Grant Morrison's Doctor Who #1

IDW's decision to re-issue comics rock star writer Grant Morrison's Doctor Who work from the 80s ("Changes" from 1986 and "Culture Shock" from 1988) is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be done to combat what I was talking about in this obnoxious Negative Zone rant: comics readers' immaturity.

Now, that immaturity doesn't manifest itself in a refusal to read smarty-pants stuff like Maus or Fun Home or something but in subtler ways. Namely, a kind of hero-oriented reading where the focus is less on the writer or artist of the story and more on who the story's about. If comics were overall smarter or if the readership wasn't simply growing older with very few young fans joining in, this wouldn't be a problem, but as it stands, some weird comics version of Auteur Theory--and Kirkman's manifesto does not count--needs to at least be considered.

And that's why these re-issues are so good, it highlights the early work of a very popular and smart comics writer. What were when they originally came out, just two more "Doctor Who" stories, can now be seen as some really early and interesting work by Grant Morrison and ideally, still work as just two pretty cool "Doctor Who" stories. And they do.

The few reviews and discussions I've seen of these issues plays the rather easy game of "spot the Morrison trademarks" which is interesting and all, but are more interesting for the way Morrison's style kinda fits Doctor Who perfectly than over-arching innovations and changes he slapped onto two brief stories. It's more feasible--and way more interesting--to think about the probably huge influence Doctor Who had on a young Grant Morrison which in turn, made him write some good Doctor Who stories, which in 2008, after like 20-plus years of comics writing, some of these weird Who-isms look like total Morrison trademarks, especially if you haven't seen a whole lot of the TV show.

Still, a few aspects seem particularly Morrison-like beyond a superficial "this is bat-shit crazy like a Morrison comic" reading. In the first story "Changes", about a shape-shifter that's gotten inside the TARDIS, Morrison moves the reader through a particularly malleable and strange series of landscapes all the while moving the story towards the inevitable cliche of every shapeshifter storyline: The shapeshifter turns into a member of the crew and they have to play "Which is the real one?".

It's a good example of Morrison's interests in genre expectations and also playful, genre explosion. He leads us towards the inevitable and then jokingly switches it up, as the "which one is it" tension last a single panel before Frobisher points out "[The Shapeshifter] can't duplicate clothing" and so, Peri's necklace on the false Peri is colored to look like the real Peri's necklace but is in fact, "fused into the flesh". Reading it, especially knowing this is licensed comic, you're really expecting it to stupidly "go-there" and so, it's doubly jarring and extra funny when Frobisher's just like, "Dude, it's obvious which one is the real one" and then, the Shapeshifter freaks out and turns into a Tiger, Frobisher turns into a Tiger too, and they fight it out.

The second story "Culture Shock", with early Rick Veitch-esque art by Bryan Hitch (also interesting to note that Richard Starkings is credited as "Editor" on this story), is very Morrison-esque but again, not because it's full of trippy, from-another-world weirdness and a quasi-visionquest, but because of it's overarching warmth and optimism. What the best work from Morrison has-- be it Doom Patrol or the recent All-Star Superman--is a spectacular understanding and presentation of the fucked-up, darkness of the world and a touching refusal to give into that darkness. Morrison stories often end happily, just not the simplistic "happy" you see in most comics or movies.

"Culture Shock" presents a self-doubting Doctor Who unsure of what or why's he doing what he does. With the TARDIS parked on the edge of picturesque cliff overlooking the sun setting on water, he asks: "What's the point of all this bumming around time and space?". A few frames later, perched on rock, he tells the TARDIS, "You're almost as old and useless as I am!". This is intercut with a virus speaking to the reader and apparently heard by the Doctor as well and even in this moment of self-doubt, the Doctor thinks to repsond to the "telepathic cry for help".

What makes it cool and extra affecting is how at first, you think the Doctor's apathy will win out ("I don't supposed I need to get involved...too many cooks spoil the child as they say") but then, he changes his mind and springs into action encountering a slowly dying (and shrinking) Brontasaurus from which the telepathic cries stemmed. He quickly helps it, injecting it with "maxenshudicea" (whatever that is) and drops it in the ocean. Then, the Doctor playfully strolls back to the TARDIS swinging his umbrella, and says "Well? Don't just sit there. We've got people to see, places to go, things to do!" and the TARDIS flies away, ending the story. The shift from self-doubt to self-assurance is palpable and framing all this crazy space stuff around the basic idea of helping a sick animal (it just happens to be a purple Brontasaurus here) and re-gaining an understanding of purpose is brilliant in being both down-to-earth and relateable, while still being about mortality and life/death and stuff.

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