giant squid god. Yeah, you read that right. It’s not Cthulhu though, unfortunately. Body Snatched (art by Matthew Dow Smith, colors by Charlie Kirchoff) sees the Doctor set off to save his friend Trevor, the Horse Lord of Khan. It seems Trevor has had his mind transferred into a bioengineered plant person on the hospital planet of Bedlam….Smith’s art is once more strangely suitable for the story being told. Silent Night (art by Paul Grist, colors by Phil Elliott) is a “silent” tale featuring the dynamic duo of The Doctor and…Santa Claus? Odd, but fun. Not sure how it fits in with last year’s Christmas Special though… Run, Doctor, Run (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Blair Shedd) is an homage to the Looney Toons, featuring a planet without conventional physics that makes up and down unpredictable. Down To Earth (written by Matthew Dow Smith, art by Mitch Gerads, colors by Gerads & Kyle Latino) was a nice little tale featuring an alien stranded on Earth who would rather just stay if it’s all the same to everyone. The art was good, too. Tuesday (written and art by Dan McDaid, colors by McDaid & Deborah McCumiskey) is told in the form of a letter home to Amy’s parents detailing a few of their adventures. The art was odd, but it worked.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, nothing too severe. Several murders, played to be quite scary in The Ripper’s Curse. A couple scantily clad characters. Minor sexual innuendos in the form of a couple “little blue pill” jokes in Spam Filtered or Rory’s sudden enthusiasm for a beach vacation at the thought of Amy in a bikini. Some prostitution in The Ripper’s Curse, nothing too explicit.

*One that springs immediately to mind is Jack the Ripper, here shown to be an alien stopped by the Doctor and friends, elsewhere stated to have been “stringy, but quite tasty” by Madame Vastra.

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Fear Machine” by Jamie Delano & Mark Buckingham

Title: The Fear Machine
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: Mark Buckingham, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman & Alfredo Alcala
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume III, issues #14-22)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

John Constantine is at it again. You may remember I reviewed the first two volumes of the series not too awfully long ago, and wasn’t too impressed. I really like the character, but the first couple volumes left me underwhelmed. With Original Sinsthis had a lot to do with being dropped into the middle of events already moving (from the Swamp Thing book, of which this was a spin-off) and the lack of resolution (rectified in the second volume.) My issues with The Devil You Know mostly stemmed from my general dislike of stories that unfold in nightmares, astral journeys and/or acid trips (yet I think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is some of the best storytelling in the medium, so figure that out), which comprised most of the stories in that collection. I’m in the minority, I know–Jamie Delano’s entire run on this book apparently holds legendary status among the fans, but I’ve just not been amazed yet. That said, The Fear Machine was a definite step in the right direction.

In his attempt to draw Constantine out of hiding, Nergal massacred his housemates and left them for Constantine to find in his apartment. Nergal has been dealt with, but the mess he left behind is still causing problems–Constantine’s face is splashed all over the front pages as the number-one suspect in the brutal slayings. (Apparently, this came to a head after his side trip to track down The Horrorist last volume. I won’t complain, that story was good stuff.) Dodging the police, Constantine falls in with a group of nature-loving hippie Travelers and finds something that has been in short supply since Newcastle–a modicum of peace. In this collection of hippies and misfits, Constantine finds the closest thing to a family he’s had in a long time. He should have known it wouldn’t last. When a brutal raid by a faux-police force ends in the kidnapping of Mercury, the kooky girl with special powers that first pulled him into his strange new community, Constantine resolves to find her and make things right. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it should be. Constantine soon finds himself embroiled in a web of conspiracy and intrigue that involves a secret Masonic order in control of a powerful weapon, a disgraced cop, a Soviet spy, and an old lover he betrayed. The stakes are the future of the entire world, but this time Constantine may be in way over his head. This time he may not even be able to save himself, let alone his friends….

The fact that I actually liked the story presented here in The Fear Machine is a little bit baffling to me at first glance. There’s a heavy dose of hippie free-love the-Earth-is-our-mother ideology, an unhealthy amount of drugs, not to mention the New Age/Ne0-Paganism that underlays the entire story arc. None of these are things I’m a fan of, either in person or (generally, at least) in fiction.* The plot rambled all over the place and was fairly slow to get moving. On top of that, those nightmare/acid/astral sequences I was complaining about last time were still present, center-stage even. And yet, it worked. I liked a lot of the characters despite disagreeing with nearly everything they stood for. The plot rambled, but always with it’s end in sight. It started slow, but there was a sense of rest and restoration for Constantine that we the reader got to share. And yes, the nightmares/acid trips/astral journey sequences I so dislike were still heavily featured, but unlike last volume, this time there was a point to them. They may have even have subtly pulled in the Merlin/Kon-Sten-Tyn thing with the finale, I’m not sure. Plus, we got a nod to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Constantine’s appearance in the early issues of that book. The end result was a story that I actually felt justified the reputation this book holds, and I will most certainly keep reading this as my library gets in more volumes.

CONTENT: Profanity, everything shy of the dreaded “F-bomb,” and a lot of British profanity to boot. Strong, bloody violence, including occult ritual and nightmarish madness. Strong sexual content, including nudity–mostly of the featureless “Barbie-doll” variety, but still–homosexual content, and a discussion of rape.

*I don’t condemn the appearance of such themes in fiction, per se, and will take their presence over censorship any day, but I have zero interest in them. If you want to use them to good purpose in your story, fine. I can deal. Just don’t expect me to be thrilled at the prospect.

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Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: The Devil You Know” by Jamie Delano, David Lloyd, & Richard Piers Rayner

Title: The Devil You Know
Writer: Jamie Delano
Artists: David Lloyd, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Mike Hoffman, & Dean Motter
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume II, Issues 10-13 + Annual #1 + The Horrorist miniseries)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2012

Alright, if you’ve been paying attention you know I reviewed the first collection of this comic series earlier this month. I wasn’t too overly impressed with the first volume for a number of reasons, but figured I’d give it another chance—if only to watch certain plot threads finish unraveling. I’m still not overly impressed, but I’m not giving up on the series yet either.

Last volume I mentioned that there was no resolution to the overarching plot of the previous volume, and as expected that plotline finds its resolution here. Most of Constantine’s brokenness stretches back to one disastrous night in Newcastle that is often referenced but has never been explicitly described…until now. The demon lord Nergal has been jerking Constantine around like a rebellious puppet for months, manipulating him into several disastrous courses of action, but now Constantine has managed to bloody his nose a bit. (Still not too sure what that was about—I think I need more info from the Swamp Thing book.) What Constantine has failed to realize thus far is that Nergal is in fact the previously-unidentified demon he encountered all those years ago in Newcastle, the night Constantine’s arrogance and amateur demonology got his sanity smashed to bits along with the lives of most of his friends. Now Nergal has alerted Constantine to their longstanding connection in an attempt to goad him into the open where he can be dealt with…but this may be the largest tactical mistake he could have made. Following the final reckoning between Nergal and Constantine, we’re treated to one of Constantine’s always-horrifying nightmares. This time it comes in the form of a thinly-veiled rant against nuclear power, closing out the regular-series entries in this volume. What comes next is the first ever Hellblazer annual, which carries us back to 1982. Britain’s forces are shipping out for the Falklands, it’s been four years since Newcastle, and Constantine is back out of Ravenscar Mental Hospital. At least for the moment, anyway. Now he’s back in London, next thing to suicidal until he meets a snow-white beauty who seems to know untold eldritch secrets. Or did he just hallucinate her? Either way, we’re treated to an extended nightmare sequence detailing a long-ago conversation between Merlin’s undead head and the mage-king Kon-Sten-Tyn in the age of old. I don’t put much stock in the dream being “true” (according to the series lore) given the grave differences between it and the historical record, but I could be proved wrong in future volumes. Rounding out the collection is the two-issue miniseries The Horrorist. Here we meet Angel, a young woman forged in the fires of Mozambique’s civil war and witness to countless horrific war crimes. As a result of her childhood experiences, Angel has become a Horrorist, one who redistributes the pain and suffering of the world to those isolated from its effects. Constantine is going through one of his numb phases where he feels completely isolated from the rest of humanity, but he’s drawn to a picture of Angel and grows determined to track her down. It’s not hard if you know what to look for: just follow the bodies. I’m not sure when this is supposed to be set chronologically—presumably soon after his showdown with Nergal, given its inclusion here—though the isolation Constantine is feeling at the beginning was nowhere in evidence during the regular series issues that precede it in the collection. Oh well.

Here’s the thing: I don’t much like this series so far. I like the character, John Constantine, but not the series. Constantine has that cynical, sarcastic antihero thing going for him, and I can’t stop reading his lines with the voice of Spike in my head. I enjoy his character, and will keep reading this for the potential to become something truly awesome that its reputation suggests will someday be achieved. The series so far, however, has been very bleak with little in the way of hope. I like to be uplifted a bit to balance out the horrors, if only just a little. You won’t often find that here. I also am not really one for nightmare sequences and the unreality of dreams (outside of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, where such things are expected) or madness. I’m just not a fan. So this volume’s three nightmare/vision/astral journey tales? Not really digging them. There’s definitely a taste element going on there though, so take that as you will. The strident political commentary was still featured strongly, which also turned me off a bit. On the plus side, we evil Christians weren’t the villains this time around. I mean, it wasn’t a complete turnaround, but an improvement. Constantine thinks angels are scary, which I’m sure is probably true (Why else would their first words in every biblical appearance be something to the effect of “Don’t be afraid?”) and Angel (the girl, not the celestial beings) was adopted by a couple of missionaries. Constantine makes a snide comment about the wisdom of bringing a girl from war-torn Africa to Suburbia, but concludes that they probably meant well. Then there’s the vision/nightmare featuring Constantine’s….ancestor? Previous reincarnation? Whatever. In that segment the Church is at first the enemy and later a duped ally, thinking Kon-Sten-Tyn has converted when he’s simply paying their God lip service and subverting all their efforts to serve the elder gods. So we’ve gone from being represented as evil (the Resurrection Army from the first volume) to being well-meaning dupes. I guess it’s a start….

Most of the art is just run-of-the-mill 80s DC Comics fare, but David Lloyd’s work on The Horrorist was pretty good. Very subdued coloration along with Lloyd’s signature style, which I’m honestly not sure how to describe. It’s not traditional pencils, but too precise to be watercolors…anyway, it’s pretty distinctive. I’m not artistically hip enough to say more than that, and add my opinion that it worked incredibly well for the Hellblazer universe.

CONTENT: Again, no “f-bombs” that I can recall, but just about every other profanity to be found on either side of the pond. Strong sexual content, including brief nudity. Strong violence, occasionally horrific. Angels and demons are characters, and the protagonist is a magician/wizard/sorcerer/whatever. I’d say that counts as occult content, even if he doesn’t do much magic this time around.

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Review: “Fables–1001 Nights Of Snowfall” by Bill Willingham

Title: 1001 Nights Of Snowfall
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Various
Series: Fables (Standalone Graphic Novel)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DC Comics, 2006

I know I’ve touted Bill Willingham’s Fables series before, but I’m doing it again. 1001 Nights Of Snowfall is a standalone graphic novel set long before the main Fables series, in which Snow White travels to the Arabian Homelands in an effort to enlist their aid against the Adversary. As you may be able to guess from the title, she ends up entertaining the Sultan night after night with tales of the Homelands and the origins of the various characters we’ve grown to know and love over the course of the main series. Each tale is illustrated by a different artist, for a patchwork effect that I thought was awesome. Some I liked better than others, of course, but that’s simply a matter of taste and style. You would probably pick different favorites. Some of these tales are tragic, some are hilarious, some are both in turns, but every tale here will tug on your heartstrings one way or the other. So come, get to know your favorite characters a little better, from King Cole to Frau Totenkinder and all stops in between….

CONTENT: The language is a little toned down here from the rest of the series. The violence and sexual content, on the other hand, are not. Several of the stories contain bloody violence, another several contain nudity or sexual content of some kind, and several more are fairly disturbing. The rape and murder of Prince Ambrose “Flycatcher’s” wife and daughters, for example, or Frau Totenkinder’s backstory. (Given that her name is literally “dead children” in German, you have to know it’s going to be disturbing….) There’s magic as well, though in a fairy tale setting, so I wouldn’t consider it to be objectionable on occult grounds.

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Review: Bill Willingham’s “Fables,” Set I

Title: Fables
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Various (See individual books on Goodreads for details)
Average Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DC Comics, 2002-2005

What if all the characters from your beloved fairy tales lived here in our world, in New York City? Welcome to the world of Bill Willingham’s award-winning Vertigo series Fables. This review is for the first five collected volumes, or issues #1-33. (I decided against reviewing each individual volume on here due to spoilers and generally not having enough to say to justify a full-out write up. On the other hand, Willingham doesn’t play nicely with status quo, so my secondary plan to just blanket review the whole series fell through as well. Instead, I’m reviewing what I consider to be longer, mostly-contained story arcs–from one earthshaking change to the next. You can find links to my short reviews of the individual volumes below.)

The premise is simple. Centuries ago* all of the Fables were driven from their lands by The Adversary, winding up in our world. They congregated in the New World, setting up their own community among us where they have been living ever since in relative peace. As a founding principle of their community, all sins commited in the Homeland are forgiven–you start out in Fabletown with a clean slate. No one embodies this fact more than Bigby (Big Bad) Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown and one of the main protagonists of the series. There are others, of course–this is an ensemble book, and you will get stories featuring everyone from Snow White to Flycatcher and everyone in between. Willingham has created something truly awesome here, taking characters we all know, as well as less familiar ones like Bluebeard, and putting a different spin on them. I’ll avoid spoilers, for the most part here. Some memorable characters we are introduced to here include:

-Bigby “Big Bad” Wolf: Sheriff of Fabletown and a werewolf (or more accurately a werehuman, as a wolf is his original form.) In the Homelands he was a feared beast before the Adversary came, at which point he became a severe thorn in the enemy’s side.
-Snow White: Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, first ex-wife of Prince Charming. King Cole, the Mayor, handles the ceremony and gladhanding; Snow handles the dirty business of keeping things running.
-Prince Charming: A serial womanizer and ex-husband of a number of Fable princesses. He has been spending most of his time in Europe, mooching off of the royalty there, but seems to have outstayed his welcome….
-Jack: Rose Red’s feckless boyfriend, always up to one get-rich-quick scheme or another. Former owner of some magic beans, among other claims to fame.
-Bluebeard: The richest man in Fabletown. In the Homelands he had a habit of killing his wives on their wedding night. He can’t be charged for this given the General Amnesty that holds the Fables community together, but everyone can’t help but wonder if he has returned to old habits.
Other characters drop in and out, usually becoming important in later volumes. Beauty and the Beast make an appearance, still together although when Belle gets annoyed with him Beast’s curse will begin to reappear. Little Boy Blue shows up as Snow’s assistant, seemingly young but with a deep-seated tragedy in his past haunting him. Cinderella would seem to be nothing more than a local shop owner, but is in reality one of Fabletown’s most experienced black operatives. Assorted other fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters make up the supporting cast, from goblins to the Three Little Pigs. The tales in these first five volumes run the gamut, from a murder mystery to an attempted revolution, from an invasion to dealing with a Mundy who thinks he’s discovered their secret–the Fables are all vampires! I promise, you’ll have fun with this series. You can see the reviews for the individual collections below, but be forewarned that all but the first will have spoilers for the previous volumes….

Volume I: Fables In Exile (*****)
Volume II: Animal Farm (****)
Volume III: Storybook Love (*****)
Volume IV: March Of The Wooden Soldiers (*****)
Volume V: The Mean Seasons (****)

Content: This is a series from DC’s Vertigo line, intended for adults. Its firmly rated R, though maybe not so much as others from that house such as Preacher or anything written by Alan Moore. R-rated language, not on the level of a Tarantino flick, but assorted uses of the “F-bomb.” There’s not infrequent violence, and sometimes it can be a bit gory or disturbing. Sexual content also sometimes shows up, with occasional nudity. Some magic, but given the fairy tale setting I wouldn’t really describe it as “occult.”

*It would seem that the Fables are functionally immortal, though they can be killed.

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