Monday, 18 March 2013

Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand by Dan McDaid, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins and chums (Panini, pb, 258pp) is the long-awaited (especially by those of us who didn’t notice its publication in 2012) follow-up to The Betrothal of Sontar and The Widow’s Curse, finally completing the reprints of the tenth Doctor’s comic strip adventures from Doctor Who Magazine. This volume collects the strips from issues 400 to 420, plus one from 394 and another from an annual. According to the introduction by Russell T Davies, rights issues held up its publication, presumably related to the not-entirely-awful Who comics being produced by IDW over the pond or the graphic novels being produced for younger readers by BBC Books. Whatever it was, the roadblock is gone, and this book has been followed swiftly by the first collection of eleventh Doctor DWM strips, The Child of Time (#421–441), with a seventh Doctor collection forthcoming: Nemesis of the Daleks, featuring the return of Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer! I’m only an occasional purchaser of the source magazine – it’s a terrific, well-written publication, but I’m not quite such a fan of the show that I need to read a magazine devoted to it every four weeks – so these Panini volumes are full of fresh stories for me, all fourteen of them to date instant, unthinking purchases up there with new Nick Cave albums, Jack Vance novels, or Muji to-do-list pads.

This book differs from the two previous tenth Doctor volumes in having, for the main part, a single writer: Dan McDaid. (Jonathan Morris contributes a brief tale of “Space Vikings”, drawn from an annual.) McDaid is thus able to build a run of stories, which reads, and deliberately so during the specials year, like a traditional season of the television programme, constructed around an interesting non-companion, Majenta Pryce. She first appears as the time-meddling villain of “Hotel Historia”, held over from the previous book. For her crimes she ends up in a space prison, and in “Thinktwice” the Doctor runs into her again. Though he remembers her, she doesn’t remember him – or herself.

She employs the Doctor (or at least that’s how she sees their relationship) to take her to the world of Panacea, where she hopes to have her memory replaced. Along the way there’s a return to Stockbridge (“The absolute centre of the universe, Majenta, and don’t let anyone tell you different!”) and a reunion with Max, UNIT battling the Skith in Sydney harbour, a fishy tribute to The Spirit, a world where no one can speak, ghosts on the London Underground, and all sorts of other fun. This builds to a climax revealing the secrets of Majenta’s missing memory, and how that connects to a mysterious recurring image: the Crimson Hand.

It’s all entertaining, and for me is the best of the three Tennant collections, even if it shares with other tenth Doctor tie-ins a tendency to lean rather too hard on particular verbal tricks from the TV series – although that might just be another way of saying that the tenth Doctor’s voice here rings true. The book would obviously be of little interest to an adult who doesn’t enjoy Doctor Who, but that’s the worst I could find to say about it. The Doctor’s description of UNIT – “fantastically well-trained and expert tea-makers” – is almost enough to make the book worth reading on its own. Or at least it would have been, if you hadn’t now read it.

Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

The commentary pages are as fascinating as ever: substantial, indiscreet and full of information. They show just how much work can go into something so frothy, the writers and artists involved working under a loving but heavy editorial hand. McDaid seems to have had scripts rejected by the dozen, and talks of curling up on the sofa following one rejection, almost in tears. Rob Davis, asked to illustrate the homage to The Spirit, was then told not to take it too far, since readers wouldn’t have heard of the character. It’s an entertaining book, but one wonders if it would have been all that much worse had the writers and artists been given a little more freedom. Those pages also reveal interesting bits about the parent show, for example that at one point the magazine staff thought there was a chance of the resurrected programme ending after the fourth series. Makes you wonder what they know right now.

The book’s great strength is the way it looks. It’s printed immaculately – it looks as good in print as other comics look on the iPad – and the artwork is very good throughout. It’s a treat to see Jack Staff creator Paul Grist’s work on the two episodes of “Ghosts on the Northern Line”, and Rob Davis provides a fun cartoon style on a pair of strips, but Martin Geraghty (“Thinktwice”, “The Age of Ice”, “The Crimson Hand”) and Mike Collins (“The Stockbridge Child”, “Onomatopoeia”) illustrate the bulk of the book, and it’s all very appealing; few TV tie-in comics are produced to this quality, and when they have been, it’s never been for such a prolonged period. I could throw out three quarters of my Star Trek comics without the slightest remorse, whereas the DWM strip has very rarely faltered. If I had the right words to describe it, I could have spent this entire review rhapsodizing about the colouring of this book by James Offredi, which is among the most glorious you’ll see this side of a Laura Allred comic. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers at the height of summer; this is a book my children pick up just to gawp at the pictures.

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