Dan Slott makes his Doctor Who debut in a pair of stories that showcase both his love of the show and his mastery of the comics medium
It might be said that a Time Lord, like a wizard. is never late. He arrives precisely when he means to. Well, perhaps not in the Doctor’s case. With them it’s more of a case of arriving exactly when they need to, whether they meant to or not. The same could be said of Doctor Who: Once Upon a Time Lord, originally slated by Titan Comics to appear last year. But it finally hits comic book shop shelves just as the anticipation, and promotion, of David Tennant’s return to Doctor Who builds to a white hot intensity. So late or not, Dan Slott’s celebration of the Tenth Doctor couldn’t be better timed.
Not that it’s been an easy wait. It was clear from the very first announcement way back when that Once Upon a Time Lord would see Titan Comics really pushing the boat out. Dan Slott is one of the real modern superstars of the comic book writing world. Meanwhile Adam Hughes must be one of the most celebrated cover artists of all time, here lending his skills to a typically jaw dropping beautiful image of the Doctor and Martha for the Direct Market edition. More than that, there’s the familiar pencils and brushes of the brilliant Christopher Jones, Matthew Dow Smith, and Mike Collins. All in all, this was always shaping up to be a must have Doctor Who book.
Lead story Firelight throws “everything, including the kitchen sink” at creating a Doctor Who adventure to break even a Disney+ budget
Slott’s most famous among comic fans for his long run charting the adventures of Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spider-Man books. And here he brings all his skill and knowledge of the medium to bear on the Doctor’s world. But never fear, our hero doesn’t take to the rooftops of New York with a sock over his head, even if he keeps a certain cheeky wit in common with Queens’ finest. In fact, Slott has been a massive Doctor Who fan since his youth. As a result, both stories here combine a loving recreation of the show with a great understanding of this medium..
In lead story Firelight, in his own words Slott throws “everything, including the kitchen sink” at it. The result is a series of spectacles to stretch the budget of a James Cameron epic never mind teatime BBC One. For instance, Christopher Jones’ alternate cover depicts the Doctor riding a werewolf at the head of a stampede of aliens from across 60 years of Who. Many of you, like Blogtor, probably casually assumed that this was just a fun, exciting image. That it actually depicts a genuine moment from the story gives a sense of just how audacious and wild a (werewolf) ride this is.
Full of easy charm, Firelight also provides a deliciously clever ending
Martha Jones has been kidnapped by the Pyromeths, mythical aliens from the dawn of time who feed on stories. As long as her stories entertain them, she lives. She stops, and she dies. Fortunately she knows a man who’s inspiration enough to supply 1,001 tales, though three will do tonight. It’s these stories within a story that allows Firelight to be such riotous fun without stretching credulity too far. Though it’s equally fun as we cut back regularly to the Pyromeths doing their best impression of a certain sort of reader (“That’s not how stories work!”) as Martha does her best to placate them. It all leads up to a desperately clever and satisfying ending.
The striking art from Smith and Jones (honestly, you couldn’t make it up) is equally playful and witty. Tennant and Agyeman, alongside the various guest stars from the show’s history are captured to the last swaggering eyebrow while retaining every volt of comic book energy. There’s even space for a cheeky little cameo by Raiders of the Lost Ark actor Wolf Kahler. He pops up as, what else, a Nazi officer hunting for the ultimate weapon in an Egyptian tomb.
Back up story Rhyme or Reason plays with an equally clever idea perfect for the medium, rounding out a hardback volume perfect for Santa to leave under the Christmas tree
The storytelling motif continues in back-up strip Rhyme or Reason. This time our storyteller is the Doctor as he recounts one of his adventures with Rose to Martha. (She’s delighted, naturally.) But, if anything, this Ninth Doctor story sees Slott make even more wonderful use of the comics medium. It’s a tale whose central conceit feels both absolutely Whoish and like a proper big SF idea about the ever convenient universal translator. It’s also one that would be challenging to depict on TV to say the least. And it’s all the better for the presence of Mike Collins’ art. His Eccleston positively vibrates with a hyperactive energy that defies the printed page. Meanwhile, if Billie Piper has always seemed like a Jack Kirby heroine who somehow stepped into the real world, Collins effortlessly accomplishes the return journey.
Both stories, along with an all too brief interview with Slott himself, come bound in a beautiful hardcover. It’s a format that will instantly send European readers of a certain age straight back in time to the days of British annuals reprinting classic Batman issues. (Though, don’t worry, there’s no random snippet of ongoing subplots involved the ghost of Hugo Strange to leave you bemused.)
You can almost smell the paper-based nostalgia. And with two more volumes planned for 2024 and 2025, we may be at the start of a new tradition. One where both the BBC Books Official Annual, with its quizzes and features, and Titan’s latest hardback of exciting adventures sit side by side next to the stockings of fans young and old on Christmas morning.
If so, based on the quality of this first entry in the range, let’s hope it’s a tradition long continued.
Doctor Who: Once Upon a Time Lord
Doctor Who: Once Upon a Time Lord is on sale 7 November, 2023 at bookstores, comic shops and digital.