Tony Fyler hits some high notes.
As we begin the second year of Tenth Doctor adventures in two dimensions at Titan Comics, there’s a certain sense of déjà vu in the first instalment of The Singer Not The Song. The Tenth Doctor and Gabby Gonzalez have dealt with iridescent floating creatures in the sky before, and they’ve dealt with creatures dependent on and linked with sound before too. Here though, while different versions of both concepts are used, the whole world is very much more alien – yes, even than Gabby’s native New York.
Welcome to Wupatki, a planet with no ground, just shimmering cities in the sky, the province of cutting edge science fiction since before there were budget restrictions. If the setting from Nick Abadzis is not exactly the newest thing in sci-fi, it is at least beautifully rendered in this comic-book by artist Eleonora Carlini and colourist Claudia SG Iannicello, its spires and skies rendered in a mixture of pinks and blues that bring to mind all the colours on the edge of vision in a soap bubble drifting to the sky. Which is my fancy-pants way of saying ‘Ooh, it’s pretty.’
But the story opens up in something of a trademark way with Gabby writing or thinking a letter home to her friend Cindy, who we recently met in the story of the return of the Osirans, of Pyramids of Mars fame. Gabby’s talking about a voice she hears through all her senses, by the name of Smokey, and it’s clear before we even see the beautiful cloud cities of Wupatki that something deeply wrong is happening. She’s got earplugs in, and the irresistible urge to remove them, against Smokey’s urging. It’s oddly panic-inducing, this first scene – the more she raves to Cindy about Smokey’s beautiful voice, and the more Smokey urges her not to remove the plugs, the more certain it seems that’s exactly what she’s going to do, and it catches your breath. As I say, it’s a simple, single-page, four-panel introductory scene, and there’s not really any demarcation of it as a pre-credits sequence, but Carlini’s ‘shot-choices’ and the way the lettering is rendered – girlish and almost childlike in Gabby’s thoughts to Cindy, shaded purple and with musical notes for Smokey’s voice – gives us the sense of almost intolerable foreboding.
When the scene cuts immediately back to the Doctor and Gabby it’s a shocking contrast, and we almost gasp for air at it, especially as Carlini and Iannicello’s beautiful, somehow fluid art and colour work extends for two pages, making the vista of the planet seem broader, wider than any single page can accommodate. We’re introduced to Mubadee, the time travelers’ guide to the planet, and there’s a fair amount of expositional dialogue, though no more than was in the opening sequence of say New Earth or Gridlock.
The adventure quickly moves to the Presley Foundation, a specialist science centre, but not before we take in the magnificent, globular flying ‘cows’ of Wupatki and Gabby gets entranced by the planet’s ‘singing air.’ There’s a slight resonance of Kinda about this element of Wupatki, Gabby getting mesmerized by the ‘twanglings in the air’ – and at the Foundation, it’s explained that the twanglings are actually beings called the Shan’tee. Conceptual beings, mind you – the science in this episode has the capacity to be a little hardcore - but if you think of the Shan’tee as living songs, you’re pretty much there. And the threat that develops throughout the course of this issue is pretty high concept too. There’s a signal that, to pretentiously steal another bit of Shakespeare, ‘sets down the pegs that make this music.’ A signal that’s turning the Shant’ee into Something Else Entirely. It’s actually rather beautifully and simply described as turning them from arias to nocturnes, making the music of the Shan’tee ‘bad’ and radically changing the way they appear visually. Let’s just say you don’t want to get caught in a dark alley by a nocturne – they’re really quite disturbingly rendered by Carlini.
The tension escalates when it turns out that not only is the signal being deliberately aimed at Wupatki, but it’s coming from Earth. And it’s spreading, like a contagion, like a musical plague, mutating as it goes – the end of this issue sees Professor Allegra D’Angelo, who runs the Foundation, face a deadly dilemma on which the course of the second and final episode of this story is likely to depend, as the situation on Wupatki gets quickly out of hand. And we never do make it back during the course of this episode to the scene where Gabby is alone with Smokey and the earplugs, making a choice that seems more than likely to kill her – so the explanation for that has yet to be revealed, let alone how it unfolds, and whether the Doctor returns in time to save her from the ever-increasing threat of the nocturnes.
In terms of Nick Abadzis’ story, you could argue that there are simple ideas here, and ideas that have been around the block a couple of times, but in the high concept delivery and the important idea of the living songs being turned bad by a signal, he adds his own particular tone to the whole thing. It’s dialogue-heavy, but then if there’s a Doctor who thrives on dialogue-heavy stories, it’s the Tenth, so again, Abadzis gets away with more than another writer, writing for a different Doctor, might do. He’s also aided spectacularly here by Carlini and Iannicello, whose soaring vistas and exquisite use of colour make Wupatki feel like an inhabited world. In some respects, there are notes in the character-drawings that hark back to the comic-strips from annuals of the sixties and seventies – Mubadee in particular feels like he belongs in that kind of strip. There’s some particularly fine artwork on Page 10, when a holo-screen intrudes and we get to see news on it, but characters on the other side of the screen too – it takes a great confidence to be able to deliver that with skill and style and Carlini and Ianicello pull it off like it’s a walk in the park. As mentioned, the nocturnes are particularly disturbing, but as with Mubadee, they’re disturbing in quite a solid, retro way that makes you think of comics or annuals from decades gone by. And the visual narrative allows Abadzis’ story to deliver its beats of tension effectively, from that surprisingly breath-catching beginning, all the way back up the ramp from beauty to trouble, from trouble to disaster, and from disaster to the potential end of the planet.
Why should you get this issue? The visuals are spectacular, and if the basic elements of the plot are familiar, they’re combined here in new and interesting ways while still delivering retro gracenotes. Almost like a modern interpretation of a base under siege story, The Singer Not The Song, Part 1, takes us away from the ways in which it’s familiar from year 1 of the Tenth Doctor comics, and boils its elements down into something purer, more succinct, and more confident with which to begin the second ‘series.’
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