Monday, August 4, 2008

Doctor Who and Hembeck

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of Doctor Who: Endgame (Panini, 2005) and The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus (Image, 2008).

That eyepopping cliffhanger from the end of the last Doctor Who season evoked an earlier stunt that the comic had pulled. The time was 1997, and conventional wisdom, much as people (like me!) who enjoyed Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor would prefer it to be otherwise, was that the '96 TV movie was a franchise-killing failure. Nevertheless, when the comic took the massive, unannounced step of regenerating the hero, and giving us a new, Ninth Doctor, one "played" by actor and producer Nick Briggs, it was a big shock. There was an accompanying photo feature of our new, balding, tea-obsessed leading man in his eccentric costume with a toothbrush in his jacket pocket. Since the wheeze wasn't revealed for four months, during which the real Doctor had been busy behind the scenes disrupting the plans of the villainous Threshold, there was plenty of time for an outraged fandom to fill the letters page and the old Usenet group with angry screeds.

Those were great times, and these are great comics. Most of them are scripted by Alan Barnes, and I suppose my only quibble is that the Threshold bunch are pretty obnoxiously snide, but I guess they wouldn't be decent baddies if you weren't sneering when you read them. Martin Geraghty's pencils are inked by former 2000 AD art editor Robin Smith, and while I've never been a fan of Smith's solo work, he really pulls off some great work here as part of a team. But the nicest thing about the Eighth Doctor's comic life - as convoluted and/or expensive as the other options, it's the one that I choose to think that matters most - is that the later volumes, to be reread soon, are even better. Recommended.

This is such a huge, fun book. It's funny, but you sort of know going in that it's a 900-page monster, about as thick as two of Marvel's earlier Essentials combined, and still it's a surprise just to see the thing. And since Hembeck can fill a page with lettering better than anybody else in the industry, you will definitely get your money's worth from this book.

But what is it? Well, if you know American comic fandom, then you'll surely know Fred Hembeck, who's been lampooning and celebrating the medium for about thirty years in the pages of various fan publications and APAs, by way of mini-histories, interviews with fictional characters and recreations of classic moments from comics, all done in his inimitable style. This is an exhaustive collection of damn near everything that can be collected, in one mammoth book.

It's tremendous fun, but certainly not the sort of thing you can breeze through. When Hembeck gets on a joyous rant, with his cartoon alter ego and Dr. Strange, for instance, trading tales of Steve Ditko highlights, the page can become unbelievably dense with dialogue, with more words appearing on a single page in this book than in an entire issue of Brian Bendis's Avengers. And the reproduction is smaller than in the larger magazines where these originally appeared, so you'll want good lighting and possibly a lens to read some of this stuff!

What makes this a winner all the way through is Hembeck's genuine love and respect for the medium and its creators. There are certainly books he's enjoyed less than others, but you really get the impression reading this of a guy who wants to share his enjoyment, and toast the often unsung creators behind comics. It's very Ameri-centric, unsurprisingly, but it's far more than mainstream superheroes; everything from Little Lulu to Preacher gets some page time within these covers. That brings me to my only real complaint: it's absurd that a book this thick should be published without page numbers! It's also a sad reality that a book this thick will soon have livid cracks running up its spine, but a two-volume slipcased hardcover probably wouldn't sell as well... Well, until the day my volume falls apart, it'll have a place of pride on my shelf. You won't be able to miss it; I don't know that I have any other books this thick!

(Originally posted August 04, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

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