…whimpers Tony Fyler from a quiet corner, rocking back and forth.
George Mann is the writer who gave us the first – and so far only – novel of the War Doctor,
which has been widely
acclaimed, so it’s pretty special to welcome him into the 12th
Doctor comic-book range. Mariano Laclaustra has been responsible for
some of the more eye-popping, mind-melting bits of artwork in the
Titan Who range so far – many of the best bits of the artistically
splendid Swords of Kali were on his panels – but this is his first
shot as lead artist on a Who comic.
No pressure, then.
Issue #11 is a one-shot pseudo-historical, taking the Doctor and Clara on a journey in search of fish and chips at Margate, and finding them instead in the wilds of Derbyshire in 1845, scaring the bejesus out of ladies on horseback by materializing the Tardis in their path. There are grisly goings-on at a local country house, throttlings, a burning, a pretty hefty rugby tackle and a couple of beautiful brooches, but the nuts and bolts of the story have a Pertwee vibe to them which belie the youth of both members of the creative team. Mann’s story has a creeping sense of ominous dread about it – even though you know something’s deeply wrong from fairly early on, the beats of finding out what that is, and then of dealing with it, are metered out quite precisely. The turning point of terror doesn’t come till Page 16 – and then there’s running and chasing and creepiness and an explanation, a confrontation, a decision made and a lovely, warm groan of a conclusion.
Mann almost physically restrains his storytelling in the first half, to keep the beats on track and on cue, demanding that we instant gratification fans get our patience on as the mystery deepens. And that’s perhaps the thing – for pretty much the whole first half, it simply deepens. There are notes added along the way – discoveries out of left field that make us ask more questions, and at least technically those discoveries could be said to lead us towards a solution, but really speaking it’s there on Page 16 that things take a massive leap forward and get their impetus to run, almost screaming to the end.
It would do a disservice to the first half of the story to mention too much in the way of plot, but once the touchpaper is lit in the middle of the story, you begin to think very excited Third Doctor thoughts, which aren’t exactly realized in the way you probably expect, but in a way that still, on screen, would probably look a bit silly, or like a man in a suit, but which in the comic-book medium relies on the artist and your own imagination to turn an idea into an itchy, look-all-around-you shudder of horror.
Of course, one of the main reasons that works is Laclaustra.
For those less familiar with his work, let me tell you something about Mariano Laclaustra.
Mariano Laclaustra will never, ever, draw you a boring panel.
The action of a scene might be pedestrian, but you can put money on the fact that Laclaustra will find a way to draw your eye and engage your mind.
To be fair, in the first half of this story, he has his work cut out, because when you’re dealing with a metered story, there are panels that to all intents and purposes are just people sitting talking, or walking round a garden – 1845, remember, the golden age of ‘taking a turn round the garden’ – but this is where a really good artist comes into their own. Apart from an instinct for making a story or a panel come to life and lift off the page, Laclaustra has a gift for environmental richness, matched in this issue by colourist Luis Guerrero’s impressive talent with light. Over the course of the first half of the story here, Laclaustra and Guerrero take us through a Derbyshire twilight in shades of green and purple, and fill the same landscape by day with liquid green light that lifts the pages. Guerrero’s indoor lighting work too is joyful – windows spilling gold over half-scenes, illuminating faces, creating shadows that make each panel interesting. In terms of interior design, Laclaustra and Guerrero here do what every artist and every author must – they make you believe the world in which you’re standing – from woodgrains to stonework to (and whether this is Laclaustra making a rod for his own back, we’re not sure) a number of detailed paintings and tapestries to really convey the richness of the country house in which the action takes place.
And once the story takes off, Laclaustra will have you scratching and creeped right the hell out from Page 16 onward. There’s an insidiousness to the threat in this story which is positively primal, but where the threat is habitually – indeed even stereotypically – magnified by size, here it’s more realistically magnified by number, and there’s a ghastly honesty to that which is canny in Mann’s writing, and which Laclaustra captures expertly. Once the plot gets its permission to run, Laclaustra’s challenge is to render a chase sequence in an interesting way – something in which he’s experienced from The Swords of Kali – and again, Guerrero’s command of light serves him well here, with people running from light into darkness, the flickering of warm lamplight on brickwork and old wood giving an additional dimension – you can almost smell the chase here, the dust, the wood, the lamp-oil informing your senses in the middle of a sequence which so easily could have been another in the show’s long history of ‘running down corridors’ shots.
As the final confrontation unfolds, the sheer, squirming horror of Mann’s villain is continually re-rendered, and a loving gesture helps save the day, though the Doctor is keen, still, to find another way. It’s actually Clara here who comes off as the hardass – a kind of latter-day Sarah-Jane arguing for the destruction of the Daleks when the Fourth Doctor had qualms. Where Sarah was saved from committing an act that would have alienated her from the Doctor forever, Clara wins the Time Lord to her way of thinking, and the ending is vividly rendered, in a way that looks vaguely familiar from…somewhere.
It’s not, of course, until the very end that we realise where. Thank you, George Mann, for a meeting with a famous historical figure played almost as punchline. It takes some fairly big cojones to go for that and pull it off.
There’s no doubt about the fact that you shouldn’t read this story if you’re… a certain kind of person. There’s every chance that between them, Mann and Laclaustra (with stalwart assistance from Guerrero) will traumatize you for life. But if not for traumatizing people for life, children of the sixties and seventies would never remember ‘the one with the giant maggots’ or ‘the one with the mummies,’ or ‘the Yeti in the underground.’ This one deserves to go down in the annals for the simplicity of its concept – which appears to be ‘petrify a good portion of the audience’ – the sheer beauty of Laclaustra’s scene-setting and world-building, and the paranoia it will leave you with. It will be remembered as ‘the one with the [Spoilers] over everyone,’ and will make you paranoid for a good while after you put it down, about every shifting shadow, every surface, every itch you feel. That’s the power of a simple story, expertly rendered – it gets inside you and will not let you go.
Buy this one, absolutely – if nothing else, Laclaustra and Guerrero make it a feast for the eyeballs. But don’t blame me if it creeps you out. As far as spoilers would allow, you were warned.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk